Submission to the Authorities, 1-7
In this section, Paul continues the theme of believers’ relationships with outsiders (cf. esp. Rom 12:21). This is not a sudden change of subject, still less an insertion, because, as Barrett says: ‘it has been prepared for by the exhortations to humility, to live an honest life in the eyes of the world, to live at peace, and to give place to God’s wrath, of ch. 12.’
A number of commentators see a connection between this section and what Paul has taught in Rom 12:1. Lest it be thought that ‘not being conformed to the pattern of this world’ meant disengagement, the apostle wishes to affirm submission to, and honouring over, the ruling authorities.
Rom 13:1 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. Consequently, he who 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 he will commend you. 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. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.
Kruse points out that the apostle uses the category of ‘doing good’ in this context, reserving ‘love’ for relationships between one another.
Kruse, Moo, and others discuss various possible backgrounds to Paul’s teaching here:
- Some think that Paul’s instruction is to be seen in the light of the relatively peaceful situation that obtained during the early part of Nero’s reign. But this view does not sufficiently reckon with the fact that at a later date Paul and Peter were still urging Christians to be obedient citizens (1 Pet 2:13f, 22f; Tit 3:1).
- It is possible that Paul represents the ruling authorities in such a positive light here because of his previous experience with Roman magistrates: he is able to say that they are God’s provision for good order, even if they do not always measure up to the ideal. But Paul knew as well as anybody else that Roman rule was repressive, and its officials frequently corrupt. He knew that it was the ruling authorities who had crucified Christ, and he also knew that many Christians had been unjustly expelled from Rome in more recent times.
- He may be thinking of those nationalistic tendencies that led some Jews (especially the Zealots) to regard payment of taxes to the Roman authorities as betrayal of their own religion and identity (cf. Mt 22:17). Since at the time Christianity was still regarded as a sect of Judaism (and the emperor Claudius had previously expelled all Jews from Rome on account of unrest caused by Christian preaching) Paul needed to urge believers to distance themselves from this attitude.
- Christianity itself would have been widely regarded in Roman society as suspect, given that its founder was assumed to have mounted some kind of challenge to Caesar (a charge summarised in the inscription of the cross – ‘The King of the Jews’), and that he was executed for sedition. This idea of Christians being seen as a threat to Roman rule is reflect in Acts 17:6f. And, as Bruce remarks, Paul’s entry into any city was quite likely to lead to some kind of disturbance.
- Paul might be reflecting the resentment that many Roman citizens – and perhaps Roman believers – felt against the taxes imposed by Nero: in this case, he would be urging the Christians not to join the revolt;
- He may well have in mind OT teaching such as Jer 29:7, where the exiles are urged to seek the welfare of the foreign city in which they find themselves, ‘for in its welfare will be your welfare’.
- Paul may also be consciously following the teaching and practice of Jesus himself – “Render unto Caesar”. The suggestion that there is an underlying tradition that goes back to Jesus is supported by the fact that Paul’s teaching here is very similar to that of Peter in 1 Pet 2:13-17.
Everyone – this is emphatic – must submit himself – as God’s people should have submitted to God’s righteousness, Rom 10:3; as the spirits of the prophets submit to the prophets, 1 Cor 14:32; as believers should submit to the Christian workers who serve them, 1 Cor 16:15f; as believers should submit to one another, Eph 5:21; and so on.
‘Submit’ is not a simple”] synonym for ‘obey’. ‘The Greek verb used in the opening imperative belongs to the basic vocabulary of NT hortatory tradition; its root stem denotes “order” (“be subordinate to”), and it is used in this tradition to invite and summon participation in an order presumed to be hierarchical in nature, whether political (1 Pet. 2:13; Titus 3:1), or familial (of wives, Col. 3:18; Eph. 5:22, 24; 1 Pet. 3:1, 5; Titus 2:5; of household slaves, 1 Pet. 2:18; Titus 2:9). The verb is not a simple”] synonym for “obey”; it is never used in these NT codes of household obligations for the obedience of children to parents.’ (Harper’s Bible Commentary). Moo agrees, saying that ‘submission’ does not suggest ‘strict and universal obedience’, but rather ‘a recognition of the place that God has given government in the ordering of the world’. The government cannot have absolute rights over the believer, because both are subordinate to God himself.
The governing authorities – Cullmann thought that Paul meant spiritual authorities that lay behind human authorities. But although Paul can use the expression elsewhere of angelic authorities (1 Cor 15:24), the context suggests – demands, even – that he is thinking of the authorities connected with the state here.
