Romans 13, Government, and the Obedient Christian Citizen

Many have been outraged with US attorney-general Jeff Sessions using the Bible to justify the Trump government’s policy towards illegal immigrants. This policy includes separating parents and children at the border as a form of deterrence to border crossings. Sessions alludes to Romans 13:1-7, which he calls the Apostle Paul’s “clear and wise command,” which he paraphrases as “to obey the law of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes.” Here is the text that Sessions was alluding to:

1 Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.
2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.
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 you will be commended.
4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.
5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing.
7 Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
(Romans 13:1-7 NIV)

Romans 13:1-7 has frequently been a propaganda tool of governments of Christian nations to demand the obedience of its citizens. The invocation of scriptural teaching about government as divinely appointed and therefore invested with divine authority is an obvious go-to text for political leaders to use in their quest for a compliant populace.

The problem is that Romans 13:1-7 has always bothered Christians. The difficulty is not the opaqueness or ambiguity of Paul’s remarks here, rather, it is the clarity with which he speaks about submission to government and calling government God’s appointed servant.  Even more confronting is that Nero was the emperor at the time that Paul wrote these words! The third-century Christian theologian, Origen, whose father was killed by Roman authorities, said: “I am disturbed by Paul’s saying that the authority of this age and the judgment of the world are ministers of God.”

However, the immediate context and the history of the reception of this text shows just how complicated a relationship Christians can have with the state.

First, in terms of historical and literary context, we have to remember a few things about the situation when Paul was writing this letter.

Paul wrote this letter from the Corinth/Cenchreae around 55-57 AD when anti-Roman sentiment in Judea was fermenting away and the seeds for the 66-70 AD uprising were being sown thanks to a series of incompetent Roman governors and their incendiary actions towards the Judeans.  Paul does not want the Christians in Rome catching this zealous anti-Roman sentiment because it will only make life worse for them when they are already under the suspicion of Roman authorities. Paul is saying, in effect, “Yes, we know that Jesus is the Lord, the new age has dawned, but be that as it, we cannot get ahead of ourselves and live as if authorities are not there. They are here, and for good reasons, God has appointed them to provide justice and order for their peoples. What is more, some hot-heads in Judea might be sharpening their swords for holy war, looking for opportunities to revolt, but that will not solve the problem, just replace imperial rule with lawless anarchy. God can bring Rome to its knees and he does not need your sword to do it.”

I hasten to add that Paul wrote these remarks while Emperor Nero was still in the good phase of his reign, under the influence of his tutor Seneca and the praetorian prefect Burrus, before Nero became the murderous megalomaniac he is remembered as. One also has to wonder if Paul would have been quite so sanguine about obedience to government if he knew that Christians – including himself and Peter – would soon be executed by Nero’s regime as part of Nero’s scapegoating of Christians for the fire of Rome in 64 AD. An alternative history we will never know.

As for the wider literary context of Paul’s letter to the Romans, it is not as quietist and subservient as one might think. Towards the end of the letter, Paul quotes Isaiah 11:10, “The Root of Jesse will spring up, one who will arise to rule over the nations; in him the Gentiles will hope” (Romans 15:12). A terse remark pregnant with eschatological significance since it looks ahead to the day when God, through Messiah Jesus, will overthrow the empires of this world and replace them with a theocratic rule. A time analogous to what St. John the Divine describes as: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever” (Revelation 11:15). Paul is willing to give government its due, it was indeed better than lawlessness or anarchy, but Rome is not the eternal city with an eternal empire. Don’t believe the propaganda and poetry of Horace or Virgil, one day God will bring the whole thing down!

Second, it should also be borne in mind that Roman 13:1-7 is not the only word on how Christians relate to the government.

Christians believed in supporting Roman law and order, praying for its emperor, paying taxes, and offering tokens of respect (see Titus 3:1; 1 Peter 2:13-14). However, it was never an absolute submission, never a contractual exchange of Christian obedience in return for Christian policies. There is a strand of New Testament teaching that reflects Christian resistance to governing authorities.

When the Sanhedrin, the Jerusalem leadership, ordered the apostles to stop preaching about Jesus, Peter replied, “We must obey God rather than human beings!” (Acts 5:29). There are times when one should offer a flat out “no” to government authorities when they make unreasonable and unfair demand of the churches.

