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Thinking Out Loud

Can Christians Ever be Justified in Saying "I was just following orders"?

by Michael Jinkins | May 17, 2016

just following ordersIn response to one of my recent blogs on “Bonhoeffer’s Germany”, someone asked that I comment on the relationship between St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, Chapter 13, and the issues raised by Bonhoeffer’s resistance to Adolf Hitler’s Nazi state.

First, just so we are all on the same page with reference to St. Paul, here’s what he says in the relevant section of Romans 13:

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them – taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.” (Romans 13:1-7, New Revised Standard Version)

Historically speaking, Christians have read this passage in various ways.

Some have read it as grounds for an absolute claim of the state over all aspects of the life of every subject or citizen, whatever their faith may be. Those who subscribe to this approach may elevate this text’s authority over all other texts in scripture and use it to justify the totalitarianism of a state. This was what was done in the case of Bonhoeffer’s Germany when so-called “German Christians” appealed to this viewpoint to justify the Nazi state’s crushing all opposition and the church’s complicity in Nazism’s crimes against humanity.

A classical version of this viewpoint has been called “Erastianism” after Thomas Erastus, a sixteenth-century Swiss theologian. Interestingly, Erastus developed his argument in opposition to the Calvinist Reformed movement when it attempted to establish its form of church discipline in the Palatinate region of Europe. According to Erastus, “the civil authorities in a state which professes but one religion have the right and the duty to exercise jurisdiction in all matters whether civil or ecclesiastical.” Erastianism played a significant role in the debates of the Westminster Assembly in 1643, and was adapted by Thomas Hobbes who altered the original teaching of Erastus so as to expand the power of the state over every aspect of human life, whether or not the state professes any religious faith at all.*

There are many people who have read St. Paul’s words in Romans to endorse various versions of this viewpoint. Thus, if Hitler and his henchmen said that they’d like to liquidate entire populations because of their ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or political views, some Christians either stood by silently or actively joined in and then justified their collusion or participation, or at least their lack of opposition, by saying “to oppose civil authorities is to oppose God.” This is, of course, a religious version of “I was just following orders.”

In the face of this reading of St. Paul, which many Christians (myself included) and many non-Christians alike consider abhorrent, we may be tempted simply to steer clear of Romans 13 altogether. But, simply to ignore St. Paul’s teaching would be equally irresponsible for most Christians. And, if we avoid it completely, we may miss a crucial Christian teaching.

So I think we do have to take seriously what St. Paul meant in this passage. However, I would argue that to stretch his message to a comprehensive and absolute condolence of any and every act committed in the name of secular authorities and civil governments would be to deny St. Paul’s faith and his own disobedience which landed him in court, in jail and ultimately on the executioner’s block. It would also contradict the larger context of St. Paul’s teachings within early Christianity and within Judaism which produced not only kings, but prophets who called kings to account.

Perhaps the most helpful commentary I have yet read in connection with Romans 13:1-7 is that of the British theologian, C.E.B. Cranfield. It is so helpful, indeed, that I would like to provide a lengthy passage from him.

He writes:

“[Romans] 13:1-7 is also specially difficult, and congregations need help with it. The key to a right understanding is the realization that the Greek verb represented by the AV [the Authorized or King James Version] ‘be subject’, and the RV [Revised Version] ‘be in subjection’ is not equivalent to ‘obey.’ In ordinary English to obey someone is to do what the person commands. In Greek there are three very obvious verbs, all used in the New Testament, which convey this meaning. But Paul used another verb here. I think we can assume that he did so deliberately, because he thought it more suitable. It was not his intention to put a blank check in the hands of all civil rulers and authorities, laying on Christians the obligation to do whatever such authorities might command. And the Bible Societies and others who have used ‘Obedience to Rulers’ as a heading for this section have done a very serious – though no doubt unintentional – disservice to the church and to the cause of truth. The verb Paul uses here is used in Ephesians 5:21 of a reciprocal obligation (‘subjecting yourselves one to another in the fear of Christ’). Obedience in the ordinary sense of the English word can hardly be reciprocal. What the Greek verb denotes is the recognition that another has a claim on one that takes precedence over one’s own claim on oneself. To subject oneself to one’s fellow-Christian is to recognize that his claim on one is superior to one’s own claim on oneself, so to put his true interests before one’s own. In exhorting the Roman Christians to be subject to the civil authorities Paul is reminding them that, as Christians, they have an inescapable obligation to the state, an inescapable political responsibility, laid on them by God, to be fulfilled conscientiously.”**

Cranfield closes his comments on this passage by observing that the specific content of that obligation for a first-century Christian in the Roman Empire must be understood in the context of the rest of Paul’s writings and the other writings of the New Testament. A Christian living in another time and place would have to translate the specific demands of this obligation into terms appropriate for that other time and place. But there is no indication in St. Paul’s writings that if Caesar or Hitler comes along contradicting the teachings of Jesus, we should set Jesus aside and do what the latest tyranny demands.

William Stringfellow, an attorney and lay theologian, once reflected on the critical situation faced by Christians in Germany at the time of Hitler. Placing our immediate discussion into a larger biblical context, especially putting teachings such as this one from St. Paul in conversation with the book of Revelation, Stringfellow observed that “the act of resistance to the power of death incarnate in Nazism was the only means of retaining sanity and conscience. In the circumstances of the Nazi tyranny, resistance became the only human way to live. ... In this dimension of the Resistance, the Bible became alive as a means of nurture and communication; recourse to the Bible was in itself a primary, practical, and essential tactic of resistance.”***

Stringfellow and others have recognized that the “powers and principalities” of this world are aspects of God’s good creation, that they are authorized by God to fulfill certain fundamental and fundamentally good purposes. In fact, St. Paul describes a sort of covenant between us, as Christians, and the civil authorities who are established ultimately by God to promote good. We Christians ought then to participate with these authorities in the furthering of good. And, St. Paul says, if we are “up to no good” then the civil authorities have the right and responsibility to deal with us under the laws of the state. But the covenant which St. Paul describes has another side. What if it is the state itself that is “up to no good”? Powers and principalities, like all aspects of creation, were created good for good purposes, certainly; but they, like all other aspects of creation, are fallen. Sometimes, and this becomes a critical issue of faith for us in the most extreme cases as in the case of Nazi Germany, the civil authorities do not act in a manner consistent with God’s good purposes and, thus, break their covenant with their subjects or citizens.

In these cases, extreme and exceptional as they may be, we are called upon as Christians, as members of the Body of Christ, to hear the Word of God. We must first acknowledge the seriousness of the situation and be willing to accept whatever consequences may come (as did Bonhoeffer); but, then, we must be willing to act in a manner consistent with the call of Jesus Christ. The Theological Declaration of Barmen describes precisely such a situation and such a response as does the more recent Belhar Confession from South Africa.

What seems clear, however, is this: Nowhere in Christian scripture is there any indication that we are ever exempted from standing before God and our neighbors to answer for our own actions. Nowhere are we given a divine sanction to say: “I was just following orders.”


*F.L. Cross and E.A. Livingstone, editors, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 3rd edition, 1997), 558.
**C.E.B. Cranfield, On Romans and Other New Testament Essays (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998), 77-78. (British spelling has been converted to American in this excerpt)
***William Stringfellow, An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land (Waco: Word, 1973), 119-120.

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