Submission to Civil Government, 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.

13:1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except by God’s appointment, and the authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 13:2 So the person who resists such authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will incur judgment 13:3 (for rulers cause no fear for good conduct but for bad). Do you desire not to fear authority? Do good and you will receive its commendation, 13:4 for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be in fear, for it does not bear the sword in vain. It is God’s servant to administer retribution on the wrongdoer. 13:5 Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of the wrath of the authorities but also because of your 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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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;
  6. 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’.
  7. 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.

A surprising paragraph

We may be surprised by Paul’s emphasis on Christians submitting themselves to the governing authorities.  Has he forgotten that Jesus was executed under Roman law?  Has he not himself been ill-treated under that same law?  Does he not realise that the situation for Christians will get even worse, as Nero’s rule develops?  It is right to see his teaching here as something of a corrective.  Christianity was still seen as a sect of Judaism, and Judaism itself, though benefiting in considerable measure from Roman protection (see Bruce), tended to be deeply resentful of Rome.  Within the fold of Judaism were the Zealots, who would stop at nothing to subvert the ruling authorities.  Christianity itself taught that ‘Jesus is Lord’ (with the clear implication that Caesar is not Lord), and so might be considered a threat to Rome.  Against this background, we can better understand Paul’s teaching, and see its relevance both then and now.

Another way of registering the surprise is to note that Paul just said that we are not to be ‘conformed’ to this age (Rom 12:1), and he is about to describe it is ‘passing away’.  But, as Moo says, that may be precisely why he includes the present teaching.  Lest anyone think that he is released from obligations to the present order of things, the apostle wishes to remind his readers that God is still at work in the present world, that he has ordained certain institutions, including the state, and that the Christian has duties in relation to them.

There is further surprise in Paul’s teaching when we consider present-day attitudes towards those in authority.  There is widespread distrust of police officers, politicians, and ‘the tax man’.  As Wright says: ‘Many today take it for granted that rulers are not to be trusted. Many Christians take it for granted that governments are corrupt and dehumanizing, and that it’s part of our brief as followers of the Lord Jesus, the world’s true sovereign, that we should offer serious criticism and opposition, even, if necessary, at a cost to our own prospects.’

How do we understand relations between church and state?

Stott notes that four models have been tried over the years:-

  1. Erastianism (the state controls the church)
  2. Theocracy (the church controls the state)
  3. Constantinianism (the compromise in which the state favours the church and the church accommodates to the state in order to retain its favour)
  4. Partnership (church and state recognize and encourage each other’s distinct God-given responsibilities in a spirit of constructive collaboration).

According to Stott, the fourth ‘seems to accord best with Paul’s teaching in Romans 13.’

‘Christians after Paul’s time (and especially after Constantine) read [this passage] as endorsing the notion that government is divinely established, that is, that government has God on its side. But in Paul’s setting, where even the coins identified Caesar as “divine,” Paul’s comment subtly moves in another direction. He is contending that the governing authorities are ordered by God, that is, God put them in place (and presumably that means God can also remove them).’ (Women’s Bible Commentary)

The gospel is hostile to both tyranny and anarchy

‘It teaches rulers that they are ministers of God for the public good; and it teaches subjects to be obedient to magistrates, not only for fear, but also for conscience’ sake.’ (Hodge)

For a classic biblical text on anarchy, see Judg 21:25.

Hodge further comments: ‘Where unfaithfulness on the part of the government exists, or where the form of is is incompatible with the design of its institution, the governed must have a right to remedy the evil.  But they cannot have the moral right to remedy one evil, but the production of a greater.  And, therefore, as there are few greater evils than instability and uncertainty in governments, the cases in which revolutions are justifiable must be exceedingly rare.’

