A Reformed View Of Romans 13 and Stateless Civil Governance
(aka 'libertarian anarchism')
an edited transcript by Gregory Baus, April 2019
I'd like to get into the biblical text right away, but beforehand it's a good idea to explain what position we think the Scriptures support on this topic. As briefly as I can, I'll present the main ideas of stateless civil governance. I won't really argue for it here, but I will reference material where the argument is made ( http://mereliberty.com/romans13 ). Then, I will explain how Romans 13 is compatible with our position.
A few things to keep in mind: First, this is not about the "Libertarian Party" and it's not about any particular political candidate. Rather, what I’m about to outline is a political philosophy or a view of civil governance that's based on a particular view of what persons are, what property is, inherent rights, and specifically, the legitimate use of coercion.
So, second, concerning this view of the legitimate use of coercion: the initiation or 'first use' of coercion, --sometimes we restrict the word 'aggression' for the first use or initiation of coercion-- the first use of coercion, against others or their property, for example: murder, rape, assault, theft, fraud, the credible threatening of these things; none of these things are ever legitimate.
Again, the initiation of coercion is never legitimate, and the only legitimate use of coercion is in proportional response to prior initiation of coercion. So coercion is only legitimately used responsively. This principle or norm (which might be called the norm of “non-initiation of coercion”) is a universal God-given norm and of course it's seen in the sixth and eighth commandments: do not murder, do not steal, as well as in the Bible's affirmation of the law of proportionate retribution (lex talionis). Interestingly, Proverbs 3:30 also has some implications for this. It says something to the effect of: ‘Don't contend with your neighbor if he hasn't harmed you’. And that has a legal nuance that means don't bring the law, or force, or coercion against someone who hasn't aggressed against you.
Third, we must distinguish between what is sometimes called “vice” (or things that are imprudent or sinful) and what is “crime”. So the realm of ethics and morality, which centers in loving your neighbor, this is distinct from what justice or civil justice is, which has to do with what is 'due' to others. In civil matters failing to give due, what is someone's due, this may be always unloving, but not necessarily vice versa.
For example: if you lie this is sinful, this is a violation of the norm of love, of ethics of morality, but it's not necessarily a criminal offense. We have to distinguish between those two things. And that helps us understand what is a matter of political philosophy and concerns the legitimate use of coercion.
Fourth, we must also distinguish between, on the one hand, what we own and owe with respect to God, and on the other hand, what we own and we owe with respect to other people. You could speak of this in terms of the 'vertical' (towards God) and the 'horizontal' (towards our fellow persons). The norm of “non-initiation of coercion” has to do with the horizontal; what we own and owe with respect to other people. Of course, God owns everything, and we owe everything to God. But with regard to our neighbor, there are some things one owns (namely, those things God has given as a stewardship, for example one’s life and property) and if a neighbor were to take them away, then that would be murder and stealing.
Stateless civil governance
The fifth, most important distinction that gets to the heart of what stateless civil governance is about is distinguishing the state --what is the state as a particular form of “political legal order,” you could say-- how that is distinct from civil governance as such.
Civil governance, as such, is basically the adjudication of civil disputes, involving persons or their property. And this has to do with rights. Rights are enforceable normative claims regarding your person or property. And so civil governance has to do, centrally, with the adjudication of disputes over those things, and with the rules and the enforcement that accompanies that adjudication.
However, a 'state' is a territorial monopoly on coercion. And that monopoly requires the initiation of coercion against people and their property. The state, because it has a monopoly on coercion, is in principle and always increasingly tending in practice, totalitarian.
(As an aside: when I was a ‘constitutionalist,’ and I thought "well, governments have to be chained by the Constitution, limited by the Constitution," a friend asked me: which is the most important Amendment (to the Constitution, in the Bill of Rights)? He said it's the 2nd Amendment because all the other amendments are just writing on paper, and you must have the means to defend your rights. This got me thinking about the monopoly power of the state. I realized that even with the inherent right to defend my own other rights that the monopoly actually means in principle the state is totalitarian, and it tends in that direction always. It's not limited if it's a monopoly, even by a piece of paper or your gun.)
