Romans 13 and Christian Submission to Civil Authority, by Michael Morrison
In Romans 13, the apostle Paul writes that, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities.” Does this mean that Christians should always obey civil government? Understood in its context, the 13th chapter of Romans does not contradict other New Testament passages that allow civil disobedience in certain circumstances. Romans 13 was probably written to address a specific situation in Rome. Though its teaching about submission is correct, we cannot treat it as a law that has no exceptions.
This article examines the literary context of Romans 13:1-7, its historical context, its key terms, structure and meaning. We will conclude with comments about how we might apply the message of this passage in our day. We will begin our analysis in chapter 12 to understand the literary context.
Romans 13:1-7 comes in the midst of a section that begins with this command in Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world.” Paul uses the term “this world” as a generalization — this world includes both Jews and pagans, both good and bad governments. Paul tells the Christians in Rome that they cannot blindly conform to any social traditions or trends. The standard of conduct is set by God, not by society.
Paul follows his call to nonconformity with a call to humility (12:3). Paul picks up this theme again in chapters 14-15, when he discusses how Christians of different beliefs need to get along with one another. Verses 4-8 describe spiritual gifts for mutual service.
The theme of mutual assistance — relationships within Christianity — dominates 12:9-16. But reference is made to nonbelievers: “be patient in tribulation…. Bless those who persecute you.” Tribulation and persecution are usually caused by unbelievers. Paul tells them to trust in God to work the situation out for good.
Verses 14-16 go back to discussing relationships among Christians.1 Verses 17-18 then shift the focus to interacting with nonbelievers: “Repay no one evil for evil.” Verses 19-21 concern enemies, and conclude with “overcome evil with good.” Again, Christians are to trust in God.
In the literary setting, Rom 13:1-7 is in the context of relationships with unbelievers. It addresses the specific issue of Christians’ relationship to the government.2 Christians might want to rebel against the government,3 so Paul tells them to submit and to pay taxes. This is also trusting in God, for as we will see, the government is an agent that God uses to work his will.
By submitting to and paying for civil governments, the Roman Christians can also set a good example. This is one of the ways in which they can “take thought for what is noble in the sight of all” and “live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:17-18). By being subject to rulers, even to evil ones (cf. 1 Peter 2:18), Christians fulfill part of their moral duties in this world.
After dealing with the specific issue of taxes owed (Romans 13:7), Paul expands the concept of “owing” to include honor, respect and love (Romans 13:8). Paul uses commandments that are accepted by both Jews and gentiles as illustrations to show that they are applications of the principle of love (Romans 13:9-10). Paul recognizes that this world is temporary, and love should therefore be put into immediate application (Romans 13:11-14). He concludes this section with the general admonition to “clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 13:15).
Chapters 14 and 15 address the more specific and more delicate matter of relationships between “weak” and “strong” Christians. Paul agrees with the “strong” viewpoint (14:14). But he also says that the strong, as an application of love, should adjust their behavior so they do not disturb the faith of the weak (14:15). Paul argues that Christians should sometimes practice self-denial in order to serve the Christian community as a whole (14:21; 15:1).4
The Christian community in Rome existed many years before Paul wrote. Romans were among the Pentecost crowd (Acts 2:10), and some of them probably became Christian and went back to Rome that same year. In a.d. 49, Claudius expelled all Jews from Rome because they were rioting because of “Chrestus” (probably a misspelling of Christos). Jews may have been permitted to return to Rome, but not assemble in synagogues.5 Restrictions were removed when Claudius died and Nero came to power in A.D. 54. Many Jews, including some Jewish Christians, moved back to Rome.
Roman Jews were not well organized; no one supervised all the synagogues.6 Roman Christians were apparently even less organized, meeting in several house churches.7 Peter Lampe describes the ethnic mix: “Most people in the Roman church were of Gentile origin but had lived as sympathizers on the margins of the synagogues before they became Christian.”8 There would have been varying degrees of adherence to Jewish customs. Some of the Roman Christians were familiar with and in agreement with Paul’s gospel; others opposed it.9 There were differences of faith and practice.
Although Paul preferred to preach in new territory (15:20), he also wanted to preach in Rome (1:15; 15:23) on his way to Spain. He wanted to help strengthen Roman Christians, and he wanted to be encouraged by them (1:11-12). He wanted unity and fellowship among the Roman Christians not only for its own sake, but also because he wanted to gather support for his mission to Spain (15:24).
Paul wrote this letter in the early (good) years of Nero’s rule, perhaps A.D. 56 or 57. The timing is particularly important for Paul’s instructions in Romans 13:1-7. Jews had been expelled from Rome, and only recently allowed to return. It would be natural for them to resent the Roman government and the anti-Jewish attitudes in Rome. They may have considered Rome to be an evil enemy, an opponent of the Messiah. Jewish-Roman tensions may have increased even more because Zealots were becoming stronger in Judea.10
Gentile Romans also had reasons to resist taxes and government. Nero reformed the tax system in A.D. 58, which suggests that many people were unhappy with the previous system.11 Gentile Christians may have shared in this attitude toward taxes, and they may have been tempted to use religious excuses for evading taxes.
However, a tax revolt or rebellion could have been particularly problematic for the Roman Christian community. Since the Jews had already been expelled because of Chrestus-related riots, the last thing Paul wanted was for Christians to be associated with anti-government resistance — especially since Jesus had been executed as a rebel in Judea! A tax revolt would increase tension between Christians and the government. It could also increase tensions within the Christian community, especially between Jews and gentiles. Political tensions, Christian disunity, and hostility from the government would have also thwarted Paul’s plans to use Rome as a springboard toward Spain.
Verse 1: “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.”
The first words are “all souls.” The teaching is universal: all persons, Christian or not, Jewish or gentile, should be subject to government.
