In recent times, with COVID mandates and restrictions affecting all areas of society, it has gotten a lot of Christians talking about Romans 13 and its application to the relationship between Church and State. I’ve seen many poor expositions of the passage and even more lamentable applications of erroneous understandings. Many have ripped verses from Romans 13 out of their context to argue for their particular understandings of politics and government. However, as faithful Bereans, we must closely examine the scriptures to see if these things are really so.
This article will mainly be focused on an exegesis of the text of Romans 13:1-7 and its relevance to the current discussion. While some applications will be drawn, the purpose is not to flesh out a fully formed theology of government, civil disobedience/obedience, or politics. That is perhaps for another time or article series. Instead, the focus will be on trying to faithfully interpret the text and its implications. May God help us all act in honourable ways in our societies and as Christian citizens of our earthly and heavenly cities.
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Context is Key
Some wrongly argue that because Paul wrote Romans 13 to Christians living under an evil civil government that brutally persecuted and even executed Christians, Christians should always submit in everything, even unjust edicts and laws, to the government since he commanded such submission to Rome’s tyranny. However, this argument is anachronistic. Contextually, Paul writes Romans around 58AD – before the Neronian Persecutions broke out in around 65 AD. In fact, Paul writes Romans
“during the first half of Nero’s fifteen-year reign (54–68) as Roman emperor. For it was during those early years of his reign that Nero was honored by the people of Rome for his clemency and justice—largely because he had restored “the rule of law” in the Roman Senate, had corrected many abuses and inequities among the people, and had provided a time of peace for most of the provinces within the Roman Empire.” (Richard N. Longenecker, The Epistle to the Romans: A Commentary on the Greek Text, p. 964)
There was some political unrest in Rome in the late 50s, which made the Christians wonder about what their relationship to the State should be – whether as people who are newly “in Christ” and confessing him as Lord (not Caesar) should pay taxes and honour their city governmental authorities. There is a widespread understanding among the Early Church Fathers who said that there were Christian congregations in Rome who were “overly enthusiastic” about their new life in Christ and the new age inaugurated by Christ that they required rejection of everything to do with “this age” including human government and taxes. Leon Morris notes that “it is conjectured that some of them may have had ideas akin to those of the Palestinian Zealots who recognized no king but God and would pay taxes to no one but God.” (Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans (PNTC), p. 458.)
Also, an earlier edict by Emperor Claudius in 49 AD had prohibited Jews (and Christians) from holding meetings, and there was lingering resentment against the government. It is also significant to note that in 58AD, the Roman historian – Tacitus (see Annals, 13:50-51) – reports that there was a great outcry by the people in Rome against the city’s taxation system. So, Paul responds by offering a corrective here to these sentiments and his argument in chapter 13 continues without any break from the previous.
“it may legitimately be argued that Paul himself (1) viewed his appeals of 13:1–7 as highly significant contextualizations of his “Christian Love Ethic: Part I,” which he had just set out in 12:9–21, and (2) believed that these ethical appeals would be particularly relevant for believers in Jesus at Rome in their present situation. So he exhorts his addressees to be subject to their governing authorities; to pay their legitimate taxes, revenues, and tolls; and to respect and honor their city officials.” (Longenecker, The Epistle to the Romans (NIGTC), 948–949.)
Thus, Paul’s goal to his original readers was to correct some imbalances that had arisen. Calvin comments,
“There are always some restless spirits who believe that the kingdom of Christ is properly exalted only when all earthly powers are abolished, and that they can enjoy the liberty which He has given them only if they have shaken off every yoke of human slavery. This error, however, possessed the minds of the Jews more than others, for they thought it a disgrace that the offspring of Abraham, whose Kingdom had flourished greatly before the coming of the Redeemer, should continue in bondage after His appearing… It is probable that these reasons led Paul to establish the authority of the magistrates with the greater care.” (John Calvin, Romans, Calvin’s Commentaries, 8:280)
This context is important for us, since similarly, there may be many Christians who harbour deep resentment against civil government for the many wrongs inflicted upon them during the past 2 years of COVID. However, like the Christians in Rome, we must be reminded that though government officials may abuse their authority, the ordered structure of authorities to maintain a just society is a good thing instituted by God which we should not resent but desire to see flourish biblically.
Christians are not anarchists. We want a well-ordered society and realize that God has instituted hierarchies of authority within the various spheres. Furthermore, this is one contextualized application of Paul’s Christian love ethic from 12:9-21. For the Christian, in spite of their hurts and resentment, we do not repay evil for evil but with good, and entrust vengeance to the Lord through His appointed instrument of earthly vengeance, that is, the civil government who bears the sword.
