Romans 13 and State Legitimacy

Romans 13 is the famous Bible verse where it implores people to obey the official authorities. I more take the view that it is a pragmatic article of advice to prevent excessive martyrdom and don’t see it as a normative moral but it does have a normative meaning, too. I take that position, in part, because of the definition of the state. When ISIS took over Mosul, the effective state switched from Iraq to ISIS. When Charleston became a part of the Confederacy then the very spot where I am typing this blog out joined a new country. A state is most real when it has a monopoly on violence at which point the traditional version of Romans 13 would have that the ability to incarcerate is the source of divine sanction.

“Why did God make me obey you?”

“Because we have nukes, machine guns, and prisons.”

“What if a rebel group stages a coup and gets all of those assets?”

“In that case, Jesus requires you obey the people who staged the coup.”

“So basically anyone who can people arbitrarily kill and imprison without legal consequences?”


That doesn’t make sense but the state is different, now, than it was in the First Century. Back then, the law was not a Hobbesian Leviathan filled with arbitrary micromanagement. It was not 20th century statism. Normal people didn’t get arrested for minor shit and the state did not have the absolute power over human life that it does now. Back then “keeping the law” referred more to the social uprightness and public ethics. Being a lawful person meant a person of strong character and morals, not a coward in the face of the awesome power of the state. It was not about jaywalking and loitering. If God came across a cop threatening to arrest a hobo for loitering, he would not tell the hobo to obey. That example is not about being “lawful” in the old fashioned sense, it is just about cowering in the presence of state power.

Romans 13 cannot be about the powerless submitting to the powerful. The most radical notion of Christianity in antiquity was that moral virtues of love, kindness, humility, modesty, honesty, and the rest could get you an ultimate reward unlike the Elysian Fields for the glorious of worldly achievements. Saying Romans 13 means hobos must obey the police when told to vacate their campsite at the behest of an HOA is the opposite of what that means. It says that human authorities create systems of sin that comport with their comforts. That a home-owners association has the blessing of Almighty God when evicting homeless people. Statutes tend to favor the rich and fuck the poor and letting the state say that disobeying itself is a sin gives them a godlike power they can’t have. It says that God favors the rich and not the poor.

When Romans 13 is not about being lawful in the old fashioned sense but is about obeying any arbitrary statute if it came from a group with a monopoly on violence, then it becomes a sick joke. God wants upright citizens who are lawful in that they lead honest, virtuous, and goodly lives; not people who obey statutes and submit themselves to the boot of the state. The state is a diseased monster that does not have the power to make something a sin. The question of whether a state is legitimate is not a question for Romans 13 because it comes from a world where most people were illiterate farmers in villages who never interacted with law enforcement or courts and keeping the law had nothing to do with penal codes or statutes.

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