‘[Paul] has just said, strongly and repeatedly, that private vengeance is absolutely forbidden for Christians. But this doesn’t mean, on the one hand, that God doesn’t care about evil, or, on the other, that God wants society to collapse into a chaos where the bullies and the power-brokers do what they like and get away with it. In fact, even in countries where people hate the authorities and fear the police, when someone commits a murder or even a serious robbery everybody affected by it wants good authorities and good police who will find the culprit and administer justice. That is a basic, and correct, human instinct. We don’t want to live by the law of the jungle. We want to live as human beings in an ordered, properly functioning society.’ (Wright)


The captain on the bridge of a large naval vessel saw a light ahead on a collision course. He signaled: ‘Alter your course ten degrees south.’ The reply came back, ‘Alter your course ten degrees north.’

The captain then signaled, ‘Alter your course ten degrees south. I am a captain.’ The reply: ‘Alter your course ten degrees north. I am a seaman third-class.’

The furious captain signaled, ‘Alter your course ten degrees south. I am a battleship.’ The reply: ‘Alter your course ten degrees north. I am a lighthouse.’

(Green, Illustrations for Biblical Preaching, 26)

How applicable are Paul’s instructions to our own society?

Kruse cautions that : ‘Paul’s call for submission to the authorities should be understood in terms of the historical situation of the Roman believers to whom Paul wrote before attempts are made to apply it to different socio-political situations today.’

Clearly, we must be cautious about any life-for-like application, because of our uncertainty about the precise circumstances that called for this teaching, and because in the West we live in a different kind of society (in which the government is accountable to the people, not vice-versa).

Still, the general principle that people should be subject to the ruling authorities is supported by texts such as Mk 12:17 (Mt 22:21; Lk 20:25) and Tit 3:1.  In the present passage, the emphasis on ‘everyone’ (lit, ‘every soul’, v1) is a strong indication that Paul’s teaching in this passage applies well beyond the circle of the letter’s original recipients.  Truly, there were probably some local circumstances that prompted the apostle to articulate it.  But it is difficult to escape the conclusion that he is expressing quite general principles, rather than addressing merely local problems.  The universal scope of Paul’s teaching is also stressed by his insistence that there is no authority apart from that which has been appointed by God.

A general principle, not a rule without exceptions

Does Paul’s blanket command permit any exceptions?  As Kruse says, ‘submission to the ruling authorities is to be given willingly, but not uncritically, for there will be occasions when what the authorities demand is contrary to “what God’s will is” (cf. Rom 12:2).’  See also note on v2.

Moo wryly notes that in large measure ‘the history of the interpretation of Rom 13:1-7 is the history of attempts to avoid what seems to be its plain meaning’.  Still, we are not to blindly follow this command to be subject to the ruling authorities into a place where we would be in clear contradiction of other aspects of God’s revealed will.  Moo mentions the Holocaust, where true Christian devotion to God meant defiance of the government.  The classic expression of this is in Acts 5:29, where Peter and John refuse instructions to stop speaking in Jesus name, saying, “We must obey God rather than men”.

Kent Hughes says that ‘we must realize what the passage does not tell us. It does not directly say what we ought to do when a government departs from the role God has given it. It does not specifically explain what to do when our government is committing a moral wrong. Neither are we told what to do in the midst of revolution. It also does not show us which form of government is best—it does not even commend democracy!’

‘As an example of the misuse of Romans 13 I refer to an experience of Michael Cassidy, founder of African Enterprise. On 8 October 1985 he was granted an interview with President P. W. Botha in Pretoria. It was the time of the National Initiative for Reconciliation, and Michael had hoped for signs of repentance and for the assurance that apartheid would be dismantled. He was to be bitterly disappointed. This is his account of what happened: ‘I was immediately aware on entry to the room that this was not to be the sort of encounter for which I had prayed. The President began by standing to read me part of Romans 13!’ He evidently imagined that this passage was enough to justify unequivocal support of the Nationalist Government’s apartheid policy.’ (Stott)

As Osborne, summarising Moo, says: ‘Paul demands submission but not blind obedience—the believer respects and submits in every way possible except when the government asks something contrary to God’s will.’

In fact, it is precisely because rulers are not self-empowered, but empowered by God that there are limits to their authority, and that there may be exceptions to the obedience owed to them by their subjects.

