ATS Speaks: Chancellor’s Blog
In the digital age that we belong, too many pastoral theological voices come across as unbiblical and uncritical in responding to the socio-cultural issues of our day. As we are called to be salt and light Christians in church and society, Christian theology more than ever needs to inform the churches on how to respond and act accordingly based on the Scriptures and the Evangelical faith[1].
In the past, ATS used to hold public lectures entitled Evangelicals Speak. The chancellor’s blog takes its inspiration from this Evangelical addresses for pastoral theological guidance and reflection, and thus the name, ATS Speaks: Chancellor’s Blog.  I will share my own reflections, but also theological inputs from the Asian Theological Seminary community on key theological issues and topics that concern the Philippine (and Asian) Church and societies. These are not definitive or absolute, but shared for purposes of prayerful study and reflection by the community. May the Lord equip us all through prayer, wisdom and discernment in responding to the theological issues, questions and concerns of our time.

One hot topic today is the use of Romans 13 in dealing with the relationship between church and politics. How should Evangelicals respond to the political issues of our time based on Romans 13? ATS President Emeritus Dr. Isabelo Magalit has written an invaluable study on Romans 13 that dealt with the topic. It was published in 2005 [2] but I find it useful as a major contribution to our reflections on church and politics.  We feature this study as the maiden content inaugurating ATS Speaks.


RIGHTFUL RULE- Romans 13 for the Philippines Today

Romans 13 for the Philippines Today

Dr. Isabelo F. Magalit

On August 21, 1983, Sunday afternoon, as he stepped from the plane at the Manila International Airport, Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino was shot dead. His assassination triggered a chain of events that culminated in “The EDSA Revolution of February 1986.”

On September 5, 1983, Diliman Bible Church in Quezon City issued “A Call to Repentance,” a 400 word letter addressed to the evangelical community and the Filipino nation. The letter reviewed a litany of Philippine realities: widespread poverty, rampant graft and corruption in government, a suppressed press, unfair elections, a subservient parliament, and a Supreme Court losing its credibility. The letter insisted that, “In a participatory democracy, the right to rule is vested on those who have been freely chosen by the people.” The letter was sent to 200 local churches and Christian organizations. We received a positive response from five local churches, expressing agreement with our statement. We later learned that many more wanted to write back but their leadership was divided between those who wanted to endorse, and those who hesitated.

A Baptist congregation responded that they did not agree with our document. They wrote, “Read Romans 13!” At about the same time, a Roman Catholic layman, writing to a newspaper, chided Jaime Cardinal Sin for being critical of the Marcos government. “Read Romans 13!” he said, rebuking a prince of his church.

Some years ago, Oscar Cullman, referring particularly to verse two of Romans 13, wrote: “Few sayings in the New Testament have suffered as much misuse as this one!”[3]  He particularly cited its misuse in justifying uncritical submission to the dictates of totalitarian governments. So what does Romans 13 actually say? What did it mean for the saints in Rome? What does it mean for Filipino Christians today? Before answering these questions, a brief summary of Diliman Bible Church’s actions are in order.


Diliman Bible Church and the EDSA Revolution

When, after Ninoy Aquino’s assassination in 1983, the Diliman Bible Church (DBC) published their “Call to Repentance,” it was a small congregation of about 300 people. The writer of this paper was its pastor. DBC provided a spiritual home for the inter-varsity students at the nearby University of the Philippines campus. During the Martial Law years I was part of an inter-varsity study group that produced papers responding to the situation, though we never published our studies.

In preparation for the snap elections of February 7, 1986, DBC was heavily involved in the National Citizens Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL). Two deacons and I regularly attended training sessions for NAMFREL volunteers. The only Protestants to attend, we nevertheless felt welcomed by the various Roman Catholic participants. DBC coordinated NAMFREL volunteers in the 61 precincts near the church, representing some 25,000 voters. We personally witnessed many incidents of electoral fraud, and so, after the election, published another letter, called “A Christian Response to the February 7 Election,” in which we judged the election to be fraudulent.

The decision to join the EDSA barricades was taken at noon, right after the Sunday morning worship service on February 23. About 100 of the 200 worshippers at the English service stayed for the meeting. We needed to act quickly because on Saturday evening Defense Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile and Deputy Chief of Staff Lieut. General Fidel Ramos announced that they were quitting the Marcos government, saying that Marcos did not win the February 7 election. Since their announcement, the two men had since been holed up in Camp Aguinaldo—HQ for both the defense ministry and the armed forces—but had only a few hundred soldiers to defend them. A call went out through Radio Veritas—the Roman Catholic station—for an army of civilians to ring the camp and serve as buffer between the Enrile/Ramos soldiers and the Marcos forces that were sure to come. We had to act quickly.

