Gary North on Romans 13
From His Commentary on Romans





Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God's ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour (Rom. 13:1-7).

Gary North has written over 40 books. His reviews and essays have appeared in about three dozen newspapers and periodicals, including the Wall Street Journal, Modern Age, National Review, Westminster Theological Journal, and Journal of Political Economy. He is a staunch critic of socialism and proponent of Free Market Capitalism. His comments on Romans 13 show both his defense of capitalism and his critique of statism. Also his dislike of anarcho-capitalism. The question we seek to answer is, If we lived in an anarchist society, where homes were protected by private security agencies, conflicts were resolved by the American Arbitration Association, and there were no "State" as we know it today, does the Bible require us to hold an election?

The theocentric principle that undergirds these commandments is God as the supreme authority. At the top of the pyramids of institutional power is God, who delegates authority to men.


Plural Authorities

Paul speaks of higher powers. Strong's Concordance defined the word exousia as follows: 

"(in the sense of ability); privilege, i.e. (subj.) force, capacity, competency, freedom, or (obj.) mastery (concr. magistrate, superhuman, potentate, token of control), delegated influence: authority, jurisdiction, liberty, power, right, strength." 

It means, basically, lawful authorities. There are more than one. There is no single hierarchy in this life. God has created competing jurisdictions in order to eliminate the possibility of an absolute centralized tyranny. 
"And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech. So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city" (Gen. 11:6-8). 
A national civil government or empire has always faced competition: from foreign civil rulers, local civil rulers, families, kinship groups, churches, voluntary associations, and businesses.(1)
At the risk of oversimplifying, there are three basic interpretations of the word "powers" in Romans 13. The first (the traditional) interpretation holds that they represent the government(s). The second, coming into popularity in liberal/higher-critical schools in the last part of the 19th century, holds that the "powers" are demonic forces (cf. Eph 6:12). The third, something of a spin-off of the second, made popular by Walter Wink, holds that General Motors and Citibank are also "the powers."

Gary North and Walter Wink seem to agree that "powers" encompasses more than civil governments. North includes "families, voluntary associations, and businesses" as among these competing "powers."

How it is that "families, voluntary associations, and businesses" as "powers" are supposed to "be subject" to themselves ("be subject unto the higher powers") is not clear. Are small families and businesses to be subject to the larger ones?

Paul says here that lawful authorities deserve obedience. He does not say or imply that there is only one lawful institutional authority that must be obeyed. In his confrontation with the high priest, he made this point clear. Even though he was an apostle and in possession of lawful authority, he did not deliberately challenge the high priest. 
"And the high priest Ananias commanded them that stood by him to smite him on the mouth. Then said Paul unto him, God shall smite thee, thou whited wall: for sittest thou to judge me after the law, and commandest me to be smitten contrary to the law? And they that stood by said, Revilest thou God's high priest? Then said Paul, I wist not, brethren, that he was the high priest: for it is written, Thou shalt not speak evil of the ruler of thy people" (Acts 23:2-5). 
Paul honored lawful authorities. But when one authority could be used to offset another, Paul set them in competition to gain his freedom. 
"But when Paul perceived that the one part were Sadducees, and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee: of the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question. And when he had so said, there arose a dissension between the Pharisees and the Sadducees: and the multitude was divided" (Acts 23:6-7). 
The Sadducee party was associated with the temple priesthood. Paul's words to the Pharisees immediately undermined Ananias' power to prosecute Paul on the authority of the priesthood.
Paul says more than that. Paul plainly says that unlawful authorities deserve obedience. There was nothing "lawful" about the conquest and subjugation of Israel by the Roman Empire. It was an act of lawless aggression. It was not justified by Biblical Law or any political principle which would be accepted by the Clinton-Bush regime if it were attempted against America. 