Verse 1 | Be Subject
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” (Romans 13:1)
The verb used in verse 1 for “be subject” is ὑποτάσσω. According to BDAG’s entry (BDAG is the standard and most well-recognized Greek lexicon) for Rom. 13:1 & 5 – is “of submission involving recognition of an ordered structure, with the dative of the entity to whom/which appropriate respect is shown”. (e.g. Rom. 13:5; 1 Cor. 14:34) This verb is an imperative – and thus the main command opening off this section and should be understood to set the tone of the passage. Since this is the main verb of this section, it’s like Paul’s thesis statement and the rest of the section expounds on what it looks like to “be subject.”
Being subject doesn’t look like the rejection of all earthly authorities and taxes as some of the Roman Christians were tempted to think. While there are important limitations to civil government and our obligations/obedience to them, the overall thrust of Paul here is to command subjection to the authority structure over us. This is more clearly evidenced by his use of the verb, τάσσω, which is translated as “instituted” by the ESV. BDAG defines it as “to bring about an order of things by arranging”, particularly of an authority structure. Thus, what Paul is primarily referencing is that the structure of authority in society is instituted by God as a way of expressing and carrying out his order in the world.
However, the distinction of his use of commands here is important. Paul does not use the verb “to obey” but rather uses a military term that denotes subjection to a hierarchy of authority structure. Here I appreciate the ESV’s translation consistently as “to be subject to”. Our disposition as Christians should be one of willing submission to God’s instituted ordering of society into hierarchies of authorities over us. The Roman centurion in Matthew 8 understood this as should we.
We know that this is the intended meaning because of similar usage of this verb which occurs for submission of wives to husbands in Eph. 5:22, Col. 3:18, Tit. 2:5, 1 Pet. 3:1, Jesus to his parents in Luke 2:51, children to parents in Heb. 12:9, slaves to masters in Tit. 2:9, 1 Pet. 2:18, to the will of God and his law in Rom. 8:7 & 10:3, and of younger to elders in 1 Pet. 5:5. Perhaps one of the best illustrations of it being in regard to an ordered structure of hierarchy is in 1 Cor. 15:28 – all things subjected to Christ, and Christ subjected to God – there the verb is used consistently to describe this ordered structure of command/authority.
Delegated Authority & God’s Governance
Another important concept to understand here is that of delegated authority. Richard Longenecker in his Greek commentary on Romans states,
“These primary reasons are introduced by the explanatory conjunction γάρ (“for”) and twice employ the prepositional phrase ὑπὸ θεοῦ (“by God”), thereby laying particular emphasis on God’s sovereignty in the “appointment” and “establishment” of human governments and their officials.” (Longenecker, The Epistle to the Romans (NIGTC), 959)
Ultimately, it is God who governs the nations. Psalm 22:28 says, “For kingship belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations.” (See also 1 Chron. 29:12; 2 Chron. 20:6; Psa. 9:7–8; 47:2 & 7–8; 66:7; 67:4; 103:19; Dan. 4:32 & 35; 1 Tim. 6:15) And God governs through His ordained means of delegated authorities in society. Morris’s comments are helpful,
“Ordered government is not a human device, but something of divine origin. The servants of God must accordingly submit to its laws. Paul regards rulers not as autonomous, but as “established by God” (v. 1); the ruler is “God’s servant” (v. 4). This gives the ruler a special dignity but at the same time stresses that his position is a subordinate one. He is to do, not whatever he wishes, but what the will of God is for him in his situation.” (Morris, The Epistle to the Romans (PNTC), 458)
Given Not Taken | Limited Government
Jesus says to Pilate in John 19:11, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.” Thus, since the civil government’s authority is given to it by God, then it is illegitimate for them to take it in spheres that it has not been given to them. Therefore, the role and authority of government are necessarily limited by God. We should not assume that the government has the right to take what it has not been given. The Bible has a word for that – stealing. Morris comments,
“All authority comes in the end from God. This means that “the authority of the state is a delegated, and not an absolute authority” (Wilson), that authority must always be respected, and that an uncritical obedience is impossible. Anything in the directions given by authority that is manifestly not from God shows that the authority has exceeded its lawful function.” (Morris, The Epistle to the Romans (PNTC), 461)
Thus, when a government or any authority tries to exercise authority outside of its God-given sphere and role, it is acting illegitimately. As God’s servant, it must not go beyond the sphere of authority God has given. It can, however, as with other leaders in spheres of authority, advise, give suggestions, inform, etc. to try to influence the proper authority in that other sphere. But to take that authority would be improper. This is why we have the problem of government overreach – the government is taking what has not been properly given to it.
What type of authority?
What type of authority does Paul have in mind here?
