The following article was published in The Call in 2011.
Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For 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: For 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. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.
Romans 13: 1-7
The above passage from Scripture is often quoted by those who insist that a Christian should be a law-abiding, quiescent citizen of wherever he or she lives. After all, the guidance which the passage gives is unequivocal.
Critics of this view object that it makes the reign of Adolf Hitler somehow ordained by God, and his waging of unjust wars of conquest, his persecution of political opponents and racial groups a ‘terror to the evil’ works. This is something which would be difficult for any intelligent person, believer or not, to accept – that Hitler was ‘a revenger to execute wrath on him that doeth evil’.
At the time of Hitler’s rise to power the German pastor and theologian Martin Niemöller, and many like him, initially supported Hitler because they shared his anti-communist beliefs. But when Hitler declared the state’s supremacy over religion Niemöller became the leader of a group of clergymen opposed to Nazism. In 1933 his group inserted a clause in their founding charter to the effect that any dismissal by the state of one of their pastors on the grounds of his having Jewish ancestry should be refused. By 1937 Niemöller was interred in a concentration camp and was not released until 1945.
These famous words against political apathy are ascribed to him: “First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, but I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, but I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.” It is not certain where and when he first said those words; many people have offered other versions, but the words above are the ones that Niemöller himself claimed as his own.
These words of Niemöller’s are a world away from the quiescent citizenship in defense of which Romans 13 is most often cited. The deeds of many who have defied – one may even say ‘resisted’ – the laws of their countries are also a world away. These countries have included the most despotic and the most apparently democratic. Where their requirements and laws have been seen to run contrary to the commandments of Christ then Christians have stood against them, have refused to acquiesce, have demonstrably not rendered tribute, custom, fear, and honour.
The Apostles Peter and John were commanded by the High Priests Annas, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander not to speak or teach in the name of Jesus, they replied: “Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20); yet surely these men who commanded them not to speak were higher powers of the Jewish church, and Peter and John were subject to them?
It is a common complaint, or indeed a matter of scorn in the mouths of those who do not believe, that one can prove anything with a Bible quotation, and that diametrically opposite viewpoints can be supported by Scriptural text. This is, of course, entirely true! The Bible has been used to excuse all manner of things, according to human wisdom.
But Scripture itself is not a product of human wisdom but of God’s. There are many professors of Christianity who hold that the only interpretation of Scripture allowable is what is plainly seen on the page, thus declaring that man’s wisdom which did not produce Scripture is the only wisdom that may interpret it. It is that viewpoint and no other, however, which gives rise to the criticism from others that the Bible may be used to support any argument. Paul may say one thing in Romans 13 – the Psalmist says “Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help” (Psalm 146:3).
Certainly there is a level at which Scripture is a simple and plain witness to those who have not yet had the baptism of the Holy Spirit. However there are things within Scripture – its apparent contradictions for one – which remain mysteries to human wisdom no matter how assiduous a study is made of them. In those cases it is necessary to acknowledge that as the Lord’s Holy Spirit made them mysteries then the same Holy Spirit alone can open those mysteries. To run ahead of the Holy Spirit in interpretation of Scripture is both to take away from it and to add to it, both of which are cursed in Revelation 22:18,19.