Ted Grimsrud

09. Romans 13: An Interpretation

Christian opponents of pacifism cite Romans 13:1-7 more than any other one biblical text to support the moral legitimacy of violence. This text has been used by many Christians throughout history to support the idea that Christians owe their government allegiance, even to the point of obeying the state when it proposes to send Christians to fight wars.

One of the problems with traditional uses of this text is isolating it from the rest of the New Testament teaching. Romans 13:1-7 is treated as if it contains all that the New Testament has to say regarding the Christian attitude toward the state. The New Testament alludes to the state in diverse ways. Texts such as Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17; 1 Timothy 2:1-4; and Titus 3:1 presenting a more positive view of the state. In contrast, Revelation 13; 1 Corinthians 2:6-8; Matthew 4/ Luke 4; and Ephesians 6:12 show the state in more negative terms.

All these passages should be part of a discussion of the New Testament and the state—not only Romans 13:1-7. Such a discussion must also deal with the political implications how the Christian declaration of Jesus Christ as “Lord,” and with the implications of the fact that it was the state that killed Jesus and apparently the state that killed Paul.

Nonetheless, Romans 13:1-7 does remain a passage of crucial significance for discerning appropriate Christians’ attitudes toward the state. Understanding this passage is one important step towards understanding the New Testament teaching.

Context

This passage must be seen as part of a larger unified literary unit that begins with Romans 12:1 and continues through 13:14. 13:1-7 cannot be rightly understood apart from the verses that surround it. Many of the distinctives of Paul’s worldview are obvious in this section—chapters 12 and 13—as a whole. The entire section sees Christians being called to a non-conformity to the “world” and an all-encompassing, suffering love for their fellow-believers (12:10) and their enemies (12:21) and everyone in between.

Because of the sort of god that God is—merciful and redemptive—Christians are told that to belong to God involves striving to be and to do what is in accordance with God’s character. The basic thrust of 12:1-2 is that one of the major things which the call to be conformed to God’s character means is that Christians must no longer “be content to go on allowing themselves to be continually stamped afresh with the stamp of this age which is passing away.”[1] Exhortation to non-conformity characterizes the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, from God’s calling of Abraham to “those who worshiped neither the beast nor his statue” (Revelation 20:4). Certainly it is central to this section of Romans.

Following the call to non-conformity (12:1-2), Paul gives moral injunctions (12:3–13:10). First, he speaks mainly to life within the body of Christ (12:3-13). He teaches about the enablement that Christians have to live lives of nonconformity and suffering love. They are placed in a community of mutual support and given gifts of the Spirit that are to be used for service of God in the world and are means by which the believers’ faith may be enacted in love.

The second group of injunctions (12:14–13:10) applies to the believers’ relationships with those outside of the church. These include living in harmony with others (12:16), overcoming evil with good (12:21), and owing no debts but love (13:8). It also includes the exhortations contained in 13:1-7. Therefore, an understanding of 13:1-7 that does not see it as being part of the overriding injunctions Paul makes for Christians in Rome to live lives of nonconformity to the old age and suffering love violates the context of the passage. Paul’s exhortations in 13:1-7 explain how nevertheless these very members of the church are to subordinate themselves to this state that definitely does not manifest the lifestyle valued in Romans 12–13.

Paul mentions “God” mentioned six times in 13:1-7. In strongly emphasizing God’s mercy throughout Romans, Paul echoes a core Christian belief. God’s ultimate intentions are redemptive. These intentions aren’t always obvious; in the end they are for the purposes of redemption. This is especially seen in Romans 9–11, the passage being concluded by 11:32: “For God has confined all people under the power of disobedience, so that he might have mercy on all people.”

When Paul refers to “God” in 13:1-7, he writes not about a deistic God accessible via natural revelation alone who has ordained the state and then turns away and lets it function on its own, achieving its own purposes. Nor does he talk about a God who is internally divided, ordaining the church as an agent for mercy and the state for an agent of wrath. Rather, he is talking about a God who, when all is said and done, is working everything out for God’s purposes—purposes which are merciful and redemptive. And, somehow, the state serves those purposes. “God,” to Paul, is always that kind of God.

Romans 13:1-7 should be read in the context of Paul’s exhortations for his readers to live lives of nonconformity to the world and of persevering-love for all. These verses cannot be teaching Christians to do otherwise. This passage needs to be seen in the broader context of biblical thought regarding God’s mercy. God’s use of the state must be seen as corresponding to that mercy.

13:1

The first verse of chapter 13 contains a number of seemingly straightforward assertions. The first is “let every person be subject to the governing authorities” (RSV). By “every person” Paul means every one of his readers—none are to imagine themselves exempt from the obligation indicated.

