The Bible shows us examples of legitimate opposition to the abuse of power by those in authority, and it is not simply limited to the subject of preaching the Gospel.
For many, Romans 13 has posed as an insurmountable obstacle to being able to present critical standpoints before governments, facing the decisions of public entities, participating responsibly in politics, or even starting out on the path of politics.
The reasoning is as follows: “We have been commanded to submit to rulers, because those rulers – whether good or bad, corrupt, violent, respectful of human rights, just or unjust – have been put there by God. One must submit to them because if we confront them, we resist what God has established and we bring about condemnation”.
The truth is that in some cases, when the ruler of the day abuses his power to impose injustice and capriciousness, this way of thinking grinds with us and causes us to question our conscience: should we sit idly by while we watch rulers violate fundamental democratic freedoms?
Well, many brothers and sisters continue to say yes, that this is all in the hands of God and that it isn’t for us to question it. But of course, when these violations affect the freedom to preach the Gospel, then we have a problem, and many brothers and sisters then understand that Romans 13 has exceptions which appeal to Acts 5:29: “We must obey God rather than human beings”.
When we recognise exceptions, a problem arises: where is the limit? What is acceptable and what is the exception? Are we happy to say that preventing the Gospel from being preached is the exception, but the murder of civilians is not, nor the humilliations, infringments, or corruption? Is is that these things disgust us less? Could it be that they disgust God less?
And we have another problem: which authority do we have to obey? Because there are certain situations where it is difficult to decide. For example, in the 19th century, what authority did God establish in Latin America? Was it not the Spanish government?
Was it ever legitimate to oppose that authority established by God? Were the evangelical Christians who actively participated in revolts for independence being disobedient to the Word?
And if we speak of current affairs, has the Venezuelan government not been established by God? Should our Venezuelan brothers and sisters submit to the Assembly where the opposition has a majority, or to the National Constituent Assembly imposed by Maduro?
It is a complicated issue, isn’t it? Going back to the original text in Romans 13 can help us.
When it speaks of “superior authorities” and “authority”, the term used is “exousia”. This term is not used to describe a person – the ruler who exercises authority – but rather the institution of authority.
We see it more clearly if we look at other texts that include the same word. Romans 9:21 says, “Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?”. “Exousia” appears again here, although it is translated as his “right”, confirming that this concept of “authority” refers to a capacity of governing, not the specific person who exercises it.
2 Corinthians 13:10 again uses the same word: “… in my use of the authority that the Lord has given me …”, and evidently “authority” here refers to the ability rather than the person.
This concept is still more evident in Colossians 1:16: “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things were created through him and for him”. Here, “exousia” is translated “authorities” but it is clear once more that it speaks of institutions, not of specific governors. We could understand it better with the analogous example of the throne: the throne is the institution, not the person who sits on it.
The authorities that Romans 13 speaks of are not specific people, but rather applications of government. In fact, it makes a distinction between the posts and positions, and the people who occupy them: when he next speaks of these people, he does not use the term “exousia”, but rather “arjontes” (“magistrates”, literally “governors”).
We can thus understand Romans 13:1 in these terms: “Let every person be subject to the higher institutions of authority. For there is no institution of authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God”. God establishd the existence of human authority as an element to limit the uncontrolled effects of sin; in the absence of a principle of authority, those most powerful would crush those most weak without restraint, and that is why God established an element of authority. Authority as an institution is, then, a means of putting limits on the uncontrolled exercise of power.
It is sad that this concept has been so misunderstood by some brothers and sisters, and that it leads them to precisely the opposite: they allow the unjust who sit in a place of authority to abuse the power given to them by political institutions without any resistance.
The Bible shows us examples of legitimate opposition to the abuse of power by those in authority, and it is not simply limited to the subject of preaching the Gospel, but also to matters such as private property – this was the case of Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21 and 2 Kings 9:25-26). When Naboth opposed Ahab was he opposing the institution of authority? No – rather he opposed the one who used that institution to abuse those he ruled over; he was not opposed to authority in general, but rather to the one who exercised authority. His opposition was legitimate and the Bible supports it.
God commands us to submit to the principle of authority, but he does not demand us to subject ourselves without first casting a critical eye over those who sit in the seat of authority. In fact, Romans 13:3 says that, “for rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad”. Therefore, rulers honour the institution of authority and are worthly of exercising it when they act like this. But when the ruler instills fear in the one who does good, he should be removed from power and his placed should be filled by another; evangelicals must actively participate in this removal because we won’t be opposing the institution of authority itself; on the contrary, we will be dignifying it and supporting the objectives for which it was established by God.