Even "lawful" authorities can sometimes command things that are lawless, and must not be obeyed. North says that Paul recognized the lawfulness of the Jewish powers, but the Apostles disobeyed these "lawful authorities" when they prohibited the preaching of the Gospel (Acts 5:29). If the most lawless and despotic usurper of authority made it a crime to be a child molester, Christians would be obligated to obey that law. The "lawfulness" of any political system is something which virtually no commentator on Romans 13 can prove. 

No power is established on earth that is not established by God. On this point, Paul is clear. "For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God" (v. 1). This English phrase -- "the powers that be" -- has come down through the centuries to describe the supreme rulers in a society. Paul here affirms lawful hierarchy, which is basic to all of God's institutional covenants.(2) Therefore, obedience to them is biblically mandatory. "Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation" (v. 2). Because God has established authorities to rule over men, men are required by God to obey rulers.

"No power" -- This includes Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin, and Adolph Hitler. All have been put in place by God. God ordains evil

Gary North has written several books in support of Operation Rescue. These books do not harmonize easily with what he says here.

Paul lived under the rule of Nero, a tyrant by any standard. Yet he writes: "For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good" (v. 4) Christians are to do good deeds, gaining praise from their rulers. God has set rulers in seats of authority to be a terror to evil-doers. Let these rulers devote their efforts to overcoming their enemies, not look for rebellious Christians to prosecute.

God "ordained" the tyranny of Nero just as certainly as He "ordained" the Third Reich. God also "ordained" Satan to destroy Job and his household. Does this "ordination" imply God's ethical approval? If I employ the exact same means Nero and Hitler used to gain power, will I be a "lawful" authority? If the early Christians obeyed Nero, why were they martyred?

There are rulers who themselves are evil and allied with evil men. Nevertheless, Paul says to obey. 

The goal of governments is to defend social order. Every government has rules. It enforces standards with sanctions. Most civil rulers want more authority for themselves. They want things to run smoothly. God has built into human nature the desire to live in a predictable world. For predictability, there must be rules and sanctions.(3) This is why rules and sanctions make life easier. Tyrants want predictability. The closer to righteousness the civil laws are, the more voluntary cooperation rulers will gain from their subordinates. Rulers cannot rule without subordinates who voluntarily cooperate. If everyone refused to obey a law, there would not be enough police to enforce it. This is why rulers prosecute a representative figure. This sends a message to the public: "If you don't obey, and everyone else does, we'll get you." But there comes a day when many people take a chance and deliberately disobey the law. They refuse to cooperate with the civil government. On that day, the illusion of State omnipotence ends.

This is true.

This is a claim which needs proof.
Everything North says here can be said of criminal syndicates like the Mafia. They want more power. They want things to run smoothly. They have rules -- boy, do they have rules! The very reason they have organized crime is because they want things to be predictable. They want their "customers" to pay back their loans more predictably. But they believe that the more unrighteous their laws are, the more terrifying and graphically enforced, the more predictable will be their "protection racket."

This statement is an implicit recognition that the State cannot guarantee social order. America's Founding Fathers recognized this. They said "Religion, morality, and knowledge" were "essential to good government and the happiness of mankind." (Northwest Ordinance, 1789). Did Nero promote true religion and Godly morality? Does the Mafia?

The early church lived under a pagan civil tyranny. Rome mandated idolatry as a means of extending the power of the empire. This polytheistic system of civil rule sought intercultural unity by divinizing the emperor. But Christians refused to offer public sacrifices to "the genius of the emperor," for they understood the theology of ancient empires: the divinization of man and the State. For this rebellion, they were intermittently persecuted for almost three centuries. They did not rebel by taking up arms. They merely refused to participate in false worship. Over time, they gained the reputation for being good citizens and reliable subordinates. In the fourth century, they inherited the Roman empire. They had served under tyranny, and they became rulers when this tyranny collapsed into the chaos of civil war and bankruptcy. Nonviolent disobedience to civil authority on this one point eventually gained Christians civil authority. Otherwise, they were obedient. This is a biblical principle of authority. He who will rule must first serve. Jesus told His disciples, 
"The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors. But ye shall not be so: but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve" (Luke 22:25-26).
But there is another principle of biblical authority. "Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29). Both principles must be honored. Both principles must be intellectually defended by covenant-keepers. Both must be honored by the flock.
What North says here is generally correct. 

