Before I introduce the article I’m responding to, here’s Romans 13 in the ESV:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.

Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Starting in 2020, I began to pull away from ministries which did not develop a robust response to the evil committed by the state to the point of closing churches. Stand to Reason was one such ministry. Although I’ve really appreciated the work they’ve done, their response was hardly sufficient to what was going on around the world in the early months of that year. I just wasn’t interested.

For the first time in a few years, I decided to check out their website, and I encountered this piece: Submit to Authority out of Love. I was a bit more than disappointed. This is just bad.

The article starts off well enough. Author Jonathan Noyes puts the context to this passage by bringing up Romans 12. That chapter ends with Paul’s famous statement that “if possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men”. He also refers to the second half of Romans 13, in which Paul says that loving our neighbors summarizes the law. Hard to get summaries of these sections wrong, so there’s not much to say here. But just wait until he begins to assess the first half of Romans 13:

There’s always been this tension between the Christian and his responsibility to the prevailing government. As Christians, we’re to be salt and light to a flavorless and dark world. Remember, the world is dark. The world is going to bump into things because it can’t see. So, how we react and interact with the political culture around us matters.

Presuming the prevailing government hates Christ, sure. But why is that assumed? Why assume the state will be running on laws contrary to Christ? Why assume Christians will always be on the outside looking in? Those are minor nitpicks, perhaps, especially in light of what he says next:

So, why do we submit to broken and often corrupt governments? Well, we submit to smash them with love in the hopes of their coming to Christ, and it works. If we follow God’s principles, we use oppression as opportunity to help our oppressors see Christ—not rebel and riot. That’s what the culture of confusion does.

What should Christians do to wicked governments? Submit to them. He suggests “rebellion and rioting” are the other two options here, and condemns both of those. He follows this by pointing to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross as normative for Christians:

Jesus modeled this. This is WWJD, right? Jesus is hanging on that tree … There’s a submission to subvert. They see this radical love pouring out from Jesus on the cross, and they’re converted.

I suspect if asked, Mr. Noyes would say that we obviously shouldn’t obey governments when they tell us to disobey Christ. But that’s about the only nuance there is here. There’s not a single word about legitimate government or legitimate authority. And yet re-read the first half of Romans 13 again. We must be in subjection to authority because of what precedes:

For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.

All of this suggests rather clearly that there is such a thing as an illegitimate authority and an illegitimate use of power. We can illustrate this very easily. Suppose a stranger walks up to you and declares himself a king and says he is your king, and by virtue of his authority over you, he compels you to pay taxes and serve in his militia. A bit strange, and you’d probably pretend to take a phone call to get away. Mr. Noyes, if he is consistent, cannot do this. He’d be disobeying authority, instead of “submitting to subvert” it, as he puts it. Why? Because this person claimed to be in authority over him, and Jonathan has no rubric by which to judge whether authority is legitimate or not. How do we know? Because when he interprets Romans 13, he provides zero exceptions to the rule. All claims of authority, then, are to be judged equally, and obeyed equally. This gets increasingly absurd when you live somewhere during a civil war and you have two claimed authorities and have to obey one and disobey the other or disobey both.

As I’ve said elsewhere, you can’t understand Romans 13 without understanding the hierarchy of authority. It rests ultimately in God, as the passage indicates, but then in God’s law. Then, in laws written for nations as they accord with God’s law (these can vary in innumerable particulars, but they can’t contradict God’s law). What Mr. Noyes fails to do is even consider that the American government might itself be a subject of the American constitution. When our leaders disobey the law by which they derive their authority, Americans who obey them are disobedient to the higher law. But again, Mr. Noyes doesn’t discuss how we might identify who is actually in authority, the means by which they derive that authority, or what to do when you encounter multiple claimants to authority. If you want to be submissive to authority, you will be in rebellion against contrary authorities, and that means if you obey a wicked president who violates constitutional law, you are in rebellion to that constitution and, as far as it goes, to God’s law.

What’s the right interpretation of this passage then? It’s not trivially simple, but it’s not too difficult understand, either. You need to figure out who has authority and over what sphere. In the US, the president has authority, the legislature has authority, and the courts have authority; all of it overlaps but is also distinct. States have authority, as do their branches. Local government has authority. At all levels of government, law has supreme authority. Churches have authority. Fathers have authority. You have authority over yourself. Thus, there are really four spheres: government, church, family, and self, with the spheres sometimes subdivided further. Authority between these spheres, just like authority between the branches of government, often overlaps.

This complexity is the hardest part in applying Romans 13, but to understand the teaching, one need only grasp that this complexity must be understood regarding the relevant issue under discussion. Once that’s understood, you need to determine whether or not obedience to that authority is rebellion to God or some other higher authority. If so, obey the higher authority – God ultimately. Otherwise, even if it’s irritating and obnoxious, we are called to obey. That doesn’t mean we can’t take action to change things, but it means we are obligated to obey the law or court or person in charge until it does change.

Aside from an anemic understanding of authority, Mr. Noyes also makes two interpretive failures here.

First, he seems to think that the text teaches that there’s “submission to subvert” and that if we just suffer enough, people will naturally convert. Lots of Christians suffered under the Germans in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Lots of people suffered under the Bolsheviks in Russia two decades earlier. Lots of people suffered under the French radicals two centuries earlier. Were there mass conversions as a result? Russia is a secular autocracy with Eastern Orthodox decorations. France and Germany are postmodernist wastelands that hate Christ. There was no mass conversion. The suffering of Christians did not produce fruit.

America, on the other hand, even after a century of onslaught from the radical left, still retains a large Christian population and Christian influence at all levels of society. Have we suffered and converted people as a result? Our first major international event was a war against the homeland (which, I have argued, was completely justified) and we haven’t suffered as Christians for righteousness like those of France, Germany, and Russia. There’s nothing in the Scriptures that teach this either, so we’re left with mixed historical evidence and no revelation to substitute. I strongly suspect that this conclusion that our suffering will cause people to convert is the result of seeing the problem of calling for blind and total submission and wanting there to be a payoff to help offset it.

Second, he tries to appeal to Christ’s obedience on the cross; he submitted to evil, thus we should, and if we do, we’ll win converts. To his credit, he does try to defend this position with Scripture and goes on to cite 1st Peter 2:21-23:

For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in his steps, who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in his mouth, and while being reviled, he did not revile in return; while suffering, he uttered no threats, but kept entrusting himself to him who judges righteously.

But what caused the suffering here? It wasn’t obedience to the state; if Christ had obeyed the human authorities, he wouldn’t have suffered. If early Christians had obeyed the state and offered the pinch of incense to Caesar, they’d live, too. No, this passage is a great example of the precise opposite of what Mr. Noyes was teaching earlier; the situation where we ought not to obey, and that suffering will often result, and we are to endure it. That’s why the preceding verse says: “For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God.”

Getting back to what I said earlier about Mr. Noyes finding Christ’s suffering normative, I don’t think that’s at all what’s being taught here. We aren’t being punished for the sins of the world or even our own; Christ took all of it. If that’s the case, when the Scripture teaches that Christ is our example, it cannot be in the sense that we too will suffer in the same way and for the same reasons as Christ. If we think that, we aren’t trusting in Christ at all; we’re trusting that we can pay for our sin. But we can’t pay for any of it. Rather, this passage in 1st Peter 2 seems to be speaking about the manner in which Christ endured suffering, despite being righteous Himself. We are being told that if we do what is right, then we may suffer just like He did, and we should have the same attitude toward it. And we can’t forget that His attitude includes what He’ll do next.