Ask Sanityville: Who is Caesar?

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. (Romans 13:1)

How does a Christian apply this command in the modern day USA? The answer comes down to the specific interpretation of Romans 13 with regard to the US Constitution.

(This post is inspired by this thread.)

Who or what constitutes the “governing authorities” or “higher powers”? Some argue it means church elders. Some argue that it refers to good angelic beings. Most plausibly, it refers to civil government, in which sense the majority of readers have always taken it.

Second, how do we apply that to the US? Do “governing authorities” and “higher powers” refer:

  1. To the persons constituting the government, enforcing the laws, or
  2. To the laws themselves, principally the Constitution, which those persons have sworn to uphold?

The first option reduces to ignoring laws and simply obeying whichever government official is immediately on hand telling you what to do. This accords with the sentiment “It’s only illegal if you get caught”, and is corrosive of good order. But, it is the situation into which the Epistle was written. The governing authority was the man in charge of the legions and his delegates.

The second option would construe the American government as one of Law rather than one of Man. The system itself is above any single agent of the government. This is the story told about the US, but it comes with its own problems. Is the law knowable? Plenty of government actions are contrary to the plain meaning of the Constitution. Does this mean either the law is only knowable to a certain class of persons? To affirm this reduces to the first option above, where the rulers are the casuists. If the law is the higher power and the law is knowable and the government is itself in rebellion against that law, then what is the duty of a Christian who must be in subjection to the higher power?


Do I have to choose one or the other? It appears to me that both are obviously higher at various places, depending on which is superior. Ultimately we look to the Bible as higher than both the Constitution or the King. But above the Bible is God. So ultimately law is person(al), flowing from God’s character.

When you drop to the level of the US government, I think that it matters that it is claiming to be a written-law-based government based on a moral God-created understanding of justice. There have been other times, notably the context of Romans 13, where the claim is essentially one of divinity embodied in the person of the emperor. The fact that we are drifting back towards that is largely responsible for the contradictions you mention in our current system.

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Still thinking about this, but I have a couple thoughts to throw out there to stoke the kindling.

In the context of Paul, the Roman emperor was clearly the undisputed supreme governing authority. The emperor was regarded essentially as a semi-divine or divine entity. At least that’s how the pseudo-educated folks like me have probably always traditionally thought of Roman emperors. But we would probably do well to gain a better historical understanding of where the emperor came to derive his power to begin with.

I’m thinking of when Paul was on trial under Festus with false charges being brought against him. Since his accusers brought no provable claims against him, and the local governor was failing to deliver justice, Paul appeals to take his case before the highest court (Acts 25:11). The governor – recognizing that Paul, by virtue of his Roman citizenship – was afforded the right to appeal to the emperor – granted his request (Acts 25:12).

Initial questions:

  1. Who bestowed the power of tribunicia potesta upon the office of the emperor to begin with? In other words, when did the emperor essentially come to possess the power to unilaterally decide cases of justice, and trump all regional governors?
  2. Who instituted this idea that the citizens had the “right” to appeal to a higher court?

After an in depth scholarly study (and by that, of course, I mean a cursory skim of a couple wikipedia articles), it would appear to me that the Caesar did not have any power of tribunicia potesta until Augustus in 28 BC. And from what I can tell, it isn’t like he just woke up one morning and decided to go all Palpatine and disband the Senate. Instead, he compelled the Senate to grant him this power.

And if that’s true, we’d have to therefore recognize that even the absolute authority of the emperor was not possessed in and of himself. Rather, it was the people – via their Senators – who granted him this power. And if that’s true, what makes Caesar all that much different – when you really boil it down – from an elected president, whose powers were defined by a ruling body who came before him?

I don’t even really have a point here. Just thinking out loud.

At some point, no matter how you trace it back to the “source of power”, it seems that we end up having to accept that God, in his sovereignty, appoints men to the positions of civil authority. And if we peel it back far enough from a human perspective, we’re always going to be disappointed to realize that all human government arises from corrupt sinners either coming to power through use of the sword, or issuing that power to others.

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The answers to these questions are fairly complex, but worth studying. The history of the Roman Republic and how it turned into the Roman Empire is fascinating stuff. Setting aside the fact that Augustus both took the name “Divine” (which is what “Augustus” essentially means) and for most of his reign asked the Senate annually to reconfirm his position as emperor—which shows how complex just that one question really is—the development goes back much earlier to the populist movement of the Gracchi brothers. When the law was being disregarded by the rich and powerful to the harm of the working class, some men arose from the upper class who made a move to try to put an end to it. The resulting power struggle was the beginning of the end of the Republic. When everybody was super sick of civil war, and one man had basically conquered everybody else, they were quite relieved to declare him emperor. This in spite of the fact that the one thing the Romans couldn’t stand was a king. In fact, it was the (almost surely false) accusation that Tiberius Gracchi was trying to make himself king that led to his assassination in the middle of the equivalent of the House of Representatives.

If this all sounds a bit familiar, I agree that it seems to be precisely what is going on right now. And now you know why I didn’t vote for Trump. It seemed a sure fire way to jump quickly to civil war to elect a rich populist given the state of our country right now.

Edited to add: This ongoing emperor thing was against the written law though it made provision for a temporary emergency dictator. But the law was already being broken like crazy by the rich, as I mentioned above, at the expense of the poor.

