Understanding Romans 13
Not a political theory
Romans 13 has created considerable confusion, partly because it is difficult to interpret and understand. Bad translations and interpretations have resulted in the serious misuse of political power.
There are several issues with the traditional interpretation of the passage. I will review them in the following sections before going on to explain what Paul was teaching in Romans.
1. Subversive Message
An important feature of Paul’s letters is that he refers to the “kingdom of God” far less than the writers of the gospels. He understood the importance of the Kingdom, because he mentioned it in his preaching (Acts 14:22, 19:8, 20:25, 28:23), but he is not so open about the Kingdom in his letters. This is not surprising because Paul was communicating with people in important cities in the wider Roman Empire, so he had to be careful about what he wrote.
Rome was ruthless in dealing with any potential opposition to its power, particularly Jewish rebels, so someone proclaiming a gospel of deliverance could come under suspicion if not careful. If Paul had spoken and written openly about an alternative king ruling a new kingdom, he would have been perceived as a threat to Rome. In fact, this is exactly what happened in Philippi. He was accused of “advocating customs that are unlawful for Romans to accept or practice” (Acts 16:21).
The Jewish leaders in Jerusalem accused Paul of being a “troublemaker” stirring up problems all over the empire” (Acts 24:5). In Thessalonica, the accusation was even sharper.
They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus (Acts 17:7).
If this accusation had been taken seriously by the Romans, Paul would have become a marked man.
Romans 13 is the only letter in which Paul clearly explains the relationship between the Kingdom of God and the Roman Empire. Because it was being sent to Rome, the heart of the empire, this was a risky task. He had to be careful about what he wrote to avoid putting his readers at risk from the Roman authorities. The letter would be carried to Rome by a messenger, probably Phoebe (Rom 16:1-2). If the language was too incendiary, Phoebe would be in big trouble if the authorities challenged her mission.
Paul had two tasks to achieve. First, he had to explain to the Romans how justice would function in the Kingdom of God. He does that in Romans 12:21-13:2 by pointing back to the system of government established in the book of Deuteronomy. Jewish leaders would understand what he meant, but the Roman authorities would not realise that the Kingdom of God was a huge threat to the Roman Empire, and would eventually eclipse it.
The second task is to describe the dangers of worldly rulers and explain how to deal with them. Paul does that in Romans 13:3-7, but he is very careful with his wording. His challenge was to provide advice about living under human rulers without putting his readers at risk. When warning about their danger, he had to be quite cryptic in case his letter was read by the authorities.
Paul had to present a radical message clearly without putting people who held a copy of the letter in danger. We must take this risk into account if we want to understand his message.
2. Not a Political Theory
Many people misunderstand Romans 13 because they come to the passage assuming that Paul is providing a Christian political theory; ie an explanation and justification of political power. This approach will always lead to disappointment because Paul does not provide a political theory in any of his letters. Turning his teaching in Romans 13 into a political theory distorts its meaning, which is dangerous.
Paul realised that he did not need to provide a Christian political theory because he understood that God had already given Israel a perfect system of government when they entered the “promised land”. They had not needed a system of government while they were slaves, but once they began to live together in a small piece of territory, they did. The perfect system that God gave Moses was his law applied by local judges.
So when Paul was writing about government and political power, he affirmed the system of law and judges that God had already given, just as Jesus did (Matt 5:17-18). He follows his affirmation of "God's law applied by local judges" by giving a few applications relevant to life in the Roman empire, building on the more important behavioural teaching in Romans 12. (Law and government are always secondary for Christians.)
Christians seeking an explanation and justification for political power will not find it in Romans 13. Instead, they should begin with the teaching about God's law and local judges provided in Deuteronomy. I analyse it in more detail at Law and Judges.
3. Powers that Be
Paul knew that God's perfect system of government was already provided in the Torah, so he did not need to describe it again in his letter to the Romans. Instead, he explained how justice should function in the Kingdom of God with a reference back to Deuteronomy. This explains his strange use of the strange expression, often translated as the "the powers that be".
The key to understanding Paul’s message is realising that the expression “powers that be” should be translated as "the judges that are". This raises an interesting question: "How come they just are, and are not appointed?" The solution is understanding that Paul was quoting two verses in Deuteronomy.
Then both the men who have a dispute shall stand before Yahweh, before... the judges who are in those days (Deut 19:17).
You shall go to... the judges who are at that time. Inquire of them, and they will give you the word of verdict (Deut 17:9).
