Christianity, Anarchism, and Anti-Authoritarianism

I am going to take a stab at responding to perhaps the two most common objections to the idea of Christian anarchism: the well-known “render unto Caesar” passage and Romans 13:1-7.  In so doing, I hope to subsequently begin building a case for Christian anti-authoritarianism, which is necessary for any discussion of Christian anarchism.  By no means is the following discussion exhaustive of my thoughts or the Christian anarchist literature on the topic of anti-authoritarianism, but as I say, it is a beginning.

Jesus’ admonition in Mark 12:13-17* to “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” is often employed as a weapon against Christian anarchism.  Clearly, it is argued, Jesus is here instructing his followers to be good and obedient citizens.  However, a brief turn down historical context alley would suggest otherwise.  Indeed, I would argue that this passage turns out to be quite subversive.

Greg Boyd and Paul Rhodes Eddy point out in The Jesus Legend that “within Palestine coins were often printed without the customary representation of the emperor on them, done in deference to their [that is, Jewish folks’] sensitivity to anything that could violate the second commandment.”  [I]  One could speculate then (and it is mere speculation), that when Jesus responded to the Pharisees’ question regarding taxes by asking, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” the Pharisees would have immediately realized that they had been outwitted.  For, as soon as they admitted that it was the emperor’s image, they were essentially saying that they carried a graven image, in direct violation of the second commandment.

Furthermore, I remember coming across a quote by Dorothy Day (though I regret to admit that I no longer remember the source) that was something to the effect of, once we have given to God what is God’s, as Jesus tells us to do, what more is there to give to the emperor other than these coins with his head stamped on them?  As Jacques Ellul points out, it is here that “the basis and limit of his [the emperor’s] power” is revealed, for, “whatever does not bear Caesar’s mark does not belong to him.”  Most importantly, “Caesar has no right of life and death”, [II] for humans are made in God’s image, not Caesar’s.  Therefore, he can have no legitimate dominion over human life!  (Which has profound and radical implications for discussions of war and capital punishment.)

Seen in this light, then, the statement appears very dismissive of the political system which, compared with (un)Kingdom of God (to use Mark Van Steenwyk’s phrase) [III], places importance on trivial and even sinful things.  The emperor has no real authority.  Give him his coins back and be on your way, focusing instead on the things that matter (i.e., realizing God’s (un)Kingdom on earth).

Paying taxes, therefore, is by no means a moral admonition.

This leads rather naturally into a discussion of Romans 13, which is typically considered the absolute trump card that proves once and for all that a Christian cannot be an anarchist.  (I have already discussed a couple of important aspects of this passage in my entry on nonviolence below, which will not be repeated here).  However, to my mind there are several important considerations which count against this typical reading, which divorces this particular passage from the surrounding verses and, indeed, from the whole of the Bible (most importantly, the teachings of Jesus).  As John Howard Yoder rightfully points out, this passage does not represent the only, or even the central, biblical teaching regarding governments. [IV]

First of all, the passage can by no means be rightly understand apart from the preceding verses in chapter 12 (remember: Paul did not divide his letters into chapters–it was a single literary unit).  Chapter 12 begins with Paul admonishing his readers to “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds”.  As Jacques Ellul points out, “This is obviously a strange beginning if he is later to demand obedience to political authorities!” [V] And not only this, but Paul goes on to exhort his readers to “love one another”, “bless those who persecute you”, “live in harmony with one another”, “do not repay anyone evil for evil”, “live peaceably with all”, “never avenge yourselves”, and finally, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  Then, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.”  How strange that a Christian should read chapter 12, which is a direct echo of Jesus’ teachings in The Sermon On the Mount (Matt. 5-7), but then to read chapter 13 and determine that we must as Christians morally support the state in all of its violence as instituted by God!  To my mind, either Paul is directly contradicting the teachings of Jesus, in which case, as Christ followers, we must privilege the teachings of Jesus over those of Paul; or, this is not quite what Paul is saying.

First, as N.T. Wright notes, “Romans 13 is dovetailed into an argument against the taking of private vengeance (12:14-21)”, [VI] which is entirely consistent with Jesus’ own teachings regarding retaliation (see my post on nonviolence below).  As I have elsewhere pointed out, it seems unlikely that Paul would have couched his brief discussion of submission to political authorities within a broader discussion of non-retaliation had Christians not been fully aware of how diametrically opposed to Jesus’ teachings of love and justice the workings of the state were, which would undoubtedly drive some to want to violently retaliate.  And what follows seems to be a bit of practical advice–i.e., “the authority does not bear the sword in vain” and will punish those who rebel.

A second important point is that Paul’s statement that “there is no authority except from God” sounds quite subversive when we consider that Paul writes in Colossians 2:15 that “He [Christ] disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.”  Furthermore, in light of the fact that one of Satan’s temptations of Jesus was to give Him control over the “all the kingdoms of the world” very explicitly tells us that it is Satan who has dominion over the human kingdoms, not God.  After all, Jesus himself said, “My kingdom is not of this world.  If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.  But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” (John 18:36)  In other words, these passages seem to count against the typical doublethink interpretation of Romans 13 as saying that God directly institutes governments for our good.

Rather, as Yoder goes on to point out,

God is not said to create or institute or ordain the powers that be, but only to order them . . . Nor is it by ordering this realm God specifically, morally approves of what a government does.  The sergeant does not produce the soldiers he drills; the librarian does not create or approve of the book she or he catalogs and shelves.  Likewise, God does not take responsibility for the existence of of the rebellious “powers that be” . . .[VII]

In other words, Paul is not here saying how the government (or lack thereof!) should be, but merely how it is.  At no point does he suggest that society must always be structured in this particular way.  Rather, he is speaking to specific people at a specific point in history who were dealing with specific issues in relation to their government (and there is much more that could be said about these contingencies and perhaps one day I will get around to it).  Clearly, neither Paul nor Jesus nor any of the disciples gave any allegiance to the state.  Rather, as was discussed above, the state is seen as a mild inconvenience at best in pursuing the will of God (see Acts 5:29, for example, or simply pick a Gospel and start reading).  For this reason, when Paul writes that “rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad”, I am inclined to understand this as essentially saying that those who are following Christ (i.e., “doing good”) have no need to fear human rulers, for in reality, human rulers are no rulers at all (see Matt. 23:8-12).  On the other hand, those who are “doing bad”, as it were, (presumably, those who have seen and understood Christ’s work, but choose instead to oppose Him), will be left to the “mercies” of the state–a frightening place to be!


[I] Paul Rhodes Eddy & Gregory A. Boyd, The Jesus Legend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 109.

[II] Jacques Ellul, Anarchy and Christianity (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2011), 60-61.

[III] Mark Van Steenwyk, That Holy Anarchist, (Minneapolis: Missio Dei, 2012), 14.

[IV] John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Erdman, 1994), 194.

[V] Jacques Ellul, Anarchy and Christianity, 80.

[VI] N.T. Wright, Romans, vol. 10 of New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 723.

[VII] John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, 198.

*All scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible


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