15 Theses for Christian Social Doctrine (from Romans 13:1-7)

Romans 13:1-7 is the loadstar passage on government in the New Testament. Yet there is a dearth of deep reflection on this passage among Protestants. Our negligence is illustrated by the lack of any book length expositions in modern times on these seven verses. Below are fifteen theses that I believe can be enlarged and established by Scripture, which theses are rooted in this critical passage.

  1. In Romans 13:1-7, the Apostle Paul is not addressing a particular government, or type of government, but is addressing the essence of human government in general.
  2. God instituted human government in man’s state of innocence; therefore government is a necessary good, and not a necessary evil.
  3. God’s sovereign control extends even over wicked governments.
  4. The civil magistrate is God’s “penultimate” minister, charged with overseeing the temporal affairs of life. God’s civil ministers are essentially different than ministers of the Word in that civil government is an order of common grace, while the church is an order of redemptive grace.
  5. God’s will is that the civil magistrate uphold the common good by promoting justice through wholesome laws. The duties of justice are directed by the principles of the sanctity of life, family and labor.
  6. Justice has negative and positive duties. Positively, justice especially requires defending the defenseless: the poor, feeble, orphan, widow, and alien; protecting them against oppression, robbery and violence.
  7. Negatively, the state is tasked to uphold justice with the “power of the sword.” The external restraint of law and punishment is made necessary because of sin.
  8. Justice in punishment is defined by the principles of proportionality and parsimony and seeks to balance the goals of retribution, restitution and restoration.
  9. Commitment to the sanctity of life includes the obligation to impose capital punishment for those guilty of intentional murder.
  10. The power of the sword includes the obligation of the state to wage just war when the occasion arrises. Just War is defined by the principles articulated by St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, which principles have become the common heritage of Protestants and Catholics alike.
  11. Taxes are not “theft” but are necessary to secure both justice and freedom.
  12. Politics and public sector work are honorable callings that calls forth a full time, and lifelong pursuit of excellence. Public service careers are honorable vocations for Christians to pursue.
  13. In the main, Christians owe obedience to civil rulers. Christians ought to be the best citizens. This is no way implies that Christians are to be defenders of the status-quo or reflexively side with privilege and power.
  14. The respect Christians owe to civil rulers requires a certain “anti-partisan” stance. When advocating for just and wholesome laws, we must bear in mind that we are “co-belligerents,” and not allies.
  15. No ministerial authority is absolute. Therefore, duty may require Christians to resist civil authority in specific circumstances; through protest, civil disobedience, and, in the most extreme circumstances, join an effort (under a lesser magistrate) to overthrow a tyrannical government.

The Christian and the Immigrant

Leviticus 19:33-34 “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”

“People are commanded to cultivate equity toward all without exception. For, if no mention had been made of strangers, the Israelites would have thought that, provided they had not injured any one of their own nation, they had fully discharged their duty; but, when God recommends guests and sojourners to them, just as if they had been their own kindred, they thence understand that equity is to be cultivated constantly and toward all men. Nor is it without cause that God interposes Himself and His protection, lest injury should be done to strangers; for since they have no one who would submit to ill-will in their defense, they are most exposed to the violence and various oppressions of the ungodly, than as if they were under the shelter of domestic securities….”

“He recommends strangers to them on this ground, that the people, who had themselves been sojourners in Egypt, being mindful of their ancient condition, ought to deal more kindly to strangers; for although they were at last oppressed by cruel tyranny, still they were bound to consider their entrance there, vis., that poverty and hunger had driven their forefathers thither, and that they had been received hospitably, when they were in need of aid from others…. Moreover, it must be observed that, in the second passage, they are commanded to love strangers and foreigners as themselves. Hence it appears that the name of neighbour is not confined to our kindred, or such other persons with whom we are nearly connected, but extends to the whole human race; as Christ shews in the person of the Samaritan, who had compassion on an unknown man (Luke 10:30).”

“He confirms the foregoing decree by a reference to the nature of God himself; for the vile and abject condition of those with whom we have to do, causes us to injure them the more wantonly, because they seem to be altogether deserted. But God declares that their unhappy lot is no obstacle to His administering succor to them… In short, God distinguishes Himself from men, who are carried away by outward appearance, to hold the rich in honour, and the poor in contempt; to favour the beautiful or the eloquent, and to despise the unseemly… [it is] an unjust judgment, which diverts us from the cause itself, when our minds are prejudiced by what ought not to be taken into account.” (John Calvin)

I Remember R.C. Sproul

The first theology book from a Reformed perspective I ever read was R.C. Sproul’s, Chosen By God. It is a slender volume and I read it when I was sixteen or seventeen. I have never re-read or referred to that book since, and yet I vividly recall much of it. I recall the introduction where R.C. distinguishes between acknowledging the fact of God’s predestination and understanding how Christians are to derive comfort from the doctrine. That resonated with me. I was a member of a Baptist church at the time that had a high regard for the Bible. I was aware of the teaching of Ephesians 1 and Romans 9. I could see the fact of predestination. Yet this teaching perplexed me. At the time I viewed this teaching as standing in paradox with human free will. Like the Trinity or the two natures of Christ, here was another mystery of our faith. Furthermore, the whole matter seemed academic – an issue for seminary students; not for the average person in the pew.

R.C. exposed me to the broader Biblical teaching and set the doctrine of predestination in it’s wider context. This was my first exposure to the so-called “five points” of the doctrines of Grace. I began to see how these teachings were connected as a coherent whole. Fallen human nature, God’s call, the atonement, and Christian perseverance are all interdependent. I recall R.C’s appeal to Augustine and the four-fold state of man, his illustration from John Edwards and Carroll’s Cheshire Cat to teach on the freedom of the will, his Greek word study of John 6:44, and his unique (and persuasive) explanation of the perplexing passage in Hebrews 6. Although Chosen by God is a short book, R.C.’s argument was cogent, his appeal to Scripture relevant, his illustrations memorable and to the point, and the whole is easily understood by an average high school student.

This was R.C.’s genius. His gift was his ability to communicate complex ideas in simple ways. He lectured on Kierkegaard and Calvin and brought great thinkers out of the Philosophy and seminary classroom and into the family room and car radio. He communicated Confessional Presbyterian Christianity to a broad swath of diverse Christian traditions. He influenced Pentecostals, Baptists, Lutherans, Episcopalians and so many others. R.C. influenced me in my desire to be a teacher of the church. I was never tempted to become an academic theologian. My goal was always to communicate God’s truth simply. Yet I quickly realized how difficult simple and engaging communication can be. I am still learning from R.C. ways to communicate more effectively.