But the authority of ‘the powers that be’ limited not only in scope, but also in duration.  In the words of F.F. Bruce: ‘The following verses show that the duty of obedience to secular authorities is a temporary one, lasting only for the present period of “night” (verse 12); in the “day” which “is at hand” a new order of government will be introduced, when “the saints will judge the world” (1 Cor. 6:2). The state is to wither away (on this Paul and Karl Marx agree); “the city of God remaineth.”‘

Bruce asks: ‘What if the authorities themselves are unrighteous? What if Caesar, not content with receiving what is rightfully his, lays claim to “the things that are God’s”? Paul does not deal with this question here, presumably because it had not yet arisen; but it was to be a burning question in the Roman state for generations to come. Caesar could so far exceed the limits of his divinely-given jurisdiction as to claim divine honours for himself and wage war against the saints. Can we recognize Paul’s magistrate, the “minister of God”, in John’s “beast from the abyss”, who receives his authority from the great red dragon and uses it to enforce universal worship of himself and to exterminate those who withhold worship from him? We can indeed, for Paul himself foresaw precisely such a development when the restraint of law was withdrawn (2 Thess. 2:6–10). “Without justice”, said Augustine, “what are kingdoms but great gangs of bandits?”‘

Is there a place for civil disobedience?

‘Whenever laws are enacted which contradict God’s law, civil disobedience becomes a Christian duty. There are notable examples of it in Scripture. When Pharaoh ordered the Hebrew midwives to kill the newborn boys, they refused to obey. ‘The midwives … feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live.’ When King Nebuchadnezzar issued an edict that all his subjects must fall down and worship his golden image, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused to obey.  When King Darius made a decree that for thirty days nobody should pray ‘to any god or man’ except himself, Daniel refused to obey. And when the Sanhedrin banned preaching in the name of Jesus, the apostles refused to obey.  All these were heroic refusals, in spite of the threats which accompanied the edicts. In each case civil disobedience involved great personal risk, including possible loss of life. In each case its purpose was ‘to demonstrate their submissiveness to God, not their defiance of government.’’ (Stott, quoting C.C. Colson)  See also Ex 1:17; 1 Kings 21:3; Dan 3:18; Dan 612; Acts 4:19f; 5:29; Heb 11:23.

The difficulty comes, of course, when there is no explicit command from God. Christian conscience, shaped by Scripture and the mind of Christ, will then need to apply prayerful discernment to individual cases.

‘It is a fine line that Christians are called to walk. As people with one foot in this world, we are called to respect the God-ordained institutions of this world, even as we recognize their imperfections and failings in a world of sin. But as people for whom this world is no longer home, we freely acknowledge that the demands of heaven transcend the demands of the world. And whenever there is a serious conflict between the two, we know our primary calling is to be faithful to the Lord, whatever the price.’ (Cornerstone)

Bruce observes: ‘Christians will voice their ‘No’ to Caesar’s unauthorized demands the more effectively if they have shown themselves ready to say ‘Yes’ to his authorized demands.’

What is the difference between personal ethics and civil ethics?

Taking our cue from Stott, we might characterise the biblical view on personal ethics as ‘love tempered by justice’, and on civil ethics as ‘justice tempered by love’.

The servant of the state is a minister of God

Stott: ‘I confess that I find it extremely impressive that Paul writes of both the “authority” and the “ministry” of the state; that three times he describes the state and its ministers as God’s ministers, using two words (diakonos and leitourgos) which elsewhere he applied to his own ministry as apostle and evangelist, and even to the ministry of Christ. I do not think there is any way of wriggling out of this, for example by interpreting the paragraph as a grudging acquiescence in the realities of political power. No. In spite of the defects of Roman government, with which he was personally familiar, Paul emphatically declared its authority and ministry to be God’s. It is the divine origin of the state’s authority which makes Christian submission to it a matter of “conscience”.’ (Rom 13:5) (Authentic Christianity, 351)

Again: ‘Those who serve the state as legislators, civil servants, magistrates, police, social workers or tax-collectors are just as much ‘ministers of God’ as those who serve the church as pastors, teachers, evangelists or administrators.’