It is interesting to note the participle used adjectivally together with “authority” – ὑπερέχω. The ESV translates it as “governing”. This verb can mean “to be at a point higher than another on a linear scale, to be in a controlling position, to have power over, be in authority” and also “to surpass in quality or value, be better than, surpass, excel.” (BDAG) Louw-Nida’s lexicon has the entry, “to be of surpassing or exceptional value—‘to be exceptionally valuable, to surpass in value, to be better.”
While the sense of “governing authorities” is within its range of meanings – and one which many commentators take – this third meaning is pertinent for our considerations. It is not one foreign to Paul’s usage. He uses it this way in Phil. 2:3 – to consider others more highly (ὑπερέχω) than ourselves, and in Phil. 4:7 of the peace of God which surpasses or is better (ὑπερέχω) than all understanding. We can see in those verses the adjective has to do with the excellence of the thing it describes. This is the same Greek verb used in 1 Peter 2:13 – which could be understood as “honour the emperor as excellent or uppermost in quality”. If this is the intended meaning here in Romans 13:1, then what Paul would be saying is “be subject to the more excellent, or surpassing in quality, or better authorities.” He would be referring to the authorities who perform their duties with moral excellence and godly reverence. Thus, James Wilson in his exposition of Romans concludes this,
“As distinctly defining the character of the powers here intended, and as limiting to such the subjection here enjoined, the “excelling powers;” that is, powers possessing a due measure of the qualifications requisite to the rightful exercise of the power of civil rule.” (James M. Wilson, The Establishment and Limits of Civil Government: An Exposition of Romans 13:-7, p. 11)
I think there is a compelling case to be made for this understanding – especially as we consider that Paul lays out a prescriptive case for what God-established government’s role should be. When authorities act in accordance with God’s law, they have Divine approval and authority behind them and thus are considered “excellent”. We must ask, in context, which understanding of this term fits better? Is it simply the “governing” authorities? Or the “excellent” ones? I think it is the latter.
Verse 2 | The purpose of Civil Government
“Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” (Romans 13:2)
Verse 2 begins with ὥστε – which the ESV translates as “therefore”. However, this translation obscures the link here and how it relates the two clauses. This conjunction actually should be understood as “so that” or “consequently”. The UBS Handbook on translation comments that “The force of the particle is to introduce a conclusion based on the judgment in the previous verse.” (Newman & Nida, A Handbook on Paul’s Letter to the Romans, p. 245) Louw and Nida comment on this word that it is a marker “of result, often in contexts implying an intended or indirect purpose.” BDAG and other lexicons add the nuance that it marks a clause of an intended result.
Thus, this affirms that what Paul is expressing here is prescriptive of what civil government’s function should be. That is, “those authorities that exist have been instituted by God so that those resisting the authorities resist what God has appointed and will receive judgment.” Paul is expressing what is the consequence of resisting civil authorities He has instituted for a specific purpose. Translating the ὥστε as “therefore” in English can (wrongly) imply that “because God has instituted these authorities, therefore, any resistance is automatically resistance against God.”
The Office or the Officer?
The usage of the definite article in the plural – τῇ ἐξουσίᾳ – the authorities – is an indication that the office is primarily in view here (later he will address the officeholder). He says, “the authorities” – that is, the civil offices which govern a society. This also concurs perfectly with the usage of τάσσω in regards to the institution of the ordered structure of authority. The specific office bearers may be good or bad, but the office, as far as it is designed by God, is good and part of his ordering of society. Morris’s comments are helpful,
“The man who had been often in prisons in the Roman empire and had frequently been flogged (2 Cor. 11:23) was not unaware that the authorities can be unjust. For that matter he knew that he himself had been unjust when he was one of the authorities that persecuted the church. But here he is writing about the state’s essential nature, about what it should be and in some measure at least is. Rulers may misuse the authority God has given them, but Paul’s point is that that does not alter the fact that it was God who gave it to them. People are often tempted to evade their civic responsibilities (and not only in the first century); Paul reminds them of the significance of those responsibilities. Order is important, and the state embodies order.” (Morris, The Epistle to the Romans (PNTC), p. 459)
This is further strengthened by Paul’s play on words (which is obscured in English). In Greek, the phrase translated “whoever resists” is ὁ ἀντιτασσόμενος which is a substantive participle. The verb it derives from is ἀντιτάσσω – literally ANTI-TASSO – in contradiction to the τάσσω (bringing about an ordered state by the arrangement of authority structures) from his prior usage. Thus, Paul is referring to the person who opposes or is “anti-ordered authority”. In other words, we may understand this as rebuking any anarchist tendencies against God’s ordering of societies by means of authority structures in civil government. Therefore, simply pointing out where office-bearers may fail and offering critique or even rebuke when necessary is not the “resistance” Paul has in mind here. Indeed, Jesus himself called Herod a “fox” (Luke 13:32) and John the Baptist lost his head rebuking Herod for his sin (Luke 3:19; Matt. 14:1-13).