The word hypotassethai is translated here “let . . . be subject.” That translation is a bit misleading. This word is in the middle voice, that indicates that the meaning is “to subordinate oneself.” Paul emphasizes that this action is one that Christians should choose themselves, not that it is forced upon them from above.[2]

Also, significantly, the root of the word (tagma) has strong connotations of “order,” in the sense that God “orders” reality by indirectly, providentially shaping it and moving it. Paul meant “subordinate” in the sense of recognizing the place of the state in God’s order and respecting that. It is not “submit” in the sense of simply knuckling under, or “obeying,” which is how the word is often translated. Such subordination does not simply equal obedience.[3]

Christians are told to subordinate themselves to the “governing authorities.” Hyperchousais (“governing” in the RSV) indicates a kind of superiority over the people being addressed, in this verse referring to the “authorities” being in a position over the Christians.[4] It is a descriptive term, simply referring to the fact that the “authorities” are running the country. It carries no connotations of moral approval, nor does it say what it is that the “authorities” do.

The word translated “authorities” is exousiai, the plural of “power.” This word is used only a few other places in the New Testament, and on every other occasion (except for Titus 3:1 which is parallel with Romans 13:1 and therefore would share its meaning) it is clearly used in reference to the “principalities and powers.” Many scholars hold that this means that Paul, by using exousiai, was seeing the state as being identified with the “principalities and powers.”

While such a double reference cannot be proven, it seems likely, given the context. The overall Pauline teaching on the “principalities and powers” is that they are part of creation and their purpose is to “order” it, to allow human life to function in an ordered way. They would be identified with social structures, such as money, the law, and the state. They are not inherently evil but rather are intended to serve a positive function of allowing society to operate. But they have a tendency to try to usurp God, to become gods, demanding worship themselves and becoming oppressive and idolatrous.

Certainly Paul’s discussion here is making much of the concept of “ordering.” In verses 1-2 the words that the RSV translates as “be subject,” “instituted,” “resists,” and “has appointed” all have the same root (tagma) and all have the connotation of “ordering.”

The state is one of the “principalities and powers.” That does not mean that it is inherently evil or that for Paul to tell Christians to subordinate themselves to it is a contradiction in terms. The state is part of God’s providential “ordering,” which Christians are to respect. But the state is quite likely to try to usurp God and to want “worship.”

Paul goes on to assert “there is no authority (exousia) except from God” (RSV). This assertion certainly does not mean that the state’s acts are all direct reflections of God’s will. It rather is pointing out something all Christians believe, that God is the creator of the world and the Lord of history. As such, all “authorities” will have to answer to God.

They may be attempting to deny their accountability, but ultimately they will be held responsible for what they have done.

“Those [authorities] that exist have been instituted by God” (RSV). This is a reassertion and amplification of the previous statement. The key word is “instituted” (tetagemai). This word, again, has the connotations of “ordered.” Paul is not saying that God “ordains” the state in the sense of directly acting to create it as it is now and is directly acting through all that it does. Rather, Paul emphasizes God’s providential use of the fallen orders of creation which, know it or not, are contributing to the work of redemption.

Paul has plenty of biblical warrant for that thought. Isaiah 10 tells of how God providentially used Assyria to judge Israel. God did not condone Assyria’s actions, as that nation was also judged and condemned by God. Acts 4:24-28 and 1 Corinthians 2:6-8 tell of how God providentially used Herod and Pilate to crucify Jesus—an “evil” act essential for the fulfilling of salvation history.

God “orders” the state. Paul tells Christians to recognize that and to respond accordingly. They are to subordinate themselves to the state. The arbiter of that subordination is not the civil power but Christ. Therefore, subordination does not mean blind obedience. In so far as the state is doing what it is supposed to do, then it should be obeyed. But when Christians are faced with a choice between obeying God or obeying the state, there is no question who they are to obey, and nothing Paul says here indicates anything different.

