A minister on President Trump’s religious advisory board asserted earlier this week that “God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un,” the leader of North Korea, as reported in The Washington Post.
How does the minister, Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of 3700+ member First Baptist Dallas, know that God has given the President such authority? Jeffress told The Post, “When it comes to how we should deal with evildoers, the Bible, in the book of Romans, is very clear: God has endowed rulers full power to use whatever means necessary — including war — to stop evil.”
Jeffress said Romans 13 “gives the government … the authority to do whatever, whether it’s assassination, capital punishment or evil punishment to quell the actions of evildoers like Kim Jong Un.”
These are presumptuous and unsettling statements, to say the least, speaking with such confidence and specificity about God’s actions and giving a religious endorsement of violence and war in an already tense situation.
In most situations, I would dismiss such statements as crackpot talk and not waste time on it. But Jeffress’s position and potential influence on the President and others in our government, combined with the threatening state of affairs with North Korea, caused me to take a closer look at the scripture Jeffress cites.
Below are my initial thoughts on the scripture relative to these statements, which I hope will help stimulate your thinking on this and similar issues. I would welcome hearing your reaction to Jeffress’s statements and this commentary.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is that Romans 13 does not say what Jeffress says. A fundamental problem with what he says: the scripture he cites is about the relationship between governing authorities and their subjects, not the relationship between governing authorities of one nation (like Trump) and the governing authorities of another nation (like Kim Jong Un).
There are multiple other problems, including that Romans 13 does not, as Jeffress says, endow rulers and governments with “full power” from God to use any means necessary to punish and stop evil. To the contrary, God explicitly says “Vengeance is mine.” God might empower rulers and governments, but nowhere does Romans 13 express that such “full power” is transferred to rulers and governments. More are outlined below. The main verse on which Jeffress likely relies is 13:4b.
What Does Romans 13 Say?
The book of Romans is a letter written around 57 C.E. (about 25 years after Christ’s crucifixion) from the Apostle Paul to a church in Rome. Jewish Christians had recently returned to Rome. The return was prompted by the death of Emperor Claudius who, in 49 C.E., expelled all Jews from Rome due to their Christ-related activity.
The part of this letter to which Jeffress is almost certainly referring, Romans 13:1-5, is short:
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.
Does this, as Jeffress says, “clearly” express that “God has endowed rulers full power to use whatever means necessary — including war — to stop evil”? Or does it, as he says, give God’s authorization to rulers for them to carry out assassinations, capital punishment, or punishment of evil?
Verse by Verse Discussion
Below is a brief comment on each verse in Romans 13:1-5 and its relation to Jeffress’s assertions.
Verse 1: “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.”
Just because God instituted a ruler does not mean that God authorized that ruler to kill, go to war, or engage in any other specific action. The Bible is full of examples of rulers instituted by God that then engage in actions that are not authorized by God (lots of what Saul did; David with Bathsheba; ….).
In other words, even if one concludes that God instituted President Trump as leader of the United States does not mean that God authorized President Trump to kill, etc., in Romans 13.
It is also debatable whether all rulers are “authorities,” as used in Romans 13:1-5. A person’s exercise of governmental power as a ruler might not necessarily make them an “authority.” In other words, this verse can be read as establishing that to be an “authority,” you must be “from God,” and that “authorities,” as it is used here, are only those powers that have been “instituted by God.”
2: “Therefore, whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”
Similarly, just because God appoints a ruler does not mean that everything that ruler does is right or that people should not resist an action by that ruler that is bad or otherwise contrary to God’s will.
A person’s resistance of authority may incur God’s judgment, but there is no indication here that such judgment is necessarily a bad thing. God might adjudge the resistance of someone God appointed to be appropriate and good, particularly if that resistance is of that authority’s bad actions.
3: “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 ….”
The literal meaning of this verse is demonstrably false. The verse is true for some rulers, but many are terrors to good conduct and many do not punish—some even encourage—bad conduct. The North Korean ruler is one example.
And a person who does what is good does not always receive the ruler’s approval, of course.
This suggests that the assertion in verse 3 is not one the writer intended to be taken literally, but is instead a rhetorical device to urge Christians in Rome to keep the peace rather than causing problems such that they are kicked out again.
4a: “… for [the authority] is God’s servant for your good.”
Is every authority a servant of God? Are they all for the people’s good?
As above, such sweeping language suggests a rhetorical device, rather than a definition or rule for all authorities and all times.
Also, “the authority” may be God’s servant, provided by God for good, but a servant’s actions are not always in accord with the master’s will.
Indeed, the New Living Translation translates the phrase this way: the authority is God’s servant “sent for your good.” While God might have sent the ruler to do good, people do not always do what God sent them to do.
4b: “But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! [The authority] is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.” (some translations instead say on the one “who does evil”).
The last part of this verse is probably the basis of Jeffress’s assertion that “God has endowed rulers full power to use whatever means necessary — including war — to stop evil.”
First, this verse does not apply to the President Trump – North Korean Leader relationship.
The “you” and the “wrongdoer” referred to in verse 4 is a person who is “subject to the governing authorities” (see verse 1). The entire passage, Romans 13:1-5, is directed to a person who is subject to an authority. So, when verse 4 says that “[The authority] is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer,” it is referring to the authority executing wrath on someone who is subject to that governing authority.
In other words, it is referring to someone over which that governing authority’ has jurisdiction (one of their citizens or residents, for example).