At the meeting, the church council agreed that the civilian buffer would be the most effective means for preventing a shooting war from breaking out. The council appropriated money for food for the barricaders, and people quickly signed up for shifts. We reported to the outpost set up by KONFES—Konsiyensia ng Febrero Siete (the Conscience of February 7)—a new group formed from the NAMFREL volunteers we coordinated, and people associated with the Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture (ISACC). I was appointed Commander-in-Chief, meaning that I was to decide whether we should stay in case of an attack (“KONFES stay!” ) or make a break for it (“KONFES go!”). I accepted reluctantly, remembering my wife’s words when I left home: “You are responsible for the lives of the church people you bring along . . .” We stayed for three days and three nights at the barricades.

Many evangelicals were in a quandary when they heard the appeal of Jaime Cardinal Sin. Could they respond to a cardinal’s plea? Would not participation in the barricades be equivalent to armed rebellion against the Marcos government? Would that not be disobeying Romans 13? Wouldn’t it be better to pray in our homes and churches? Many evangelicals stayed away from the barricades.

However, Diliman Bible Church did not hesitate to join. We had no intention of toppling the Marcos government by force of arms. Our reason for joining was straightforward: by providing a civilian buffer between the Enrile/Ramos forces and the Marcos soldiers, a shooting war could be prevented. We knew our lives were at risk if the Marcos forces decided to attack. We believed in the safety of numbers but our faith was really in God. We were clearly unarmed, and brought only Bibles and hymnbooks! As it turned out, the civilian barricade was so large (at least a million people by Sunday afternoon February 23) that Marcos finally had to flee. A non-violent “revolution” toppled his 20-year regime! But were DBC’s actions in line with Romans 13?

Romans 13 for the Philippines Today

Romans 13:1-7 contains four vital principles for understanding the Christian’s relationship to the state. First, the concepts of power and authority, though related, are not synonymous. Second, Christians submit to authority because it is God-given. Third, the authority of rulers is limited. And fourth, rulers are given authority for a purpose.

  1. Power and authority are related but not synonymous

The Bible distinguishes between power and authority. Dunamis, translated “power,” is the Greek root for the English “dynamite.” Exousia, translated “authority,” is from the verb exesti, meaning lawful. “Power” is might, the force of an army, or the strength of an Arnold Schwarzenegger. “Authority” is power rightfully held and lawfully exercised, as that of a parent over a child, or a just judge over a criminal. Authority is might that is right.[4] Exousia is also used to describe the authority of the dragon and the beast in Revelation 13, but this shows Satan as a usurper whose power is still under God’s control.

  1. We submit to authority because it is God-given

We submit to rulers because we recognize that their authority comes from God.  We submit to God by submitting to rulers. We cannot rebel against rulers for that is to rebel against God. Furthermore, a subtle distinction can be made between submission and obedience. To obey is to do what one is told while submission is to rank oneself under another. Attitude is important. We willingly submit to rulers in recognition of their God-given authority over us. It is for the Lord’s sake that we submit (1 Peter 2:13).

  1. The authority of rulers is limited

Rulers do not have absolute authority. When Jesus was asked the tricky question about paying taxes to the imperialistic Roman government, he replied, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Mark 12:17). “Give back,” or “render” is what is meant; it is Caesar’s due for providing order and justice. Jesus’ words likely mean that while Caesar is entitled to taxes (and Romans 13: 1-7 concludes with the necessity of paying taxes!), only God deserves absolute loyalty!

The implication here is that when Caesar claims allegiance that rightfully belongs only to God, the Christian has no choice but to say “no.” When rulers give orders contrary to God’s law, Christians must say, with the apostles who were prohibited from doing evangelism, “We must obey God rather than men!” (Acts 5:29). The refusal to obey laws contrary to God’s command is also illustrated by the Hebrew midwives, who refused to commit infanticide (Exodus 1), and by Daniel and his friends who refused to worship idols (Daniel 3).

  1. Rulers are given authority for a purpose

Rulers exist to promote good and restrain evil. In fulfilling this divine design, rulers function as God’s servants. They are called deacons (diakonos) twice in verse 4, and leitourgos in verse 6. Leitourgos was used of those in cultic religious service but in this context means “public servant.” The tax collector is a public servant in God’s employ! Although Caesar was not be aware of being God’s servant, this biblical model for rulers is already taught in the Old Testament, where Assyria is called God’s servant in Isaiah 10: 5-11, and Cyrus is in Isaiah 45:1.