Essential reading in this area is:

  • Ethelbert Stauffer, Christ and the Caesars, Phila: Westminster Press, 1955.
  • R.J. Rushdoony, The One and the Many, Craig Press, 1971.

How would Gary North describe someone (such as the author of this analysis) who denies that the State has any ethical legitimacy, but who does not take up arms against the State, and simultaneously refuses to obey mandated idolatry? If the nation were populated entirely by such Christian anarchists and they all decided to abolish the Empire and all civil government using only non-violent, electoral processes, would they be violating Romans 13?



The Legitimacy of Governments

Paul's discussion of institutional authorities follows a passage that challenges personal vengeance. "Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord" (Rom. 12:19). If personal vengeance is wrong, then how does God bring vengeance in history? Through civil government. The text does not say that vengeance is wrong. It says that God possesses final authority to impose vengeance.  The text does not say vengeance is wrong for everyone, only for all human beings.  If you take vengeance against your enemy, you do wrong. Is it not also wrong for you to hire some other human being to take vengeance for you? How about "voting" for someone to take vengeance for you? If "personal vengeance" is wrong (and it clearly is), then how does "civil government" come into being? The answer is powerful and inescapable. When God wants to take vengeance upon His enemies, He sovereignly raises up evil human beings to do so, and then destroys them in judgment for taking vengeance. This has been the case since the time of Cain and Assyria. The proof-texts are here
He has delegated the authority to impose physical vengeance to two governments: civil and family. If the family can impose physical vengeance, why do we need the State? Where in Scripture does God say only the State can impose "capital punishment?" It doesn't.

 Peter agreed with Paul. 

Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well. For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men: As free, and not using your liberty for a cloke of maliciousness, but as the servants of God. Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king. Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward. For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully" (I Peter 2:13-19).


Peter goes on in that chapter to say that slaves should submit to their masters, even the wicked ones? Is it ethically legitimate to be a slave-holder? Is it ethically legitimate to be a wicked slavemaster? But the text clearly and unmistakably says we are to submit to evil, just as Jesus did in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:39). "The State" as a concept is evil, just as the Mafia, as a concept, is evil.

Neither Peter nor Paul demanded obedience to civil government at the expense of obedience to other lawful governments. Again, Peter explicitly told the Jewish leaders, "We ought to obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29b). Yet they had the authority to beat him, which they did (Acts 5:40). He submitted to the beating, but not to their command to stop preaching the gospel. He disobeyed, but he submitted to the sanctions for the sake of his disobedience. So did Paul.


Where does the Bible give the Jewish leaders the lawful ethical authority to beat those who preach the Gospel?

The point is this: Peter and Paul self-consciously operated within the existing Roman legal system. Paul understood Roman law, and as a Roman citizen, he invoked it. 
"But Festus, willing to do the Jews a pleasure, answered Paul, and said, Wilt thou go up to Jerusalem, and there be judged of these things before me? Then said Paul, I stand at Caesar's judgment seat, where I ought to be judged: to the Jews have I done no wrong, as thou very well knowest. For if I be an offender, or have committed any thing worthy of death, I refuse not to die: but if there be none of these things whereof these accuse me, no man may deliver me unto them. I appeal unto Caesar" (Acts 25:9-11).
Is there any "anarchist" or "communist" who does not "operate" within the existing legal system, even as they attempt to destroy it?
His words, "I refuse not to die," affirmed the legitimacy of civil government, including capital punishment. But, at the same time, he appealed to Caesar to escape the jurisdiction of Festus, who Paul believed was acting on behalf of the Jews. This was consistent with his affirmation of the ministerial office of civil magistrates. A Christian who denies the legitimacy of a conquering empire could still say, "If I have done anything worthy (in God's eyes) of death, I refuse not to die." Paul was saying that he had not done anything worthy of death.