Edited to add one more thing: The primary law that the Gracchi brothers tried to begin enforcing again was one that limited farm sizes. Super-large farms led to almost no power among the poor, because you needed land to get basic citizens rights. Looking at the number of farmers going out of business today leads to a surface-level similarity that is startling, but the more apropos comparison is probably to super-large businesses and their lobbying power that overwhelms the voice of the common man to his harm.


Serious question: if you consider civil war to be a serious risk in 21st century America, why would Hillary Clinton have posed less of a risk of civil war than Donald Trump?

Good Roman history, BTW. I only know the broadest outlines of Rome’s transition from a Republic to an Empire, but I do know that the Empire kept the trappings of the Republic for a very long time. It’s interesting that the Apostle Paul didn’t make any kind of deal about that at all, but just encouraged submission to the government as it currently existed.

Thanks Joseph.

So, that’s all quite depressing, and seems to just reinforce the notion that governing authorities tend to become what they are not through some sort of righteous dispensation of “justice,” but rather through sinful corruption and the use of force.

Been pondering the question of where exactly do we see the concept of the “state” arise in the biblical narrative. We commonly talk about the three spheres of authority: the family, the church, and the state. But where exactly did the precedent for the state come from?

As I think through Genesis, and trace the concept of authority downstream of Adam, it would seem to me that the first time we start to see authority outside the context of the family at least perhaps implied may be within the context of the city that Cain built (Genesis 4:17). But it would seem to me that the very founding of this city was an act of rebellion, as God had told Cain that he would be a wanderer on the earth, not a settler (Genesis 4:12). So this doesn’t seem to be the model for a legitimate government.

Beyond that, it looks like we are first introduced to the concept of “nations” in Genesis 10, where we are told that the clans of the sons of Noah begin to spread across the earth (Genesis 10:5). But before that spreading really took off, the people were gathered together to – once again – build a city (Genesis 11:4). Rather than fulfill the creation mandate of filling the earth and subduing it, the people banded together with the express purpose of not dispersing throughout the earth. God, of course, intervened.

So then we had clans, with different languages, dispersing to different places on the earth. And now we’re to the point where peoples are really functionally divided now. And when this division happens, we start to see these people groups come to possess specific lands. Genesis 10 is the first chapter (I think) where we see the word land or earth (H776) referred to in a possessive sense. Clans now come to possess their own territories. And they begin now building cities in those territories (Genesis 10:11). So when we meet Abram in Genesis 12:1, and he is commanded to leave his country, we understand what is meant. His country is the land that his clan possessed.

So when the peoples of earth began to scatter, the family is still more or less the governing authority. The concept of the king or the state has not yet been introduced. It is the patriarch of the clan who continues to be understood as the leader of the people. Fascinating.

Then, when we come to Genesis 12:15, we see what seems to be possibly our first concrete example of a monarch – the Pharaoh of Egypt (Egypt being the land named after Egypt, the son of Ham - Genesis 10:6). The term, “Pharaoh,” means “great house,” and has always been understood to be the king of Egypt. It seems probable to me that this Pharaoh was likely the patriarch of the house of Egypt, but I am unlearned. Nonetheless, this Pharaoh appears to have both the wealth (Genesis 12:16) and authority (Genesis 12:20) consistent with kingship.

And by the time we get to Genesis 14, we are finally introduced to the concept of the king. We see kings of regions and kings of cities. Maybe these are heads of clans. Maybe they are not. We know nothing about the ethics involved in their original appointment. And no sooner are we introduced to these kings than do we immediately see them go to war with one another.

I mean, think about that. The first time we see monarchs established in the history of the world, they immediately go after each other to overthrow one another. And from then on, the rest – as they say – is all history. Human history is one bloody drama full of power struggle, assassination, and warfare. Kingdoms are conquered. New countries are formed.

How in the world could we ever try and get to the bottom of defining what is a “legitimate” government? How could we ever hope to define, historically, who has the right to wield governing authority? All we have is a legacy of sinful bloodshed.

Yet God, in his unsearchable counsels, sovereignly ordains it all.

And regardless of who has the sword at any given time, in whatever given circumstance – from Pilate, to Nero, to Donald Trump – all authority is given out by God. He alone establishes kings and principalities. The Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will (Daniel 4:17). History bears witness to only one legitimate king, and that is the Christ.

So who is Caesar? Simply put, Caesar is whoever God has sovereignly handed the sword to at this given point in history. Regardless of what the documents of any given nation may state, the reality is that persons bear the sword, and persons will either do justice or withhold justice. History has a number of examples (e.g. Magna Carta) where men ratified documents, only to have them set aside by as soon as it became advantageous to the person in power, because it is persons who wield power, not documents.

In the final analysis, the Constitution of the United States and the Declaration of Independence only have “rightful” authority only insomuch that the persons who wrote them had any rightful authority to assert the content contained therein to begin with. But did they? Let us not overlook that our nation was founded by our forefathers rebelling against the Caesar of their day.

Edit to add: I’m not saying we should all become British loyalists or anything like that. I’m just saying we shouldn’t be so short-sighted as to exalt our founding documents as being some sort of divine authority. We need to be thinking as Christians in whatever cultural context God has placed us, and in whatever era. And that means recognizing that this nation is but a drop in the bucket to the Almighty (Isaiah 40:15). He established it, and will one day just as easily disestablish it.