The modern translations refer to the judges that are in office in those days, but the word office does not exist in the Hebrew text. A literal translation would be "the judges that are in those days". Paul would have been familiar with these texts. When he started thinking about justice and government, these texts immediately came to mind, so he wrote that followers of Jesus should submit to “the judges who are”.
The two verses from Deuteronomy summarise the perfect form of government that God gave through the Mosaic covenant: God's law applied by godly judges. So, in Romans 13:1, Paul was referring back to God's ideal government. He was not creating a new political theory, but referring back to the one that God had already given to Moses and confirming that God's will for government had not changed.
Most Christian political theorists miss the link between Romans 13:1 and Deuteronomy 19:17 and Deuteronomy 17:9. That is not surprising, because most people who are interested in political power dislike God's law and assume that it is redundant.
4. All Government is Good
Many commentators on Romans 13 claim that God is an orderly God, so he gave us kings and politicians to provide order for society. Kings might be bad at times, but anarchy would be worse. Here are some examples.
Paul's assumption is that the government in power (even Rome with its erroneous religious views, etc.) is better than the evil that would result from anarchy (George Herrick).
Anarchy simply replaces the tyranny of the officially powerful with the tyranny of the unofficially powerful, the bullies and the rich (NT Wright).
The assumption that kings and parliaments are part of God's order for society is common to most commentaries on Romans. They assume that God has given us human government because life would be awful without it.
The first problem with this assumption is that it is not supported by scripture. God did not establish kings and parliaments to provide order in society. God gave his law for that purpose.
The LORD commanded us to follow all these statutes and to fear the LORD our God for our prosperity always and for our preservation, as it is today. (Deut 6:24).
The law is God's provision for order in society. The Bible never says that kings and rulers are God’s institution to provide order.
Secondly, the assumption that kings are superior to anarchy is never proved. For example, the statement by NT Wright above does not make sense. The "officially powerful" are also bullies who enjoy telling other people what to do. The "officially powerful" always seem to become rich. The tyranny of the "officially powerful" is no better than the tyranny of the unofficially powerful.
Tyranny cannot be part of God's order, whether it is official or unofficial. If we think that Romans 13 advocates tyranny, then we have misunderstood God's word. Life without kings can be awful, but life with a king is usually awful, too.
The claim that God established governing authorities to produce an orderly society is wrong. God gave his law to provide order on earth.
We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. We also know that the law is... for lawbreakers and rebels (1 Tim 1:8-9).
God’s law cannot eliminate all sin and evil, but if applied correctly, it can maintain order among sinful and rebellious people; something human governments have never been able to achieve.
5. Overcome Evil with Good
The standard interpretations of Romans 13 imply that all governments have been instituted by God, so Christians should submit to them. The common argument is that Paul was writing to the church in Rome at a time when Nero was Caesar. If a terrible ruler like Nero was instituted by God, then all forms of political power are justified and Christians must submit to whatever political authority comes to power.
The main problem with this view is in the last verse of the previous chapter.
Do not be overcome by evil, but conquer evil with good (Rom 12:21).
Why would Paul tell us not to be overcome by evil and then, in his next breath, tell us to submit to evil kings and emperors? Paul was not stupid. I believe that we have seriously misunderstood what he was saying about submission.
Romans 13:1-2 cannot apply to every ruler. A simple reading of the New Testament shows that many rulers are evil. Herod the Great killed all the boys aged less than two who lived in the vicinity of Bethlehem (Matt 2:16). Herod the Tetrarch beheaded John the Baptist to avoid embarrassment in front of his guests (Mark 6:21-28). Pontus Pilate killed Jesus because he was afraid of the people, even though he found no basis for the charges against him (Luke 23:14). Herod Agrippa had James the brother of John put to death with the sword (Acts 12:2). These few examples demonstrate that many rulers and kings are evil.
Paul had first-hand experience of political authorities doing evil. When he and Silas were in Philippi, they were flogged and beaten by the magistrates.
The magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten. After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison (Acts 16:22,23).
Paul understood from his own experience that rulers can be very dangerous for Christians and do great harm.
I have been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned (1 Cor 11:23-25).
Paul knew better than most that the state can be very hostile to God. Given this experience, the idea that he taught submission to every political authority is nonsense. His teaching in Romans 13 cannot be a blanket approval for all political rulers.
Evil cannot beat evil. The only way to overcome evil is with good. The prophets condemn those who say that evil things are good (Isaiah 5:20). We must be careful not to fall into that trap of saying that bad government is good. The traditional interpretation of these verses is that we must submit to all political authorities because their authority is from God. This is a false logic. To see the twisted thinking, look at the following sets of statements.
