Romans 13, N.T. Wright, and a Christian Response to Paris

By on Nov 23, 2015

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A clip is circulating of Robert Jeffress, pastor of FBC Dallas, using Romans 13 to argue that the Christian response to the Paris attacks is “borders and bombs” (see it here). I had a few people ask me about it and it got me curious about Romans 13, so I went back to my trusty New Interpreter’s Bible to see what the trusty N.T. Wright has to say about it. Below is a summary of Wright’s commentary, with a few reflections on them and Jeffress’ comments in light of them.


Wright argues that, despite some understandable arguments to the contrary, Romans 13 is in fact a general statement about ruling authorities. In essence, in this time between the times where God’s new world is on its way but not quite here, government is something God has put in place to preserve some measure of justice and order and to prevent the world from falling into complete anarchy and chaos. To disagree with this general sentiment is to endorse actual anarchy, which, on the whole, is far worse than government, even though government can certainly go horribly wrong.


That said, this is a general statement about governments in general and Paul, obviously, is not writing government a blank check, much less telling Christians they should obey government no matter what. A quick perusal of the book of Acts reveals a very complex relationship between the Christian and “government.” The apostles clearly defy their rulers when their rulers ask them to do something that violates faithfulness to Christ (Acts 4:23-31). Paul harshly condemns the high priest, and while he (kind of) apologizes for speaking so sharply once he is told he is speaking to the high priest, he certainly doesn’t take back the content of his rebuke (Acts 23:1-5).


And this is the tension Paul is negotiating. He has said things (both here in Romans and elsewhere) that subvert the gospel and rule of Rome and Caesar. He has made it clear that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not. Wright’s proposal is that all of this could have led many Christians into a sort of over-realized eschatological anarchy in which Christians try to overthrow government in the name of Christ. He points to the riots under Claudius and Jewish revolutionaries as examples of actions the early Christians might be tempted to emulate. That, claims Wright, is why Paul is saying this particular thing to these particular people: “Romans 13:1-7 issues commands that are so obvious that they only make sense if there might be some reason in the air not to obey the civic authorities.”[1]


In summary, Romans 13:1-7 is a general statement about the general good of governments, spoken to remind Roman Christians that even in a world where Jesus and not Caesar is Lord, Caesar still has a place: “This is Paul’s basic point—government qua government is intended by God and should in principle command submission from Christian and non-Christian alike.”[2]  So far, so good. Now things get tricky.


In Wright’s mind, Romans 13 is of very little relevance to issues of just war; issues of nations going outside their borders to employ violence in the name of justice: “Romans 13:1-7 is about the running of civic communities, and the duty of Christians toward them. It does not mention or allude to the interactions between difference civic communities or nations. It was because of this that later Christians developed a theory of ‘just war’ to argue at a new level that under certain circumstances it may be right to defend the interests of a nation or community, by force if necessary…”[3]


Simply put, when we ask Just War questions of Paul in Romans 13, we are asking questions Paul might not have the ability to ask. Obviously, the modern notion of the nation/state was simply not something for which Paul had a category.[4]  So while we might well make reasonable arguments for Just War, we cannot use Romans 13 to do it, at least not in simplistic fashion. This seems to be precisely what Jeffress is doing—taking massive hops, skips, and jumps that fail basic principles of exegesis. That or he has worked through it and just fails to show his work.


Another question we wish Paul addressed directly here is what to do when the governing authorities are evil and wicked and clearly violating God’s justice. This question is particularly important for us, living as we are in the blood-stained aftermath of so many totalitarian governments. We, rightfully, cringe at the notion of Nazi Germany being a “servant of God” to whom we should submit.[5] And as our African-American brothers and sisters have pointed out, it is clearly not always the case that rulers are only a cause of fear when you are doing wrong. Sometimes they are a cause of fear if your skin is a certain color.


