On Romans 13: Submission & Government

Romans thirteen is inevitably one of the first passages Christian peacemakers have to deal with because it is so often used as grounds to prove that Christians can set aside the teachings of Jesus in service of their country. Where Jesus irrefutably teaches that we should love our enemies, we seek grounds to legitimize destroying them. We have made catastrophic errors in interpreting Paul’s writings because we’ve disconnected them from the arguments he was making.

So what is Paul teaching about government in Romans thirteen?

To begin, we must explain how Paul constructs his message to the Christians in Rome: Paul starts by developing and applying his thesis proposition (Romans 1:17) across multiple lines of argument. Having explained that all humanity has fallen (1:18-3:31), Paul explains that God’s plan of redemption has always operated through faith (4:1-5:21) and how God’s grace is the means of overcoming the dominion of sin (6:1-8:39). Paul then explains God’s plan to redeem one unified humanity (9:1-11:36). After setting out this plan of redemption, Paul applies his thesis proposition that “the righteous will live by faith” (1:17) to Christian living (12:1-15:13) and concludes with some final greetings (15:14-16:27).

Paul’s rhetorical model is “proposition” + “supporting arguments” + “illustration” (or sometimes “proposition” + “illustration” + “supporting arguments”). Which means that when reading Romans, we should trace Paul’s propositional arguments and then either expect an application to be followed by an illustration, or an illustration to be followed by an application. For example, in 1:18 Paul presents his first propositional argument after his thesis (1:17), arguing for the fallen condition of the human race, saying “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all unrighteousness” (1:18). Then we see supporting arguments in verses 19-32, indicated by a series of “γὰρ” (i.e. “For”) clauses. These are a series of supporting logical propositions. His argument is that “God’s wrath is revealed against unrighteousness” because “his invisible attributes have been seen” (v.20), humanity knew God (v. 21), but claimed to be wise and turned to idolatry (v. 22-32). These arguments are then followed by illustrations: first he draws an illustration from those who judge others but do the same (2:1-11), making clear that God shows no favoritism and is able to righteously judge both those who are under the law and those who are not under the law (2:12-24). We see this pattern repeated throughout Paul’s entire epistle.

So we should expect this pattern in chapters 12-15, which is precisely what we see when Paul begins applying his thesis (i.e. Romans 1:17) to Christian living by explaining that, in contrast to the law, Christians live out God’s grace through the kind of faith that is expressed in sincere love (See Romans 12:9-13:14 cf. Galatians 5:6). In other words, all these “love” applications for Christian living are an outworking of what it means for “the righteous to live by faith“.

Unfortunately, what most people do with Romans 13:1-7 is to pretend that Paul, for the first time in his epistle, goes off on an unrelated tangent to construct a theology of civil governance. To push back on this mistake I simply ask how such a theology is related to the argument Paul begins in 12:9 and picks back up in 13:8? Why, if this section really is meant to construct a Christian theology of civil governance, does Paul pick right back up in 13:8 with the argument he was making in 12:21? To force this discourse to support pro-government positions, theologians have seemingly purposefully disconnected Romans 13:1-7 from the rest of Paul’s epistle, and I’ve yet to find any mainstream theologians who have taken a serious look at how this discourse fits within Paul’s broader arguments.

Here’s how I understand Paul’s argument: Paul’s first propositional statement is “Let love be without hypocrisy” (12:9), which launches his argument applying the righteousness of faith by grace to Christian living. As we would expect, Paul then makes a series of supporting arguments that define love (12:10-21). And among these supporting arguments are a series of statements defining love for our enemies: “bless those who persecute us” (12:14), “live in harmony” (12:16), “do not repay evil for evil” (12:17), and “do not avenge yourselves” (12:19), which are then recapitulated into one summary proposition: “do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good” (12:21).

And it would be at this point that we would expect an illustration, which is precisely what Paul does: how are Christians, who live under brutal regimes like the Roman government, supposed to live by the kind of faith that is expressed in sincere Christian love? Paul is writing to Christians in the most powerful city on earth, which was the seat of power for the most powerful empire the world had ever seen. And they were being persecuted by Rome. Put simply, Paul is illustrating how the righteous who live by faith should “overcome evil with good” (12:21).