God has ordained exousiai — civil powers. Paul is not referring to specific persons, but to the offices of authority, or the general principle of civil rule.12 Ralph Earle comments:
The primary emphasis is on the authority of governments to rule. It should not be inferred from this passage that all rulers are chosen by God, but rather that all rule is divinely ordained…. God has ordained that there should be ruling authorities to keep law and order.13
Just as this passage does not teach the choosing of specific persons, it does not mandate a particular type of government, such as monarchy or democracy. G. Delling says, “At issue…is the attitude to government as such rather than specifically the Roman state.”14 Similarly, John Howard Yoder observes: “Romans makes no affirmative moral judgment on the existence of a particular government and says nothing particular about who happens to be Caesar or what his policies happen to be.”15
“Submit” may be the most important term in this passage. It is the translation of hypotassō. Earlier in Romans, Paul used hypotassō to discuss submission to God’s law (8:7) and to his righteousness (10:3), and the divine decree to subject the creation to futility (8:20). From these, we see that hypotassō can refer to voluntary obedience or to forced control. The meaning is flexible.16 The word does not in itself mean absolute obedience.
Since God is the one who assigns civil government, it is evident that God has the greater authority. Therefore, civil orders should not revoke or contradict God’s commands. (Paul spells this logic out in 1 Cor 15:27.) Both God and civil governments are ruling, and it is not possible to give absolute obedience to both authorities, since they sometimes contradict. In case of conflicting orders, obedience to God takes priority, since he is the ultimate source of authority. As C.E.B. Cranfield observes, “The final arbiter of what constitutes [hypotassō] in a particular situation is not the civil authority but God.”17
S. Hutchinson gives this analysis:
[The verb] occurs twenty one times in the LXX, and in only one passage is the idea of obedience clearly prominent…. In the New Testament it occurs thirty times but it cannot be said that the idea of obedience is dominant there either. The term is employed to indicate the proper attitude of the Christian to his superiors…. [In Rom 13 it denotes] recognition of the civil authority as part of God’s plan for the world but not blind uncritical obedience to that authority’s every command….
While [hypotassō] does not simply mean “obey” it will in all ordinary circumstances involve continued and scrupulous submission on the part of the Christian toward his lawful rulers…. To refuse obedience to the civil authorities is a decision that the Christian will take only after the fullest and most careful consideration.18
“Established” comes from tetagmenai, a participle of tassō, which means “‘to appoint,’ ‘to order,’ with such nuances as ‘to arrange,’ ‘to determine,’ ‘to set in place,’ ‘to establish.’”19 Here, it seems to be used synonymously with a related word, diatagō. It is something that has been organized purposely. In Rom 13:1, the participle is in the perfect tense, which indicates something done in the past. It is the general concept of civil organization that God has established, not that specific people are currently being appointed. Earle writes, “It is not the party or person in power that is appointed under God, but the fact of government.”20
Verse 2: “Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”
A rebellious person is an antitassomenos, someone against order (note the root words anti,against, and tassō, order). This participle is in the present tense, indicating a continuing activity. It is not just an isolated incident of disobedience. Delling says, “The reference is to persistent resistance or resistance in principle.”21
“What God has instituted” is the NIV rephrasing; a more literal version is “ordinance [diatagē] of God.” Diatagē, a noun form of diatassō, is “that which has been specifically ordered or commanded.”22 God has ordained or instituted the existence of civil government. However, this does not mean that every civil law is divinely ordained or that every official is divinely appointed. As Delling says, “Not every decree of government is necessarily a divine ordinance.”23 Those who rebel against the existence of civil authority rebel against what God has instituted.
In 13:2a, the verb “resists” is in the perfect tense, which indicates past action that continues into the present; a translation that indicates this would be “has been resisting” — again indicating a persistent rebellion.24 “The words are directed more against anarchy than single-issue protest” (Dunn 762). This verb seems to be an equivalent of antitassō; both are antonyms of hypotassō.All the forms of tassō in this passage stress the organized nature of civil government and its God-ordained purpose to maintain order.25
Verse 3: “For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you.”
Verse 4: “For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”
Rulers are God’s “servants” [diakonoi26] not only for rewarding good but also for punishing bad behavior. This bad behavior is not described in any detail — Paul is stating a general principle, not a precise law of cause and effect. “The language is unspecific…referring to what everyone with a sense of responsibility and obligation would recognize as against the common interest” (Dunn 764).
“Bear the sword” is an idiom meaning “to have the capacity or authority to punish” (Louw and Nida 38.3). Since the instrument of punishment is a sword, a lethal weapon (cf. Matt 26:51-52, Luke 21:24), the implication is that civil authorities have the right to execute.27 This again indicates that Paul is addressing blatant anti-government rebellion, not petty infractions. Government officials are agents of wrath to punish rebels.28
The last word in this verse is a present-tense participle, meaning one who practices. The present tense again indicates that incidental law-breaking is not being discussed: Paul is discussing persistent rebellion.
Verse 5: “Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.”
The most interesting word in 13:5 is “conscience.” The word can mean either awareness of facts (the root meaning is “shared knowledge”) or “the psychological faculty which can distinguish between right and wrong — ‘moral sensitivity, conscience’” (Louw and Nida 26.13).29 Most commentators think the former fits the context better: a focus on facts. Paul has encouraged the Roman Christians to have renewed minds, so they will become able to discern the will of God. Paul does not assume that they already have a correct moral sensitivity. (In chapters 14-15, he indicates that the weak have overly scrupulous moral sensitivities.)
In Rom. 13:5 the formula “for the sake of conscience” could mean (a) to avoid the bad conscience that might ensue, (b) out of duty, or (c) because of [awareness of] the link between the state and God’s will…. Rom. 13 is urging positive obedience, not under pressure, but in a unity of act and self-awareness. Hence… explanation (c) is to be preferred. Believers are to estimate the state solely as God’s servant (Maurer 1123).