All authority is ordained by God.
Hitler has authority.
Therefore, Hitler is ordained by God, so we must submit to him.
This following example exaggerates the point.
All authority is ordained by God.
Satan has authority.
Therefore, Satan is ordained by God, so we must submit to him.
Neither is true. The correct logic is as follows.
All legitimate authority is from God.
Hitler and Satan are hostile to God.
Therefore, the authority of Hitler and Satan is illegitimate.
The statement that all authority is ordained by God cannot be used to legitimise any and every political authority. It should inspire us to seek out legitimate authority.
6. No Law Making
Every society needs laws to function. There are two ways we can get the law that our society needs.
We can get our law from God.
We can make up our own law.
Most modern nations have chosen the second option. They have a Parliament of a Congress that makes laws for the nation. Most Christians also accept the second method. They are happy to accept laws made by the parliament or congress that exists in their nation. I find this quite puzzling.
Human parliaments and congresses make human law. I can understand why heathens would want to live under human laws, but why would Christians want to live under human laws?
God has revealed his law. It is simple to read and easy to understand. Why do Christians not want to use God's law?
Human laws will always be inferior to God's law. We have the odd situation in the modern world where everyone hates God's law, but loves human law. I can understand why those who hate God would hate his law, but I cannot understand why those who love God are so ambivalent about his law.
This is a dilemma for political leaders. If they are making laws, they are rejecting God's law, so they cannot claim to be under his authority. If they are under God's authority, they will accept his law and stop making human laws. Paul makes no reference to human law-making in Romans 13. The reason is that God has already given the law.
God is our lawgiver (Is 33:22).
God is the lawgiver, and he has not given or delegated that role to anyone else. This means that all human law-makers are usurpers of God's authority. The role of parliaments and congresses is to make human laws, so their authority is illegitimate. They are in rebellion against God's law, so they cannot be under God.
Paul gives no hint of a need for human legislators in Romans 13. When writing about law, he refers to the Ten Commandments. When summarising the law that is fulfilled by love, he refers to the second table of the law.
The commandments, "Do not commit adultery," "Do not murder," "Do not steal," "Do not covet" (Rom 13:9).
Paul is clearly thinking about God's law and not man-made law. The expression "other commandments that may be" probably refers to the applications of these laws given in Exodus 21-23.
Since we have God's law, we do not need parliaments or legislators to decide what is right and wrong. Therefore, the authorities described by Paul cannot be parliaments, congresses and other legislative bodies. These cannot be under God, because their purpose is to produce human laws. Since they are not submitted to God, Christians do not need to recognise their authority.
Being democratically elected does not give human legislators authority to make laws. They are elected by humans, so they can never have more than human authority. They can only make human laws, so Christians are not required to obey human laws. Romans 13 cannot be used to validate human law-makers. In contrast, Romans 13 validates God’s law.
7. No Force
Before launching into his teaching on civil government, Paul states a powerful principle.
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Rom 12:21).
Although this principle restates Jesus' command to turn the other cheek, its wider implications are not well understood. Paul is saying that we must not use evil to overcome evil, even when dealing with the issue of order in society.
Most political authority involves forcing people to do things against their will. However, God gave us freedom, so forcing people to do things they do not wish to do is evil, even if it is done to maintain order in society.
God does not force people to obey him. He prefers that people do his will because they love him. Forcing people to be good has no place in the Kingdom of God.
Modern government is based on the use of force.
People are forced to obey the laws passed by the politicians in power.
People are forced to pay the rate of tax that the politicians levy.
The use of force is justified by the claim that if people are not restrained by the power of the state, then society will become disorderly. The supporters of political power agree that the use of force is evil, but they claim that if there was no government, even worse evil would result. This is essentially an argument for using a lesser evil to overcome a greater evil. Paul seems to be ruling this option out. If we are only allowed to overcome evil with good, then overcoming evil with a lesser evil is not acceptable.
Romans 12:21 is a radical principle that undermines the basis of all modern governments. If Paul's words are true, the idea that governments can force people to do things for the good of society is flawed. All systems that force people to do things against their will are illegitimate.
This is the reason that governments have perpetrated so much evil. They are based on a principle that it is morally correct to use a lesser evil to overcome a greater evil. The problem is that evil always begets evil. Democracy is no solution. Under democracy, minorities are forced to do what the majority decides. Voting does not make this coercion right.
Jesus was adamant that his Kingdom would not be established by force (Matt 26:53,54; John 18:36). Christians should not support any government system that is based on force. Jesus was clear about the limitations of force.