While Paul fails to directly address this question, we ought not pretend he was naïve to its existence. Paul knew what it was like to suffer before authority wielded in unjust ways; as did Christ. We’re left to speculate, but given the example of Paul and Christ, it seems Christians have strong ground to rebel against the injustices of government, all the way to the point of martyrdom, but not to the point of anarchy (though I’m very open and sympathetic here to the criticisms of many liberation theologians who claim this doesn’t go far enough, at least in some circumstances). Again, the general “God-ordained-ness” of governments does not assume governments always act justly and are above rebuke. Martin Luther King Jr.’s rebellion against state and local governments is one such example.


Finally, a point where I feel Wright doesn’t swing and miss so much as he fails to swing all together…


The tension of Romans 12:14-21 and Romans 13:1-7 is palpable (and they flow straight in to one another). In Romans 12:14-21, Christians are told to bless those who persecute them, never pay back evil for evil to anyone, never take vengeance. It is said in absolute terms. Then comes Romans 13 and its words about God bringing wrath on evildoers via government. How do we reconcile this?


Wright contends Romans 12:14-21 condemns private vengeance, which can be individual or corporate (in the form of, say, a lynch mob).[6] Given that he feels “private vengeance” can also be corporate, we should be clear that private doesn’t just mean personal, but any vengeance done by “illegitimate” authorities.


And here’s why I feel Wright fails to swing. He seems to imply that Romans 12:14-21 is a piece of general advice to all people; namely, vengeance/wrath “is the point at which the authority [government] must do what the private individual may not do.”[7] But (and here’s the key point) Romans is not a letter filled with general advice to all people; it is a letter written to Christians. Romans 12:14-21 is not advice for all private individuals; it is advice for all Christians. Paul is not saying, “Government inflicts the wrath that private individuals aren’t allowed to.” Paul is saying, “Christians do not take vengeance; government does.”


This of course begs that nagging question regarding a Christian’s relationship to government and whether or not a Christian, who is never to pay back evil for evil to anyone (12:17), can faithfully participate in a government that is called to do this precise thing (13:4). It is difficult for me to imagine Paul telling Christians to never repay evil for evil to anyone as “private individuals” and then forget about all that when it came to participating in government. Or in Jeffress’ terms, I cannot imagine Paul telling Christians, “As individuals, advocate turning the other cheek. As American citizens, advocate bombing the hell out of ISIS.”[8] It is tough to avoid the conclusion that Romans 13 most likely says something close to the exact opposite of what Jeffress claims it says.


There are no easy answers here, and perhaps that’s why Wright decides to let the pitch go by.[9] Some find arguments from silence compelling (i.e. Peter doesn’t tell Cornelius to quit his job as a centurion, ergo, God is ok with it). I do not. Scripture’s clear words against Christians participating in violence make a much stronger argument than a silence or two. Others have suggested Paul could not conceive of the possibility of a Christian serving in government, given his historical situation. I think that’s probably true, and we’re left to work through the implications. Others point out that there are non-lethal ways of enforcing justice and bringing wrath on evildoers and Christians should work in government to move government in that direction. I’m open to that.


Personally, I’m very sympathetic to those who fear what would happen if Christians radically embraced non-violence and withdrew from government to whatever degree involvement in government was involvement in bearing the sword in the name of vengeance. I don’t quite know what that would mean or look like. It scares me. But our fears do not get to neuter what the text says and a Christian response to Paris deserves better exegesis. Perhaps we will find sound, Christian reasons to buck (what appears at least) to be the clear teaching of Scripture, but if we are to do so, we need to be far clearer about the grounds for such a decision.  

In the end, I’m just another person with no easy answers but the failure of many Christian leaders to clearly articulate the questions is frustrating. My suggestion: if we want to see some bombs dropped, then let’s cancel the next presidential debate and instead get Jeffress, Wright, and Hauerwas in a room together!




[1] Wright, NIB, Romans, 722.

[2] 719.

[3] 720.

[4] 716.

[5] Or to feel the dilemma even more, if Romans 13 is a blanket divine endorsement of the authority of all governments, it’s difficult to see how ISIS is not a legitimate government appointed by God.

[6] 723.

[7] 721.

[8] To be fair, I’m assuming Jeffress thinks Christians can and should participate in government, but given that his Twitter tag for the clip explained his words as the Christian response to the Paris attacks, I think it’s a safe assumption.

[9] It probably also has something to do with his Anglican sensibilities.