We submit to authorities not only to avoid punishment, but also because of what we know — that God has ordained civil functions.30 “Christians do not submit to the state merely because it provides conditions for their life and mission. They and all people owe subjection because government is by divine ordination” (Delling 1159).
Verse 6: “This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing.”
Because of this, we also pay taxes. “This” is neuter, so it does not refer to the feminine words conscience or wrath. Rather, “this” seems to refer to the entire discussion, including God’s institution of civil authority, the civil punishments and conscience.
The verb “pay” could be either indicative or imperative, so the question arises whether Paul is commanding the Romans to pay taxes, or assuming that they already do. The common word gar (“for” or “why”) suggests that the verb is indicative (Cranfield 668); a more forceful word would probably have been used if an command had been intended.
“Taxes” in 6a and 7a comes from phoros — “payment made by the people of one nation to another, with the implication that this is a symbol of submission and dependence” (Louw and Nida 57.182). This tax is the Roman tributum (Furnish 132, McDonald 23, Dunn 766). Paul takes it for granted that his readers were required to pay this tribute.31 They were not Roman citizens.
The last word in this verse is a present-tense participle, which indicates a continuous activity. The Greek says that they attend to “this very thing.” “This” is neuter, so it doesn’t refer to taxes, which is masculine. Paul seems to mean that they are diligent in their public service, their governing. This is their assigned role in the order that God has instituted.32 We continue to pay taxes because the government continues to have public needs.
Verse 7: “Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.”
Just as Paul began this section with a universal imperative, he ends it with a universal imperative: Pay to “everyone” what is due — not just taxes (that is probably enough to avoid civil punishment), but also respect and honor (that is for conscience’ sake). Here, Paul uses a different word for “pay,” and two words for taxes, just as he has used synonyms for other words.
“Pay” comes from the Greek word apodote, which literally means to give back. It implies that the state has a legitimate right to the taxes. “Deissmann shows that this word was used regularly in the papyri for a promise to pay back borrowed money…. Taxes are a debt which one owes the government and…paying them is therefore a legal and moral obligation” (Earle 206). The word is also used for retribution (1 Tim 5:4; Büchsel 167) and therefore fits in with Paul’s comments in Rom 12:17, which uses the same word. Christians should not take punitive revenge; rather, they are to give back good instead of evil, to pay taxes instead of rebelling.
“What you owe” is the noun form of the verb Paul uses in 13:8, saying that the only continuing debt we have is love. Here, the word reinforces the point that the taxes rightfully belong to the authorities, and that Christians ought to pay taxes. Paul has argued from general principles toward this practical conclusion.
The other kind of tax in 13:7 is telos (“revenue”). “Phoros is the tribute paid by a subject nation, while telos represents the customs and dues which would in any case be paid for the support of civil government” (Earle 206, quoting Sanday and Headlam’s commentary). McDonald identifies the telos with the Roman indirect taxes vectigalia and portoria, customs duties and local tolls collected by the publicans:
Many of the Roman Christians were engaged in trade…. Were they anxious, for business reasons, to gain relief from the portoria, which certainly raised their costs as they struggled to recover their economic position in the city? No doubt they had all too often suffered at the hands of the publicani. It would be tempting, therefore, to join those who were campaigning vociferously against them.33
Paul would be urging his readers in Rome to pay all the taxes for which they were obligated…. This would mean not only the direct taxes (tributa), which he could presume they would be paying anyway (verse 6), but also the controversial indirect ones (portoria)” (Furnish 133).
Flow of the argument
Now let us go through the passage again to notice how the terms fit together to form Paul’s argument:
Verse 1: Paul begins with a command and supports it with a theological reason: Submit to civil rule because God has ordained civil powers. Paul is not referring to specific individuals, but to the general principle of civil rule. Although current world powers are temporary (13:11-12) and ultimately opposed to Christ’s rule,35 they are theologically legitimate. God has authorized humans to have civil governments. However, since God is the source of the authority, civil orders should not rescind or contravene divine orders.
Verse 2: Because civil authority is legitimate, those who resist civil authority are resisting something that God has purposely ordained, and they will therefore incur judgment. The present-tense verbs show that Paul is discussing a persistent resistance, not an isolated incident of disobedience.36
What kind of “judgment” will come on the rebellious? Divine judgment fits in with 13:1-2a and perhaps 5, but human judgment fits in with 3-4. “Most commentators prefer to think of it as the judicial punishment bestowed by civil government” (Earle 205). “To argue that the ‘judgment’ of 13:2 means divine or eternal judgment is to exalt the state to deity” (Hynson 265). However, the structure of the passage, with statement and consequence in both 13:2 and 3, supports the idea of divine judgment, given through civil government. This does not mean that God will punish people for every broken civil law — this verse does not give the state authority over anyone’s eternal future — the law-breaking under discussion here is continual, deliberate subversion, promoting anarchy, and for such there will be divine judgment.37
Verse 3: People who do good need not fear the government, says Paul, since rulers punish the bad, not the good. This is clearly a generality. Although Judaism was a legal religion, Jews had nevertheless been persecuted by government officials. Paul himself had been a persecuting authority, albeit a religious one. Jesus had done good and had nevertheless been punished as an evildoer. In 12:14 Paul speaks of persecution, which was often done by civil rulers. No civil government has ever fulfilled its responsibilities perfectly.
Paul’s primary purpose in this passage is to teach Christians what they should do, and his comments about civil legitimacy support that practical purpose. His theological foundation is general; the advice for the situation at hand is specific.38 That does not reduce the truthfulness of what he says about the state, but it advises us to be cautious about applying Paul’s general statements to other specific situations. This section describes the way government ought to be;39 it does not specifically address the situation in which government does the opposite of its divinely ordained function.40
Verse 4: Commentators (and the RSV) often take “wrath” as divine, but I think it may be human wrath or punishment. First, the evidence for divine wrath: Human wrath is generally criticized in the NT, but here wrath is viewed favorably. Also, the word usually refers to God’s wrath. In 12:19, the nearest use, the wrath is God’s.