‘What he writes is specially remarkable when we recall that at that time there were no Christian authorities (global, regional or local). On the contrary, they were Roman or Jewish, and were therefore largely unfriendly and even hostile to the church. Yet Paul regarded them as having been established by God, who required Christians to submit to them and cooperate with them.’ (Stott)
It is ironic that chief among the ‘governing authorities’ of the time was Nero. See Acts 25:11. Although his rule at this time was relatively benign, it became more and more evil: and yet Peter, writing some 10 years late, at the height of Nero’s atrocities, can still virtually repeat Paul’s teaching (1 Pet 2:13-17). And Paul could urge Christians to honour and pray for rulers right up to the time of his own death. Civil government is one God-ordained authority. Others include parents in the home, teachers in the school, and pastors in the church.
How should we reconcile Rom 12:17-21, with its call for love towards enemies, with Rom 13:1-7, with its call for the punishment of evil-doers? The answer is, of course, that the earlier passage has to do with personal ethics, whereas the latter has to do with civil ethics. The idea of God’s punishment of wrong-doers is embedded in the first passage (Rom 12:19) and elaborated in the present passage, when it becomes clear that the civil authories are God’s agents for just such punishment. As private individuals we are never to take the law into our own hands by seeking personal revenge, but we should rather bless our enemies, Rom 12:14. But if we find ourselves in the role of state officials we are god’s agents in the punishment of evil-doers. ‘To “leave room for God’s wrath,” Rom 12:19, means to allow the state to be “an agent fof wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer,” Rom 13:14.’ (Stott, New Issues Facing Christians Today, 103)
‘The occasion for Paul’s mention of civil authority in Rom 13:1-7 most likely was a recurring problem faced by him in his missionary preaching: the temptation of some to use their Christian freedom in a way deemed to violate responsible social relationships with respect to marriage, labor and slavery, or to see themselves as freed from moral codes. As earlier in Romans he had to deal with undue freedom from the Mosaic Law, (Rom 6:15) Paul in Romans 13 deals with undue freedom from civil law.
1 Cor 6 provides an example of the element of freedom in Paul’s message and its potentiality to create the problem faced in Romans 13. Paul admonishes his readers not to sue one another in the civil courts. He reminds them of their eschatological role of ruling the world, and describes the civil authorities as “unjust” (1 Cor 6:1) and “unbelievers.” (1 Cor 6:6) In 1 Pet 2:16, a passage parallel to Rom 13:1-7, Peter makes the issue of freedom explicit: “Subordinate yourselves as free persons and not using your freedom as a covering for vice, but as slaves of God.” (1 Pet 2:16) Although this problem could easily have occurred in the church at Rome, the occasion as one of responsibility within Christian freedom fits well the interpretation of Romans as a letter dealing with general problems of Christians among Paul’s churches. His emphasis upon paying the tribute (Rom 13:6) would support the churchwide reference since this tax on subject peoples was not collected in the capital.
Other hypotheses regarding the occasion of Rom 13:1-7 suggest special situations in Rome. Tacitus mentions tax protests under Nero in A.D. 58 (Tacitus Ann. 13.50-51). Earlier (c. A.D. 49-50), Claudius had expelled the Jews from Rome for “disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus” (Suetonius Claudius 25.4). The suggestion is made that (an alternative spelling for) had been a messianic pretender. With increased turmoil in Palestine, Paul in A.D. 56 warned the Christians, who had close contacts with the Jewish community, against involvement in a repetition of such insurrection or against associated tax protests. The motivation behind such actions of disobedience, it is proposed, would have been a just protest; not vice or antinomianism. The general hypothesis is weakened, however, not only by its speculative character but also by the fact that on the one hand Tacitus cites the tax petitions as an example of Nero’s popular spirit of clemency and gives no evidence of insubordination or antigovernment resistance. On the other hand, there is little evidence of later disturbances among Jews in Rome related to the Palestinian turmoil, even during the Jewish Revolts.
The close parallels between Rom 13 and 1 Pet 2:13-17 indicate the likelihood that both authors used common tradition, probably derived from Hellenistic Judaism.