But Jesus said to him, "Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword (Matt 26:52).
Jesus was not just saying that force will fail; he was warning that it will eventually destroy all those who use it. Christians have not understood this. We believe in salvation by grace, but once we are saved, we rush straight back to using law to change the world; not God's law, but human law. Throughout the Western world, Christians are trying to persuade their politicians and parliaments to pass laws prohibiting a wide variety of sins, including prostitution and abortion.
This is quite odd. We all understand that only the Holy Spirit can change hearts, but we still want to use force and human law to deal with sin. A valid interpretation of Romans 13 must not authorise force and violence.
8. Misleading Translation
Part of the problem with Romans 13 is the way that it has been translated. Whenever a word has alternative meanings, the translators choose the sense that gives the greatest support to state power.
This trend is not surprising. Martin Luther, the first of the Protestants to translate the New Testament, was protected by Prince Frederick. He was hardly going to translate Romans 13 in a way that undermined his protector's political power. The translators of the King James Version were not going to translate Romans 13 in a way that denied the power of King James.
Unfortunately, modern translators of the New Testament have not escaped from the influence of their predecessors. They continue to translate the passage in a way that supports state power. This is quite odd. An important theme of Paul's letters is that Jesus is Lord, and Caesar is not. If this is true, we should not be translating his letters in a way that maximises Caesar's power. We need a translation of Romans 13 that respects Jesus as Lord. (A better translation is given at the end of this article).
A good example of the translation problem is Romans 13:1. The following is a typical translation.
Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities (NIV).
This translation is quite misleading. The first problem is that the word "governing" is not in the Greek text. The word often translated as "governing" is "huperecho". It can mean "superior in rank", but it also has a strong sense of "excellence". Paul used the same word in Philippians 3:8 when speaking of the "surpassing greatness" of knowing Christ. Paul is actually saying that we should only submit to those who are excellent. He is giving us a choice when submitting. We only submit to those who have demonstrated excellence.
Every person should submit to the more excellent judges (Rom 13:1a).
This is an important aspect of submission. Christians are never required to offer blind submission. Our freedom means that submission is always voluntary. We should use our freedom to submit wisely. We should only submit to the best people, whether elders, judges or employers.
Understanding Romans 13
A serious problem in Romans 13 is the word "authority" (exousia). It is used four times in the first two verses of the chapter, so its meaning is really important for understanding Paul's message. By attaching the word "governing", modern translations give exousia the strongest possible meaning. However, like the English word "authority", the Greek word "exousia" can take a broad range of meanings, including freedom, ruler, authority and judge. It is used for the authority that was given to Jesus (Matt 28:10). It is also used to describe spiritual authorities (Eph 1:21; 6:12).
In Luke 12:11, exousia is used in the context of appearance before a court, so "judge" or "magistrate" is the appropriate translation. The context in Romans 13 is similar, as Paul is thinking about crime and punishment. In most societies, the punishment of crime is handled by judges in courts of law. Therefore, translating exousia as judge makes sense in this passage.
Every person should submit to the more excellent judges because there is no legitimate judicial authority except under God (Rom 13:1a).
In Romans 13, exousia is authority that has been given by God to those who implement his law, so it must be referring to judges. The core message of Romans 13:1 is that all people should submit to excellent judges (exousia).
Choice of Words
In Romans 13:1, Paul uses the word "exousia", which is often translated as "authority". I have argued that he was referring to judges. Why did he not use the Greek word "krites", which can also mean judge?
The answer to this conundrum is obvious in the Acts of the Apostles. The word "krites" was used quite frequently in the Roman Empire. Gallio was the Roman proconsul of Achaia when a group of Jews brought Paul before his court. Gallio said,
Settle the matter yourselves. I will not be a judge (krites) of such things (Acts 18:15).
Paul used the same word when he appeared before Felix, the governor (hegemon) at Caesarea.
When the governor motioned for him to speak, Paul replied: "I know that for a number of years you have been a judge (krites) over this nation; so I gladly make my defence (Acts 24:10).
Paul could not use the word "krites" when writing his letter to the Romans because they would have assumed that he was referring to governors and proconsuls. This was exactly the opposite of his message, so he chose to avoid the word "krites" and used the word "exousia" instead. To make his target clear, he qualified the word "exousia" with the adjective "excellent" and made the link to Deuteronomy with the expression "judges that are".
Paul was advocating government by excellent judges (exousia) interpreting the law of God.
Most translations of Romans 13:1b say,
There is no authority except from God.