Although some Christians advocate a complete aloofness from civil life and government, Paul’s teaching militates against such an attitude. ‘There is nothing anomalous about Christians serving in the police force or the prison service, as politicians or magistrates or town councillors. For Christians worship a God who is just and are therefore committed to the quest for justice. The Christian community should not stand aloof from the secular community, but seek to penetrate it for Christ.’ (Stott, New Issues Facing Christians Today, 102)

It follows that public service is an appropriate vocation for suitably-gifted Christian believers, who can know that they are thereby serving God and working for the good of his world.

God is sovereign over the nations

This, as a number of commentators have pointed out, is a conviction that is deeply rooted in the OT.  The prophets were able to hold together the ideas that pagan rulers could be terrible despots, and do great harm to the people of God, and yet they were never beyond God’s watchful control.  This was the case with Assyria, Isaiah 10; Cyrus, Isaiah 45; and Babylon, Jeremiah 29.  See also Dan 4:17.  All of this comes into sharp focus when Jesus says to Pilate (who is about to execute him), “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.”

The punishment of criminals is an ordinance of God

‘It is a good thing when the punishment of malefactors is managed as an ordinance of God, instituted and appointed by him.

First, As a holy God, that hates sin, against which, as it appears and puts up its head, a public testimony is thus borne.

Secondly, As King of nations, and the God of peace and order, which are hereby preserved.

Thirdly, As the protector of the good, whose persons, families, estates, and names, are by this means hedged about.

Fourthly, As one that desires not the eternal ruin of sinners, but by the punishment of some would terrify others, and so prevent the like wickedness, that others may hear and fear, and do no more presumptuously. Nay, it is intended for a kindness to those that are punished, that by the destruction of the flesh the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.’ (MHC)

Does the state commend the good?

On the function of the state to commend the good, Stott comments: ‘The state tends to be better at punishing than at rewarding, better at enforcing the law than at fostering virtue and service. At the same time, although this is a controversial area, most governments acknowledge that they have a responsibility to preserve their society’s values (not least through their educational system) and to encourage citizens to share in their welfare programme by voluntary service. Most countries also have some arrangement for recognizing those of their citizens who have made a conspicuous contribution to the public good. They give them a citation or a certificate, a title, a decoration or some other token of appreciation. But they could probably improve and extend their award system, so that only outstanding merit is rewarded, and their honours become increasingly prized and coveted, like the international Nobel and Templeton awards. Perhaps citizens should be given stronger encouragement to recommend people from their community for public recognition.’

What ‘good’ does the state do?

The positive role of the state extends beyond simply recognising or rewarding compliance with the law.  More fundamentally, the state protects the vulnerable, ensures safety, promotes health, guarantees liberty (including liberty of religion), permits free movement, provides education, ensures that water is clean and the sewage is disposed of safely, and much more.  And, even more fundamentally, the state provides a stable environment where children can be raised, families enjoyed, friendships nurtured, leisure interests pursued, and where arts, music and literature can flourish.

The New Testament and a Theology of Policing

Chapter 2 of Esau McCaulley’s book Reading While Black discusses ‘The New Testament and a Theology of Policing.’

McCauley selects two texts for consideration.  The first has implications for the state, and the second for the individual law enforcer.

Romans 13:1-7

13:1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except by God’s appointment, and the authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 13:2 So the person who resists such authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will incur judgment 13:3 (for rulers cause no fear for good conduct but for bad). Do you desire not to fear authority? Do good and you will receive its commendation, 13:4 for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be in fear, for it does not bear the sword in vain. It is God’s servant to administer retribution on the wrongdoer. 13:5 Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of the wrath of the authorities but also because of your conscience. 13:6 For this reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants devoted to governing. 13:7 Pay everyone what is owed: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.

