The Compendium on Romans 13 and Rev. 17

The Compendium on Romans 13 and Rev. 17 August 20, 2009

When folks find out that I describe myself as a Catholic who is also an anarchist, they often ask me “what about Romans 13” in which Paul encourages his hearers to “submit” to civil authorities. I’m often tempted to respond, with Brian Walsh, “to hell with Romans 13!”

Our new contributor, David, is a scholar of Pauline literature so he is certainly more qualified than I am to comment on this often-cited chapter of Romans. But I was struck recently at what the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church says about it, and how it places that passage next to chapter 17 or the book of Revelation. Here’s an excerpt:

The Apostle certainly does not intend to legitimize every authority so much as to help Christians to “take thought for what is noble in the sight of all” (Rom 12:17), including their relations with the authorities, insofar as the authorities are at the service of God for the good of the person….

When human authority goes beyond the limits willed by God, it makes itself a deity and demands absolute submission; it becomes the Beast of the Apocalypse, an image of the power of the imperial persecutor “drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the martyrs of Jesus” (Rev 17:6). The Beast is served by the “false prophet” (Rev 19:20), who, with beguiling signs, induces people to adore it. This vision is a prophetic indication of the snares used by Satan to rule men, stealing his way into their spirit with lies. But Christ is the Victorious Lamb who, down the course of human history, overcomes every power that would make it absolute. Before such a power, Saint John suggests the resistance of the martyrs; in this way, believers bear witness that corrupt and satanic power is defeated, because it no longer has any authority over them.

(Compendium, nos. 380, 382. Emphasis in original.)

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  • David Wheeler-Reed

    Essentially I agree with the Compendium, but I’d push it a bit more… People don’t seem to realize that Romans 13:1-7 is part of a much larger argument. In fact, it dawned on Luther–but not too many others–that v.8 might actually be the conclusion to vv. 1-7. If that’s the case then it means that Paul’s overall point was, “You don’t owe anyone anything except to love one another!” which would negate most of what he already said in verses 1-7. This is a typical Greco-Roman rhetorical technique known as an antological ginomai (don’t ask!). Okay… you did ask so here goes…

    It was typical for rhetoricians in the Greco-Roman world to say a bunch of things they didn’t actually mean and then to conclude their argument by saying what they really meant. If you look at all the other examples of antological ginomais (or however you transliterate it into English) Paul is engaging in this type of rhetorical practice. What he wants people to focus on is v. 8. I also think that the Roman Christians knew that the only person who deserves honor is God–not Rome. So, it’s also important to read vv. 1-7 in a type of tongue-in-cheek manner. OR, to read in between the lines…

    Seriously… give it a try! Just read vv. 1-7 and then re-read them with the assumption that v. 8 is the conclusion. It changes everything…

    If you do this you can almost hear Paul playing a game… “O yes… pay your taxes… o yes… honor the emperor… but also know this… YOU DON’T OWE ANYONE ANYTHING!!!” From a rhetorical perspective the whole thing is actually mocking Rome and is one of the most anti-imperialist texts in all of the NT.

    Furthermore, the bigger picture seems to be, “Yes… God put the Romans in power… but keep reading… because God is also the one who can take them out of power…” What I mean is that one has to read even beyond v. 8 to get the entire picture. When you do that it’s clear that Paul begins to get all apocalyptic on us–Rome’s days are numbered!

    Besides, who in the world would start out a letter to the capital of the Empire using terms like “gospel” and “Son of God”? Both of those terms were about Caesar and not about Jesus. But Paul seems pretty emphatic that the “gospel” isn’t an imperial message at all. And, he seems pretty emphatic that the real “Son of God” is Jesus and not Caesar. I like what Jacob Taubes once said, “The first 6 or 7 verses of Romans is Paul’s opening salvo–his declaration of war–on the Roman Empire.”

    Intriguing stuff!

    What also intrigues me about Romans 13:1-7 is that it doesn’t work when a Democrat is in office. Really… try it out!