13:2

In the first part of 13:2 Paul repeats his subordination exhortation in the negative. Since the state is “ordered” by God, for Christians to “resist the authorities” (RSV) is to be guilty of rebellion against God’s ordering.[5] The word translated “resists” (antitassesthai) is contrasted with “subordinate yourselves” (hypotassesthai). Both words imply the existence of an orderly structure, in this case a political structure. As Victor Paul Furnish points out, the opposite of “subordination” is not so much “disobedience” as “disruption.”[6]

Paul does not say in v.2 that Christians must not “disobey” the state, nor is he saying that Christians must not “resist” the state in the sense of actively opposing the state’s activities. He says that Christians should not “disrupt” the government, i.e., act in a way that keeps the government from functioning, from performing its God-ordained tasks. “One could conceivably ‘disobey’ a law of the state and still ‘be subject’ to the political structure, namely to the due processes and penalties administered to in cases of disobedience.”[7]

The ones who don’t subordinate themselves are “resisting what God has appointed” (RSV). “Has appointed” is another tagma-word (diatage), having the connotation of “ordering” and supporting the idea that Paul is talking about God’s providential activity here, activity that brings about God’s merciful will even through ungodly “tools” that act out of motivations which are quite ungodly. To those who resist God’s ordering, Paul promises judgment (13:2). In view of the fact that those who resist the government actually resist God’s ordering, it seems likely that the judgment comes from God more than the civil power’s reaction.

13:3

In verse 3 Paul uses a different word for governmental authorities, “rulers” (archontes). This word, like exousiai, is used elsewhere of “principalities and powers” (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:6-8), as well as of demons (cf. Matthew 9:34; 10:25; 12:24) and of Satan (cf. John 16:11; Ephesians 2:2). It is also used often of human rulers—which is how commentators think it is being used here. No one sees Paul having a double meaning in mind like he seems to with exousiai.

However, if Paul did not have “principalities and powers” in mind in using archontes, he surely knew of the invariably negative connotations that “archontes” had in early Christianity. Not only is archontes used of Satan and demons, but also of those that rule over the nations and oppress them (Matthew 20:25), of Herod and Pilate in their cooperation at the crucifixion of Jesus (Acts 4:25-28), of the synagogue authorities (Luke 8:41; 12:58), of the lay members of the Sandhedrin (Luke 23:13; 24:20), and of Jewish and Gentile leaders notes as being hostile to the apostles (Acts 14:5). Certainly in none of these cases are the archontes seen in a positive light.

Nonetheless, Paul says that the archontes “are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad” (RSV). This is paradoxical, especially when one remembers that it was the archontes who killed Jesus (1 Corinthians 2:8), and who “oppress the nations” (Matthew 20:25).

Paul himself had run-ins with the “rulers” in spite of “doing good.”

C. E. B. Cranfield’s comment provides help: “The promise of v.3 is absolute: the Christian, in so far as he is obeying the gospel, may be sure that the power will honor him. It may indeed intend to punish him, but its intended punishment will then turn out to be praise. If he does evil, it must needs punish him—though it may be through shameful honors or a false security.”[8]

According to this line of thought, then, the rulers are a “terror” to bad conduct either by directly punishing it on the spot or by rewarding it in such a way as to reinforce it—which, in the long run in a universe ultimately accountable to God, will reap its rightful consequences. So the fact that the state is bad news for the evil-doer is not dependent upon the specific actions of the state. The archontes do not have to be “good” in themselves to be a “terror” to bad conduct.

Paul does not want the Christians to be afraid of what the state might do to them. “Would you have no fear of him who is in authority. Then do what is good” (RSV). This exhortation links this passage (13:1-7) with its context in chapters 12 and 13. In 12:2 Paul tells the Romans to be transformed so they can perceive themselves “what is good.” In 12:9b they are exhorted to “hold fast to what is good,” and in 12:21 to “overcome evil with good.” In 13:3b, Paul reiterates that exhortation. If Christians do what is “good” they do not have to be afraid. The suffering they might incur is praise, it is to be welcomed if it is truly for doing good.

13:4

However, Paul seems to see the possibility that the state can accomplish positive things more than just making martyrs. The key for understanding 13:4a: “For [the ruler] is God’s servant to you for good” can perhaps be found in 1 Timothy 2:1-4 where it is written: “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly, and respectable in every way. This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (RSV).

The passage from 1 Timothy shows that the “good” spoken of it this verse may be related to the function the state has in redemptive history to provide stability so that the gospel might be spread. Paul, being the world traveler that he was, no doubt had a great awareness of the social, economic, and political stability that Roman rule had made possible even in the farthest reaches of the Empire. This stability certainly allowed Paul himself, and many other Christians, to perform their missionary work.

To see civil authorities as servants and ministers of God is necessarily to imply that they are in some way linked with God’s holy and merciful purpose in Christ, and in some way serve it. Certainly one way that they can do that is by maintaining an orderly and stable society.

Certainly civil authorities and the institutional state can be (and usually are) seeking their own ends and not God’s by their actions. But they can still be God’s servants for the good of the Christian community. When the state is acting most in accord with its intended function in God’s creation, it will be providing social stability within which the gospel may be openly preached and shalom may spread. 1 Timothy 2:1-4 says Christians should pray for such stability.