Rom 13:1-7 comes within a framework determined by Rom 12:1-2. Subordination to civil government, particularly in the symbolic act of paying taxes, is an aspect of the call to spiritual worship in the everyday life of the world. The injunction is to be subordinate (Rom 13:1; cf. Tit 3:1), putting one’s own interest below what is required for relationships with the civil authorities. The subordination is a discriminating one supported by conscience. (Rom 13:5) The civil authorities at all levels are agents of God. Their service to God is at the same time for the people, restraining evil and promoting their good. (Rom 13:4) Paul does not identify his conception of the good, but the Hellenistic-Jewish and OT conception of the ruler is pastoral and paternal in character. In a later Pauline text, 1 Tim 2:2, the civil authorities are said to be instruments of a peaceful order which the author may consider to be instrumental for the missionary task. (1 Tim 2:4)
The negative perspective on authorities is most clearly implied in Paul’s conception of the “principalities and powers,” angelic beings who have responsibility for God’s creation, including its government, (Dan 10:13,20-21; 12:1) but who, from the Jewish apocalyptic viewpoint, are fallen. In Rom 8:35,38-39 Paul links these powers with the persecution of believers. In speaking of angelic powers Paul employs the terminology commonly used for human political powers, but the context is determinative of meaning. It should not be assumed that because Paul employs these terms in Rom 13 or 1 Cor 2:8, he is there referring to angelic, cosmic powers and not to human political powers.’ (DPL)
‘”Exousia” is found in the New Testament in a variety of usages, although always consistent with the belief that “there is no authority except from God” (Rom 13:1 RSV; see Jn 19:11). “Exousia” describes first the freedom of God to act. (Lk 15:5; Acts 1:7) Second, it signifies the divinely given power and authority of Jesus Christ as deriving from the Father, (Mt 28:18; Jn 10:18; 17:2) enabling him to forgive sin, (Mk 2:10) and signifying his power to heal and to expel demons, which he gave his disciples. (Mk 3:15) Third, it describes the freedom God gives his people for salvation (Jn 1:12) and from legalism. (1 Cor 6:12) Fourth, it denotes the authority God imparted to the leaders to build up the church. (2 Cor 10:8 13:10) Fifth, “exousia” signifies the power God displayed through agents of destruction in the last days. (Rev 6:8; 9:3,10,19; 14:18; 16:9; 18:1) Sixth, the word denotes the dominion God allows Satan to exercise. (Ac 26:18; Eph 2:2) Seventh, it describes the “authorities” created by God, both heavenly (Col 1:16) and secular.’ (Rom 13:1 Tit 3:1) (Holman)
The authorities that exist have been established by God – See Prov 8:15–16; 21:1; Isa 41:1-4; Jer 27:5–7; Dan 2:21; 4:17, 25, 32; and, especially, Jn 19:11.
Barrett agrees that Paul’s teaching here is deeply rooted in the OT view of God’s rule over people and all history. He continues: ‘In order to protect his creatures from the consequences of unbridled sin he provided them with civil rulers, just as he provides them with sun and rain. The fact that both sun and rain can be excessive and cause damage and suffering through drought and flood does not contradict the fact that God provides an environment in which his creatures can live; the fact that authorities may be lax and negligent or tyrannous and overpowering similarly does not contradict God’s intention that they should live in peace and well-being. The state thus has its appointed place in the providential order which God has established for the good of mankind.’
This authority is not absolute. It has been granted by God and therefore it is subject to his own higher authority. Indeed, Rev 13 (written some 30 years after Romans) vividly shows the extent to which the governing authorities can become the instruments of Satan.
Kruse remarks that the early church fathers well knew how pagan rulers could abuse their authority. Their thoughts are therefore instructive:-
Origen: ‘‘Is an authority which persecutes the children of God, which attacks the faith and which undermines our religion, from God? We shall answer this briefly. Nobody will deny that our senses—sight, sound and thought—are given to us by God. But although we get them from God, what we do with them is up to us.… God’s judgment against the authorities will be just, if they have used the powers they have received according to their own ungodliness and not according to the law of God.’
Augustine: ‘If anyone thinks that because he is a Christian he does not have to pay taxes or tribute nor show proper respect to the authorities who take care of these things, he is in very great error. Likewise, if anyone thinks that he ought to submit to the point where he accepts that someone who is his superior in temporal affairs should have authority even over his faith, he falls into an even greater error. But the balance which the Lord himself prescribed is to be maintained: Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s but unto God the things which are God’s.’
Those who do so will bring judgment on themselves – The immediate context suggests that this ‘judgement’ is meted out by the ruling authorities themselves. However, Moo thinks that Paul’s argument has not advanced that far yet, and the wider context (see Rom 2:2, 3; 3:8; 5:16) suggests that Paul is also thinking of God’s own tribunal. In any case, we should not distinguish sharply between the two, ‘the ruler’s judgment is God’s judgment,…so in the already-not yet perspective seen so often in Romans, it is best to see immediate judgment (from the secular authorities) leading to final judgment (God’s)’ (Osborne)
Rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong – Again, this is a general principle, rather than a rule that admits of no exceptions. In a decent society, the sight of a policeman holds no terror for an upright citizen, only for a criminal.
