What is Paul saying about civil government in Romans 13?
Quick answer: Paul recognizes that the first century Christians (just like the first century Jews) are effectively still in slavery (Neh. 9:36-37) under a gentile civil government (Rome), and that this subordination of God's people is part of God's plan and in accordance with explicit prophecy (Dan. 2:37-43). Paul is warning Christians not to rebel against Rome or its tributary authorities (the minor kings and governors of the Roman empire) because these authorities have been explicitly established by God (Rom. 13:2). When Paul asserts that all the "existing authorities" (οὖσαι εξουσιαι) were established by God, he is referring only to the (literally) "existing authorities," not to every (so-called or so-claimed) "authority" that might exist in the future.
It is clear from scripture that Rome's authority was established by the statue prophecy ("the iron") in Daniel 2:40-43. But the kingdom of God was re-established in Christ, as a permanent replacement for those gentile kingdoms which led up to it (Dan. 2:44-45, Luke 20:18). Paul's statement in Rom. 13:1 should not be generalized as if he were claiming that every king or ruler who manages to win a war, or an election [like Hitler did], should be considered as a legitimate, God-established authority. The Roman empire has been destroyed (just as scripture prophesied: Dan. 2:44-45). We now have no king but Jesus.
It is important to understand both the descriptive and prescriptive aspects of this section of Paul's writing. First we will look at the context, which will help us to understand the flow of the apostle's thought.
The context (Romans 9 through 12)
Two types of "enemies"
In Romans 9-10, Paul discusses the fact that most of the Jews (his "relatives according to the flesh": Rom. 9:3) were rejecting the proclamation of the gospel. In Romans 9 through 11, Paul uses lots of scripture to show that this Jewish rejection of the gospel was part of God's plan from the beginning: "Let their eyes be darkened, that they may not see..." (Rom. 11:10).
But Paul warns the gentile Christians not to boast over those Jews who had been "broken off" (Rom. 11:17-18). He expresses hope that some of his people might not continue in unbelief, and might therefore be grafted back into Christ (Rom. 11:23). Note carefully Paul's use of the label "enemies", here, because he will use that term again in the next chapter (28 verses later):
28 Concerning the Good News, they are enemies for your sake. But concerning the election, they are beloved for the fathers’ sake. Romans 11:28WEB
All of the Jews who rejected the gospel became "enemies", and were "broken off." But the YHWH-ordained "blindness"/"hardening" was only "partial" (see 11:25). Therefore, some of these "enemies" were actually part of "the elect" (cf. 11:5). This means that there was still a chance that they could be converted by the gospel (Rom. 10:14-17) and be re-grafted into Christ (11:23). Paul is about to explain exactly how the Roman Christians should respond to this persecution by their enemies, so as to deal righteously with both the true enemies (who will never repent) and the elect "enemies" (who will).
Jesus had warned his followers about the persecution (θλῖψις) which would affect them soon (before that generation passed away: Matt. 24:34):
9 “Then they will deliver you up to oppression and will kill you. You will be hated by all of the nations for my name’s sake. 10 Then many will stumble, and will deliver up one another, and will hate one another. Matthew 24:9-10WEB
Now (at the time Paul is writing), the early Christians were experiencing intense persecution, primarily instigated by the blinded/hardened Jews, who would often stir up opposition against them (John 16:2, Acts 11:19, Acts 18:12-13, Gal. 4:29, 1 Thess. 2:14, 2 Thess. 1:4-9).
Paul had addressed this issue in Romans 8 (verses 18, 35-36) with words of comfort and encouragement. In chapter 12, he provides practical admonishment:
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless, and don’t curse. Romans 12:14WEB
This is an echo of what Jesus had taught in Matthew 5:44. Paul reinforces this idea:
17 Repay no one evil for evil. Respect what is honorable in the sight of all men. 18 If it is possible, as much as it is up to you, be at peace with all men. 19 Don’t seek revenge yourselves, beloved, but give place to God’s wrath. For it is written, “Vengeance belongs to me; I will repay, says the Lord.” Romans 12:17-19WEB
The themes in these verses -- avoiding evil, doing good, and being at peace -- extend through to Paul's exhortations a mere five verses later in Rom. 13:2-4. And the phrase "no executing punishment yourselves...wrath" has its obvious counterpart in the same place.
A strict non-violence ethic?