President Trump is not a “governing authority” for the North Korean president, as that term is used in this passage.
Neither this passage nor this verse addresses relationships between a government and those outside its jurisdiction or between one country’s government and another country’s government.
Second, does this sentence—“[The authority] is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer”—
(A) endow power to all rulers, as Jeffress says, or
(B) designate “the authority” as the servant who will execute wrath on wrongdoers when and if the master (God) wishes to do so?
There is a clue to the likely answer in the passage immediately before Romans 13:1-5. The letter tells members of the church at Corinth to “never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:19-21).
Essentially, in chapter 12, the letter tells individuals not to attack or otherwise avenge themselves on wrongdoers or evil. God says such vengeance is God’s to repay, not theirs.
Many commentators view Romans 13:1-5, which immediately follows 12:19-21, as making it clear to individuals that they are not the ones who will implement God’s wrath when God decides to repay, but “the authorities” will be the ones to do so.
This would not be an endowment of power to rulers, but would be a designation of roles, when called on by God.
Third, it seems contradictory to say God declared “vengeance is mine” in one sentence (Romans 12:19) and then, a few sentences later, say that God has ceded “full power” to all rulers to, as Jeffress claims, “use whatever means necessary — including war — to stop evil.” God’s express retention of vengeance power also contradicts Jeffress’s assertion that Romans 13 “gives the government … the authority to do whatever, whether it’s assassination, capital punishment or evil punishment to quell the actions of evildoers like Kim Jong Un.”
Does God use rulers sometimes to punish wrongdoers? The Old Testament reports many instances of this.
Does Romans 13 itself endow rulers and governments with “full power” from God to use any means necessary to punish and stop evil? Such an interpretation seems to transfer power God explicitly reserved for himself.
5: “Therefore, one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience.”
This “therefore” clause emphasizes that the passage is focused on people’s relationship with the governing authorities, not on endowing the governing authorities with power.
The Rest of the Passage
The passage closes with additional verses (13:6-7):
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.
Note that the closing verse limits the concept of being “subject to” the governing authorities to “what is due to them.”
None of what I have said is intended to comment on whether it is appropriate to attack North Korea or a comment on appropriate actions relative to war, assassination, protecting the United States, or similar action. Nor is this a commentary on the President’s powers under our laws or what he should or should not do relative to North Korea.
My point is that Jeffress’s comments seem far afield from what Romans 13 says and means. Romans 13 does not appear to be a blanket authorization from God for rulers to do anything and everything they deem necessary to combat evil. Nor does Romans 13 appear to address whether war, assassination, or the like are appropriate. My commentary reflects what I think the scriptures likely mean relative to Jeffress’s comments.
Leading Bible scholars teach that Romans 13:1-5 is about the individual’s relationship with their authorities governing them. Such scholars do not teach that it is about endowing governmental authorities with blanket power. They also teach that, by referring to punishing bad and approving good, the passage refers to legitimate authorities “implementing justice.”
“Most acknowledge that Paul was addressing a situation that was specific to the circumstances of the Roman community ….”
They explain “[t]his text is misunderstood if it is taken out of context and used as an absolute word so that Christians uncritically comply with the state no matter what is being demanded.”
Their teaching is quite different from Jeffress’s assertions that the scripture in Romans 13 is about rulers having a blanket, God-given license to assassinate and use any means necessary to stop evil.
As discussed above, Jeffress’s comments do not appear warranted by the scriptures.
Jeffress also told The Washington Post, referring to his assertions, “Some Christians, perhaps younger Christians, have to think this through. It’s antithetical to some of the mushy rhetoric you hear from some circles today. Frankly, it’s because they are not well taught in the scriptures.”
(The picture is the official North Korean government portrait of Kim Jong Un.)
Sources & Notes
The Washington Post article (source of all Jeffries quotes): https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/08/08/god-has-given-trump-authority-to-take-out-kim-jong-un-evangelical-adviser-says/?utm_term=.a759260be6db
Introduction to Romans 13 and Conclusion: See, e.g., Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic (1998), pages 680 (main thesis), 687 (“… text is misunderstood …”); Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. (1996), page 801 (justice), 802 (God executing his wrath); Frank J. Matera, Romans, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic (2010), pages 293, 301 (“Most acknowledge …”); David L. Bartlett, Romans, Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press (1995), pages 116-118; The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, Nashville: Abingdon Press (2003), page 2029.
For verse 4: To read the text that way also suggests a theology that frees government action from much of what Christ said about turning the other cheek, not seeking vengeance, how to treat enemies, etc. How does such a theology address individual decision-making in the voting booth?
“… this verse does not apply to the President Trump – North Korean Leader relationship … not subject ….”: Thank you to an anonymous person who read an early version of this article and pointed this out to me.
Many commentators say that Romans 13:1-7 was not in the original text of the letter, but was instead added later by someone besides Paul. They reason that (1) 13:1-7 is an abrupt departure from what Paul was discussing in chapter 12, (2) removal of 13:1-7 allows one to see a smooth flow from the end of chapter 12 to 13:8-10, (3) there is no reference to Christ or anything distinctly Christian in Romans 13:1-7, and (4) 13:1-7 is similar to 1 Peter 2:13-25, a letter whose authorship is highly contested. See, e.g., Brendan Byrne, Romans, Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press (1996), at 385-86. Many others disagree. See, e.g., Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic (1998), pages 677-78.