John Chrysostom (died c.407 AD) in his homilies on Romans recognizes that it is the office or power which is ordained and approved of by God – not necessarily the officer. He writes highly of God’s institution of civil authority to maintain order and justice in society as an honourable and noble function. Yet, it is possible to have evil and wicked officers holding a legitimate and honourable office that is ordained by God. Thus we are to respect and honour the office, but the officer may be critiqued and even called to repentance when they go apart from God’s design for that office. Chrysostom comments,
“Hence he does not say, “for there is no ruler but of God;” but it is the thing he speaks of, and says, “there is no power but of God. And the powers that be, are ordained of God.” (John Chrysostom, “Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, in Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistle to the Romans, p. 511)
Verse 3 | Not a terror to good but to bad
“For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval,” (Romans 13:3)
Note again the connecting word linking this argument – γὰρ – rendered “for” or “because”. Paul is continuing his argument that the authorities have been instituted by God so that (ὥστε) those who are anti-order would receive judgment because the rulers are not a terror to good works but to bad. This is the normative function of government that God intends. He is still speaking of what governments should do, not necessarily describing what governments always do. And when the government acts as it should, Christians should joyfully be subject to them.
Later in this verse, he points out the office bearer – “…do what is good” …καὶ ἕξεις ἔπαινον ἐξ αὐτῆς “and you will have praise from him.” Here, Paul’s use of the pronoun – αὐτῆς – (which is feminine genitive singular) points us back to the closest antecedent – τὴν ἐξουσίαν (also feminine genitive singular) – the authorities. Paul moves from the question (literally) “But do you desire not to fear the authorities?” to then saying that you should receive praise or approval from the office bearer of that authority when you do good. This does not always happen in our fallen societies, but it is what should happen according to God’s design. Again, it is important to note that in Greek, this is one continuous line of argumentation connected by the linking words noted above. We cannot divorce the clauses from each other.
Longenecker offers a helpful summary of Paul’s reasons for Christians to be “subject” to their officials:
- Since the ultimate purpose of human governments and human rulers is the welfare of those they govern, Christians need not fear them but are to be submissive to them (13:3).
- Since human governments and their officials have a mandate to promote “the good” on behalf of those they govern, Christians need to support and encourage them (13:4a).
- Human governments and human rulers have a God-given authority to “bear the sword” and to function as “agents of wrath” in punishing people who do “the evil.” Christians are not to take retributive justice into their own hands, but rather are to submit to the God-established governmental authorities in these matters (13:4b)… (see Longenecker, The Epistle to the Romans (NIGTC), p. 961)
Paul’s argument is that government is established by God in a fallen and sinful world to prevent and restrain the anarchy which would happen were sinful humanity left to run amuck. (See also Gen. 9:6; Ezra 7:26; Prov. 21:15; Prov. 28:2; Prov. 29:4; Acts 25:11; Rom. 13:4; 1 Pet. 2:14)
Always obey the government?
Some have wrongfully used this passage in an “absolutist” fashion to justify any sort of human government. Some liberal theologians even used this passage to justify Hitler’s maniacal rule which resulted in the Holocaust and the “blitzkrieg” invasions of other nations during World War 2. This is what happens when Christians take just the first two verses of the chapter in isolation from the rest of the context and infer a blind and complete submission to any authority which may happen to exist. As Wilson comments,
“No doctrine could be more agreeable than this to tyrants, and to all that panders to unholy power; for, if this be Paul’s meaning, there is no despot, no usurper, no bloody conqueror, but could plead the divine sanction and, more than this, the devil himself could lay the teachings of Paul under contribution to enforce his pre-eminently unholy authority. An interpretation which leads to such monstrous conclusions—that would bind the nations to the footstool of power with iron chains, and utterly crush every free aspiration—that would invest with the sanctions of the divine name the most flagrant usurpation and the most unrelenting despotism—stands self-condemned.” (Wilson, The Establishment and Limits of Civil Government, p. 21)
Indeed, we must reject such a conception of unlimited governmental power. As commentator Douglas Moo notes,
“Paul demands a “submission” to government: not strict and universal obedience. “Submission”… denotes a recognition of the place that God has given government in the ordering of the world. The Christian submits to government by acknowledging this divinely ordained status of government and its consequent right to demand the believer’s allegiance. In most cases, then, Christian submission to government will involve obeying what government tells the Christian to do. But government does not have absolute rights over the believer, for government, like every human institution, is subordinate to God himself. This means, then, that Christians may continue to “submit” to a particular government even as they, in obedience to a “higher” authority, refuse to do, in a given instance, what government requires.”