We often find interpreters (e.g. anabaptists) who use passages like this one, and related parts of Jesus' teaching ("judge not...", "turn the other cheek", "live by the sword, die by the sword") as if they formed a comprehensive political theology. They try to interpret Christian teaching as a strict "non-violence ethic", as if Jesus and Paul were claiming that Christians should always be passive in the face of evil and injustice. They claim that Christians should never use the institution of civil government to seek retributive justice.
This is a gross, decontextualized misreading of both Jesus and Paul. In fact, Paul is beginning a train of thought here in chapter 12 which extends seamlessly into his teaching about civil government in chapter 13. Paul does not deny the necessity of retribution against evildoers. He is teaching exactly what God's law always taught: that retribution must be mediated by a proper (God-ordained) authority.
Slaves under a Gentile king
Paul recognizes the temptation for persecuted Christians to take matters of retribution into their own hands. But God forbade personal vengeance in his law (Lev. 19:18). Rather, he instituted civil government (Gen. 9:6) -- and the laws which controlled and limited it (Exodus through Deuteronomy) -- in order to mediate and control human retributive justice.
However, the early Christians were not living under the ideal human civil government designed by God (Deut. 16:18-20). Like the Israelites, they were still enslaved under a tyrannical gentile government, by God's plan (Neh. 9:36-37).
Paul understood that the slavery of Christians at that time was according to God's plan. The first century Christians were living through the fulfillment of the prophecy of Daniel 2:44, after the re-establishment of the Kingdom of God, but before the true children of God were revealed (Rom. 8:18-19) by the destruction of the false (2 Thess. 1:4-9). Paul knew that the Roman rulers still had an important function in God's plan, as sword-bearing servants of God's wrath against the evildoers (the "enemies" of the gospel).
Paul is warning, at the end of chapter 12, against taking personal vengeance, because he is about to identify the God-ordained authorities who have been specifically tasked by God with carrying out his wrath:
19 Don’t seek revenge yourselves, beloved, but give place to God’s wrath. For it is written, “Vengeance belongs to me; I will repay, says the Lord.” Romans 12:19WEB
If you haven't been following Paul's argument carefully, through the last few chapters, it is easy to miss the significance of this statement. Paul is not merely quoting a generic aphorism about YHWH's vengeance here. He is quoting from Deuteronomy 32, a section of scripture which most interpreters call "the song of Moses."
The song of Moses and the "latter days"
The song of Moses comes at the end of Moses' Deuteronomy "sermon", right after his warning of blessings and cursings for disobeying YHWH. The song is a prophecy of the apostasy and judgement of the Israelites in the "latter days". Moses introduced the song in the following way:
28 Assemble to me all the elders of your tribes and your officers, that I may speak these words in their ears, and call heaven and earth to witness against them. 29 For I know that after my death you will utterly corrupt yourselves, and turn away from the way which I have commanded you; and evil will happen to you in the latter days, because you will do that which is evil in YHWH’s sight, to provoke him to anger through the work of your hands.” Deuteronomy 31:28-29WEB
When are these "latter days" to which Moses was referring? We have multiple clues based upon later citations of the song. Here are two:
- Jesus quoted (in Matt. 17:17) from the song of Moses, applying the prophesy to his generation.
- Just two chapters before, here in the book of Romans, Paul had directly quoted from the song of Moses (Deut. 32:21):
19 But I ask, didn’t Israel know? First Moses says, “I will provoke you to jealousy with that which is no nation. I will make you angry with a nation void of understanding.” Romans 10:19WEB
And thirteen verses later (Rom. 11:11), Paul explains that this "provocation to jealousy" (of the blinded Jews) was being fulfilled at that time by the gospel going to the Gentiles.
These clues show us that the prophecy of the song of Moses was being fulfilled in the first century. With that understanding in place, let's look at the context of the "I will recompense" verse which Paul was quoting:
35 Vengeance is mine, and recompense, at the time when their foot slides, for the day of their calamity is at hand. Their doom rushes at them.” 36 For YHWH will judge his people, and have compassion on his servants, when he sees that their power is gone, that there is no one remaining, shut up or left at large. Deuteronomy 32:35-36WEB
Paul is not referring to some distant future "vengeance" which will allow their persecutors to live out long, full lives and then be sent to the lake of fire after death. Paul's reassurances to Christians under persecution imply imminent temporal judgement of their adversaries: judgement that will bring literal "relief" to them from their persecution (see 2 Thess. 1:4-9).