The Greek word translated as "from" is "upo". This word means "under" rather than "from". This is a subtle but important difference (another example of the translators favouring the political authorities).
Saying that all authority is from God implies that he created it, but has given it to someone else. It has gone from him to the political authorities. This is a distortion of the truth. Paul is saying that there is no legitimate authority except under God. True authority can only be received by those who operate "under" God. Any authority that is not under God has been stolen and is illegitimate.
A doctrine has emerged that,
Jesus is Lord of the church and the spiritual world.
The state has authority in the secular realm.
This is absurd. Jesus is Lord of all. He said that all authority has been given to him. He has not handed any authority over to the secular state. (He has not given authority over to a Christian state paying lip service to his authority.) Kings and parliaments do not operate in a political sphere with an independent authority. Unless they are totally submitted to God, they are operating with an authority that they have stolen from Jesus, so their authority is illegitimate. Paul was actually warning that they are rebels and usurpers because they are not “under God”.
Judges Who Are
Paul explains that excellent judges are established by God.
The ones that are have been set under God (Rom 13:1c).
The expression "the judges that are" comes from the Old Testament and is the key to understanding Romans 13. Paul is referring back to the verses in the book of Deuteronomy that refer to "the judges that are".
Then both the men who have a dispute shall stand before Yahweh, before...the judges who are in those days (Deut 19:17).
You shall go to... the judges who are at that time. Inquire of them, and they will give you the word of verdict (Deut 17:9).
The modern translations refer to the judges that are in office in those days, but the word office does not exist in the Hebrew text. A literal translation is "the judges that shall be in those days" or "the judges that are in those days". Paul would have been familiar with these texts. When he started thinking about justice, the Holy Spirit brought this expression to his mind.
Exodus and Deuteronomy described a unique system of government: God's law applied by godly judges. Paul is simply referring back to that plan and confirming that God's will has not changed. He explains that we are required to submit to the judges that God has established.
The judges (exousia) that have emerged in a free society are arranged by God.
Paul seems to imply that these judges just exist. They are not elected or appointed; they just are. This seems odd, but it is really important.
If judges are appointed, the person who has the power to appoint them has the power to distort justice. Judges who are appointed by kings or politicians lose their independence because those who appoint them can also remove them. The people also lose their freedom to choose the best judges.
The Bible describes a better system. Judges emerge as people start taking cases to people who demonstrate wisdom. If a person gets a reputation for making wise decisions, more and more people will submit their cases to them. Paul said that we should submit to excellent judges because that is how excellent judges emerge. They are not appointed. Ordinary wise people become judges as people choose to submit cases to them.
Excellent judges are not appointed, but emerge as free people submit cases to them. They get recognised as more and more people submit their cases to the better judges. Poorer judges will get fewer and fewer cases as people hear about their mistakes. When a judge goes sour, people will stop submitting to her/him altogether and take their cases to better judges. Paul is saying that the judges that have emerged in a free society are the ones that are established by God. By submitting to excellent judges, we allow God to bring into being the judges that he has chosen.
Moses, like many leaders, believed that he could do the task of judging better than anyone else, but exhaustion proved him wrong. When he set up a system of judges, he thought he needed to appoint them, but he was acting on the advice of Jethro, his father-in-law, and not on a word from God.
All Moses really had to do was tell the people to take their cases to the people in their tribes and communities that they already trusted (Exodus 18). He actually found that God already had judges in place. The people knew who they were, but Moses had not acknowledged them. The new system worked, because God has put the judges in place. They proved to be effective judges when they were allowed to do the task.
They served as judges for the people at all times. The difficult cases they brought to Moses, but the simple ones they decided themselves (Ex 18:26).
There is no legitimate judicial authority except from God, so the people who come to be "the judges that are" are God's order for justice. The judges that exist (because people trust them) are those placed (tassa) by God.
The word "judges" (exousia) is plural, so Paul is not talking about a single judge. He is suggesting that we should submit to judges (plural). Many judges will emerge, and we must submit to the more excellent ones.
The benefit of having many judges is that people have a choice. They can choose the ones that are best. In most modern countries, the state claims a monopoly on judging. Litigants have no choice, but have to use the judges provided by the state. Monopoly in any market tends to increase the price and reduce the quality of services.
The Bible always speaks of multiple judges (Ex 22:8,9; Deut 19:17,18; 25:1). People will tend to get better justice when a number of judges are competing to provide a better service.
Rebelling against God
Only those judges who come into existence through voluntary submission have legitimate authority. Their task is to apply the law of God. All other political powers are usurpers of God's authority.
