Subject to Powers
Romans 13 has been used occasionally to lend credence to the doctrine that approves a Christian's active participation in war. As Foy E. Wallace put it ai he commented on this passage, "If the civil government is legally and morally right, the military is automatically and equally so, for the civil government cannot exist without the military to uphold and support it. This statement is so self-evident as- to be a virtual truism" (Wallace, Sermon On The Mount And The Civil State, p. 138). Brother Wallace went on to point out that his views changed because he could not reconcile in his own mind the inconsistency of, as he put it, "How God could approve the institution, but not approve the Christian's acting in that institution."
On the surface, if certain assumptions and liberties are granted from the text of Romans 13, this passage would prove a conflict to one who stood opposed to war. Let us consider, though, just what the passage does authorize. We are able to use wisdom and balance in applying hermenutic principles to other passages. Let us try to use the same effort here.
Subject to What?
Romans 13 demands that the Christian submit himself to higher powers (i.e. human government and authorities). In what way are we to subject ourselves? Absolute submission in every part of our life is not called for, as we can easily recognize. The wife is told to submit (to subject) herself unto the husband "as unto the Lord" (Eph. 5:22). This is parallel to the Christian's submitting unto government as "a minister of God to thee for good" (Rom. 1:4). We would not think of taking Eph. 5:22 out of context to force a woman to submit to her husband's demands to sin. It is assumed that the woman is subject to her husband only within the realm that the husband has authority to demand submission. A woman's first responsibility is to serve God (1 Tim. 4:12; 2 Tim. 2:22). Saints are to obey "them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves" (Heb. 13:17). But we know that elders, or those who have "the rule over you," who sin are to be rebuked before all (1 Tim. 5:19-21), and that elders would one day need to be withstood as false teachers (Acts 20:29-31). The child is instructed to submit himself to his parent's will "in the Lord" (Eph. 6:1). Again, this is not a blanket approval by God for every demand that a parent might make upon a child. A youth has a first responsibility to serve God (Matt. 10:32-39; Rom. 14:23).
Does this mean that all these passages that enjoin submission are empty commandments because God makes exceptions? No. But it does mean that our first submission of will is to God, and any other submission of will is to be accomplished within the framework of authority that God gave to those "higher powers" whether they be to governments, husbands, parents, masters, or elders.
How is Government a Minister?
What then is that area of authority given to Government in which a Christian must submit himself? Paul was not considering Government exhaustively in Romans 13, for if he were he would have qualified his statement in verse 3, "rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil." It is so obvious "as to be a virtual truism" that government is not always a terror only to the evil, as the scriptures abundantly testify (Acts 5:17ff; 7:lff; 8:14; 9:1,2; 16:22-24 etc.) Obviously, what Paul meant in this verse and throughout is that government, as God ordained it, is "a minister unto thee for good." The ideal of government is a power which makes and enforces a system of law upon a society. This power is backed up by the power or authority of penalty even unto death: "But if thou doest that which is evil, be afraid, for he beareth not the sword in vain." The sword is hardly a symbol of punishment, but of death. Government has the right to take the life of the criminal under law. In protecting the innocent, the law-abider, from the criminal the government acts as "the minister of God to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil."
Note however, that government's authority to act with God's approval ("A minister of God to thee for good") is only within a certain framework: "Do . . . good, and thou shalt have praise of the same . . . do evil, be afraid . . . he beareth not the sword in vain. "Government docs not act with God's approval when it permits or encourages wholesale slaughter of its citizens for the preservation of its own continuation. Neither does it act with God's approval when it persecutes and prosecutes the law-abider while permitting injustice by failing to restrict the evil-doer. Government steps beyond its God-given bounds when it acts outside of law, either internally or against another sovereign nation. The function of God-approved civil power is something attended to continually which we support by our taxes (13:6). This function could hardly be war! it is a generic function "attended to continually" by all nations.
In Every Nation
Even a dictatorship, a monarchy, or socialistic government maintains laws against adultery, theft, perjury, extortion, and other such anti-social behaviour (13:8,9). The evil-doer is prosecuted under law in every nation, in every time, as God wills. Christians are not therefore to oppose such powers. On the contrary the Christian is to "cast off the works of darkness . . . and put on the armour of light walking honestly, as in the day" (13:12,13).
But war is a work of darkness by any standard of judgment. Even those who support a Christian's right to participate in such readily agree "war is hell." (Why is it Brother Wallace can see a conflict in the operation of government and opposition to war, yet mentions no conflict in the authority of war and its inherent sinful character?) War is not an act of restraint and vengeance executed upon the evil-doer; it is outside law and without law. Far from resembling the police, courts, and law-making institutions, it better resembles wild-west range battles, Ku Klux Klan lynchings, and mob destruction such as was witnessed during the French revolution, the Russian revolution, and the Spanish civil war. No effort to establish guilt before sentence was ever made of the populations of Dresden, Hiroshima London, or Pearl Harbour. And even if individual guilty or innocence could be established-what would have been proven? Merely that one man was a facist, another a communist, a socialist, or a democratic republican. Racial differences, economic disparities, political variations, personality differences could be established-but criminal action? If this be cause for war, we must for consistency, kill some of our brethren who differ with us on these points-as indeed we did during the War between the States.
Romans 13 is a "proof-text" but not for those who would justify the taking of life outside of law, without restraint, in the name of patriotic "justifiable" war. (I challenge any brother to find any "justifiable war" fought by Americans). Romans 13 is Paul's admonition to respect authority when it upholds what is good. But, it will never justify the Pandorian box of horror men call "War."
Truth Magazine XX: 43, pp. 678-679