In fact, Paul claims that a good act toward these enemies functions as a "witness" against them, ensuring that God will act:
20 Therefore “If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in doing so, you will heap coals of fire on his head.” Romans 12:20WEB
In this verse Paul is quoting a proverb to reinforce what the song of Moses had already established: that YHWH was going to bring judgment soon upon the covenant-breaking Israelites who were persecuting God's true people. The reference to "coals of fire" is from Psalm 140, one of the imprecatory Psalms:
10 Let burning coals fall on them. Let them be thrown into the fire, into miry pits, from where they never rise. Psalm 140:10WEB
Paul seems to be suggesting that these good actions towards those who are persecuting them would function just like imprecatory prayers. These enemies destined for destruction are the ones who have been judicially-blinded by God. Their fate has already been sealed.
What Paul didn't say explicitly, but which we can infer from chapter 11, is that these good acts -- performed toward those "enemies" who were part of "the elect" Jews -- might just be the witness which prompts them to hear the gospel message, and turn (like Paul did) from being a persecutor into being a follower of Christ.
The chapter division was not in Paul's original letter. As I mentioned above, these ideas are completed by what Paul says next.
God-ordained civil government (Romans 13)
Every person should be subject to the governing authorities....Romans 13:1
The Greek word translated "be subject to" is ὑποτασσέσθω. This word has a direct linguistic connection to the word in v. 2 which is translated "resists" or "rebels against", depending upon your translation: ἀντιτασσόμενος. They are the same Greek root word, but with different prefixes (ὑπο vs. ἀντι).
Paul's concern is with those who might be influenced into rebellion against Rome and its tributaries. When Jesus and the apostles proclaimed the re-establishment of the Kingdom of God, early Christians might view this as an opportunity to reject the current ruling authorities. And these authorities were clearly not always godly in how they administered justice.
There were many revolutionary groups operating in the first century (e.g. the Zealots, the Sicarii, etc.). Some of these believed that the messiah was supposed to lead them in an armed rebellion against Rome. Jesus warned about the many false messiahs who would arise and lead many astray (Matt. 24:24). No doubt some of the early Christians came from revolutionary groups.
Authority only comes from YHWH
... For there is no authority except from God...Romans 13:1
This is a pretty straightforward statement. No one has authority (of any kind) unless they are given that authority by YHWH. Authority is not simply the practical ability to enforce your will. Authority, in this context, is the right to demand obedience (as a matter of ethics). We are not obligated to obey just anyone who stands up and claims, "I am the king! Obey me!" or "I am Caesar. You must do everything I say!" If those authority claims are not grounded in God's own transcendent authority, then they are null and void. We do not have to obey.
This principle was also made clear in the Biblical king laws:
14 When you have come to the land which YHWH your God gives you, and possess it and dwell in it, and say, “I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,” 15 you shall surely set him whom YHWH your God chooses as king over yourselves. You shall set as king over you one from among your brothers. You may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother. Deuteronomy 17:14-15WEB
Deuteronomy 17 shows that the Israelites were not allowed to choose their own kings. And that the kings were not allowed to select themselves. Therefore, when Paul writes to the Romans in an era of kings (and Caesar) and says "no authority except from God" and that "the existing [authorities] have been appointed by God", we can be certain that he believed that the authorities who were placed over him (including governors, regional kings and Caesar) had been given their authority by God himself.
The apostle Peter was saying the same thing as Paul:
13 Therefore subject yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether to the king, as supreme, 14 or to governors, as sent by him for vengeance on evildoers and for praise to those who do well. 1 Peter 2:13-14WEB
No one has civil authority unless he can trace it directly either to a command (e.g. Deut. 17:8-13) or an "establishing word" (e.g. Deut. 17:14-15, 1 Sam. 10:1, 1 Sam. 16:13, Dan. 2:37-44) of YHWH himself. God is the only source of transcendent obligation. And if you take Deuteronomy 4:2 seriously, you recognize that he is the only source of transcendent law.
At the time Paul was writing, Rome definitely could trace it's own authority to an "establishing word" of YHWH: namely, the prophecy in Dan. 2:37-43. I'll explain this claim in detail below.
A crux interpretum
... and the existing [authorities] are ones having been appointed by God.Romans 13:1
This clause represents a key point of divergence for interpreters. There are basically two ways that you can take Paul's statement:
- Every person until the end of time who stands up and claims governing authority (maybe they won an election, or a war, or just killed off most of their opposition) must be considered as a properly-established governing authority (i.e. "instituted by God"). This would include men like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, etc.