However, in 13:4, “wrath” seems paired with the ruler’s sword. And in 13:5, it seems contrasted with conscience, and thus contrasted with the theological perspective on civil order. These things suggest that the wrath may be human punishment. Of course, the ruler is God’s agent, so in an indirect sense the punishment is also of God. Again, Paul is writing in ideal, general terms; he does not imply that every specific punishment is divinely sanctioned. Rather, the government’s power to punish is divinely authorized. So I think it is plausible, though not proven, that “wrath” here refers to human punishment.
Verse 5: Christians should submit not only because of wrath — not only because submission is a pragmatic way to avoid pain — but also because of conscience. Not only for external reasons (for fear of getting caught), but also for internal (because of knowledge that submission is God-ordained). Christians should submit whether or not they are likely to get caught.
Since conscience (either knowledge or inner voice) can also lead us to disobey an unjust civil rule, “Paul’s appeal to conscience (13:5) is a two-edged sword…. The possibility of obedience to the just state and disobedience to the unjust state are clear alternatives” (Hynson 267). This passage presupposes that civil rulers are using their delegated authority rightly; it does not address the question of disobedience to unjust orders. “One’s own critical reflection and judgment about what is ‘good’ come into play” (Furnish 137).
Verse 6: We pay taxes because God has authorized civil governments,41 and taxes are the means by which governments function. Paul is giving a specific example of a way the Roman Christians should submit to government. Taxes were controversial at the time Paul wrote, and his comments address a current concern of his readers in Rome.
From the Roman historian Tacitus, we know that public outrage at the corrupt practices of these citizen collectors of “revenues” reached a climax in a.d. 58…. Paul’s letter to the Romans was sent from Corinth in A.D. 56 or 57, before Nero’s tax reforms and during the period when public pressure was building against the abuses of the revenue collectors (Furnish 132).
If Romans 13.1-7 was written within a very few years of the return of the Jewish and Christian communities to Rome after the Claudian expulsion, every effort had to be made to restore the credibility of the Christian community (now distinguished from the Jewish) as a law-abiding group…. Taxation was a major issue in Rome…in the year 58AD (McDonald 23).
Verse 7: To whom do Christians owe respect (same Greek word as “fear”) and honor? I’m not sure. Paul has just told his readers how not to fear the civil rulers (4b); does he now tell them they should fear the rulers? “Taxes and revenue, perhaps honor, are due to Caesar, but fear is due to God” (Yoder 211). If the Roman Christians had already been taught that “fear” is due only to God (an unprovable hypothesis), the meaning would be clear; otherwise the natural meaning would be to fear the civil rulers. The meaning could be either to respect them, or to be afraid if you have reason to (4b). “Given the theology of good government, ‘fear’ is a proper response to God-appointed authority” (Dunn 768).
The message of Romans 13:1-7
The Roman Christians were divided into various house churches. They were divided about Paul’s gospel to the gentiles. Paul wanted to unify them, not only because the gospel calls for Jew-gentile unity but also because he wanted to enlist the support of the Roman churches. As part of Paul’s purpose, he wanted to ensure that no Christian faction in Rome, whether Jew or Gentile, became involved in a revolt, whether by withholding taxes or by active, violent resistance. He does not give a complete theology of the state — he gives only enough theological background to serve his argument, which zeroes in on the specific issue of taxes.
First, he gives the general admonition to do good even to evil people, and he reminds his readers of the universal obligation to love. Paul assumes that Christians are not in power. Since Christians should respond to evil with good, even to the point of blessing their persecutors rather than responding with violence (12:14-21), it becomes obvious that a Christian should in normal circumstances cooperate with civil authorities, who, instead of being inherently evil, have a positive role in society, a role sanctioned by God. Civil rulers do not acknowledge God’s superior authority, and all human governments will in time be swept aside. Nevertheless, Christians, as God’s servants in this world, should submit to the God-ordained civil functions. Though they will become obsolete, they are not yet obsolete.
Paul states that everyone should submit to civil authorities, which have been authorized by God. Some interpreters, civil rulers in particular, have used this verse to demand complete compliance with all their wishes. Such an interpretation distorts what Paul wrote. Although in most situations obedience is a practical result of submission, exceptions are allowed. Jesus did not submit to the demands of the Judean leaders who had civil and religious authority. He submitted to the higher authority and suffered the civil penalty. Earlier, David and Elijah fled when confronted with oppressive authorities.
“When they [civil rulers] no longer exercise authority in God’s service it is no longer the authority of God…. They are appointed to support the good, but they are not themselves the arbiters of what is good” (Furnish 136-137). Under some circumstances, when conflicting orders have been given, submission to a higher authority is required.
Second, Paul did not give theological legitimacy to specific human rulers or laws, nor to the Roman Empire or to any form of government (if such were true, God would be changing his plans almost constantly and working against himself). Instead, God has ordained civil authorities as a general principle.
Therefore, the person who persistently resists the principle of civil authority — such as a person who refuses to recognize any legitimate functions of civil government — is working against what God himself wants, and a resister will incur judgment. Paul is not discussing an otherwise law-abiding person who feels that a particular civil law is not compatible with Christian duty. Nor is he discussing occasional infractions. Rather, he is describing an anarchist, a rebel, such as the Judean/Galilean Zealots or the tax resisters in Rome at the time.
The judicial appeals process illustrates one aspect of submission. According to Acts, Paul used his right of appeal. An appeal is not submission to a specific person, but it is submissive to government as a system, and that is what Rom 13 advocates. The appeal system is a human admission that government is not perfect — appeals are allowed as part of the system. However, if one does not appeal an injustice, one is failing to submit to the intent (both of God and of the human designers of the government) of the system to provide justice despite admittedly imperfect administrators.