    If one follows the logic of what Paul is saying and interprets Romans 13:1-7 in a very literal way, then one must conclude that God put Obama in office just as I was told for eight years that I must conclude that God wanted Bush in office. I’ve even made this argument at my uncle’s Bible-only mega church. But, alas, Romans 13:1-7 are the only 7 verses they don’t have to listen to in all of Scripture if a Democrat finds her/his way into office.

    In fact, if fundamentalists take their Scriptures as literally as they claim they do, then they should calm down! According to Romans 13:1-7 God put Obama in office… let him do what he’s got to do…

    Of course, I don’t interpret Romans 13 that way… but you certainly see where I’m going with it…

    The other thing that absolutely baffles me is how so many people read Romans 13:1-7 and don’t realize that it’s a warning to governments–especially imperial ones like Rome. The logic is fairly straightforward… “God set you up… God will and can tear you down!”

    I always wonder in this country why when a huge catastrophe like 9/11 comes along we immediately start blaming gays, feminists, and abortionists and don’t do what Scripture asks us to do: Turn and ask God, “Okay… why are you judging us as an imperialist society?” I suppose that’s just too hard for us to do… It’s like the Church taking seriously the Scriptural mandate that God’s judgment begins “at the house of God” and not with the secular world.

    I could say more… but that would be dangerous! Asking me to comment on Paul is like giving a monkey a gun…


  • David Wheeler-Reed

    O… and Michael… you shouldn’t worry about being an Anarchist… I think there’s a good case that could be made that the historical Paul was one himself. He probably never would have used a term like “anarchy” but if you explained it to him, he would likely agree…


  • Great comment David — I love having a biblical scholar in the house!

  • David Wheeler-Reed

    Thanks MM – I should probably start talking more about biblical stuff… 😉

  • What also intrigues me about Romans 13:1-7 is that it doesn’t work when a Democrat is in office. Really… try it out!

    Haha that’s true. None of these “good Christian” militia gun nuts is interested in Romans 13 these days…

  • David Wheeler-Reed

    Michael: No they’re not… because Romans 13:1-7 is very problematic for someone who takes Scripture literally and doesn’t like the fact that Obama got elected.

    But, these same individuals love to quote a certain couple of lines from Romans 1. I’m sure you can guess to which verses I refer.


  • Brian


    Thanks for your insight. As for Romans 13:1-7 being part of a larger argument, don’t forget what difficult prescriptions for corporate and individual Christian behavior precede it in Romans 12. I also suggest anyone reading Romans 13 to do so with Revelation 13 and Mark 13 in mind. As always, the danger in proof-texting is reading a passage in isolation, murdering living Scripture to dissect a single meaning.

    (I once asked an Evangelical minister I was staying with in Honduras if his Easter Sunday text –Romans 13! — might be better understood by recalling that Paul would soon be executed by the authority he insisted ought be respected. The minister danced around the question awhile, then launched into an attack on Catholic images, insisting statues of Jesus were the cause of drunkenness and infidelity in his village. He was otherwise a fine and compassionate man, but so uninterested in contextualizing his reading of Scripture, he was willing to spout complete nonsense.)

    Similarly, those who read Augustine as if he is offering the Empire carte blanche justification for war read him poorly, in ignorance of his unrelenting critique of earthly power.

  • David Wheeler-Reed

    Brian: Great point on Augustine. Far too many scholars think that the Church sold out to imperialism after the 1st C CE. I think the issue is just a bit more complicated than that…

    Too bad about the evangelical minister in Honduras. It reminds me of pastors that have used Romans 13:1-7 to remind their flocks to obey a given dictator, or what German pastors and priests did with this text under Hitler. It’s all quite sad…

    I wonder why we haven’t heard examples of this text being exploited by American pastors and priests to suggest to their congregations that they should follow the American Government carte blanche? It seems like for some fundamentalists that this text–if taken at face value–would support American Manifest Destiny or the Puritan ideal that America is “The City on the Hill.”

    I’ve always wanted to ask the people at Fox News about this text, but, honestly, I’m somewhat afraid to write them or go to their newsroom…