The second part of this verse elaborates on how that state maintains social stability. It is via the ruler bearing the “sword” in order to “execute his wrath on the wrong-doer” (RSV). The state maintains stability by restraining those who do wrong, those who –going back to the meaning of antiassesthai in verse 2—“disrupt” the social order.

This saying is one of the most controversial ones in the passage. What is the “sword-function” of the state? It seems clear that there are two things that it is not. One is the mandate to go to war and the other is the mandate to use capital punishment (admittedly, not all interpreters see this as being as “clear” as I do).

The state is not being defined here on the basis of its “God-ordained” power to kill and to conscript its citizens (including Christians) to kill. The closest thing to a definition of the state here is its “God-ordered” function of maintaining stability. War is the most blatant contradiction of that function. War creates disruption, disorder. When the state wages war, it loses whatever capability it has to persistently reward good and evil according to their merits. Instead, it is almost inevitably indiscriminate in its “punishment” of innocent and guilty alike.

The phrase “bear the sword” most likely refers to the judicial authority of the state. Paul would not have had the death penalty in mind because the Romans used crucifixion. The state’s “sword-function” was its conviction of and legal action against law-breakers—be it fines or imprisonment.

The issue of what Paul means when he says that the state serves God by executing his wrath on the wrongdoer is a difficult one. We need to keep in mind Paul’s thinking on God’s providential working through the state and God’s over-riding redemptive purposes within which even God’s wrath is to be understood (cf. Revelation 16).

When the state, for whatever reason, punishes wrong-doing it is acting on God’s behalf and reflecting God’s hatred of sin and evil—even if the means used by the state (retribution) are not the same as the means God ultimately uses (transformative mercy) to deal with sin. Also, by restricting the overt manifestation of evil and disruption in society, the state contributes to stability and, indirectly, to redemption.

As wrath is part of God’s redemptive work, the reference to it here cannot mean punishment of people for the sake of punishment. Certainly the state is not reflecting God’s wrath when it punishes the innocent. So the state is at best an imperfect servant of God’s wrath.

The context makes it clear that it is not the Christians’ responsibility to punish wrong-doers themselves. In fact, 12:19 says the opposite: “Never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God” (RSV). Somehow the state is an agent of that, but only in a provisional, imperfect way. Christians are flatly told that they are not. What they are told is that they themselves will experience that wrath if they “do wrong.” Perhaps, in this case, it is not what specific action that the state takes that determines whether it is God’s servant, but what the objects of its action have done. Only if they have indeed done wrong is the state representing God.

13:5

Verse 5 re-emphasizes what verses 1-4 say on Christians subordinating themselves. Two reasons are given, a negative one (i.e., “to avoid wrath”) echoing earlier points and a positive one (i.e., “for the sake of conscience”) adding a new element to the discussion.

Christians, in order to maintain clear conscience before God, in order to be in tune with God’s purposes, subordinate themselves. While others may be motivated by fear of the powers that be, the Christians are motivated by their desire to render obedience and service to God.

13:6

In this verse Paul points out a specific way his readers now fulfil their obligation to subordinate themselves—by paying taxes. The word used for taxes is the word for “direct” taxes, that the Roman Christians apparently paid without resistance. The reason they paid them was because they knew of the place of civil authority in the divine purpose.[9] The state needs resources in order to function at all. To refuse to provide those would be to give a fundamental “no” to the state as such, an act that would be antitassesthia.

The phrase “attending to this very thing” (RSV) modifies the verb “are.” Hence, the authorities’ place as ministers of God is defined here in terms of collecting taxes. By collecting taxes they allow the government to function as God’s servant (cf. my discussion of v.4).

13:7

The meaning of Paul’s five exhortations here is somewhat enigmatic. It is not self-evident that all refer to what is owed to the state. The little phrase “their dues” allows for discernment on the part of the Christians. In the background is the tacit negative amplification of: “Do not give them what is not their due.” “Taxes” and “revenue” seem clearly due the state. They are necessary for it to operate. Paul has established that God wills for the state to operate and that it even has a place in God’s providential, redemptive ordering of the world.

At the time which Paul wrote Romans, the Roman government levied two kinds of taxes—the direct or fixed “poll” tax (phoros) that government officials collected and the indirect or commission tax (telos) that independent tax collectors gathered, often accompanied by extortion and exploitation. The abuses of this second type of collector led to a tax revolt. In his general exhortation to Christians in Rome not to antitassesthai the government, and in his specific exhortation for them to pay telos to whom telos is due, Paul is telling them to not take part in that tax revolt.