Paul explains himself further by noting that civil rulers, in general, punish people who harm society; they generally leave good citizens in peace, or even reward them. There are exceptions to this, but this is the way civil government usually operates, and we can see that this is a good function, with good results. It would not be wrong to work against specific injustices, but it is wrong to work against government itself, because civil government is generally beneficial. As rulers do their assigned jobs to punish evil, even to using the sword, they are doing work authorized by God. This does not mean that every civil judgment is divinely authorized (the appeals process is an admission of that) but it means that civil rulers are authorized to make such judgments.
So if people want to avoid fear of punishment, they should submit. If they are doing wrong as an ongoing practice, they have reason to fear. God won’t give supernatural protection to their rebellion. In 13:5, Paul summarizes his argument: everyone should submit to civil authority not only for practicality but also because they should know that civil government has a God-given right to rule.
Paul then moves to a specific application, taxes, a topic likely to be of concern in Rome. He starts with a positive assumption: You pay taxes. Taxes pay for the good functions that civil government does. Paul then moves to an imperative: Pay all your taxes. Don’t think that you can find justification in Christianity for a tax revolt. Taxes belong to the authorities (not the individuals, of course, but the offices), and we owe it to them; we should give the money back. Taxes are simply one of our obligations.
So the meaning is simple: Christians are not anarchists. Even though they preach the eventual reign of Christ, they are not a threat to the existing civil governments. They are law-abiding, and they pay all their taxes.
Paul wrote for a narrow purpose: to squelch any ideas of participation in the current tax revolt in Rome.43 He addressed a contemporary concern in the Roman church. Whereas much of Roman society was grumbling about the telos taxes, Paul was advising Christians to avoid participation in a tax revolt or a violent rebellion.
Application in other situations
When we apply Paul’s principles to other situations, we may arrive at more questions than answers. How many of his comments were based on the temporary situation, and how many were timeless? Paul did not address the legitimacy of specific individuals or political systems. He did not address the conflicts that inevitably arise when sinful humans are asked to administer godly goals or when the government fails to perform its God-ordained function to punish evil and reward good. And he certainly did not address modern democracy. But these are the issues Christians today want ethical guidance for.
Christian submission becomes more difficult when civil legitimacy is clouded — and few civil governments have acquired power legitimately. Almost all, including the Roman rulers when Paul wrote, took it by violence from someone else, or their ancestors did. At most times, there is no question as to who is exercising authority. But there are sometimes transitions in which it may not be possible to know who is legitimate. For practical purposes, Christians have to treat almost all as legitimate and submit to those who have civil power.44 The gospel should not be tainted with political positions.
This presents a practical problem in civil wars, especially those involving guerilla operations. Both sides claim legitimacy; both may exercise power, but no one can determine which side, if any, will win in the end. Suppose a Christian lives in an area that has been controlled by insurgents for several years. The insurgents have set up government administration, punishing evildoers and rewarding good behavior, administering schools, building roads and managing an economy. They are rebels to the central government but authorities locally; a Christian in the area should submit to the people who are currently exercising civil authority. In some areas, however, practical control may fluctuate from day to day. When the federal army is in the area, the Christian submits to that authority. When the army leaves, the guerrillas return, and the Christians again submit. The end result is that Christians in such an area may pay taxes to both sides.
Another question may arise when there is a difference between written law and de facto law. Bribes are illegal, but in some countries, nothing can be done without paying bribes. Should the Christian submit to the person exercising authority, or to a written law that is functionally powerless? In some situations a Christian might conclude that a “bribe” is for practical purposes a tax that functions to supplement the otherwise inadequate salaries of government officials. Some of the taxes taken by Roman tax collectors seem little different than modern bribes, but Paul apparently advised paying the charges – but not in all situations (Acts 24:26).
The application of Rom 13 in such situations challenges a Christian’s wisdom. In what way should one submit to authority? Equally sincere Christians may make different decisions, all acknowledging God’s right to rule, the fact that he has allowed fallible humans to rule, and that he wants Christians to serve in this world of inevitable conflicts.
What should a Christian do when a civil ruler or a law requires a Christian to break God’s law? The answer is clear; God’s law has priority, since he is the supreme authority. Rom 13:8-10 teaches the priority of love and the avoidance of harm. This divine demand may conflict with civil laws. “Disobedience to the state on the ground of conscience [e.g., knowledge that complying with civil orders will hurt our neighbors], which is certainly inferred in 13:5, is…one legitimate reason for disobedience” (Hynson 261).
Perhaps the most difficult application problem is a civil government that is so corrupt or inept that it does not do its God-ordained function. It does not deter crime; it allows good people to be punished. Can a government ever become so ungodly that a Christian should rightly seek its overthrow?45 I don’t think that Paul’s teaching can be stretched so far as to support active rebellion.46 Paul does not require absolute obedience — he commands an attitude of submission (which normally results in obedience but allows civil disobedience when necessary to obey God). He specifically disallows tax revolts and implies that persistent rejection of civil authority is ungodly. His instructions do not seem to have room for a complete rejection of the legitimacy of a government that is currently exercising power.
Practical problems also argue against rebellion. No government is perfect, and we do not know how flawed it must be before submission is no longer appropriate.47 The Roman government was flawed, sometimes conquering territories, killing thousands, enslaving other peoples, due to the personal ambition and greed of corrupt leaders, but Paul does not hint that rebellion is in any way justified. Second, when government becomes thoroughly flawed, other authorities rise to fill the power vacuum. Christians need not use violence to initiate this, but in some circumstances assist the new authorities after they have risen. Third, even though Christianity might sometimes be perceived as a political threat, it should not actually be a threat to existing civil governments; in most cases that would detract from the gospel.
