Reading Romans 13 under Fascism

In August 1934, the Bruderhof informed the German government that it would refuse to participate in a mandatory national plebiscite to affirm Hitler’s regime. In the community’s worship meeting the Sunday before the vote, its pastor Eberhard Arnold gave the following address on the relation of church and state.

In no absolute monarchy has there been such centralization as there is in today’s fascist and Bolshevist states. It calls to mind imperial Rome.

But no Roman emperor claimed such idolatry, such a deification of his own person, as do present-day dictators. For Nero and other emperors, little incense altars were erected here and there, where little balls of incense had to be offered to testify to the religious significance of the unified imperial power, to the genius of the emperor: not to the emperor in person, but to the genius of the emperor. But never did Nero or any other Roman emperor bring matters to such a point that at every street corner people called out “Hail, Nero!” The dictator of today is so utterly without all religious or supernatural impulses that he does not even believe in the genius of the dictator, only in the little person of the dictator.

Thus idolatry is today coarsened in the most vulgar way. It is the loud voice, the hair, and the nose of the dictator that is worshiped. As a result, authority is also robbed of all genius. What the dictator says is done. He who thinks is hanged.

Modern fascism is such that one could weep about it day and night. Freedom of thought is forbidden. Objective justice is abolished. Goebbels says, “If we are right, it follows that no one else is right. For us there is no other justice than that which serves our interests.” Stupidity reigns. In the twentieth century, that is appalling. Who still believes in progress?

I do not believe that such an unspiritual conception ever prevailed among the primitive Germanic races of Europe. There the chieftain or duke was bound to observe the decisions of the Ting, the legislative assembly; he was bound to the place of gathering and to the legal conception of the order of the body politic. Today, however, national egotism and the self-assertion of the present dictator-group control law and justice and all thought.

What power opposes this force? What is England’s parliamentary monarchy doing? What are the other countries with great spiritual traditions doing? What are the churches doing? What are the great philosophies and the great spiritual movements doing? The Pope signs one concordat after another with Hitler. Raids on the bishop’s palace, the murder of two of the most outstanding Catholic priests, priests arrested and taken to concentration camps – none of this prevents the Pope from dealing reasonably and respectfully with Hitler again and again.

The Protestants, meanwhile, are led by a cleric [Reich Bishop Ludwig Müller] whose ignorance is unprecedented in thousands of years. Within the Lutheran churches, orthodox groups have bristled a little at the rule of violence in the church, most vigorously in regions where pietism was strong. And the Reformed churches have proven more capable of resistance than the Lutherans. Yet it seems that one established church after another is succumbing to brutal violence and base deceit.

It is interesting to note that the Confessing Church synods1 have issued the slogan, “No separation from the church!” But this paralyzes all energy. For when the church becomes godless one cannot say, “We protest, but we remain in the church.” When the church is ruled by demons and idolatry, one cannot say, “We protest, but we remain in the church.” Even the protesting groups in the Catholic and Protestant Churches render unconditional homage to the present state. They make the offering of “Heil Hitler!” They are prepared to take active part in the functions of government. So what good is it if from within the church hierarchy they protest isolated incidents that lead to suppression of free speech, brutal murder, and all manner of other horrors, while at the same time supporting the overall application of this evil system?

The reason for this weak and feeble attitude is clear: the churches of the Reformation have never taken the clear attitude to the state and society that the early Christians did. Their weakness is the retribution for their historical sin, in that during the Peasants’ War they joined the princely authorities in suppressing the exploited commoners, and then committed a crime against the popular Anabaptist movement.2

The cause of their error lies in a misunderstanding of Paul’s words to the Romans (chapter 13): “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.” The great churches always use verses 1–5 to defend their interests in the state:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience.

They use verses 6–7 to say that consequently the Christian should pay taxes.

For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.

Then, however, comes Paul’s answer to the tasks of government, the answer of love (verses 8–10):

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

There is no state without police force and the sword. Thus, God has in the state an order of wrath of the sword. That has been ordained by God in the unchristian world so that evil might not gain the upper hand. Rapists and murderers are not to be permitted to kill all little girls. That is God’s order for hell.

For God has an order also in hell; God has an order also for the evil and unjust – that we are not to forget. With regard to evil, God must be relative – for as long as evil exists. Thus the state and the police force are God’s order in the world of evil, not in the world of good. In the world of evil, God’s relativity reigns. We cannot stand up in London and preach, “Away with all policemen!” We have no quarrel with the necessity of order maintained by the governmental authorities for the world of evil. That would be wrong.

But now comes the absolutism of God in love (verses 8–10). In the absolute sphere of love there is no active part taken in the force of the state. In the absolute sphere of God, there is no order of police and military. There are two regions. The one region is that of evil and of political power. The other region is that of love and of the Holy Spirit, without active participation in state power.

Paul means to say here: If you are in the church, you are in the realm of love. Accordingly, you will not do anything evil. In the cause of love, you can never kill but only be killed.

There are two worlds, then. One is the world of evil, though instituted by God. The other is the world of pure light and pure love. It has nothing to do with violence. The church serves but one Spirit. Every state, by contrast, serves two spirits because it belongs to evil. On the one hand, it serves God’s order, on the other hand, the devil.

For if we speak of the divine origin of the state, seen relatively, we must also speak of the devilish origin of the state, seen relatively. Though the state is instituted by God, it is also an instrument of the devil. It is in relationship with evil, and like anything that mixes with evil, must turn from God to Satan. This is described by John in Revelation 13: “And to it the dragon gave his power and his throne and great authority.” This means that the dragon gives the state his might.

A relative order is not God’s ultimate will. Yet God does not utterly forsake humankind, and therefore he gives them this relative order. Should he utterly forsake them, they would not breathe even for a moment more; they would have no more to eat. Therefore, God permits his sun to shine and his rain to fall on the evil and the good [Matt. 5:45]. No human being exists in whom there is nothing of God left. Even in a brothel, God still has his order: even in an army. But it is an order of hell.

Hitler, then, is a God-appointed lord of hell – just as Pharaoh, too, was an instrument of God: an instrument of God’s wrath. Nor does this apply only to Hitler. It applies also to the parliamentary state of Britain. Look at India, Ireland, and Palestine!

Now, however, Paul in the very same thirteenth chapter of his Epistle to the Romans gives a second response to the question of government (verses 11–14): the answer of God’s future.

You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers;the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

The kingdom of God is approaching: the day has come! The works of darkness, these are the weapons of killing. Hatred and ­unchastity belong to darkness just as killing does. The conclusion of the whole: Live like Jesus Christ.

Article abridged from an address given on August 12, 1934. The original document can be read here. A version was also published in Plough Quarterly.


1. The Confessing Church was a movement of resistance to the Nazi regime’s attempts to control Germany’s established Protestant churches, led by pastors including Martin Niemöller and Karl Barth.

2. The Peasants’ War of 1524–25 was a broad uprising of commoners protesting exploitation and abuses; with the blessing of Martin Luther and other leading Reformers, it was bloodily suppressed by the German princes. The Anabaptist movement, which emerged immediately afterward, was attacked by both Luther and Calvin, with thousands of Anabaptists executed in Protestant as well as Catholic territories.