The divine design is very important to understand. According to Romans 13, God delegates his authority to human rulers (verses 1 and 2) for the purpose of promoting good and restraining evil (verses 3 and 4). The two parts of this single paragraph must not be separated. The delegation of divine authority must not be understood apart from the divine purpose for which it is given.

Can rulers lose their right to rule?

If this understanding of Romans 13 is correct, rulers who abuse their authority are subject to God’s judgment and may also lose their moral right to rule. Rulers who reverse the divine design by promoting evil and restraining good frustrate God’s purpose for human government and so lose their right to rule.

This is a difficult judgment to make, and some Christians simply refuse to make it. They argue that all governments are God’s provision, and, as Judges 21:25 implies, anarchy is not God’s will for human society. A de facto government is also the de jure government as a matter of course. They admit that government exists to promote both order and justice (equivalent to restraining evil and promoting good in Romans 13) but believe that order is prerequisite and therefore prior to justice. Therefore, they argue, anarchy is the great evil, while unjust government is better than no government.

There is some merit in this argument against anarchy. However, to conclude that every government must be God’s provision seems illogical. This argument interprets 13:1-2 apart from verses 3-4. It overlooks the purpose for which God delegates his authority to human rulers, namely the promotion of good and restraint of evil. To simply accept a ruler who oppresses, or deceives, or is unjust, because that ruler is God’s provision, is illogical. God might tolerate such a ruler, for a while. But God does not install rulers to do evil! That would make God a partner in wickedness. Since God delegates his authority to rulers so that they may promote good and restrain evil, one cannot also say God also installs certain rulers to do exactly the opposite.

Five grades of government

It may help to clarify what our attitude should be towards our human rulers if we grade them on a scale from one to five.

1.00 is perfect government of the type that will characterize Jesus’ reign when he establishes his kingdom in its fullness.
2.00 is just government. Such government is characterized by full participatory democracy so that the best people are elected to public office. The welfare of all people is promoted, and wicked people are effectively restrained.
3.00 is competent government. However selected, the rulers are not the best of those available. Still, public welfare is effectively promoted and evildoers are restrained. Even mediocre government may be competent, perhaps meriting a grade of 3.5.
4.00 is corrupt government. Rulers assume public office primarily for private gain.
5.00 is wicked government. Rulers have reversed the divine design; they promote wickedness and restrain good. Unjust and oppressive means are used to retain power.

Historically, Filipino Christians have been hesitant to grade Ferdinand Marcos. He was a clever propagandist who knew how to use the media. During the early years of Martial Rule, he cleared the streets of garbage and collected 500,000 illegal guns. He was friendly to evangelicals and imposed no restrictions on purely evangelistic activities. He rolled out the red carpet for Billy Graham in 1977, and Jerry Falwell in 1985. Christians who now give Marcos a grade of 5.00 came to their conclusion only slowly and in light of mounting evidence.[5]

What about Roman rule?

Some Christians note that Nero’s reign was wicked but Paul does not tell the Roman Christians to reject Nero. In their estimation, this suggests that Christians today ought not seek the overthrow of unjust regimes either. We may respond to this assertion in one of three ways. First, was admitting that Roman rule was wicked but it still existed to promote good and restrain evil. This is unlikely for it would make Paul a liar or an ostrich! Second, Paul’s own experience of Roman justice was actually good. He was certainly proud of his Roman citizenship and made use of it (Acts 16:37; 22:25ff.). His appeal to the Roman emperor for his trial (Acts 25:11) illustrated his implicit confidence that he would receive better justice from Rome than in Palestine. Furthermore, when he wrote the letter to the Romans—many scholars say in AD 57—Nero had been emperor for only a few years. The Neronian persecution and the full realization of the depth of Nero’s injustice was yet to come. Third, Paul was probably not making any judgment on the quality of Roman rule at all in Romans 13. He was only explaining God’s design for human government in general.

Replacing wicked rulers

Suppose our rulers are wicked. How should they be they replaced? May Christians oppose such rulers? May they join others in a “just revolution”? Was Dietrich Bonhoeffer right in joining the plot to kill Hitler? Romans 13 does not deal with these situations. The biblical perspective as a whole is clear, however. Believers are to entrust themselves to God. God enthrones kings and deposes them (Daniel 2:21, Jeremiah 27:1ff.). Even wicked peoples and rulers are under God’s sovereign rule and may be used by him in judgment of others, including his own people (Isaiah 10 and 45). Jesus certainly rejected the Zealot option of revolutionary violence (John 18: 36, Matt. 26:52ff.).