- Only the authorities "existing" (Greek: οὖσαι) at that time were instituted by God. In other words, the Roman Empire (including all its subordinate tributary kings, such as Herod and Philip) was established by God over his people for a set period of time, and Paul never intended his words in this phrase to be extended further than the time of Rome's fall.
Let's examine each of these options.
"Whatever is, is right" -- Alexander Pope
Here are a couple of examples of modern commentors who adopt view #1:
From a human perspective, rulers come to power through force or heredity or popular choice. But the "transformed mind" recognizes behind every such process the hand of God. [emphasis added]
No political power is attained apart from the sovereign will of God. If God has ordained and appointed the ruling authorities, then the conclusion drawn in verse 2 follows naturally.
Notice that these commentors do not differentiate between the fact ("whatever is") of political power (always backed by, at minimum, a threat of coercion and death for anyone who disagrees) and the "ought" of legitimate authority. The "is/ought" distinction is not an issue for them. As the poet said, "Whatever is, is right."
Those who understand Paul as asserting view #1 are following, essentially, a principle of "Civil government as a judicial duel."
The "judicial duel" (also known historically as "trial by battle" or "wager of battle") was a (completely unBiblical) method which certain cultures used to decide who was "in the right" or "approved by God" (or the gods) in a particular dispute. The theory was that each side in the dispute would do their best to kill their opponent, and in this way, God could be provoked to intervene on the side of whomever he favored. Whoever won the battle was, by definition, considered to be "favored of God." Because nobody wins a battle "apart from the sovereign will of God", right?
For those with a fatalistic or otherwise deterministic worldview (like Greek, Roman, or Germanic pagans), this is an attractive principle. Whatever is, must be right. If you disagree, then you are, necessarily, opposing God's "sovereign will."
On this passage Craig Keener writes:
Many historically used this passage (among others) to support the divine right of kings. ... While few would support the divine right of kings today, the subservience of the leaders of the German state church to Hitler’s Third Reich, based on this passage, raised anew the issue of its application, and Christian cooperation with the apartheid government in South Africa had the same effect.
However, someone might object: "Fighting isn't relevant to civil government establishment any more in this age of democracy. We now vote for who we think should rule, and everyone should abide by the decision."
Substituting ballots for bullets does not change the underlying calculus of "might makes right". There is no non-arbitrary way to establish voting district boundaries or even national boundaries. When you assert that majorities should always rule over minorities (which is the root principle of majoritarian democracies), you are presupposing a set of political boundaries. You are also claiming a corollary principle: that the majority is right to use force (bullets) against the minorities, if those minorities decide to secede or otherwise do not comply with the demand by the majority to rule over them.
But there is another way to understand Paul's statement.
Rome was "existing", Nazi Germany was not
It turns out that the Roman Empire was explicitly ordained by God -- in scripture -- to rule over his people. Here's a quick summary of the history:
After sinfully asking for "a king like the heathen" in 1 Samuel 8, God gave them several. Most were pretty bad. But the people were too. Eventually, because of their continual disobedience, YHWH exiled them to Babylon, and gave them a prophet, Daniel, to tell them what would happen next.
Let's examine the scriptural statement which established Rome as a political authority. Daniel is speaking to the king of Babylon:
37 You, O king, are king of kings, to whom the God of heaven has given the kingdom, the power, the strength, and the glory. 38 Wherever the children of men dwell, he has given the animals of the field and the birds of the sky into your hand, and has made you rule over them all. You are the head of gold. 39 “After you, another kingdom will arise that is inferior to you; and another third kingdom of bronze, which will rule over all the earth. 40 The fourth kingdom will be strong as iron, because iron breaks in pieces and subdues all things; and as iron that crushes all these, it will break in pieces and crush. 41 Whereas you saw the feet and toes, part of potters’ clay and part of iron, it will be a divided kingdom; but there will be in it of the strength of the iron, because you saw the iron mixed with miry clay. Daniel 2:37-41WEB
The statue prophecy in Daniel 2 predicts a series of four gentile governments which God said would rule over his people prior to the re-establishment of God's own rule (in Christ). The four metals in the statue are generally understood by (conservative) commentators as referring to:
- Babylon (gold)
- Medo-Persia (silver)
- Greece (bronze)
- Rome (iron)
This is a pretty uncontroversial interpretation, held by many conservative Bible commentators.
