Ryan McMaken and Tho Bishop, in conversation with Derek Dobalian, ask the question: Should Christians Hate the State? To which many Christians would reply with the first verse of Romans 13:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.
Of course, a more appropriate Christian reply would be based on the command that we are to love our enemies, but as most of us still haven’t successfully worked through the love God and love our neighbors part, this is much to ask at the moment. But I digress.
The question raised was about the state, but the apostle Paul writes of governing authorities. Setting aside the many various understandings of the term “governing” and the different interpretations of the passage in Romans (I have offered mine here and here and here and here), what are we to make of the term “state” and the term “government”?
I offer, and this is well grounded in the history of the Christian West: government is designed to enforce laws that come from a source higher than those governing. This is true at every level of governance – from civil government down to family government. This as opposed to a state, which enforces laws of its own making.
The transition can be seen in the outcome of the wars of state-building (wrongly called the wars of religion), and was certainly cemented by the end of the seventeenth century in much of western Europe.
So how does this effect an understanding of Romans 13? Continuing with the passage:
3 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, 4 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.
Who is to define “good conduct”? If the ruler is God’s servant for good, on what good basis would God have him rule? If he is to carry out wrath against the wrongdoer, on what basis is wrongdoing understood?
In other words, does God allow the ruler to develop his own rules, to define what is good? Is there any example of this Biblically in any of the history prior to Paul’s writing these words?
We know, from the beginning God gave the law. God gave judges to judge according to God’s law – not to make law. The various kings of Israel and Judah were considered as acting against God’s law – if not, how could any of these be described as bad kings (as many of these were)? By definition, every king would be a just king if he is free to make decrees and then acts according to these decrees.
So, a proper governing authority governs according to good law which has come from God (I suggest natural law ethics captures this law). A state is a governing authority that has usurped God’s authority in making the law.
But I am still not yet to the point of answering the question posed by Tho and Ryan….