Reformed doctrine has upheld this view. Passive disobedience to unjust law is one thing; it is even mandatory when the ruler’s command is contrary to God’s law (Exodus 1, Daniel 3, Acts 5). Armed resistance against an unjust ruler is something else. Vernon Grounds quotes John Calvin as writing: “Better that all the children of God in France should perish than that the gospel be dishonored by the blood of resistance.”[6] Luther is described as one who “always sided with those who condemn rebellion against those who cause it.”[7]

Roman Christians and Filipino believers

The evangelicals at the barricades had grappled with Romans 13 for many years. They agreed with the Lausanne Covenant in understanding their Christian duty as including both evangelism and socio-political involvement. Though slow in appreciating what was happening to their nation, the murder of Ninoy Aquino in 1983 roused them from their stupor. They came to the conclusion, like C.E.B. Cranfield[8] that their political duty as Christians was more than prayer and obedience. They thought Romans 13 needed to be interpreted faithfully in its original context and that it should be interpreted for the present situation.

The new element in our time is participatory democracy. Lincoln’s dictum of government by the people, of the people, and for the people is everywhere embraced. Even the East Germans used to call their state a “Democratic Republic”—in spite of the Berlin Wall! Democracy is also perfectly consistent with the biblical doctrine of man.[9] If we are equal in dignity and worth before the Creator, then no one has a right to enslave a fellow human or to impose rule on another. Dictatorship, slavery, and apartheid are all wrong for essentially the same reason: they all trample upon humans made in the image of God.

Does the Bible require democracy? No. Christians can live under any form of human government. However, democracy seems best suited to the biblical understanding of humanity. In the words of Reinhold Niebuhr, “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”[10] Participatory democracy is a historical development that should be welcomed with gratitude. Our political duty would be simpler if we were first-century Christians, but today we have the privilege of participating in the choice of our rulers. Political choices we make are now part of what it means for us to be salt of the earth and light of the world (Matthew 5: 13-16). The modern conviction is that sovereignty resides in the people and authority comes from them. It would be more biblical to say that authority comes from God, and he delegates some to rulers who are chosen by the people.

Two tests of legitimacy

This all suggests that there are two tests of legitimacy. The first is conformity to divine design. If rulers promote good and restrain evil they have God-given authority to rule. Such rulers do not have to do their job perfectly to be legitimate. However, when a regime becomes so bad that it reverses the divine design, it loses moral authority to rule. The second test of legitimacy is whether or not a government has been freely chosen by the people. The corollary is that rulers may be peacefully replaced when the people decide that they are incompetent or insincere in promoting the public welfare.

This is why the ballot is precious, a sacred trust. Elections must be free and fair. Those who subvert elections, frustrate them, and install themselves in power by force or fraud are usurpers and have no right to rule. We must be clear that we are deciding something very important when we vote. Who should we honor as rulers? To whom should we submit? Who gets our taxes? Who has the right to wield the sword in punishment of evildoers? We are deciding who are our rightful rulers.

Who has the right to rule? The Roman Christians had half an answer. Today, however, we have two clear criteria to go by. On the basis of these criteria, the evangelicals who joined the barricades believed Marcos had no right to rule. He cheated in the February 7 election. If there was doubt about the outcome in the canvassing of the ballots at the Batasang Pambansa (Parliament)—followed as it was by the hasty proclamation of Marcos as winner—the massive throngs that overflowed at EDSA settled the issue. Marcos lost the election and no longer had a mandate to rule. The people spoke.

Future Edsas?

Can millions of people gathering in EDSA overturn the official count of COMELEC, and the judgment of the CBCP and NAMFREL? Possibly, but it has not happened, and it seems unlikely to. The original February 1986 EDSA Revolution seems like a sui generis. It was a miracle! To attempt to manipulate people into repeating the phenomenon seems sacrilegious.


The Christian’s duty is not only to be subject to his or her human rulers—obeying the laws of the land, including paying the right taxes faithfully—but also to do everything possible to help rulers fulfill their God-given duty to promote good and restrain evil. In a democracy, we are not subjects but citizens; participants, not spectators. How much may we expect from human rulers? A minimum of social order and law, to “patch and darn as best we can,” as Luther said? Or, should we try to establish the lordship of Christ over all of society, as Calvin seems to have attempted in Geneva? Charles Villavicencio implies something in between when he suggests that we should read Luther and Calvin together.[11]

In a pluralistic society, with Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, secularists, animists, and others living together, the Christian role was described by the Lord Jesus. “You are the salt of the earth . . . You are the light of the world . . .” (Matthew 5: 13-16). Even if true Christians are in a minority, they should be a major influence for good in their society. In the words of Elton Trueblood, if they live up to their calling, they can become “the overwhelming minority!”