Church and State – Reflections on Rom 13:1-7

Paul and politics or Paul and empire are the fashionable topics these days. The one text in Romans that says the most about the Roman governing authorities is Rom 13:1-7. Yet this passage is arguably benign in its remarks concerning Romans power. If anything, this text could be said to promote an attitude of submission to the state and complicity with its requirements by Christians. This text has been controversial in its history of reception concerning church state relationships and various provenances that have been proposed for its occasion.[1] It may also be the case that Paul’s apparent subjection of Christians to Roman political power is not meant to be unchecked our unqualified.

My own view is that Rom 13:1-7 must be informed by three things. First, we must remember that Paul’s terse remarks about submission to authorities are saturated with God-language with six references to Theos in the space of seven verses. For Paul there is no authority except from God; the powers are appointed by God; those who resist his appointed political authorities oppose the authority of God; political authorities preserving social order with the sword are in effect the agent of God; and political authorities are even servants of God. This is not a capitulation to pagan power, but a fervent affirmation of divine authority over civil powers.[1] Second, we need to remember what Paul says in Rom 1:1-4 (Jesus is Lord, Messiah, from the House of David) and Rom 15:12 (The Root of Jesse will rule over the nations) that invests Jesus with divine authority as savior and ruler of the world in a way that, at some level or other, competes with the claims of Caesar and all other proposed political and religious authorities. Nothing in Rom 13:1-7 compromises Jesus’ Lordship. Third, we have to read Romans 13 in light of Paul’s apocalyptic narrative about the overthrow of all authorities at the return of Jesus to establish his kingdom over all the “powers” climaxing in judgment. Paul declares that the “powers”, be they political or spiritual (the two were intertwined), have been disarmed and are impotent before Jesus’ lordship (see Rom 8:38; 1 Cor 2:8; 15:25-26; Col 2:15). In fact, Paul’s remarks about governing authorities in Rom 13:1-7 are relativized by his exhortation in Rom 13:11-14. Paul’s urges his hearers/readers with “you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep” and “For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers the night is far gone, the day is near,” so that salvation is at least near and impending and will bring with it the dissolution and judgment of these very same authorities. Though Paul might acquiesce to political submission for the sake of respecting God’s appointed servants who genuinely benefit the city, and he recognizes that respect for authorities is a sensible way of staying under the radar of the imperial security apparatus, he is certain that Rome is not the Roma aeterna (“eternal Rome”) because “time is short” (1 Cor 7:29) and the “day is near” (Rom 13:12).

On this view, Rom 13:1-7 is still an affirmation of God’s authority, Jesus’ Lordship, and the triumph of God through Christ over all powers at the consummation. But this passage is a footnote or qualification to what God’s victory in Christ means at ground zero in Rome. Jesus is Lord, but that does not justify any sort of anti-Roman behavior. How that works out is that Paul does not want Christians trying to effect a temporary revolution that effectively replaces one dictator with another one, nor believing that they transcend obligations to the state be it taxes or respect, nor throwing in their lot with the increasing violent anti-Roman sentiment festering like a disease in Palestine at the time. They are in a position of vulnerability as a sect or superstition without state recognition, hence they are liable to “shame”, “suffering”, “sword”, “accusation”, and “persecution” (Rom 5:3-5; 8:18, 31-39; 12:14, 17). So he wants believers to respect authorities because even pagan authorities from Cyrus to Caesar serve an ordained role in God’s purposes. Survival is one of the best forms of defiance. Yet he can say that because such kings will be held to account when they stand before the judgment seat of Christ (Rom 2:16; 14:10) and vengeance belongs to God (Rom 12:19).


[1] Stegemann, “Coexistence and Transformation”, 13-14.


[1] Cf. survey in Krauter, Studien zu Röm 13,1-7, 4-38.

  • Richard

    “Jesus is Lord, but that does not justify any sort of anti-Roman behavior. How that works out is that Paul does not want Christians trying to effect a temporary revolution that effectively replaces one dictator with another one, nor believing that they transcend obligations to the state be it taxes or respect, nor throwing in their lot with the increasing violent anti-Roman sentiment festering like a disease in Palestine at the time. ”

    Do you suppose that Paul, in following some of Walter Wink’s work on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, is allowing for some resistance and defiance to the Empire in this? After all, not bowing down to Caesar’s image would be an act of defiance, no? Maybe you intended it as Paul is countering violent revolt against the Empire (your later comments hint at it).

    Just a clarification I’d like to see.

  • Richard

    “Jesus is Lord, but that does not justify any sort of anti-Roman behavior. How that works out is that Paul does not want Christians trying to effect a temporary revolution that effectively replaces one dictator with another one, nor believing that they transcend obligations to the state be it taxes or respect, nor throwing in their lot with the increasing violent anti-Roman sentiment festering like a disease in Palestine at the time. ”

    Do you suppose that Paul, in following some of Walter Wink’s work on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, is allowing for some resistance and defiance to the Empire in this? After all, not bowing down to Caesar’s image would be an act of defiance, no? Maybe you intended it as Paul is countering violent revolt against the Empire (your later comments hint at it).

    Just a clarification I’d like to see.

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  • Douglas

    What’s the full Stegemann reference Mike?

  • Douglas

    What’s the full Stegemann reference Mike?

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