His first proposition in this illustrating argument is “submit to the governing authorities” (13:1a). He reminds them that all authority belongs to God (13:1b; cf Matthew 28:18). In other words, they submit to authority by faith in the sovereign reign of God. Christians can have confidence when facing corrupt regimes, not because their governments are good, but because God’s authority is supreme! So if God’s supreme authority is anything more than mere platitudes designed to comfort Christians in despair, then anyone who resists government – even evil regimes like Rome – is guilty of resisting God’s own authority (13:2; cf Matthew 5:39).

So Paul’s first supporting argument is that rulers aren’t terrors to good people (13:3), which cannot mean that they don’t use their power to hurt Christians (See Luke 21:12), but instead, that they do not wield God’s authority against innocent people (See Matthew 10:28); good people don’t need to fear tyrannical powers because God only wields their power to punish evildoers, so when human rulers use their power to harm us, their force does not bear the weight of God’s authority!

Paul’s second supporting argument builds on this case by saying that human government is “God’s minister for good” (13:4). And it’s here that we make one of our biggest mistakes: theologians argue that government has been appointed by God much like our elders, deacons, and preachers have been ordained for his service. Augustinian theology treats human government as a branch of God’s Kingdom, arguing that elders and deacons are God’s ministers in the Church just as civil servants are God’s ministers in the human government, essentially positing the theory of the secular-religious divide that has become the basis for all western civics. But all of this is entirely foreign to Paul’s argument, who is simply stating that God’s supreme authority works through and uses government rulers so that they serve his purposes (See Proverbs 21:1).

So to deal with this error, it’s necessary to pause and ask an important exegetical question: “in what way are government leaders God’s ministers/servants?” Jesus already said that his Kingdom is not like the kingdoms of this world (John 18:36), which means that civil rulers cannot be God’s servants in the same manner as elders, deacons, and preachers are ministers in the Church. Put simply, they serve God’s will in a different way, not as servants in his Kingdom, but as functionaries of his will outside his Kingdom.

Scripture conclusively presents human government, from beginning to end, as evil. For example, Psalm 2 poetically illustrates the rebellion of human government against God. Human government is always an evil that oppresses God, leads people in rebellion against him, and persecutes his people. Likewise, Israel illustrates this point very well: God saw their demand for a king as a rejection of his rule (1 Samuel 8:7), and yet, God allows the monarchy and uses the Throne of David to foreshadow the reign of his Son, and David’s royal family line to convey the birth of his Son. In other words, God worked within their corrupt system to establish his throne and exercise his own rule even though their insistance upon the system itself constituted a rejection of his own authority. The point is simple: humanity can’t reject God’s authority (See Psalm 2:4-7).

Next Paul applies his first and second supporting argument for why Christians should “overcome evil with good” through “submission” by saying that they must “submit, not only because of wrath but also because of your conscience” (13:5). We conscientiously submit to human authority in view of our faith towards God. And this submission is not because our human authorities are good – they’re not – but because God is good. Caesar was evil, but God was still supreme! So Christians submit from their consciences because of their faith in God (i.e. “the righteous will live by faith“; 1:17).

Paul then gives a third supporting propositional statement and says “For this reason you pay taxes” (13:6). Christians don’t pay their taxes because government has the right to tax them, but because they know that God’s authority is supreme and God uses for his own purposes the taxes the government collects for evil reasons (See Genesis 50:30; cf Romans 8:28, 31-39). And it’s for this reason that we “pay our obligations to everyone; taxes, tolls, respect, and honor” (13:7). This means that we respect our leaders, not because their authority is legitimate in itself, but because we know God’s authority functions through them. This was why David refused to kill Saul, not because Saul was good, but because God was working in Saul. Ironically, Paul isn’t arguing to legitimize human authority, but God’s!

Romans 13:1-7 applies the principle of how Christians can “overcome evil with good” through faith in God. We submit. We respect. We honor. We bless those who persecute us. And we even seek peace with those who seek our harm. And all of this makes perfect sense when we pick by up with 13:8, which says “Do not owe anyone anything except to love“, the same theme Paul began with in 12:9, which means that 13:1-7 must be framed in light of 12:9-13:10.

I believe that Christians desperately need a fresh view of human government. I believe the Augustinian theology that currently dominates Christendom has produced fruit that is manifestly corrupt, as Christians have utilized civil power to destroy their enemies rather than to love them, and to protect worldly interests rather than to pursue eternal causes. We are not more like Christ because of this theology, we are far less like him. The disciples of the very one who said “my Kingdom is not of this world” have set aside the way of the cross and have taken on the ways the kingdoms of this world use to deal with their enemies! We must get this right if we are to be what Jesus called us to be in this world!

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