Do what is right and he will commend you – Kruse says that this principle would have been widely accepted in the Greco-Roman culture of the day. When citizens did things that were beneficial for society, their actions and benefactions did receive commendation. This applied particularly well during the period of benign Roman administration at the time of Paul’s writing, although less so at other times.
‘Further light is thrown on the ambivalent nature of the state’s authority when Romans 13 is compared with Revelation 13. Some thirty years have elapsed since Romans was written, and the systematic persecution of Christians has begun under the Emperor Domitian. Now the state is no longer seen as the servant of God, wielding his authority, but as the ally of the devil (pictured as a red dragon), who has given his authority to the persecuting state (pictured as a monster emerging out of the sea). Thus Revelation 13 is a satanic parody of Romans 13. Yet both are true. “According as the State remains within its limits or transgresses them, the Christian will describe it as the Servant of God or as the instrument of the Devil.”‘ (Stott, quoting Cullmann)
He is God’s servant to do you good – There are too many rulers and governors who fail to realise that they are God’s servants to work for the good of the people. Calvin: ‘They should remember that all that they receive from the people is public property, and not a means of satisfying private lust and luxury. We see the uses for which Paul appoints the tributes which are paid, viz. that heads of state may be furnished with assistance for the defence of their subjects.’
‘Kingdoms are not for kings, and governments are not for governors, but for the people whom they rule.’ (Plumer)
To bear the sword is to lawfully enforce just laws and to punish wrong-doers. The expression probably did refer to the death penalty, although in a 1st-century Roman context it would certainly include capital punishment (cf. Act 12:2).
‘Because of its finality, the risk of an innocent person being executed in error, and the termination of the opportunity to respond to the gospel, many Christians believe that, at least whenever there are mitigating circumstances or any uncertainty, the death penalty should be commuted to a life sentence. Yet I think the state should retain its right to use “the sword”, in order to bear witness both to its solemn God-given authority and to the unique sanctity of human life.’ (Stott)
‘Nero Claudius Caesar (A.D. 37-68) was the emperor first known to have persecuted Christians (Tacitus, Ann 15) and was reigning at the time of Paul’s execution. When Nero acceded to the throne in A.D. 54, he was under the influence of his powerful mother, Agrippina. Seneca and the praetorian prefect Burrus did much to lead the empire during the first five years of his reign. Helpful legislation was enacted (Tacitus Ann. 13.51) and competent governors were appointed. It must be noted that Paul wrote Rom 13:4 in the context of his directives on civil obedience during this period of Nero’s reign.’ (DPL)
‘What about Paul’s instruction regarding the role of the state in preserving order? The political ruler is a “minister of God to thee for good;” the ruler “beareth not the sword in vain: for he is … a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” (Rom 13:4) It seems that the authority of the state is divinely established to protect the good and punish the evil. Is authority to punish a mandate to kill? If the sword is to be taken literally and the state’s hold on the sword is a mandate to kill, then capital punishment should be the primary punishment the state has available to use, and it should always be by a literal sword. Literalism presents serious problems. However, if the sword is symbolic, then various forms of punishment and deterrence are available to the state.’ (Holman)
One in authority is God’s servant to do good or inflict punishment. This is a remarkable statement, given that he is unlikely to acknowledge either God as Father or Christ as Lord. Indeed, Paul had himself been mistreated by the Roman authorities, 2 Cor. 6:5; 11:23–25, 32–33; Acts. 16:22–24. Yet he acknowledges here that ‘governments, even oppressive governments, by their very nature seek to prevent the evils of indiscriminate murder, riot, thievery, as well as general instability and chaos, and good acts do at times meet with their approval and praise.’ (Stein)
An agent of wrath – Another striking statement. Just as God’s salvation is brought forward, so that we enjoy a foretaste here and now, so is his wrath (cf. Rom 1:18). And that wrath is mediated (in part, at least) by human authorities who may not even acknowledge God the Judge.
Paul may well be harking back to Rom 12:19 here. Christians, as private citizens, are forbidden to take vengeance on those who have wronged them, for that is God’s prerogative. Does that mean that wrong-doers can get away with it? No, says the apostle, for God himself is working through the governing authorities, inflicting wrath on those who have done wrong.