Paul explains that people who object to the justice provided by excellent judges applying God's laws are rebelling against God.
Anyone resisting the decision of a good judge is rebelling against what God has put in place (Rom 13:2a).
This is a dangerous path to walk. Followers of Jesus should not be rebelling against what God has put in place. Paul warns that those who resist God's system of good judges are bringing judgment on themselves.
Now, those rejecting are accepting judgment for themselves (Rom 13:2b).
Those rejecting God’s way are accepting judgment for themselves. Paul explains the nature of this judgement. Those who reject God’s good way will find themselves living under powerful worldly rulers. He then goes on to explain the dangers of worldly rulers in Romans 13:3-8, but he does it in a very careful way. He uses words that would not offend a Roman official who read the letter, but he uses them in a way that gave a strong warning to followers of Jesus.
People who reject the perfect system of justice that God has provided bring judgment on themselves from the hands of a worldly ruler.
Worldly rulers cause no fear for the good way, but only for those choosing the bad option (Rom 13:3).
Followers of Jesus have a choice between God’s “good way” and the “bad option”. Paul puts it in a subtle way, but the bad option is life under a worldly ruler. In the next few verses, he explains how we should relate to them.
The word used for "ruler" is "arkon”. This is the same word as was used in the letter to the Ephesians to describe "government-spirits". Arkon are rulers that are opposed to God and usually controlled by powerful government-spirits, whose goal is to control and destroy.
Paul gives a subtle warning to the believers in Rome by putting together the words “ruler” and “fear” (Most English translations use the word “terror). Rulers produce fear. This is their real nature. Choosing to live under a worldly ruler is a bad choice because they produce fear/terror, not peace. Paul never connects the words “ruler” with “peace” or “justice” in this passage.
The recipients of the letter in Rome knew all about the fear of worldly rulers because they had experienced it. Roman power did not provide peace or justice; it protected the rich and powerful while enslaving the poor and impoverishing the rest of society. It dealt brutally with anyone who opposed it.
God’s good option described in Romans 12:1-2 is much safer for followers of Jesus because excellent judges applying God's law in their local community minimises injustice. This, in turn, reduces the influence of government-spirits on their society. Followers of Jesus living within a community of believers are relatively safe from the fear of evil because they can provide protection and support for each other when evil strikes. They do not need to fear worldly rulers (arkon) and the government-spirits. that control them because they can stand together to pray and resist them. The body of Jesus is the safest place in a hostile world.
The functioning of the body is described in Romans 12. Followers of Jesus should be devoted to one another in brotherly love (12:10).
They should strengthen and protect the body by sharing in the gifts of the Spirit (12:3-8). They should share with people who are in need and practice hospitality (12:13). People who are supporting each other in the unity and power of the Holy Spirit will be less afraid of a powerful ruler. In the current season, most followers of Jesus will find themselves living under the government of worldly rulers, even if they do not acknowledge the ruler’s authority. Paul explains that the best way to be free from the terror of a worldly ruler is to do good to all society.
Now, if you don’t want to be afraid of his authority, be doing good, and you will be commended (Rom 13:3).
In this verse, “authority” (exousia) is singular, so it refers to a worldly ruler. Doing good in society to avoid his harassment is common sense. If the followers of Jesus are supporting each other and caring for the non-believers who live amongst them in their community, it will be hard for political powers to fault them. Some of the people who benefit from their generosity will commend them as a force for good. One way to avoid the attention of a powerful ruler is to do good for the society around you.
Even though worldly rulers have authority on earth, God’s wisdom is greater than their power, so he is able to guide them to accomplish his purposes without them being aware of what is happening.
For you who are into the good, it can be God's servant (Rom 13:4a).
Rulers are not part of God’s ideal system of government, but he is still able to use rulers as his servants to do his will, despite their propensity for evil.
I suspect that Paul used the word “servant” so as not to disturb any Roman official who might see the letter. However, his readers in Rome would remember that Jeremiah described Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, as God’s servant. Three times God says,
I will summon my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon (Jer 25:9).
I will give all your countries into the hands of my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon (Jer 27:5).
I will send for my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon (Jer 43:10).
God often uses a worldly ruler to deal with powerful people and rulers who are doing evil, especially against his people. When Christians in Rome saw the word “servant”, they would understand that Paul was referring to a worldly ruler doing God’s will despite himself.
God can use worldly rulers to achieve benefits for his people if they have chosen his good way. On the other hand, if people are doing evil, God has far less potential for using the ruler to benefit them because the spiritual powers of evil that control the ruler have much greater rights over them.
