Church, State & Romans 13: Part 3

Guest post by Rev. Dr. David Smith, Covenant Fellowship ARP Church, Summerfield, NC; Adjunct Professor of Church History, Erskine Seminary

The Ideal for Civil Authority

Paul stressed not only the Relationship of All People to Civil Authority and the Origin of All Authority, but The Ideal for Civil Authority. That Paul is describing the Ideal for Civil Authority follows from the fact that first, there are limitations upon all authorities and so there is at the very least a possibility for any authority to go beyond its limits. The very possibility of this means that the limitations set upon all authorities implies that there is an ideal for each authority. To go beyond the limits set for any authority is for it to violate the ideal set forth in those limits. So, for example wives are supposed to submit to their own husbands as to the Lord, which means, among other things, that a wife does not have to submit to her husband if he wants her to commit murder or rob a bank. The wife’s submission has limitations because the husband’s authority has limitations.

Secondly, we know for Paul it is not merely possible that someone might go beyond the limits of their God-ordained authority, instead this actually has happened and continues to happen because of sin. In fact, going beyond the limits of one’s God-given authority is at the very heart of understanding the gospel. One of Paul’s clear illustrations of the gospel that he speaks of in Romans 9 is Old Testament Israel being set free from the sinfully tyrannical abusive authority of the Pharaoh of Egypt.

So, what is The Ideal for the Civil Authority? It is to administer justice or be a servant of God’s wrath against those who do evil. Thus, the justice it is to dispense is justice as defined by God or His Law, since the civil authority is called “a servant of God’s wrath.” Paul is not affirming that whatever the civil authorities does is automatically justice and therefore God’s justice. And in all this you can hopefully see how far removed the United States of America is from being a God-honoring nation.

But thirdly, we see that Paul’s question: “Would you have no fear of authority?” is meant to avoid the catastrophic social condition of lawlessness or anarchy that would follow if a genuine fear of authority did not exist. Obviously, this is the very thing that not merely the Christian but everyone should avoid. Since all authority is from God, and God calls us to be in subjection to governing authorities, then to have fear of authority is to, at the very least, have a fear that in some measure God regards as good. All this speaks to an ideal for human living that is intimately joined to all the authorities God has ordained on earth. From this it once again follows that the civil authorities actually have the responsibility of carrying out the Triune God’s justice. Paul wrote of the only Triune God’s wrath that comes against what is evil or sin. Evildoers are designated as such because they have violated God’s Law. The Apostle Paul did not regard someone as evil merely because they disobeyed the civil authorities. Paul did not define good and evil over and against whatever the civil authorities thought about good and evil; he defined these terms based on who God is and what God’s Law demands of all people.