When should a Christian join the revolution?
Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not, so is the Gospel a call to political revolution? The fact that this question is so surprising to most of us is simply proof of how far from Paul’s message we have strayed. We treat “Jesus is Lord” as a spiritual pleasantry, while both his disciples and his enemies understood that it meant far more1. How could the Christians at Rome continue to live under Caesar in the light of the fact that Jesus is the new King in town? Paul answers their question at the start of chapter 13, because if the Gospel doesn’t change our politics then we haven’t understood it.
In verses 1 to 6, Paul insists that the Gospel makes Christians the most loyal of subjects. Unlike unbelievers, who submit to their rulers out of fear, the Gospel teaches us to submit to them out of conscience towards God. It tells us that even the Emperor Nero’s reign did not begin with his mother’s murder of Claudius. It began with the Lord, who planned his accession and established him as Emperor to be “God’s servant to do you good.” Astonishingly, since Nero would order Paul’s beheading, Paul tells the Romans that Nero only “bears the sword” because God entrusted it to his hand2. Perhaps inspired by David’s refusal to lay a hand on King Saul because he was the Lord’s anointed ruler3, Paul tells his readers to honour their rulers and be more loyal to them than any of their unbelieving courtiers. Paul’s fellow martyr, Peter, gave similar instructions: “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors ... Fear God, honour the king.”4
In verse 7, Paul adds that the Gospel makes Christians the most courageous of subjects. They pay their rulers honour and taxes and everything else that they are owed, but they are not afraid to point out where that obligation ends5. The Hebrew midwives refused Pharaoh’s wicked command in Exodus 1:15-21. Peter did the same in Acts 4:19 and 5:29 when he saw rulers overstepping their God-given authority: “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God ... We must obey God rather than men!” The Romans did as Paul commanded and were able to tell Caesar that “We pray without ceasing for all our emperors. We pray for long life, for security to the empire, for protection to the imperial house, for brave armies, a faithful senate, a virtuous people, the world at rest, whatever an emperor would wish ... but we refuse to swear by the Caesars as gods.”6
How you apply these two principles to the politics of your nation will vary depending on the country you live in. But to help you do so, let me tell you about three people who have tried to apply them under difficult conditions in Germany.
We have already seen that Martin Luther loved the book of Romans, so he was thrown hard against these verses when the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope commanded him to stop preaching its message. When they put him on trial at the Diet of Worms in 1521, he remembered verse 7 and told his rulers that “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me.”7
Four years later, however, Martin Luther panicked. The German peasants had rebelled against the princes who had power to undo the Reformation and restore the Church to Rome. He grasped at the fact that Pilate found Jesus innocent of rebellion when he told him that “My kingdom is not of this world”, and used it to separate the world into two distinct realms: the spiritual Church and the secular State8. So long as rulers didn’t meddle in spiritual affairs, he taught believers that Romans 13:1-6 meant silent submission towards political injustice. He wrote a pamphlet against the peasants in 1525, arguing that “Nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful or demonic than a rebel ... Fine Christians they are! I think there is not a demon left in hell; they have all gone into the peasants!”9
This was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s view initially, as a Lutheran pastor in early-1930s Germany. Yet he came to believe that this Christian withdrawal from the political arena was effectively condoning Adolf Hitler. He led the Christian opposition to the Nazi regime, arguing that the Church must not just “bandage the victims under the wheel, but jam the spoke in the wheel itself.” He submitted to Hitler’s government but became its most vocal critic. This led to his being hanged naked, using piano wire, in one of the Nazi concentration camps in the last days of the war. The medic who witnessed his death testified later that “In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”10
Christian Fuehrer drew inspiration from Bonhoeffer as pastor of the St Nicholas Church in Leipzig, East Germany. He was sickened by the injustice of his Communist rulers, and decided to apply Paul’s teaching in Romans 13. He refused to treat secular politics as a no-go area for Christians, and in 1982 started ‘peace prayers’ every Monday evening at his church. For seven years he led ever-growing numbers of East Germans in prayer that the Lord would save their land. Finally, on Monday 9th October 1989, a crowd of seventy thousand gathered at his church to demand that the injustice end. Their placards bore Christian Fuehrer’s message of “No Violence!” and, as the protest quickly spread to other cities, one month later the Berlin Wall came down. One protester was asked who had planned this revolution, and replied that “There was only one leadership: Monday, 5pm, St Nicholas Church.” Horst Sindermann, the former Prime Minister of East Germany, agreed: “We were prepared for everything. But not for candles and prayers.”11
The political situations around the world are very different, but my prayer is that these three examples will help you to apply these seven verses to your own. Paul tells us in his first six verses that the Gospel means we are to be more loyal to our rulers than anyone else in the land. Then he tells us in his seventh verse that we must also be courageous enough to point it out whenever they overstep the line. If we render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, whilst remembering he is “God’s servant to do you good”, then we can be the best of citizens because Jesus is the new King in town.
This chapter is taken from Phil Moore’s new book “Straight to the Heart of Romans”, which is subtitled “There’s a New King in Town”.
To read more chapters, go to www.philmoorebooks.com
- 1 Luke 23:1-2, John 19:12-16 & Acts 1:6.
- 2 Partly for this reason, advocates of capital punishment use this as a key verse.
- 3 1 Samuel 24:6-15 & 26:9-11 and 2 Samuel 1:14-16.
- 4 1 Peter 2:13-17.
- 5 Paul uses two Greek words which in modern terms refer to direct income tax and indirect sales tax.
- 6 Tertullian in c.197AD in his “Apology” (chapters 30 & 32).
- 7 Roland Bainton “Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther” (1950).
- 8 John 18:33-38 & Luke 23:3-4. Luther’s ‘doctrine of two kingdoms’ and of the ‘divine right of rulers’ dominated Christian thought well into the nineteenth century.
- 9 Luther carefully entitled the pamphlet “Against the Rioting Peasants”, but his printers changed the title without his permission to “Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants”.
- 10 See Eric Metaxas “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy” (2010).
- 11 See Mike Dennis “The Rise and Fall of the German Democratic Republic, 1945-1990” (2000).