“Paul’s counsel is influenced by missionary considerations—to resist payment of taxes would jeopardize the presence of Christianity in Rome, possibly triggering another edict of expulsion as had happened eight years earlier.”[10] Certainly he was not condoning the activities of those who were collecting the telos.

Paul’s exhortation to pay taxes seems to be somewhat related to a specific situation. His concern was not with setting forth an abstract, time-less law that Christians must always pay their taxes without protest.

Verse 7 says “render to each his due;” 13:8 says that for the Christians, “nothing is due to anyone except love.” The claims of the state are to be measured by whether these claims are part of the obligation of love. Love, in turn, is defined in 13:10 by the fact that it “does no wrong to a neighbor.” The debt of love owed to the state can be seen as “honor.” To “honor” authorities is to take them seriously as the ministers of God, to see them in the light of their God-ordered task of maintaining stability and of rewarding good and evil according to their merits. Such honoring might actually mean taking the authorities “more seriously than they take themselves.”

The word translated “respect” (phobos) in the RSV is the same word for the “terror” and “fear” (v.3) that Christians are not to have toward the state. That fact, plus parallels with 1 Peter 2:17 (explicitly saying that while the emperor is to be “honored” it is God who is to be “feared”), make it seem likely that Paul is saying that the debt of love owed to God is “fear.” This verse parallels Mark 12:17, where Jesus says to “render” to God what is God’s (one’s ultimate allegiance) and to Caesar what is Caesar’s (the coin with his picture on it).

Paul’s implied call to render ultimate allegiance to God helps place this passage in perspective. The motivation for his exhortations here are the Christians’ loyalty to God. The motivation is not nationalism, patriotism, fear of what the state can do to them, or allegiance to any other principality or power.

Integration

Paul, as part of his call for Christians to live lives of suffering love and non-conformity to the old age, in these verses tells Christians to subordinate themselves to the powers that be, i.e., the state. He means by this call that Christians should as a rule be orderly, law-abiding citizens. By living as such, they “honor” the authorities. They are not to be “disruptive,” rebellious, disrespectful, or disobedient without good cause related consistent with the gospel.

Paul makes it clear that somehow, in some way, the state serves God. It gets its legitimacy from God and is part of God’s overriding redemptive purpose. Hence, the state or the nation is not supreme. Christians’ loyalty goes to God, the “master,” not the state, the “servant.”

The state serves God in being providentially used for God’s purposes. Such an understanding does not mean that whatever the state does in specific situations direct manifests God’s will. God has used evil actions and intentions throughout history. The state does not intrinsically contain within itself authority. “There is no authority except from God” (v.1).

What the state does that most directly reflects God’s purposes is provide for order and stability in society and reward good with good and evil with what evil deserves. In such a setting, the gospel can be spread (e.g., the early church in the Roman Empire).

However, the fact that Paul calls the state God’s servant does not mean that it directly represents God’s will. And, definitely Christians do not owe it unconditional obedience.

Christians are told that they have nothing to fear from the state as long as they do what is good. Only if they do evil should they fear. Paul’s own experience, not to mention the experience of Jesus, indicate that this lack of fear comes from knowing that they are pleasing God, not from the specific actions that the state takes. We do good so we will not be the recipients of God’s wrath. It is not because we are afraid of the state’s wrath. The state might well loose its wrath on us anyway (as it did with Jesus and Paul). But if we are pleasing God, we need not fear the state’s wrath.

This passage definitely does not say or in any way imply that Christians must obey the state should the state ask them to do something contrary to the gospel of peace. This passage contains nothing that lessens the demands of the gospel upon all areas of Christians’ lives.

In verse three, the Roman Christians are called to do what is “good,” an obvious link-up with Paul’s exhortations in chapter 12 for Christians to overcome evil with good. Christians are not to be conformed to the violent, vengeful patterns of the old age but to be transformed in order to know what is good. In verse 7, they are told to render to everyone their “due,” which verse 8 tells us is the “debt of love.” Romans 13:1-7 reinforces Paul’s message of peace.

___________________
End Notes:

1. C. E. B. Cranfield, A Commentary on Romans 12–13 (London: Oliver and Boyd, 1965) 17.

2. John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, second edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 203.

3. Yoder, Politics, 212.

4. Cranfield, Commentary, 68.

5. Cranfield, Critical, 664.

6. Victor Paul Furnish, The Moral Teaching of Paul (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1979), 127.

7. Furnish, Moral, 127.

8. C. E. B. Cranfield, “Some Observations on Romans 13:1-7” New Testament Studies 6 (1959), 245.

9. C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (Edinburgh, UK: T. & T. Clark, 1979), 668.

10. Willard M. Swartley, “The Christian and War Taxes,” unpublished paper, 8

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