The anarcho-capitalist rejects all forms of civil government. He can point to every kind of tax as distorting the free market.(4) He sees the free market as legitimately autonomous. But then come the problems of violence and sin. How can these be predictably restrained? The biblical answer is government, including civil government. In an anarcho-capitalist world of profit-seeking private armies, the result is the warlord society. Militarily successful private armies will always seek to establish their monopolistic rule by killing the competition, literally. Civil governments always reappear. They are one of God's four ordained systems of government: self-government, church government, family government, and civil government. All four are sealed by an oath. All four involve sanctions.



What is the chief cause of "violence and sin" in an empire? Granted the darkness of the human heart, it is at least arguable that the State has been the greatest force for violence and sin in the 20th century. The greatest source of international war is, of course, these same "nations." What does the Bible say is the answer to war? It is not the re-appearance of more governments. It is regeneration, repentance, and obedience to God's Law. In the absence of civil government, these would create an ordered society. Without these, government is the arming of evil men.

The Masons have oaths and sanctions.

Christians cannot legitimately adopt the libertarian quest to establish a world devoid of civil government. Sin mandates civil government and civil sanctions. The right of civil rulers to impose physical punishments is affirmed clearly by Paul in Acts 25. He affirms in Romans 13 the legitimacy of civil government among other legitimate governments. He says that rulers are ordained by God as His ministers. This is powerful language. It invokes the authority of God on behalf of the State. If Paul is correct, then anarcho-capitalism is incorrect. There is no way around this. Christian anarchism is an oxymoron.

Pardon me for continuing to believe that this claim has not been proven.



Describing evil men as God's "ministers" is powerful, but not to sanctify their evil. States "serve" God by sinning, destroying, murdering and raping. God sends evil against the evil.

Crime vs. the Division of Labor

The threat of crime forces men to allocate scarce economic resources to the defense against criminals. The State is the primary institutional means of crime prevention. The State imposes negative sanctions on convicted criminals. The goal is to uphold justice by means of fear.

"And the judges shall make diligent inquisition: and, behold, if the witness be a false witness, and hath testified falsely against his brother; Then shall ye do unto him, as he had thought to have done unto his brother: so shalt thou put the evil away from among you. And those which remain shall hear, and fear, and shall henceforth commit no more any such evil among you. And thine eye shall not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot" (Deut. 19:18-21).

Fear adds to the cost to criminal behavior. As the economist says, when the cost of anything increases, other things remaining equal, less of it is demanded. That is the goal of civil sanctions: less crime.


I doubt it can be proven that the State is the primary institutional means of crime prevention. The State currently makes it "unconstitutional" to teach students that God says not to kill, steal, and rape. The State kills more, steals more, and kidnaps more people than all private criminals combined. Citizens are increasingly turning to private security agencies for their protection.




Civil society must make crime costly on more than one front. If all the relationships a criminal has -- family, friends, co-workers, landlords, employers -- all impose costs -- from social ostracization to job termination, refusal to rent, etc. -- crime becomes more costly than the mere threat of government "imprisonment" (gyms, TV's free time) with other criminals.

The expense of crime-prevention reduces men's wealth. They believe that this expenditure prevents an even greater reduction of their wealth by criminals. Men fund it more expensive to cooperate when crime increases. Their lives and property are less secure. This makes them more cautious about entering into cooperative ventures with people they do not know well. The information costs of dealing with strangers are high, and some people choose not to take these extra risks. Because of sin, the division of labor is reduced. Crime-prevention activities are a means of removing risk and increasing the level of cooperation. Institutional authorities seek to reduce crime by imposing negative sanctions on law-breakers.