How does submission apply in a participatory democracy, in which citizens are asked to exercise political powers? In democracy, all voters have some power for a few moments each year, and then they turn over their authority to elected officials who have the responsibility to exercise day-to-day authority. Each participant in the system submits to the collective power, the choice of the majority.
Is political participation, such as voting or lobbying, a Christian duty, as Cranfield claims?48 This passage permits participation, but it does not require it in most democracies, in which participation is optional rather than required. Rom 13:1-7 does not list any participation as a duty to government; it was not an option at the time Paul wrote.49 “It is therefore illegitimate to extend the meaning of the text as if it self-evidently applied as well to other kinds of services which other kinds of governments in other ages might ask of their citizens” (Yoder 205). This text does not tell us whether a Christian should vote; for that we must evaluate other biblical principles. Failing to vote might be failing to do good when it is in our power to do so. Or it might entail moral compromises (deciding which platform has the fewer evils) and the possible duplicity of participating in a system when one is unwilling to support the results if they conflict with religious sensitivities. For such reasons, Christians may vote, or they may choose to avoid voting.
Is it permissible for a Christian to serve in the role of a judge or executioner, who is asked by the civil authority to exercise vengeance50 on behalf of others? Some Christians, such as those in Anabaptist traditions, keep away from political power for that reason. As Yoder says:
Christians are told (12:19) never to exercise vengeance…. Then the authorities are recognized (13:4) as executing the particular function which the Christian was to leave to God…. The function exercised by government is not the function to be exercised by Christians.51
But not all agree with that strict separation, since Paul was not addressing the possibility of a Christian exercising this governmental power. We must distinguish between personal vengeance (which is wrong) and civil vengeance (which is ordained by God). Christians may report crime to the police, for example, even though that is in effect a request for vengeance. Christians are not prohibited from seeking what God has declared good, and in the same way are not prohibited from doing this form of good. A Christian judge does not seek personal vengeance, but acts on behalf of the government and society, a function that is authorized by God.
We live in a fallen world. Despite the high ideals of civil government, despite the good intentions of democratic leaders, the system itself can support injustice. Christians who are honest may not make as much money as people who cheat. Indeed, Christians may be the ones being cheated, and governments may be unable to restore their money. People with scruples may be penalized in schools and on the job. No matter how many avenues of appeal we may try, sometimes we suffer due to the imperfect way government is administered. The Christian response is not to rebel or to withhold taxes, but to submit, using all legal avenues of appeal. Christ has not promised us freedom from suffering or freedom from injustice in this world. “The willingness to suffer…is itself a participation in the character of God’s victorious patience with the rebellious powers of his creation. We subject ourselves to government because it was in so doing that Jesus revealed and achieved God’s victory” (Yoder 213). Of course, there is no virtue in suffering itself. Our passage shows that some people suffer for doing wrong. But even those who do right sometimes suffer.
The message of other biblical texts
Rom 13 presents a general picture of civil rule; we should also consider other relevant passages and the example of God’s faithful people recorded in the Scriptures.
Gen 9:6 authorizes capital punishment, but it does not specify how it is to be administered. Ancient Israel gives us many examples of civil administration. But Samuel warned the Israelites that a formal civil government would raise taxes and create injustices (1 Sam 8:11-18). When the Jewish nation came to an end, God apparently expected the Jews to submit to the conquering empires. He had appointed them for their role.
The Maccabean revolt is a historical example of a religiously motivated rebellion, but the example is not criticized in the New Testament. The revolt quickly went beyond its religious basis, however, and the Maccabean kingdom had serious shortcomings and was replaced by the Romans.
Jesus taught that we should pay tax “not on the ground of the legitimacy of the tax, but on the pragmatic basis of avoiding offence (Matt. 17:24-27) (Hynson 256)52 in Matt 22:15-22 he advised paying tax because Caesar (meaning the government, not the specific man) owned the money.53 But Jesus did not become a slave of the government, either — he continued to preach allegiance to the kingdom of God even when threatened with death. “He urged submission to and practiced criticism of the government at the same time” (Cook 48). Jesus called Herod a fox (Luke 13:32); he criticized the way gentile rulers behaved (Matt 20:20-28; Luke 22:25). But in keeping with his mission, his resistance was nonviolent, and he did not allow the crowds to force him into leading a revolution. He knew the inadequacies of human rulers but allowed them to rule. He refused to enter a civil dispute and left it to civil authorities (Luke 12:13-15).
In Acts 4 and 5, Peter disobeyed the rulers because of conscience, and he also accepted the consequences. Paul exercised his rights as a Roman citizen (Acts 16:37-40; 22:25-29; 25:10-12). Submission to and respect for civil government is also taught in 1 Tim 2:1-4; Tit 3:1; and 1 Pet 2:12-17.54
Christians should, as conscience and wisdom allow, obey civil authority. We recognize its legitimacy; we know that the divine replacement has not yet come. We recognize its imperfections, but as a general rule we submit. Civil authority, at least in principle, is for good purposes, and we therefore support it by paying all the taxes we owe.
If there is a conflict between what God wants and what civil powers want, we should obey God, the higher authority (Acts 5:29). Individual laws may be broken for conscience’ sake, but there is no support in Scripture for wholesale rebellion against government per se or a refusal to pay taxes. There are many gray areas not specifically addressed in the Bible, and these call for wisdom and prayer.
1 “The first group of injunctions applies to life within the body of Christ, the second to one’s relationships with those outside the church. It is not completely agreed where the boundary line is…. 13:1-7 not only belongs to the second group, but constitutes the lengthiest topic within it” (Victor Paul Furnish, The Moral Teaching of Paul, Second edition, revised. Nashville: Abingdon, 1985, p. 123).