This is an important point to make clear in our current cultural moment where governments have increasingly grown into an all-powerful Nanny State and the indoctrination of the populus through public schools and media has continued to propagate this ideology. This is also a part of the challenge we’re contending with as we seek to preach this text “apologetically”. However, before we jump off to try to build a theology of civil disobedience from this text, as Joseph Fitzmyer notes in his commentary,
“The supposition running through vv 1–7 is that the civil authorities are good and are conducting themselves rightly in seeking the interests of the political community. Paul does not envisage the possibility of either a totalitarian or a tyrannical government or one failing to cope with the just rights of individual citizens or of a minority group. He insists merely on one aspect of the question: the duty of subjects to duly constituted and legitimate authority. He does not discuss the duty or responsibility of civil authorities to the people governed, apart from one minor reference (13:4). Moreover, the concept of legitimate civil disobedience is beyond his ken. Paul is not discussing in exhaustive fashion the relation of Christians to governing authorities; “he is silent about possible conflicts and the limits of earthly authority” (Käsemann, Commentary, 354).” (Joseph A. Fitzmyer S.J., Romans: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, Anchor Yale Bible, p. 665.)
Thus, I don’t believe the main point of the passage is an instruction manual for civil disobedience but a prescription for righteous subjection to God’s ordering of society in a fallen world. As Longenecker summarizes in his Greek commentary,
“to assume that in 13:1–7 Paul is presenting in full-blown form a Christian theology regarding “Christians and the state” (as has been often argued)—or that here in 13:3–4 he is justifying the existence of all human governments and the actions of all their officials (as has also sometimes been asserted)—is not only to ignore, but also to misrepresent, the purpose and particularity of his hortatory statements in these passages.” (Longenecker, The Epistle to the Romans (NIGTC), p. 963)
Paul’s purpose here is not to present a fully developed Christian theology of government. Thus, we should not miss his overall tone and thrust to be in subjection (as previously defined) – Christians are not anarchists. Yet equally, we must therefore not treat this passage as if it is the only word God has given us regarding our relationship to earthly governments.
But what about Civil Disobedience?
While it is not the trust of Romans 13, we will briefly here consider the concept of civil disobedience (though it merits a fuller treatment another time).
Many Christians in the early church were put to death for defying the civil government. Some accounts are even recorded in Acts. For example, Acts 5:17-32 with Peter and the apostles before the Jewish leadership and Acts 17:7 where the mob says, “Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.” One important thing to note in these passages is that the Christian response to tyranny and illegitimate governmental commands is peaceful and passive resistance – not violent revolution.
Robert Mounce’s comment is a good summary:
“Government sometimes oversteps its rightful domain. When this happens, the believer will find it impossible to obey the ruler… The believer’s ultimate allegiance is to God. Wherever the demands of secular society clearly violate this higher allegiance, the Christian will act outside the law. This, of course, must not be done in a cavalier fashion.” (Robert H. Mounce, Romans, vol. 27, The New American Commentary, p. 244)
So, at the very least, there must be a category in each Christian’s theology for passive and peaceful resistance to tyranny.
However, an absolutist understanding of the Christian’s submission to any and all governmental commands would be lacking to make sense of the apostle’s disregarding of the commands to stop preaching the Gospel in Acts 5, the Hebrew midwives lying and disobeying the king’s orders in Exodus 1, the fact that Paul spends much time in prison for his run-ins with the Roman government, and the actions of Daniel and his companions in the book of Daniel. As Wilson notes,
“The commands of a maniac or drunken father may be disregarded—the wife or even the children taking the government into their own hands— much more may institutions and laws be disregarded when these run counter, either in their constitution or administration, to the divine law, and thus tend to the manifest injury of the commonwealth.” (Wilson, The Establishment and Limits of Civil Government, p. 34)
There are two main criteria for civil disobedience:
- When the government commands what God forbids or forbids what God commands, then they must be resisted and disobeyed – for we must obey God rather than men.
- When the government seeks to act outside of its limited role and sphere of God-given authority, it no longer acts with the backing of Divine authority and the Christian’s conscience is not bound.
As has been argued already, because the government’s authority is derived and given from God, it is necessarily limited to the spheres and functions He prescribes. It may advise or make recommendations in those things outside of its role and sphere, but it cannot mandate and command obedience – just as a husband cannot command the obedience of someone else’s wife or an elder command the direction of a private business owner’s store. They would be illegitimate because they are acting outside their proper sphere of authority. Thus, even for morally inconsequential issues, such as if the government were to mandate wearing a pink hat on Tuesdays, we are not bound to submit to such a command because it is outside of the government’s delegated authority from God to dictate personal fashion or clothing.
