Many years ago I was accosted in the Wal*Mart parking lot by some teenagers who were handing out anti-abortion (i.e.,  State suppression of abortion) literature for a religious group. I asked them what the Biblical grounds for that were, knowing full well that they would simply repeat the Official Line the people who had handed them the fliers concocted.

Their reply was, “Romans, the 13th chapter.” Let’s look that up:

1Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.

2Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.

3For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same:

4For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.

5Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.

6For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.

7Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.

8Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.

9For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

10Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

11And that, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed.

12The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light.

13Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying.

14But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.

It’s pretty clear on the face of it that there are two different subjects here. Verses 1-7 are about dealing with rulers, and 8-14 recapitulate the Law as interpreted by Christ and His disciples, especially Paul neé Saul, the ex-tax collector. Verse 7, especially, is an exegis upon Matthew 22:21: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”

Paul had been an authority himself, a tax collector, and is describing from his own experience how Christians can avoid getting negative notice from the Powers that Be — how to “fly under the radar”, in a modern phrase the disciple would find mightily puzzling. It’s also worth remembering that the King James Version, which I prefer for the poetry, was produced on commission for a ruler, and that there’s more than one place where the translators shaded their interpretation(s) of the original(s) in order to flatter their patron. Let’s see what Romans 1-6 look like in the New International Version, which if anything has the opposite tendency:

1Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. 4For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. 6This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing.

Well, that’s pretty clear, isn’t it? This is the basis of, among other things, the Divine Right of Kings, which is a blank check — having acquired the mantle of authority, which is sanctioned by God, the ruler can do no wrong. It’s the interpretation desired by those who, under the rubric of “anti-abortion”, want to use the sword of the State to punish (what in their eyes are) evildoers. Paul doesn’t say anything about the procedure or method by which the ruler gains authority, so people are free to assume (correctly, in my opinion) that getting authority by a vote of the People in a democracy is as good as any other.

What isn’t in Romans 13 is any clue that the rulers themselves are exempt from God’s law. The Divine Right of Kings assumes that this is the case — that, since the ruler himself is carrying out God’s Law, his activities are sanctioned by that higher Power regardless of what they are. A ruler is free to murder or generally oppress, and that is to be taken by Christians as God’s will. But is that so?

If we group the verses of Romans 13 a little differently it isn’t apparent. Verses 1-6 are about the duties of Christian people to obey their rulers. Verses 11-14 are an exhortation to good works and activism in pursuit thereof. That leaves 7-10 as a unit addressed to everyone, including the rulers. 10Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

Is oppression “love”? By definition, it is not — and a ruler is subject to the same Law as everybody else. Taken that way, Romans 13 is a restatement of a thread that runs throughout the New Testament: Christians should ignore worldly things to the extent possible and concentrate on their relationship with God. From the point of view of a Christian, rulers who tax or oppress fall into the same category as landslides, tornadoes, and other natural phenomena. They are wordly things that happen and have to be taken into account to maintain life, but they don’t make a bean, much less a hill of them, when it comes to getting right with God.

But that’s true for the ruler himself, too. A ruler who oppresses, who imposes crushing taxes or unjust laws, is not loving his neighbor as himself, and is therefore not obeying the prime injunction Christ laid upon His followers[1]. The error inherent in the Divine Right of Kings is not that the people shouldn’t obey their rulers. It is the assumption that the ruler is going to Heaven despite engaging in un-Christian behavior. That’s not what the Book says, and people angling to get positions of authority in order to gain the power to impose laws should realize that.

[1] That’s shorthand. Christ didn’t impose any injunctions or formulate any laws; He gives us a long list of things Christians do that distinguish them from non-Christians. Good trees produce good fruit because they’re good trees, not because they’re obeying the Law of Trees. This is a long discussion not appropriate here.