Should Christians be Libertarians? Reading Romans 13 and Norman Horn

St. Paul by Bartolomeo Montanga. Was he a statist?

St. Paul by Bartolomeo Montanga. Was he a statist?


Since converting to Anglicanism about 3 years ago I wondered if my faith would clash with my philosophical beliefs in the secular sense and that if I could ever be a libertarian and a Christian. Andrew Napolitano, one of our favourite libertarians across the pond is a devout Catholic and he often talks about how Secularists and Christians can meet philosophically at a point of ‘true north’. Firstly he takes the secular argument for liberty: I own my own body, I own the property which I acquire from the fruits of my labour or the creation of my brain. Then his religious perspective: I was created by an all loving, all powerful God, who has counted every hair on my head and since he is perfectly free, then I am perfectly free. I find that nearly all libertarians use the secular arguments, even those who believe in a diety. There are, I think three reasons for this. Firstly, libertarians would like to find some common ground with other libertarians in an argument process. Secondly it would give greater credibility to a libertarian if he/she were debating a secular statist and lastly, perhaps most libertarians cannot find a strong enough case in the christian belief of freedom. I would like to examine a controversial text which seems hostile to the coalition of christianity and liberty. I will be paraphrasing the work of Norman Horn.

Statists who may be well-read in the holy book like to fire the opening shot against christian libertarians with Romans 13. The text reads:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.  2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: if you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honour, then honour.

Though indeed it would appear that on the face of it, the state is positively viewed in this scripture and one could even interpret that the state was ordained by God himself as he ordained the church and the prophets. However this is fallacious to read the text in this way because one would fail to understand the historical context in which it is placed.  Verse 1 says that state authorities are instituted by God. Paul’s primary message for Christians, however, is not that states are specially instituted in the same way as the family and church, but rather that the state is not operating outside of the plans of God. In this sense, the state is divinely instituted in the same way that Satan is divinely instituted. Oddly enough most scripture suggests that the state is tied with satan himself as this is the vessel in which the anti-christ will ride to fool the earth.

Verses 2-4 say that if you disobey the state, then you shall have wrath and if you please the sate then you will be commended. In many cases, what the state believes good and evil may be very much opposed to what God defines as good and evil. But what Paul is telling the believers in Rome is that if they do something that the Roman government defines as evil then they will likely be punished for it. One cannot apply this argument in Romans to all cultures and at all times. Paul knew full well the power of Nero and the potential harm he could cause to Christians in Rome – he calls it “the sword” – and he does not want believers to be persecuted for anything other than believing in Christ and what he stands for.

Verses 5-7 This verse cannot be taken as it appears on the face of it. In fact Norman Horn describes it as “One cannot use this verse in an absolutist sense to say that Christians can never participate in removing any authority, such as in the American Revolution. Paul also encourages Christians to “overcome evil with good” as understood in Romans 12:21 (this includes evil authority), and to work to be free if at all possible (1 Corinthians 7:20-23)”. There is a clear implication that Paul is aware of his other writings and that evil may well exist in authority afterall authority is not outside the realm of God.

What if Paul had instead written instead of ‘authorities’ and ‘rulers’ with the names of the kings and emperors of his time, particlarly Nero and Herod? Norman Horn uses a brilliant illustration to echo this point and re-writes the text with these names instead:

1 Let every person be subject to Nero and Herod; for there is no authority except from God, and Nero and Herod have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists Nero and Herod resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For Nero and Herod are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of Nero and Herod? Then do what is good, and you will receive Nero and Herod’s approval; 4 for Nero and Herod are God’s servants for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the Nero and Herod do not bear the sword in vain! Nero and Herod are the servants of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be subject to Nero and Herod, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. 6 For the same reason you also pay taxes, for Nero and Herod are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. 7 Pay to Nero and Herod 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.

Had Paul written this, the church would never have accepted such works and to think of Nero and Herod as “God’s servants” is quite an abomination those early christians. How would christians read the text if placed in this manner?  How can we resolve the problem of knowing that Nero killed thousands of innocent people, namely Christians, when the passage clearly says that government rewards and commends those who do good? Cleary the case for using the ‘submit to authority because God has exalted it’ is not founded. The scripture is far more abstract for the statist to achieve some divine mandate for authority. Christians do indeed have a moral case for being sceptical of the state and there is certainly no fear in being a Christian and a libertarian. Earthly powers are not the be all end all and if, we as Christians want to build the kingdom here on earth, let us dismantle the old one and set the meek and humble free.

Keep up the good fight!




  • Shinobi DeeJay

    I Would also make the case as the governing body as the constitution and bill of rights. Since they are the rules for government, they are the law of the land, I would further assert that they are the law of the land because it outlines rights and responsibilities .of the people much in the same manner the rights the bible give each individual person. The right to OBEY God, or the right to IGNORE God.

  • Andrew Witcombe-Small

    This of course is one of the instances in which the Bible is not enough and needs to be interpreted by reference to tradition. If one is to speak of what the citizen must do in relation to the government, one must also speak of what the legitimate functions of government are. Classical liberals such as we are would say that these are the maintenance of the structure of society, the rule of law and the defence of the nation. Nero and Herod, of course, went well beyond that.
    Since becoming a Catholic two years ago, I wondered whether my classical liberal convictions would be compatible with the Church’s teachings. I thank God for people such as Tom Woods and the Acton Institute. I haven’t read any Napolitano yet, but your excellent article has prompted me to do so. More business for good old Amazon, I suspect …