McCaulley argues that those enforcing the law in Rome had something in common with today’s police officers.  Roman Christians might meet situations remarkably similar to those encountered by African Americans today:

‘They might be questioned by the vigiles or Octavian’s guard simply for living in this neighborhood. They might have been bullied by officers trying to get a few extra dollars when tax collection season came around. Christian shop owners might have been pressured to pay the “fee” for doing business or risk being beat out by a competitor. Whenever the city was alive with festival and celebration, the Roman Christian might have had to watch out for an anxious officer who was keen to keep said festivities from spiraling out of control. In short, at any moment in the lives of Roman church members, they might come face to face with the state and its sword.’

McCaulley, like other commentators, observes that Paul, in saying that no-one will be harmed by the state for doing good, is stating the ideal.  His mention of Pharaoh is sufficient evidence that he knew that human ruers often fall short of that ideal.

The same writer notes that Paul’s attention falls less on the individual law enforcer than on those who control ‘the word’ by making policy:

‘This gives the Christian thinker and advocate the space to think structurally about how a just society should treat its people. Paul also speaks about the absence of fear, a central concern for Black folks. Yes, Paul does speak about the Christian’s responsibility to the government. This is fine. We do not want anarchy. We gladly acknowledge the potential goods of government. We also recognize the church’s ability to discern evil in government actions even if we lack the sovereignty over history to know when God will bring judgment. Nonetheless, we must always remember that Paul’s words on submission to government come in the context of a Bible that shows God active in history to bring about his purposes. God lifts up and God tears down. To avoid that tearing down, those who have the task of government must do all in their power to construct a society in which Black persons can live and move and work freely.’

Luke 3

In Luke 3, many are coming to John the Baptist.  He urges them to ‘produce fruit that proves [their] repentance.  First the crowds, then tax collectors, and then some soldiers as John what they must do.

To the soldiers, John responds: “Take money from no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your pay.”

These soldiers were Roman troops sent to keep peace in the province. Many would have abused their power by oppressing the poor.

Esau McCaulley applies this exchange with the soldiers to the duties and responsibilities of law enforcement officers in the United States (with particular reference to black citizens).  He suggests that, whereas Paul in Romans 13:3f oncusses on the responsibilities of the state, then the present verse sheds light on those of the individual officer.

Regarding John’s condemnation of extortion, McCaulley comments:

‘Do not underestimate the weight of this critique. Extortion goes beyond mere bribes. Extortion involves using your power to prey on the weak. Extortion is only possible when the extorted have no recourse. This means that John was concerned with a form of policing in which those who have power use it as a means of pursuing their own agenda at the cost of those most at risk. For this reason, his criticism of false accusations should not be separated from extortion because false accusations often undergird extortion. If the people being extorted refused to comply they might find themselves “accused” of crimes that they did not commit.’

The passage also speaks to the human dignity of oppressed and brutalised people.  They too have been made in the image of God:

John also might have in mind a soldier offering up a person for a crime to satisfy the whim of their superior or to achieve some political end. This giving over of bodies as sacrificial offerings for the maintenance of the status quo denies the imago Dei in each of us. The story of Jesus’ crucifixion contains the paradigmatic false accusation. When John’s Gospel recounts Pilate’s unintentionally profound words, “Behold the man,” it speaks to Jesus as the one true human who came to restore us all. At the same time, John makes it clear that even as an innocent person condemned to die Jesus is in fact a person. This is the Black claim on the conscience of those who police us. See us as persons worthy of respect in every instance. Jesus’ treatment by the soldiers strikes us as egregious because he was innocent of the charges (Mt 27:27–30), but do the guilty deserve beatings and mockery? Matthew 27:27–30 speaks to how a corrupt system can distort the souls of those charged with functioning in a broken system. John calls on those in that system to rise above the temptation to dehumanize and act with integrity.’

John further commands that those charge with law enforcement should be satisfied with their wages:

‘This again points to the link between policing and money. Soldiers/officers must be satisfied with what they receive for the work that they do. In our day, this speaks to excessive fines and tickets given to the poor that only serve to enrich the state. For John the Baptist, money can never trump justice.’

In conclusion:

‘What does John add to a Christian theology of policing? He adds the personal responsibility and integrity of the officers themselves. He calls upon those with power to use that power to uphold the inherent dignity of all residents and to never use that power for their own ends.’
13:6 For this reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants devoted to governing. 13:7 Pay everyone what is owed: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.