But if you do bad, be afraid (Rom 13:4b).
God can keep his own people safe in the body of Jesus, but the powers of evil are a serious threat to people who reject his good way.
A ruler does not carry the sword for no purpose; it is a servant of God making right in anger to the one committing evil (Rom 13:4c).
Worldly rulers carry a sword and they are willing to wield it. People who have rejected God’s way and chosen to live under human political power should be afraid of their ruler because their power is often imposed with brutal force.
Rulers use power and coercion to enforce their own standard of justice, but due to his immense wisdom, God is able to use rulers to restrain the worst evil. He has done this throughout history. The prophets of the Old Testament recorded many examples of God using a worldly ruler to destroy another which has become too evil. God used Babylon to constrain the Egyptian empire. He then used Media-Persia to destroy the power of Babylon.
Jesus warned that God would use the Roman Empire to destroy the Jerusalem temple when the Jewish leaders persisted with the temple sacrifices once Jesus' death had made them redundant (Luke 21). God would eventually use rulers from the East to smash the Roman Empire.
Paul was writing out of his own experience because on several occasions, God used the power of Rome to protect him when people stirred up evil against him. Gallio the Roman Proconsul of Achaia rescued Him from Jewish attackers (Acts 18:12-17). The “city clerk” of Ephesus rescued Paul from a raucous crowd of accusers (Acts 19:35). Paul escaped false accusations in Jerusalem by appealing to Rome (Acts 25:10-11).
God uses rulers to restrain evil, but they are not capable of delivering God’s justice. They will often use their power unjustly to benefit themselves and their favourites. Rulers can be stirred up by the powers of evil to attack followers of Jesus, so we must be wary of them.
A ruler can be “a servant putting things right”, but there is a twist. He does it “in anger”. This is Paul’s reminder to the Romans that this ruler is not a true servant of God. Love is the heart of God’s law (Rom 13:8), but rulers do “anger”, whereas excellent judges are always guided by “love”.
Human rulers on earth are controlled by evil government-spirits, so followers of Jesus should not choose to submit to them. However, the reality of their power must be acknowledged. Getting into a fight against them would be pointless because the worldly ruler will always win due to the immensity of its power. It would be fighting evil with evil, which would be a disaster with the gospel.
Followers of Jesus should keep their heads down and undermine the worldly ruler from within by sharing the good news and establishing Kingdom Communities, which will not be seen as a threat if they are doing good.
Paul gives a sensible strategy for dealing with a worldly ruler.
Out of necessity, order yourselves under it. Not just to avoid its anger, but due to common awareness (Rom 13:5).
We should voluntarily place ourselves under the worldly ruler insofar as his decisions and decrees constrain the way that we live. Unlike our submission to excellent judges, which is God’s will, this submission is out of necessity due to his power. We submit to the worldly ruler to avoid his anger, which could overwhelm us if we fought directly against him.
The second reason for this submission is the Greek word “suneidesis”. This word is usually translated as “conscience”, but this does not make sense in the context. It literally means “co-perception”, so it speaks of a common understanding or awareness. We submit to worldly rulers out of necessity, because we share a common understanding with each other, and with God, that he is establishing an alternative kingdom that the worldly ruler does not understand.
We acknowledge the reality of the ruler’s power and submit to the constraints it imposes, but we must not let it prevent us from sharing the gospel or loving one another. If we are harassed for doing these things, we accept the persecution with joy, knowing that we a suffering with Jesus.
Out of necessity, we pay the taxes that they demand.
Because of this, you are paying taxes for “officials of God”; they are persevering at this very same thing (Romans 13:6).
The expression “officials for God” is a contradiction of terms. Paul seems to be speaking “tongue in cheek”, perhaps to disguise the fact that he is critiquing the Roman Empire. He moves from the word “servant” (diakonos) to public official (leitourgos) to confirm that it is due to the necessity of paying taxes. He then explains that these officials persevere in the “very same thing”.
Many translations assume that this refers back to the role of governing, but there is no justification for that. Paul is actually saying officials are obsessed with collecting revenue. That clarifies their true nature. They are not real servants of God, but officials seeking to prosper their own wealth.
Paul describes more clearly what he means in the following two verses.
Pay back debts to everyone. If you owe a tax, pay the tax; if an excise duty is owed, then pay it. Respect those worthy of respect. Only honour those worthy of honour (Rom 13:7).
The basic principle is that we should make payment to everyone whom we owe something. Followers of Jesus should get out of debt by paying back what they owe as soon as they can.