The early Christian martyr, Polycarp (69-155 AD) understood that the civil magistrate only had delegated authority and his ultimate allegiance to Christ. At his trial before the proconsul replied this to them,
“To thee I have thought it right to offer an account [of my faith]; for we are taught to give all due honour (which entails no injury upon ourselves) to the powers and authorities which are ordained of God. But as for these, I do not deem them worthy of receiving any account from me.” ( Roberts, Donaldson, and Coxe, eds., “The Encyclical Epistle of the Church at Smyrna,” vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, p. 41)
Verse 4 | God’s Servant
“for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” (Romans 13:4)
Again this verse is introduced by γὰρ – literally, “because he is God’s servant for your good”. Governments exist for the good of society, not for their own selfish benefit. A government or official that acts solely for their own benefit acts outside of God’s intended purpose and illegitimately. They exist not for their own gain, but for the good of the citizens whom they serve. (See also Psa. 72:12–14 & 82:3–4) Government officials are called “civil servants” because they serve our good as ministers (literally, Paul calls them God’s deacons – διάκονος). This phrase θεοῦ διάκονός (servant/deacon of God) is used twice in this verse. As Morris notes,
“In the Greek the word God’s comes first for emphasis. The ruler is God’s servant, no less. And servant reminds us that he is no more; he is not God even if some rulers have had very exalted views of themselves and their functions. The word servant originally signified the service of a table waiter and denotes lowly service in general. However exalted he may be among people, the ruler is nothing more than a lowly servant before God.” (Morris, The Epistle to the Romans (PNTC), p. 463)
It is interesting that BDAG’s entry for this word in verse 3 is, “one who serves as an intermediary in a transaction, agent, intermediary, courier.” The civil magistrate is not a law unto himself. They are intermediaries and agents of God who must act according to His will. This is the same Greek term Jesus uses in Matthew 20:26 – that if anyone wants to be great, he must be the servant (διάκονος) of the rest. When Paul calls civil authorities God’s deacons or servants, it implies that they are accountable to God and are to serve according to His prescriptions. No servant is above his master. This speaks powerfully to the fact that civil government does not have unrestricted or unrestrained authority from God – but rather, because its authority is derived from God, it is accountable to Him. (See also Isa. 45:1; Jer. 25:9; Jer. 27:6; Jer. 43:10; Rom. 13:6)
This was something recognized early on by the Church. Irenaeus (born 130 AD) comments on civil government:
“For since man, by departing from God, reached such a pitch of fury as even to look upon his brother as his enemy, and engaged without fear in every kind of restless conduct, and murder, and avarice; God imposed upon mankind the fear of man, as they did not acknowledge the fear of God, in order that, being subjected to the authority of men, and kept under restraint by their laws, they might attain to some degree of justice, and exercise mutual forbearance through dread of the sword suspended full in their view, as the apostle says: “For he beareth not the sword in vain; for he is the minister of God, the avenger for wrath upon him who does evil.” And for this reason too, magistrates themselves, having laws as a clothing of righteousness whenever they act in a just and legitimate manner, shall not be called in question for their conduct, nor be liable to punishment. But whatsoever they do to the subversion of justice, iniquitously, and impiously, and illegally, and tyrannically, in these things shall they also perish; for the just judgment of God comes equally upon all, and in no case is defective. Earthly rule, therefore, has been appointed by God for the benefit of nations…” (Irenaeus of Lyons, “Irenæus against Heresies,”, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, p. 552)
God gives various established authorities different tools for use in their spheres. For Church officers – elders – it is the power of the Word, prayer, sacraments – i.e. the power of the keys. For heads of families – the power of the rod. And for civil government, they are given the power of the sword. The UBS handbook comments, “In this verse “the sword” is a symbol of the government official’s power to punish, and the adverb “in vain” must be taken with the meaning of “without the power to use it.” (Newman & Nida, A Handbook on Paul’s Letter to the Romans, p. 246) Mounce notes,
“The sword is a symbol of the power delegated to governing authorities to enforce acceptable social conduct. Here we have the biblical basis for the use of force by government for the maintenance of law and order. The power to punish has been delegated by God to those who rule.” (Mounce, Romans, vol. 27, (NAC), p. 244)
The text affirms that civil government is to bear the sword as the human instrument of God’s wrath against the evildoer. It is the means by which we “leave it to the wrath of God” from 12:19. When the government functions properly in a just society, it carries out God’s justice against evil in the temporal realm.
“Opposition to legitimately constituted civil authority can only result in fear, and rightly so. Paul is not speaking about what has been called in modern times “civil disobedience.” Such a notion would be anachronistic here, legitimate though it may be in the case of an unjust government, or even of a government duly constituted that acts unjustly.” (Fitzmyer, Romans, vol. 33, Anchor Yale Bible, p. 668)
By What Standard?