Some might wonder about the "clay" in the feet and toes. John Evans provides helpful commentary:
By the time of Christ, Jews constituted one of the empire's largest ethnic minorities. We cannot be sure of their number, but it surely ran well into the millions, and was also rapidly increasing. The Jews, however, proved resistant to full integration into Roman society. The conclusion that logically follows is that the clay in the feet and toes of the great statute symbolizes the large pre-Christian Jewish minority that lived in much of the Roman Empire and resisted full cultural assimilation into the empire.
Thus, even after the Israelites returned to their land, they understood clearly that YHWH had kept them in slavery under gentile kings:
36 “Behold, we are servants today, and as for the land that you gave to our fathers to eat its fruit and its good, behold, we are servants in it. 37 It yields much increase to the kings whom you have set over us because of our sins. Also they have power over our bodies and over our livestock, at their pleasure, and we are in great distress. Nehemiah 9:36-37WEB
They also knew that YHWH would eventually restore his permanent kingdom over Israel, through the Messiah:
44 “In the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed, nor will its sovereignty be left to another people; but it will break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it will stand forever. 45 Because you saw that a stone was cut out of the mountain without hands, and that it broke in pieces the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver, and the gold, the great God has made known to the king what will happen hereafter. The dream is certain, and its interpretation sure.” Daniel 2:44-45WEB
This is why the disciples asked Jesus:
6 Therefore, when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, are you now restoring the kingdom to Israel?” Acts 1:6WEB
This question makes perfect sense in context. Jesus had already made his authority clear:
18 Jesus came to them and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Matthew 28:18WEB
Yet Jesus, even though he had "all authority ... on earth", still did not immediately end the rule of Rome:
7 He said to them, “It isn’t for you to know times or seasons which the Father has set within his own authority. Acts 1:7WEB
Jesus was about to be enthroned with the Father. The kingdom had come (Col. 1:13, Heb. 1:3, 10:12, Rev. 1:5, 3:21). It was beginning its growth as a small mustard seed (Luke 13:18).
Just as there was a time after David had been anointed king, where he knew that he was not allowed to "touch YHWH's anointed", Paul and the apostles knew that Rome continued to be YHWH's anointed, and that they must submit.
Just as Paul told slaves to obey their masters (Eph. 6:5, Col. 3:22-25) even in the face of injustice, he commanded the same with respect to the "existing authorities" (in Rom. 13:1-2). Notice the similar language which Paul uses when exhorting literal slaves:
23 And whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, 24 knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ. 25 But he who does wrong will receive again for the wrong that he has done, and there is no partiality. Colossians 3:23-25WEB
Thus the phrase "existing authorities" (οὖσαι εξουσιαι) of Rom. 13:1 was referring specifically to the Roman Empire and its tributary powers, which had been prescribed by God hundreds of years prior, in Daniel's prophecy.
Insofar as the Roman Empire obeyed God's law by punishing evildoers, it was functioning as God's "servant" (διáκονáς v. 4). And we see in Acts that Roman magistrates often protected the early Christians from the violence stirred up by the Jews. And in A.D. 70, God used Rome to destroy the wicked Jews, fulfilling multiple prophecies, including the song of Moses.
On the other hand, Paul was not saying that we are required to obey every civil government that ever declares itself as such. Civil governments are always formed and limited in accordance with God's law. When men try to establish a civil government by any basis other than God's law, or if they go beyond the limitations in God's law, we are not required to obey them.
God clearly can use sinful civil governments (like Rome) to accomplish his purposes. But we ought not infer the legitimacy of any particular civil government from the mere fact that they exist.
- Around A.D. 49, under the reign of the emperor Claudius, the Jews were kicked out of Rome (Acts 18:2), probably because of the disturbances they were inciting against Christians. Paul was writing this letter to the Romans several years after this event.
- Frank Matera: "The notion that all authority comes from God, which is difficult for contemporary readers to understand, derives from Paul’s understanding of God as the source and origin of all things (1 Cor. 8:6)." (Matera, Romans (Paideia Commentaries), 294)
- Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (New International Commentary on the New Testament), 798
- Schreiner, Romans (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament)
- Keener, Romans (New Covenant Commentary Series)
- And if you deny this "no secession" principle, then you are denying a core idea at the heart of majoritarian democracy. Congratulations on your wisdom.
- Evans, The Four Kingdoms of Daniel, 123