Paul is a realist. If the government demands a tax, we have no choice but to pay it. In the time Roman Empire, excise duties were are very important form of tax. They should be paid if the government demands them.
The second part of the verse gives a serious qualifier. We must only honour those who are worthy of honour. We are only required to respect those who are worthy of respect. We are not required to respect the governing authorities because they are usurpers of God's authority. We do not need to honour politicians who make human laws because they are trying to do something that only God can do. We should only honour and respect good judges who apply God's law wisely. Paul ends his teaching about taxes by summing up his gospel.
Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another. For the one loving the other has fulfilled the law (Rom 13:8).
Love is what distinguishes followers of Jesus from other people. All our energies should be focused on loving one another. If we do this, we are fulfilling all the requirements of the law. We might have to submit to worldly rulers out of necessity, but our main purpose is to love one another as that advances the Kingdom of God, not the Kingdom of man.
The Power of Free Submission
God wants a system of justice that is voluntary; that does not involve forcing people to do things against their will. Paul's solution is for all people to freely choose to "submit to excellent judges" (Rom 13:1).
Everyone remains free because they choose to submit.
Judges are given authority by those who freely submit.
Evil is not overcome by evil.
Submission is a powerful vehicle for bringing order to society without using coercion. When people submit freely, they remain free because they can withdraw their submission at any time if the authority deteriorates. This free submission gives authority to judges.
Authority can be obtained in two ways:
Imposing control from the top.
Voluntary submission from below.
We have become confused about these two concepts. The modern world prefers rulers who will force people to do the right thing. Unfortunately, they have no place in the Kingdom of God.
What is submission?
Submission does not mean total disobedience.
Submission does not mean paying taxes.
Submission does not mean allowing others to make laws that we must obey.
Submitting to judges means four things:
Taking cases to good judges.
Accepting verdicts of good judges.
Appeals from new judges to better judges.
Helping judges carry out their decisions.
Submission means taking cases of injustice to judges and allowing them to apply the solutions prescribed in God's law.
Paul urged the Roman Christians to live in harmony with all people.
If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone (Rom 12:18).
A few verses back, he had said that Christians should live in harmony with each other (Rom 12:16). That is relatively easy if they love each other. However, living at peace with "all people" is a much tougher call. How can we live in peace with wicked people? Paul explains how this can happen in Romans 13:1. The key to living at peace with "all people" is for "all people" to submit to excellent judges. They will be able to convict those committing crimes that hurt other people, such as violence, theft and lying, and demand restitution. This will restrain evil, which makes it possible for everyone to live in harmony.
This links with the purpose of the law.
Love does no harm to its neighbour. Therefore, love is the fulfilment of the law (Rom 13:10).
This verse implies that if people are not harmed, then the law has been fulfilled. This is a key to understanding the law and the role of judges in applying it. The purpose of the law is to prevent people from harming their neighbours. Judges apply the law for the same reason. If everyone lived in love, judges and law would not be necessary. In the absence of love, law acts as a restraint on actions that would harm other people. The law and judges will never get rid of all harm, but they will minimise it.
Biblical law does not give judges responsibility for forcing people to lead virtuous lives. The law cannot change human nature, so it cannot eliminate sin. The only solution to sin is being born again by the Holy Spirit in response to the gospel of Jesus. Under biblical law, judges can only restrain sin by punishing crimes; they must not attempt to make people good.
The following is a better translation of Romans 12:17-13:7.
Do not repay evil with evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God to deal with evil.
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Every person should submit to the more excellent judges (exousia) because there is no legitimate judicial authority (exousia) except under God. The judges (exousia) that have emerged in a free society are arranged by God.
Anyone resisting the decision of a good judge (exousia) is rebelling against what God has put in place. Those rejecting it are accepting judgment for themselves.
Worldly rulers (archon) cause no fear for the good way, but only for those choosing the bad option. So, if you don’t want to be afraid of his authority, be doing good and you will be commended.
For you who are into the good, it can be God's servant. But if you do bad, be afraid. A ruler does not carry the sword for no purpose; it is a servant of God making right in anger to the one committing evil.
Out of necessity, order yourselves under it; not just to avoid its anger, but due to common awareness. Because of this, you are paying taxes for “officials of God”, and they are persevering at this very same thing (Romans 13:6). Pay back debts to everyone. If you owe a tax, pay the tax; if an excise duty is owed, then pay it. Respect those worthy of respect. Only honour those worthy of honour (Rom 12:17-13:7).
For more on related passages that deal with submission, see Submission to Political Power.
I describe God’s alternative to human political power in my book called Government of God.