At this point, one must also ask, how is Paul defining “the good” and the “bad”? By what standard should the civil magistrates determine what is good and bad to know what to reward and what to punish? The answer for Paul is obvious. It is not some secular or subjective standard, but God’s standard. This is obvious in that right after this section he quotes from the Decalogue in verse 9. Thus, civil government is designed to reward good and punish evil according to God’s righteous standards in His Word – not by their own made-up or culturally derived morality.
Proverbs 21:15 says, “When justice is done, it is a joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers.” (See also Gen. 9:6; Ezra 7:26; Psa. 72:12–14; Psa. 78:72; Prov. 19:12; Prov. 29:4; Prov. 29:14; Acts 25:11; Rom. 13:3–4; 1 Tim. 2:2)
Thus, civil authorities must perform their function of administering justice according to God’s standards in His Word. When they do not, they deviate from the derived authority they have been entrusted with and their unlawful edits become invalid. The coercive sword-power of the State also makes it dangerous when it veers outside of its Divinely appointed role and sphere of authority. This is why when the State intrudes into spheres that are not properly its own, it tends towards coercion – because this is the only tool it has. When the State exercises totalizing power over education you get forced indoctrination in mandatory public schools, in the family – you get enforced child-bearing limits as in communist China, or in the Church – you get apostate puppet-state churches that only preach state-approved propaganda.
Verse 5 | For wrath & conscience sake
“Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.” (Romans 13:5)
This verse starts with the conjunction διὸ which is an inferential – translated by the ESV as “therefore”. However, this generic rendering may miss some of the connective force. It denotes that the inference or result is self-evident. Thus, it should be understood as, “for this reason” or “it is self-evident that”. What reason? Because of God’s wrath that is executed via the civil government’s just use of the sword, it is self-evident or for this reason that we are to be subject “for wrath’s sake”. (Of note – the text simply says “τὴν ὀργὴν” – the wrath – God is supplied as the subject by many translations here) Again, Paul’s argument is based on the assumption of the ideal function of civil government.
Subjection for conscience’s sake
The second reason Paul gives is for the sake of the believer’s conscience using the articular phrase, τὴν συνείδησιν – which refers to “the inward faculty of distinguishing right and wrong, moral consciousness, conscience” (BDAG). Paul probably has in mind matters regarding the transformation and renewal of the mind he spoke of in 12:1-2 which brings about the believer’s understanding of what God’s good, pleasing and perfect will is in all spheres of life, including civic and political obligations.
The connection here of subjection for “conscience sake” strengthens the argument that Paul has in mind a government that enforces justice according to God’s righteous standards, not some secular subjective standard of right and wrong. The Christian’s conscience must be captive to the Word of God. Thus, resistance to a government rightfully enforcing God’s just standards would go against their conscience – their moral compass to distinguish right and wrong. Conversely, this is also why the Christian must resist a government that forbids what God commands and commands what God forbids. Our ultimate submission is always to God and then the lesser authorities He has instituted.
Verse 6 | Taxation
“ For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.” (Romans 13:6)
Taxes helped to fund the government’s God-given function of enforcing justice as ministers/servants/deacons of God. I’d just point out briefly here that taxes were not to fund a whole host of other functions not properly given to the government – such as welfare, healthcare, education, etc. Our governments today are far over-bloated from the limited role Scripture gives to them and is a symptom of the totalizing tendencies of much of the secular and Marxist ideologies which influence our societies and many policymakers.
It is important here to recognize another word Paul uses to describe the civil office-bearer – he is a λειτουργός (leitourgos) – “one engaged in administrative or cultic service, servant, minister” (BDAG). You may recognize the sound of this term – it’s where we get the word “liturgy” in English. It has to do with a servant in an ecclesiastical setting. It is amazing that this is what Paul calls the government official, thus driving home the point that he is actually God’s servant and accountable to Him! This is also the term he uses when arguing for the rightness of paying taxes. Similar to how he argued that ministers of the Gospel deserve to earn their living in 1 Timothy 5:18. This is why Christians joyfully pay their tithes and taxes – to support the ministers of God, both in the Church and the Civil spheres.
A Political Statement
Here Paul continues in his positive characterization of government as “God’s servants/deacons” from verse 4. In historical context, he is joining in with others who applauded many of the beneficial actions Nero took on behalf of the people of the Empire during his early years and Paul is wanting to help avoid any stumbling block to the peaceful expansion of the Christian mission which could be caused by further perceived political disloyalty. Already, the Christian motto of declaring “Christ is Lord” and that “there is no other Name under heaven given to men by which they may be saved” (Acts 4:12) cut against the Roman tradition that Caesar was Lord prior to Paul’s letter to the Romans.