This assessment of the social costs of crime is accurate. Eliminating the State and its monopoly on the imposition of costs on criminals would be the best thing our society could do to reduce crime.

To maximize the division of labor in a world of sin, the State must impose negative sanctions only on law-breakers, biblically defined. By adding laws that go beyond the Bible, or even go counter to it, civil rulers reduce the division of labor. Legislators and bureaucrats who go beyond the Bible in seeking to stamp out illegal activities make it more expensive for people to cooperate voluntarily to achieve their ends. This reduces the division of labor. It therefore reduces people's wealth. The State thereby produces the condition that criminals produce. The difference is, good men feel justified in defending themselves against criminals. They feel far less justified in defending themselves against the State. The predator State can become a greater threat to economic and social cooperation than the predator criminal class. In some cases, the State allies itself with the criminal class.(5)

People do indeed feel unjustified in defending themselves against the State, largely due to patriotic propaganda. Christians should be on constant vigil against any organization that relies chiefly on violence and threats of force to carry out its objectives.


Paul speaks of the illegitimacy of personal vengeance. He does not deny the legitimacy of vengeance as such. He says that God has restricted vengeance to legitimate civil governments. Civil power is supposed to restrain unpredictable personal violence, family feuds, and gang warfare.

If "personal vengeance" is illegitimate, then why is vengeance legitimate if one enlists the support ("votes") of one's friends?

"Civil power" is the most powerful form of gang warfare.

The free market is not autonomous. It is an extension of the individual or the family, both of which operate under civil law. The free market is under civil law. Civil law in principle precedes the free market and establishes its conditions by shaping public behavior and attitudes. It is enforced by rulers who are ministers of God. Taxation as such is not theft, contrary to some libertarian theorists. Most forms of taxation are theft, and all levels above the tithe surely are (I Sam. 8:15, 17), but not all. Lawful authorities are entitled to economic support. Taxation supports the State.

God's Law precedes the free market, in that it commands us to respect the life, liberty and property of others. "Civil law" is a denial of God's Law, inasmuch as it claims that an elite group may deprive all others of their life, liberty and property. An anarcho-capitalist society with a high level of Biblical Law is an orderly and prosperous society. A statist society burdened with a myriad of civil laws is ready to collapse.

There is nothing in the Bible which gives anyone permission to "tax" another, just as there is nothing which legitimizes wicked slavemasters, even though we are to submit to both (Romans 13, 1 Peter 2).

Paul calls on Christians to obey lawful authorities. This may mean challenging one authority in the name of another. Authorities are to some extent in competition with each other. It is not unlawful to pit one against the other, as Paul's tactics in Acts indicate. Freedom is sometimes achieved by using one authority to reduce the power of another. Paul used Roman law to undermine Festus' desire to please the Jews. He lawfully removed himself from Festus' authority. A legal system should not be allowed to become monolithic.




[1]. Defenders of the modern State sometimes claim final earthly jurisdiction for it: the divine right of civil government -- no earthly appeal to anything higher. Such a claim was taken far less seriously in, say, 1940 than at the end of the twentieth century. The high-water mark of the West's faith in civil government is now behind us. The inevitable bankruptcy of all of the Western governments' pay-as-you-go, tax-supported, compulsory retirement programs will eliminate most of the remaining traces of this faith before the mid-twenty-first century. On these statistically doomed programs, see Peter G. Peterson, Gray Dawn: How the Coming Age Wave Will Transform America -- and the World (Times Books, 1999).


[2] Ray R. Sutton, That You May Prosper: Dominion By Covenant (2nd ed.; Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1992), ch. 2.


[3] Ibid., chaps. 3, 4.


[4] Murray N. Rothbard, Power and Market (Menlo Park, California: Institute for Humane Studies, 1970).


[5] In the early 1970's, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in his multi-volume history, The Gulag Archipelago, said that this had long been the case in the Soviet Union.


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