“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. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”
For Christians such as myself, these verses make for uncomfortable reading. Is Paul recommending servile submission to the state?
How can we square this with our anger at governments around the world that start pointless wars, that oppress the poor, and that imprison the innocent? The message here seems the opposite of radical: don’t rebel, submit.
Yet we must remember that Paul wrote four of his letters—Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon—from prison.
Paul was not afraid to stand up for what he believed in—the preaching of Christ crucified—even though he knew it would bring punishment from the “governing authorities”. Perhaps, then, what Paul is telling us in Romans 13 is that we are not to rebel against the government for the sake of rebelling, out of anarchic criminality. Instead, we are called to humbly serve God and love our neighbour, whatever the consequences.
This love will threaten the establishment. The Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe argues that Jesus was crucified because his liberated, spontaneous love—a love that “drives out fear” (1 John 4:18)—represented a threat to a Roman regime based on its subjects’ anxious fear of punishment: “Jesus did not ration his love, so naturally he didn’t last”.
In 1963, another Christian, like the apostle Paul, wrote a letter from jail, in which he dealt with the relationship between the Church and the criminal justice system. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (which can be found here) defends his tactic of civil disobedience in the fight for civil rights. In it, he quotes from St Augustine: “An unjust law is no law at all.” For King, laws that oppressed African Americans, or prevented their liberation, should be broken because they directly clash with God’s law of love. Such laws have no authority; as St Paul puts it, “there is no authority except that which God has established.”
In Britain, we are very fortunate to live in a democracy. As such, we have some power to oppose unjust laws—laws that go against God’s law of love—through legal, democratic means. Sometimes those laws aren’t black and white but, just as Paul did, when we observe something we feel contradicts Jesus’ teachings or undermines scripture we are obligated to speak out.
One campaign that aims to repeal such a law is the fight—started by the Oxford student homelessness advocacy group ‘On Your Doorstep’ and taken up by the Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran—to repeal the Vagrancy Act 1824. The Vagrancy Act is an archaic law that criminalises rough sleeping and begging. Figures released by the Liberal Democrats show 7,688 people have been prosecuted for rough sleeping in the past four years under the Vagrancy Act, and these figures are just the tip of the iceberg. On a daily basis, the Act is being used across the country to allow police to arbitrarily target rough sleepers; in Oxford, we are seeing some homeless people on their feet all evening because they are afraid that if they sit down they will be bothered by police.
The Vagrancy Act not only contributes to fear and anxiety among homeless people, it also allows society to treat rough sleeping as an issue of criminality, rather than treating homeless people with compassion. Such a law is unjust, and as Christians I believe we have a duty—a duty grounded in love—to fight it.
You can find out more about the Vagrancy Act here and sign a petition to repeal it here. We are also asking people to write to their MPs, calling on them to sign this Early Day Motion to repeal the Act.
 McCabe, H., & Davies, B. (2002). God still matters. London: Continuum.
 Martin Luther King Jr. (1963) Letter from a Birmingham Jail