There’s even been an inscription to Caesar Augustus discovered that confirms this, saying, “Salvation is to be found in no other save Augustus, and there is no other name given to men in which they can be saved.” This was a commonly known and repeated phrase as pagans in submission to the Roman State would offer their pinch of incense on the altar to Caesar before they went to worship their own gods. But the Christians could not give into such a compromise. When the apostles declared that it was in fact not Caesar but “Jesus is Lord,” there was no doubt about the political implications of it. They understood that the Gospel they preached had political implications and the pagans and Jewish leaders understood it. Many Evangelicals today have forgotten this though.
Verse 7 | Give that which is owed
“Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.” (Romans 13:7)
Paul here echoes Jesus’s teaching in the Gospels to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s (Mark 12:17; Matt. 22:21; Luke 20:25). The obvious question is to who are these things rightfully “owed”? Paul was addressing the specific situation of the Roman Christians at the time of his writing, encouraging them to pay their taxes, tolls, and revenues, respect government authorities generally and honour their city officials in particular. The UBS handbook notes,
“Traditionally, the first word is taken to refer to those taxes paid by a subject nation to a nation that ruled over it (see Luke 20:22), while the second word is a more general term, referring to the taxes paid in support of a government (see Matthew 17:25). Some suggest that the first word refers to direct taxes and the second to taxes paid indirectly, but it is doubtful that Paul makes any real distinction.” (Newman & Nida, A Handbook on Paul’s Letter to the Romans, p. 248)
The principle for us is that it is right and good for us to pay our taxes as they are rightly owed. However, we must also ask – “what is rightfully owed”? Not all taxation is rightful to owe because it may be unjust, or outside the government’s rightful sphere. In these areas, we should seek for reform through the means of influence we have to achieve the Christian ideal of a well-ordered society and government.
Fear and Honour
It is interesting in the final phrase of this verse the use of two terms – φόβος and τιμή. The first, φόβος, is rendered by the ESV as “respect” which is one of its semantic range of meanings. However, this obscures the fact that it is the same word Paul used in the verbal form in verses 3 & 4 – “fear”. We are to fear/respect the authorities given the sword to enforce God’s justice on wrongdoers. Furthermore, considering the clause at the end of the verse, we are to honour those who are due honour. If one takes the position that Paul has in mind the “excellent” authorities (see comments on verse 1) – then it is in reference to honouring those authorities who are praiseworthy.
Christians do not owe unqualified and unlimited obedience to any earthly institution or authority if they contradict God’s law, act outside of His prescribed limits of jurisdiction, or compel us to sin. Only God is owed unqualified, unconditional and unlimited obedience in everything. To give that to the State would be to give to Caesar what rightfully only belongs to God. However, we do owe legitimate subjection to the offices of authority because they are instituted by God. Jesus affirms this in John 19:11. (See also Gen. 9:5–6; Prov. 8:15–16; Dan. 2:37–38; Dan. 4:17; Dan. 4:32; Dan. 5:21; Matt. 22:17–21; 1 Tim. 2:2–3; 1 Pet. 2:13)
It can be tempting for some Christians to simply check out from any civic involvement in the midst of troubling times. We become discouraged and want to ignore it. But such apathy is not what our response should be. As Peter Stuhlmacher notes,
“While during the biblical period Christians could not exert any substantial influence on the state and its exercise of power, today Christian citizens have the possibility of influencing the state institutions directly and indirectly in many countries and of taking upon themselves the responsibility of governing. Under these circumstances Christians need principles which can be discussed and which will make it possible for them to combine their Christian faith with their responsibility as citizens of the state. Measured by the biblical texts and presuppositions, such principles are to be evaluated on the basis of whether they maintain the difference between the church (as the body of Christ) and the civil community, whether they adequately bring to bear God’s will in Christ on both forms of life, and whether they relate church and state positively to one another.” (Stuhlmacher, Paul’s Letter to the Romans, p. 206-207)
Thus, Christians should not abstract themselves from political engagement, but rather seek to be salt and light even in that sphere for the glory of God!
The overall tone of Romans 13 is one encouraging subjection to properly ordered and ordained civil authorities by God. This should be our general disposition as Christians. We are not anarchists or revolutionaries. However, it also describes the ideal role, function and operation of these civil authorities and Christians should aspire to see this implemented in our societies. God has graciously given us the opportunities in our present context to have legitimate avenues of influence – through voting, petitioning, letter-writing, becoming members of parties, getting on boards, speaking with our elected representatives and even running for office. Christians should take hold of these opportunities to seek reform according to God’s word for the love of God and neighbour – because a society that orders itself according to God’s Word will receive His blessing.