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:-

  1. Government is a divine institution.
  2. This is the case even for unjust governments, since not to have any form of rule is to breed anarchy and political disaster.
  3. Christians are to support their governments by paying taxes and showing respect to their officials.
  4. 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.


Exhortation to Love Neighbors, 8-10

13:8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. 13:9 For the commandments, “Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not covet,” (and if there is any other commandment) are summed up in this, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 13:10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

Love does no harm to its neighbour – This casts the positive command, v9, in its negative form.  ‘On the one hand, the latter safeguards against reducing agapē to the principle of utility (e.g., “the greatest good for the greatest number”). Great evils have been visited on minorities in the name of helping the masses. This was in fact Caiaphas’ justification for handing over Jesus for crucifixion, “It is better … that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish” (John 11:50). On the other hand, verse 10 prevents agapē from being reduced to the principle of expediency (e.g., the attempt to justify evil means for ostensibly good ends). Love does good, and the doing of good rules out the doing of evil.’ (Edwards)

Love is the fulfilment of the law – ‘Fulfilment’ = pleroma, a word with a wide range of meanings: as Bruce states, it is translated ‘full inclusion’ in Rom 11:12, ‘full number’ in Rom 11:25, ‘fulness’ in Rom 15:29.

Edwards says: ‘This text has important implications for our understanding of the relationship of Paul’s gospel to the Mosaic law. It indicates again that his gospel is not antinomian, for it results in the fulfillment of the law. However, this does not mean a reinstatement of the law. Rather, the effect of Paul’s gospel is that believers, by walking in the Spirit, are enabled to love one another, so that what the law sought, but was unable to produce, is fulfilled in them (cf. Rom 8:3–4).’

‘The truth is that love cannot manage on its own without an objective moral standard. That is why Paul wrote not that ‘love is the end of law’ but that ‘love is the fulfilment of the law’. For   p 350  love and law need each other. Love needs law for its direction, while law needs love for its inspiration.’ (Stott)

Motivation to Godly Conduct, 11-14

13:11 And do this because we know the time, that it is already the hour for us to awake from sleep, for our salvation is now nearer than when we became believers. 13:12 The night has advanced toward dawn; the day is near. So then we must lay aside the works of darkness, and put on the weapons of light. 13:13 Let us live decently as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in discord and jealousy. 13:14 Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to arouse its desires.

Our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed – This expression is, says Pate, ‘full of eschatological language’: ‘“Now” (nyn) refers to the presence of the age to come (cf. Rom 3:21; 5:9; 2 Cor. 6:2), and “salvation” (sōtēria) refers to the Christian’s redemptive wholeness and spiritual deliverance, a process begun by faith and soon to be culminated at the parousia. This salvation has drawn “nearer” (engyteron), a term recalling Jesus’ proclamation of the arrival of the kingdom of God, the age to come (Mark 1:15; 13:28–29; cf. James 5:8; 1 Pet. 4:7).’

‘Christians, it is but a while and you will have done weeping and praying, and be triumphing; you shall put off your mourning, and put on white robes; you shall put off your armour, and put on a victorious crown. You who have made a good progress in religion, you are almost ready to commence and take your degree of glory; now is your salvation nearer than when you began to believe. When a man is almost at the end of a race, will he tire, or faint away? O labour to persevere, your salvation is now nearer; you have but a little way to go, and you will set your foot in heaven! Though the way be up-hill and full of thorns, yet you have gone the greatest part of your way, and shortly shall rest from your labours.’ (Thomas Watson)

The night is nearly over – ‘This present age, which Paul refers to as “the night,” can never again have a higher status than that of something “far spent”‘ (Cranfield).

Eschatological ethics

It is clear that for Paul, 'eschatology forms the basis for Christian ethics.  Accordingly, two general commands are issued: Christians are to put off the deeds of darkness and put on the weapons of light. This respective shedding of unrighteousness and donning of righteousness reflect the ongoing struggle that believers experience because they live in between the two epochs.' (Pate)

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.”‘