The apostle Paul, in his evangelistic travels through the eastern Mediterranean, was not asking people if they’d like to invite Jesus into their heart, try Jesus the same way one might try a new turmeric latte from Starbucks. Rather, Paul was establishing assemblies of believers who trusted in Jesus and venerated him as Lord in a way that was in direct opposition to the power, benefactions, and venerations claimed for Caesar. No wonder then that when Paul arrived in Thessalonica the accusation was made against him and his posse: “They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus” (Acts 17:7). Paul was not trying to bring the empire down, but he was definitely trying to set up an alternative to the empire, one defined by the story, symbols, hope, and faithfulness of Jesus Christ.

In the Hebrews 11, the great hall of faith, Moses’s parents were praised for their disobedience to the king’s edict in hiding Moses from Pharaoh’s agents who were killing newborn Hebrew males (Hebrews 11:23)

In addition, one can’t help but notice that the political subservience implied in Romans 13 must be balanced with the political subversion in Revelation 13. The Book of Revelation is single greatest critique of the Roman Empire in ancient literature, describing what empire looks like from the margins, from below, from the perspective of the disempowered and persecuted. St. John the divine teaches that all governments and empires can be an expression of evil that is opposed to God, God’s people, and God’s purpose in the world. Politics should never be our religion and politicians should never arrogate themselves to claim divine prerogatives for themselves or to assume divine sponsorship for all their policies.

Third, the history of the interpretation of Romans 13 is a very interesting exercise.

I once watched a document about how, under England’s Edward VI, Marian art was whitewashed from churches and replaced with the words of Romans 13:1-7. The point was clear: don’t worship Mary or the Pope, just obey the Protestant king instead. Clearly, such a text is open to abuse by authorities, and that is without even going into the use of Romans 13:1-7 to support slavery and apartheid.

Of course, there have been those who did not see Romans 13 as lodging any serious obstacle to launching a revolution against tyrannical government.

Samuel Rutherford’s seventeenth-century political tract, Lex Rex, contested the idea that Christians have to swear absolute fealty to oppressive governments. Rutherford gave a theo-political reading of Romans 13:1-7 that showed that resistance, even violent resistance, to tyrannical rule could be warranted. So there are occasions when opposition to government is not only required but even demanded by discipleship. Just as we have to submit to governing authorities on the basis of conscience, sometimes we have to resist and rebel against governments because of the same conscience.

During the American Revolution, Galatians 5:1 inspired calls for political and religious liberty, while Romans 13:1-7 was preached to support the authority of the new patriotic government. Preachers taught that Romans 13:1-7 only required submission to exemplary governments like the new federation, not to tyrants like King George III. Paul’s words in Romans 13:1-7 were also seen as the antidote to make sure that the chaos of the French revolution did not spread to America. James Byrd argues that Romans 13:1-7 was used as a safeguard against both “unbridled liberty and radical republicanism” and a “biblical antidote to anarchy.”

Romans 13:1-7 is an important text about how Christians relate to the State. Christianity is pro-government, order is better than anarchy, yet governments that are tyrannical or cruel can be resisted and even overthrown.  Therefore, Romans 13:1-7 does not give governing authorities – Republican or Democrat – a carte blanche to do and act as they please. Just because Jeff Sessions quotes Romans 13 does not mean that we have to reply, “This is the word of the Lord.” What is more, one has to wonder if splitting up families, even in the name of border protection, is a cruel and needless punishment that can be resisted on the basis of conscience. This is especially true for people with consciences formed by the Bible, which teaches much about the protection of refugees, aliens, sojourners, and strangers in our midst.

The challenge for people of faith is to refuse the temptation to cling to Romans 13 for political leaders they like and appeal to Revelation 13 for political leaders they oppose. Instead, they must discern within the precincts of their own conscience whether a given president or policy is behaving in a way that is just and righteous, or else, wicked and authoritarian.

For more on Romans 13 and its interpretation, see:

Michael F. Bird, Romans (Story of God Bible Commentary; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 441-50.

Michael F. Bird, “The Apostle Paul and the Roman Empire,” in An Anomalous Jew: Paul among Jews, Greeks, and Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), 205-55.

James P. Byrd, Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution (Oxford: OUP, 2017), pages 136-40.

Neil Elliott, “Romans 13:1-7 in the Context of Imperial Propaganda,” in Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society, ed. R.H. Horsley (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1997), 184-204.

Beverly Roberts Gaventa, “Reading Romans 13 with Simone Weil: Towards a More Generous Hermeneutic,” Journal of Biblical Literature 136 (2017): 7-22.

S. Krauter, Studien zu Röm 13,1-7. Paulus und der politische Diskurs der neronischen Zeit (Tübingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 2009), pages 4-38.

Ryan McAnnally-Linz, “Resistance and Romans 13 in Samuel Rutherford’s Lex, Rex,” Scottish Journal of Theology 66 (2013): 140-58.

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