2 Although Paul treated Christians’ relationship with government immediately after advising Christians to overcome evil with good, Paul did not think of the governing authorities “as an instance of ‘evil’ or of the Christian’s subjection to them as the overcoming of evil with good” (ibid. 125). But Paul’s readers, if they had any anti-government sentiment, might consider the authorities as evil. That may be why Paul prefaces 13:1-7 with instruction about proper attitude toward enemies and persecutors. He then shows that the officials are servants for good, and therefore Christians should be good in return.
3 Jewish Christians might resent the Roman government because it had recently persecuted Jews and because nationalistic tensions were increasing in Judea. Both gentile and Jewish Christians might oppose the Roman government because they viewed the Romans as enemies of the kingdom of God.
4 Although Paul does not tie this concept in with civil submission, the principle could be applied. Those who resent paying taxes should set aside their resentment and pay taxes for the greater good of the community. They should pay taxes not simply to conform to social expectations, but also as an expression of love to brother and neighbor.
5 Wolfgang Wiefel, “The Jewish Community in Ancient Rome and the Origins of Roman Christianity,” 93-94. Chapter 7 of Karl P. Donfried, ed., The Romans Debate, Revised edition (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1991).
6 Ibid. 91.
7 Peter Lampe, “The Roman Christians of Romans 16,” 229-30. Chapter 14 of Donfried.
8 Lampe 225; see also Romans 7:1 and Peter Stuhlmacher, “The Purpose of Romans,” 238. Chapter 15 of Donfried.
9 Stuhlmacher 239.
10 Robert Jewett, Christian Tolerance (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1982), 115. Taxes may have also played a role. When the Jews had lived in Rome before, they, like other Romans, were exempt from the tributum tax. But after they were expelled, they would have had to pay tribute. As recent immigrants to Rome, they may have still been subject to tribute (James I.H. McDonald, “Romans 13.1-7 and Christian Social Ethics Today,” 23-24. Modern Churchman 29 (2) (1987): 19-25.
11 Furnish 132.
12 In verse 3, Paul uses the word archōn to refer to the specific humans who occupy the offices of authority. Exousiai is a more abstract word, referring to powers in general. Walter Wink comments on the distinction in the two terms: “Archōn always means an incumbent-in-an-office…. Exousia denotes the legitimations and sanctions by which power is maintained; it generally tends to be abstract” (Naming the Powers, 10. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984.
13 Word Meanings in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), 204.
14 “Tassō,” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, edited by Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, translated and abridged by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 1159.
15 The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), 201.
16 The flexible meaning can be seen in the other New Testament uses of the word. In 1 Cor 15:27-28 and Phil 3:21, Paul uses it in connection with God’s control over everything. Voluntary submission is shown in 1 Cor 14:32, 34; 16:16. Hypotassō is used for submission of wives (Eph 5:22, Col 3:18, Tit 2:5, 1 Pet 3:1, 5), of servants (Tit 2:9, 1 Pet 2:18), of younger people to elders (1 Pet 5:5), and of Christians to other Christians (Eph 5:21, 1 Pet 5:5), to civil government (Titus 3:1, 1 Pet 2:13) and to God (Eph 5:24, Heb 12:9, Jas 4:7). Delling summarizes: “In the NT the term has a wide range of meaning centering on the idea of enforced or voluntary subordination” (1159).
17 A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 2 volumes (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1979), 2:662.
18 “The Political Implications of Romans 13:1-7” (Biblical Theology 21 : 49-59), 54-55.
19 Delling 1156.
20 Earle 204.
21 Delling 1158.
22 Johannes P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida, editors, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1988), 1:426.
23 Delling 1158.
24 The perfect tense also indicates that the previous present tenses are timeless principles — not just something applying to the specific historical situation. Whether in the past or the present, rebels will in the future receive judgment.
25 “The many and varied derivatives of the root tass- which we encounter in our passage must at least have been intended to make it clear that this is no arbitrary choice. Hupetagō is the obedience which we owe because it is inherent in some specific tagma [order]” (Käsemann  207).
26 We get the English word “deacon” from this word. “The term has a connotation today in church circles which is foreign to its general use in the NT. Except for…three passages…it simply means ‘servant’ ” (Earle 205).
27 Yoder, although acknowledging that the sword could be lethal, stresses its function as a symbol of judicial authority (206). Yoder’s concern seems to be to deny that the state has any authorization to execute criminals or wage war. But the sword is used as a symbol of authority because it is lethal, and the Roman empire was executing criminals at the time Paul wrote. Paul, writing about the state’s authority to punish rebels, used a figure of speech that had obviously lethal implications.
28 Orgē (wrath) refers more to punishment than to anger: “Is orgē an emotion…or is it a punishment? In most instances it undoubtedly denotes the…work of judgment [i.e., its primary focus is on punishment], yet…serious displeasure at evil is also implied” (Stählin 722).
29 Knowledge can lead to moral sensitivity, so the two meanings of conscience (knowledge and inner morality) blur: When we believe that God has authorized civil rulers to rule, we obey them as part of our submission to God. When we advocate anarchy, our inner voice ought to trouble us.
30 “Paul is saying no more than ‘in the knowledge of the binding summons of God addressed to you’…. The Christian obeys as one…who in his obedience is rendering service to God” (Käsemann  213). “The knowledge is the knowledge that the ruler is…God’s minister” (Cranfield 668).
31 Citizens in Italy normally did not pay tributum. McDonald speculates on why it might be an issue in this epistle: “Did the Roman Christians resent having to pay tributum during their exile? Did they gain exemption from it on their return, or were they in a probationary situation which gave them less than full status and privilege?” (23-24).
32 Yoder takes the participle as a restrictive modifier: “they are ministers of God only to the extent to which they carry out their function” (208). This interpretation is not required by the words or by the context. The entire passage presents government as doing its God-assigned functions.
33 McDonald 23-24. Furnish has a similar explanation (132).
35 “Paul is resisting the attitude which in virtue of heavenly citizenship [Phil 3:20] views earthly authorities with indifference or contempt” (Käsemann  351).
