Does Paul say that we need to obey all authorities, or only “duly constituted” ones?

Q. In my daily devotional time, I’m reading Romans. I read each chapter twice, once with the New International Version (NIV) and once with The Message. It seems to help my understanding. Today I read chapter 13. It didn’t help. It confused me. Verses 1-7 in the NIV don’t seem to jibe with the same verses in The Message. If I am to believe the NIV, it would seem that Martin Luther King, Jr. (to name just one) would have been violating Paul’s teaching here. But if one believes The Message, he would not have been, since this version includes qualifiers (“insofar as there is peace and order,” “duly constituted authorities”). Help.

Are leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela examples for us to follow of using civil disobedience to oppose injustice? Or were they violating Scriptural teachings?

First, let me commend you for reading the Bible daily, and for comparing two different versions as you do. This usually helps a great deal in understanding the Bible, as you’ve found. One version will say things in such a way as to bring out certain emphases, and the way another version puts them will help fill out the complete picture.

But I can see why you would have been confused in this particular instance. The NIV and The Message seem not to be saying the same thing in different ways, but actually to be saying different things. Here are some examples, with the NIV in purple and The Message in blue:

There is no authority except that which God has established.
Insofar as there is peace and order, it’s God’s order.

Whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted.
Live responsibly as a citizen. If you’re irresponsible to the state, then you’re irresponsible with God.

Rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong.
Duly constituted authorities are only a threat if you’re trying to get by with something.

If you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.
If you’re breaking the rules right and left, watch out. The police aren’t there just to be admired in their uniforms. God also has an interest in keeping order, and he uses them to do it.

So what is Paul saying here: that God uses the police to keep order, or that rulers are God’s agents of wrath to bring punishment? That we must live responsibly as citizens, or that we must not rebel against authority? That God has established duly constituted, peaceful, orderly authorities, or that God has put all rulers in place?

Here we see clearly the difference between the methods behind the NIV and Message versions (although I think there’s something further going on, as I’ll discuss shortly). Every translation of the Bible requires a trade-off of some degree between reproducing the words of the original Greek or Hebrew and capturing the meaning of those original words in fluent, current English (or whatever the target language may be).

Versions such as the New American Standard Bible (NASB) strive intentionally to represent the original words. The NIV is generally considered to occupy something of a middle ground between reproducing the original words and expressing their meaning in equivalent words. The Message is so far over on the “meaning” side that it’s technically a paraphrase rather than a translation: It seeks to speak in a very contemporary idiom (“the police,” for example) at the necessary cost of choosing one possible meaning of the words and losing other possibilities.

So that’s one explanation for what’s happening here. But I think there’s an additional one.

This passage in Romans provides an excellent example of why we need to “compare Scripture with Scripture” in order to arrive at the “full counsel of God.” It’s true in general that followers of Jesus can obey governing authorities and not worry about suffering at their hands so long as they don’t do wrong. (Paul probably needed to reassure the Romans of this because they lived so close to the center of power in their world, and their rulers did not acknowledge the true God; instead, they often wanted to be treated as gods themselves!)

However, in specific situations, sometimes followers of Jesus are persecuted by the government specifically because they are followers of Jesus; in other situations, they need to challenge unjust practices and laws by breaking them (as in the cases of Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and others who resisted racial segregation).

We see examples of disobedience to authority at other places in the Bible. For example, when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem forbid Peter and John to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus, they reply, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” And in the book of Revelation, believers are warned that they must resist the spreading cult of emperor worship even at the price of their own lives if they want to be faithful to Jesus.

What I think is happening here in Romans is that The Message is drawing the “whole counsel of God” from throughout the Bible into the passage, as if Paul were saying all of it: “In general, this, but in particular cases, there are exceptions.” I believe that instead Paul was simply saying, “For where you are in place and time right now, this is how you need to live.” The vast majority of the Bible is written from that standpoint, and I think we do well in our versions of the Bible to capture, as best we can, what was said to particular people in particular times, and then encourage readers to “compare Scripture with Scripture” to arrive at more general, nuanced, and comprehensive understandings.

In other words, while it’s very helpful to compare different versions of the Bible to get the fuller meaning of a given passage, it’s also helpful and necessary to compare different passages on the same subject to get the Bible’s full counsel about it.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister who served local churches as a pastor for nearly twenty years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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