So as a monopoly we recognize that states are inherently, in their foundation, unjust because they require the initiation of coercion against people and their property. They're not legitimate, nor necessary; they're not inevitable, they're not prudent and practical. However, civil governance that is the adjudication of disputes in a non-monopolistic fashion, that is, 'stateless' civil governance, this is legitimate and it's necessary for civil justice. Non-monopolistic civil governance has been practiced in various partial ways, throughout history. It fits with social and economic realities. It's plausible. It's a realistic alternative to the state. And it really takes limited government to its consistent conclusion.
Consider the proper role of civil governance, as an impartial, third party judge of disputes: if you have three people, for example, (persons 'A', 'B', and 'C'), and one of the principles would be "you can't be a judge in your own case," if persons 'A' and 'B' have a dispute, they can go to 'C'. But if persons 'C' and 'A' have a dispute, that doesn't mean 'C' gets to decide. They should go to 'B'. And so it's this understanding of limited government, of separation of powers, so to speak, taken to its logical conclusion that produces a non-monopolistic, stateless understanding of civil governance.
Historically, confessionally Reformed
Now I’ll present a historic Reformed understanding of Romans 13 and how I think that supports a proper view of the state, namely, a rejection of the state, but yet an affirmation of legitimate civil governance.
First, we are not “theonomists” (we don’t believe the old covenant/testament Mosaic civil law remains binding for civil governance in the new covenant era), and we are not “establishmentarians” (we don’t believe any church or religion should be civilly legislated). Nevertheless, the basic interpretation of Romans 13 that we follow has been advocated by 'Covenanters', that is, the stream of Scottish Presbyterians who follow The Solemn League & Covenant. Other “establishmentarians” holding to the Reformed Faith, both continental and British Isles, followed this interpretation.
Charles Hodge (1797-1878), an American disestablishmentarian, in his commentary on Romans --while he didn't follow through with this viewpoint consistently-- in at least two statements, basically reflects this viewpoint on Romans 13. The first thing he said was "Paul, in this passage is speaking of the legitimate design of government, not the abuse of power by wicked men." In other words, Paul is not telling us that we need to submit to tyrants or to any unjust laws. Paul is not talking about "de-facto" rulers, those that are in fact claiming power presently. He's not talking about God's "providential" ordination, or institution of government, but rather, of the 'prescriptive' or legitimate design of governance.
A second statement on this passage from Hodge is: "No command to do anything morally wrong can be binding nor can any which transcends the rightful authority of the power whence it emanates." In other words, Hodge is saying it's not only the command to sin that we don't have to obey, when it's issued by any would-be authority, but further, we don't have to obey anything coming from would-be civil authorities beyond the requirements to act justly and submit to justice, because that's the limit on their authority.
So, if a mugger in the street tells me to hand over my wallet, I might comply, but not because I have to obey him, or that I owe that to him. And it's the same with any government, and particularly the state. I shouldn't rob or murder people, but when the state tells me I can't cut hair without a license or “don't collect rainwater on your own property,” they don't actually have that authority and so I'm free to ignore or disobey them.
Hodge is recognizing this principle that it’s not only commands to sin that we don't have to obey, or shouldn't obey, but that there's a stricter limit on the authority given, and that may be lawfully exercised. In these statements, Hodge is representing this historic Reformed, and actually goes back before the Reformation in parts, what might be called the "political resistance" view of Romans 13.
This view is also reflected in the Westminster Confession (1646) and the London Baptist Confession (1689) where it talks about "things lawful". In the Westminster Confession in chapter 20 section 4 on 'Christian Liberty' it says this: "because the powers which God has ordained, and the liberty which Christ has purchased, are not intended by God to destroy, but mutually to uphold and preserve one another, they who oppose any lawful power or the lawful exercise of it, resist the ordinance of God." So, this term about authority being limited to what is "lawful" is the main idea that's reflected in all the Reformed confessions; in the Belgic Confession, the 2nd Helvetic Confession, has similar language.
I first encountered this view in a book called A Christian Manifesto written by Francis Schaeffer in the early eighties. It's more clearly represented in some works that he draws on, namely, Samuel Rutherford's work Lex Rex (1644) which is Latin for "law, king" either rendered as "The law is king" or sometimes "The law and the prince." There's another work, explicating the same view, by James M. Wilson simply called Civil Government (1853).