36 “The immediate concrete meaning of this text for the Christian Jews in Rome…is to call them away from any notion of revolution or insubordination. The call is to a nonresistant attitude toward a tyrannical government…. By ‘nonresistant’…is not meant compliance or acquiescence in evil, but…the suffering renunciation of retaliation in kind. It does not exclude other kinds of opposition to evil” (Yoder 204).
37 Cranfield also favors the meaning of divine judgment, noting that it is not limited to the final judgment or eternal damnation — divine punishment may also come in this age (664 and note 1).
38 “The chief accent is not on the theological or metaphysical basis but on the injunction to be subordinate to the political authorities” (Käsemann  354).
39 This section also describes the way Roman government was at the time, and perhaps we should allow Paul’s present-tense verbs to have temporal significance as well as describing a permanent truth. At the time Paul wrote, Roman rulers were not a terror to Christians, and they were allowing the gospel to spread. At that time (as opposed to Nero’s later rule, for example), people who did right were rewarded. The rulers were unwittingly assisting the spread of Christianity, and were functioning as God’s ministers.
40 “Romans 13 is concerned with the norm of civil obedience rather than with the problem of civil disobedience” (McDonald 22). “He is silent about possible conflicts and the limits of earthly authority. The basis of what he demands is reduced to a minimum, while exegesis usually seeks [incorrectly] to take from it a maximum” (Käsemann  354).
41 It seems unjustified to argue, as Weiss does (1257), that Paul argues for submission to all authorities based on a pre-existent willingness to pay taxes. (Weiss even makes the unjustified claim that they pay taxes “without demur”!) Paul was not addressing, as Weiss claims, a “latently negative attitude” — Paul wrote about deliberate and persistent revolt — active rebellion. Rebellion is often shown first in resistance to taxes (for example, in Judea at the time Paul wrote), and taxes seem to be an important part of the problem Paul was addressing rather than a presupposition on which he could base his argument.
43 Even though this epistle wasn’t designed to be sent to Jerusalem, Paul may have been conscious of growing political discontent there. Since he was planning to visit Jerusalem, he may have been thinking about how to address the situation there. Even when writing to Rome, he may have chosen terms and arguments that were applicable to both Rome and Judea.
44 “The man who has asserted himself politically has a God-bestowed function and authority simply as the possessor of power de facto…. I…include tyranny and despotism, which in any event reigned supreme over wide stretches of the Roman Empire…. Despotism, in modern terms the police state, is in no way excluded by what is said in the text” (Käsemann  202-203). Dictators have taken upon themselves a responsibility, and God wants them to use it for good. Rom 13 does not require unthinking obedience to every dictatorial order, but does advocate submission to laws that do not conflict with God’s.
“Every sentence can apply also in a police state and it simply should not be overlooked that the apostle is in fact writing under a dictatorship with largely corrupt and capricious representatives” (Käsemann  356).
45 “Where a government was not serving God for the good of its citizens, any appeal to this passage as a way of maintaining their subservience would be a complete distortion” (Dunn 774). If the state was not good for the citizens, it would be failing to meet the functions that should come with legitimacy. But Christians might need to submit so that the church did not become identified as a political enemy, and thus the gospel could continue to be preached. The best course of action might be different in a predominantly non-Christian nation than in a nominally Christian state such as Nazi Germany. In the latter case, Christian truth might make a more powerful impact by resistance (which could be nonviolent) than by cooperation and the appearance of complicity with injustices.
46 Soon after Paul wrote, the Roman empire persecuted and killed Christians. Revelation describes a demonic government that seeks the blood of martyrs, but Revelation does not advocate or authorize or even hint at organized resistance to the persecution. However, it does not consider the possibility of Christians being in the government, or forming a sizeable percentage of the population.
47 “Who is to judge how bad a government can be and still be good? How much deviation from the norm is justifiable on the grounds of human frailty? At what point is a government disqualified?” (Yoder 201-202).
48 For the Christian living in a democracy…[submission] will include voting…on the basis of adequate knowledge” (Cranfield 663).
49 “Paul limits his scope to the requirement of obedience…. There was normally no other means of political expression for the stratum of society out of which early Christianity arose” (Käsemann  205).
50 According to some theories, criminal penalties are not vengeful, but reformatory and serving as examples that help prevent future crimes by others. The honorable ideals of theory are rarely attained; the common perception that criminal penalties are punishment is probably accurate.
51 Yoder 199. “The state may do some things that an individual [Christian] may not do, such as repay evil for evil” (Cook 53).
52 The tax mentioned in Matt 17 is the temple tax, which brings in the additional complication of Jesus’ attitude toward the temple. Horsley rightly notes that Jesus’ response cannot be taken as a blanket endorsement of taxes, but Horsley’s conclusion on the opposite extreme is unwarranted. He claims that “Jews (Israel) were not obligated to pay taxes to God” (282). Arguing against his claim is Matt 23:23, in which Jesus sanctioned the old covenant practice of tithing. And Jesus told Peter to pay the tax for two people, when only one payment was necessary for the situation. (Cf. when an official compels you to go one mile, go with him two.) Jesus’ reply in Matt 17 was meant to be ambiguous.
53 Horsley argues that Jesus was subtly advocating nonpayment of taxes by stressing that everything we own is actually God’s (307, 310-313). But verse 16 implies approval of the thought that Caesar had a legitimate claim on the money. If people felt that there was a conflict between paying money to Caesar and serving God, they had the option of living without Caesar’s money. Jesus’ comment here was also meant to be ambiguous. Taking sides in the politically charged debate would have detracted from his gospel.
54 “Peter sets forth the motivation for subjection: ‘for the Lord’s sake’ (v.13)…. Submit yourselves because to do so will honor His name [and his message] and failure to do so would dishonor it” (Cook 52).