Not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience – Negatively, we submit to legitimate authorities in order to avoid punishment; positively, we do so because of the demands of conscience. Conscience is guided by the principle that ‘the authorities are God’s servants’ (v6).
Psychologists recognise a distinction between ‘external’ and ‘internal’ motivation. Both are mentioned by Paul here: fear of punishment is a form of external motivation, while the promptings of conscience exemplify internal motivation.
Rom 13:6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honour, then honour.
There was, at that time, considerable unrest in Rome about the payment of taxes. There were both direct and indirect taxes, and such were the riots in objection to the latter that Nero promised to abolish it (although he didn’t keep his word).
You pay taxes – As Moo says, the indicative is very probably correct; although a few commentators prefer the imperative (‘…you ought to pay taxes’).
The authorities are God’s servants – Having used ‘diakonos‘ in v4, Paul now uses another word with religious connotations – ‘leitourgos’.
Who give their full time to governing – Kruse says that a better translation would be: ‘[who are] devoted to this very thing’ (i.e. are devoted to collecting taxes’. At the time that Paul was writing this letter, resentment was building up against the Roman taxation system, such that in AD 58 reforms became necessary. Paul’s teaching is especially necessary because the gospel does proclaim Jesus (and not Caesar) as Lord, and so some Christians might have been tempted to withhold their taxes for that reason.
Give everyone what you owe him – In context, this is not a command to repay all debts, but rather pay taxes to the ruling authorities. See Mt 22:15-21, and esp. v21, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
There are those – professing Christians, even – who would take pride in defrauding the government of taxes.
The fact that Paul uses the language of ‘debt’ here is an indication that he is still thinking of the ‘service’ that the government provides.
Of the fours kinds of debt we owe, the first refers to direct taxes (see also Lk 20:22; 23:2), and the second to indirect taxes (see also Mt 17:25). The latter would include custom duties and fees for various services.
‘Porter points out that there are two “prongs” to Paul’s arguments concerning the Roman authorities. First, believers are to willingly submit to the authorities on the assumption that they are just. Second, if rulers’ authority derives from God, they must rule in a way that is consistent with God’s justice. He draws the following conclusion: “The important implication is that unjust authorities are not due the obedience of which Paul speaks, but rather are outside these boundaries of necessary obedience. Rather than being a text which calls for submissive obedience, Rom 13:1–7 is a text which only demands obedience to what is right, never to what is wrong”‘ (Kruse)
Pay taxes – ‘Paul no doubt knew that the city of Rome was becoming impatient with the emperor and the senate because of the strain of taxation, so the apostle encourages Christians not to join the chorus of complaining, but rather to pay their taxes.’ (Pate)
Pate summarises the theological teachings of vv1-7:-
- Government is a divine institution.
- This is the case even for unjust governments, since not to have any form of rule is to breed anarchy and political disaster.
- Christians are to support their governments by paying taxes and showing respect to their officials.
- If, however, a political regime demands that Christians disobey God, they must respectfully refuse to do so in a nonviolent way and be prepared to suffer the consequences.
Rom 13:13 Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy.
Rom 13:14 Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.
In his Confessions, Augustine tells of his great torment of soul. He had been living a life of carnal indulgence. One day in A.D. 386, his wretchedness had finally reduced him to tears. He fled to the Scriptures. He writes, “So quickly I returned to the place…for there had I put down the volume of the apostles, when I rose thence. I grasped, opened, and in silence read that paragraph on which my eyes first fell,’Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof.’ No further would I read, nor did I need; for instantly, as the sentence ended,by light, as it were, of security infused into my heart,all the gloom of doubt vanished away.” Thus, upon reading Rom 13:13-14, was converted one miserable wretch. This wretch became the greatest defender of the Sovereignty of God in salvation that the church has known since the apostles. Toward the end of his career he proclaimed to his Lord, “Thou movest us to delight in praising thee; for thou hast formed us for thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in thee.”
Do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature ‘Some people fall into temptation, but a great many make plans for disaster ahead of time. “Son,” ordered a father, “don’t swim in that canal.” “O.K., Dad,” he answered. But he came home carrying a wet bathing suit that evening. “Where have you been?” demanded the father. “Swimming in the canal,” answered the boy. “Why did you?” the father asked. “Well, Dad,” the boy explained, “I had my bathing suit with me and I couldn’t resist the temptation.” “Why did, you take your bathing suit with you?” his father asked. “So I’d be prepared to swim, in case I was tempted,” he replied. Too many of us expect to sin and plan ahead for it. The remedy for such dangerous action is found in Rom 13:14 “But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof.”‘