Now, in Romans 13, whatever terms the translations use, "the powers that be" or the "existing" or "governing authorities" in verse 1, to which we must submit, this doesn't mean the de-facto powers who claim authority. Rather, the meaning here is only those who God authorizes, that is ordains, or institutes, (whatever word is being used), only those who God ordains are actual legitimate authorities. That's the meaning.
'Ordain' can sometimes in the Scripture mean God's providence; whatever falls out in history, whatever actually occurs by God's determination. But that same word (‘ordain’), is also used for His "moral authorization", His prescription. So how do we decide how it's being used here?
The immediate context of the passage shows us that it's about God's authorization, because the text goes on to specify in verses 3 & 4 that God only authorizes or ordains the use of the sword (coercion) to administer actual civil justice. So in one translation it says "not a terror to good conduct, but to bad... approving of the good... God's servant or minister for your good, a sword bearing avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer."
So if you notice "oh, God ordains something” here. What is He ordaining? He's ordaining the punishment of violations of justice; the commendation of justice. God is ordaining the administration of civil justice.
To head off perhaps a possible further question or objection when the passage in verses 6 & 7 says: “For this reason you must also pay tribute (or taxes) for they are God's ministers attending continually upon this very thing" (that is, the administration of justice), "render, therefore, to all their dues. Taxes to whom taxes are due..." and so on, you'll notice that this passage does not say, and no Scripture actually ever says, that anyone in fact owes a tax. Rather, it says if you owe, then pay what you owe. For example, if we choose to use a toll road, then we would owe the toll.
The broader context
So here's how this basic interpretation put forward by Samuel Rutherford, and others of the Reformation era, really comes to light and makes sense in the context of the whole epistle:
The previous exhortations (in the preceding chapters in Romans) to not conform to the world, to discern and hold fast to what is good, to abhor evil, to avoid vengeance, to live at peace... you could readily conclude, or you can imagine someone might think, "well, the government is contrary to these things; it's contrary to God's revealed moral will, because they're not about this. That's the world, they're doing what's evil, they're being vengeful, they're not supporting peace, etc etc... and so we should resist government."
But while taking it as granted, of course (Paul lived in the real world) that some in positions of power, and some forms of power, are obviously evil and illegitimate --as Hosea 8:4 says: "They made kings, but not through Me," and in Mark 10:42, Jesus refers to those who are "considered" to be rulers of the Gentiles; and that word (‘considered’) is significant because it means "supposed to be, but not actually authorities"-- Paul, here (in Romans 13) sets out to clarify that despite the evil of the empire and the state, God has, nevertheless, established a legitimate role for civil governance, and that our submission to the sort of civil governance that God prescribes or ordains is also in accordance with his moral will.
More Scriptural support
There are other passages that help clarify this understanding of Romans 13. For example, 1Corinthians 6. We see that Paul cannot have been referring to the Roman Empire in Romans 13, when he says to the church in Corinth: "When one of you has a grievance against another does he dare go to the law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world, and if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that you're going to judge angels? How much more than matters pertaining to this life!"
So, the Roman Empire, the Roman so-called rulers, here are called unrighteous, that is unjust, and therefore they're not legitimate authorities to which believers can submit their civil disputes. If the Roman so-called rulers were ministers of God for their good, administering justice, then Paul couldn't have forbidden Christians from seeking adjudication from them.
And further on in 1 Corinthians 8: 5-6 Paul says "For although there may be so-called 'gods' in heaven or on earth, as indeed there are many 'gods', many 'lords' yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things, and for whom we exist, and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we exist." And so, among other things, this is to say that many so-called "lords" or rulers have no more genuine civil authority from God than so-called "gods" have genuine deity or divinity.
In summary, according to Scripture, what Romans 13 and other passages teach, then, is that those who by God's sovereign control of history may be in positions of power are not necessarily those who have God's moral authorization or ordination. God's Word doesn't require our submission to unjust so-called rulers. The sword-bearing power that is ordained of God according to Romans 13 is the administration of civil justice: punishing criminals and defending victims of crime.
Further, we recognize that the ‘state’ as a monopoly involving initiation of coercion against persons and their property, is inherently unjust and is therefore not authorized or ordained by God.