DISCLAIMER: This series of articles reflects the results of my exegetical exercise to answer the following questions: (1) what did Paul intend to convey to his original audience by what he wrote in Romans 13:1-7? And (2) in light of Paul’s authorial intent, how ought Romans 13:1-7 apply to a 21st Century Christ-follower? In no way, shape or form is this series intended to influence in any way, or cause or be a catalyst for any person to disobey a governmental authority whether it be local, state or federal. This series is merely the exercise of my right to free speech and to practice my religion under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
This article presents my interpretation of Romans 13:1-7 based upon the observation exercise as set forth in the earlier articles. My interpretation answers the question: what message did Paul intend to send to his original audience via Romans 13:1-7?
The first section of this discussion considers Romans 13:1-7 per se in light of my observations of the passage. While Paul provided the option for a believer to not be subject to or not to not resist the government, he did not provide specific guidance. In an effort to address this void, the second section factors in what other Scriptures teach about the relationship between the believer and government keeping in mind the basic principle that Scripture will not contradict Scripture.
Although I may be jumping ahead to the application step, as a final introductory comment, any government, whether it is local, state or federal, is a complex entity. Because of its size and diversity a government can enact laws that are good and laws that are bad. For the purpose of the interpretation step, my interpretation of Romans 13:1-7 per se and in light of other passages pertains to the government as a whole. However, the application of Romans 13:1-7 answers the question of how a believer should respond to the government with respect to specific laws.
DISCUSSION OF THE INTERPRETATION EXERCISE
Romans 13:1-7 Per Se
Paul began Romans 13:1-7 with a clear imperative command for a believer to be subject to the “governing authorities,” i.e., the government. Paul used the Greek verb hypotassō, which the ESV translates as “Let … be subject.” Hypotassō is a military term that painted a picture of a definite chain of command. If verse 1a was the only verse in the Bible, the government would have absolute control over believers. If there was ever any doubt about whether or not to obey a government, verse 1a in isolation was a clear mandate to obey. Per verse 1a, there was a presumption that a believer had to be subject to the laws of the government. As we will see from the below discussion, a government must satisfy certain qualifications for a believer to have to be subject to and not resist such a government.
The historical-cultural context in which Paul wrote Romans makes the firmness of Paul’s command in verse 1 understandable. There were some factors that described Paul’s mindset at the time he wrote Romans in early A.D. 57. Paul’s overall mindset was that the Roman government was beneficial to the spread of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul did not want believers, especially Messianic Jews who were known to have a rebellious nature, to aggravate the Roman government and thereby generate governmental interference against the evangelistic efforts of the early Christian church. Paul’s mindset was reinforced by his understanding that the social class system was unchangeable. There was also the practical consideration that that any revolt against the Roman government would have been unsuccessful.
In verses 1b-2, Paul described the government as not coming into existence “except from God.” He also characterized the government as having been “instituted by God” and as something “God has appointed.” Paul went onto emphasize that the believer should not “resist” the government because such resistance (1) was against a God-ordained entity and (2) the believer would have incurred judgment (or punishment) of both the divine and the human kind. Verses 1b-2 reinforced the seriousness of Paul’s mandate of verse 1a. Paul conveyed the message that it was serious business to go against the divinely-instituted government.
By verses 3-4a, Paul painted a restrictive gloss on the government to whom believers were to be subject. Broadly speaking, Paul told his audience that the kind of government to whom they were to be subject (and were not to not resist) was one that punished bad conduct and rewarded good conduct. Four self-explanatory characteristics of that kind of government are described below.
First, the government was “not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.” Second, the believer should have “no fear” of the government if he or she did what was “good.” Third, the government was to approve the citizen who did “what is good.” Fourth, the government was God’s servant “for your good,” i.e., the good of believers.
After factoring in the meaning of the Greek adjective agathos [“good”] and the literary context of Romans, it becomes apparent that Paul intended believers to be subject to a government that satisfied the following requirements.
First, the government must govern for its citizens (which included believers) in such a fashion that was consistent with God’s will.
Second, the government must govern for its citizens (which included believers) in such a fashion that was consistent with the teachings of the Scriptures.
Third, the government must govern for its citizens (which included believers) in such a fashion that promoted (or rewarded) what the Bible defined as good and did not promote (or reward) what the Bible defined as evil.
Hereinafter, I describe these as the requirements of verses 3-4a which a government must satisfy in order for a believer to be subject to and to not resist.
Through what Paul wrote in verse 4b, he again emphasized that to be a wrongdoer vis-à-vis a government would carry with it consequences since the government did “not bear the sword in vain,” but was “an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” In verse 4b, Paul again pointed out that the government was “the servant of God.”
In verse 5, Paul again reinforced his command that a believer “must be in subjection” to a government because of two basic reasons. First, the believer wanted to “avoid God’s wrath.” This would have applied only if the believer would have been a wrongdoer and thereby incurred God’s wrath. The implication was that a believer was a wrongdoer in the eyes of a government if he or she was not in subjection to the government. This corresponds to Paul’s second reason which was to be in subjection “for the sake of conscience.” In other words, the believer was to be subject to the government because it was the right thing to do. Please keep in mind that was the restrictive gloss that the government satisfied the requirements of verse 3-4a.
Verses 6-7 called on the believers to provide financial support (i.e., taxes and revenue) and emotional support (i.e., respect and honor) to the government. But, in order to deserve financial and emotional support, the government had to devotedly persevere in carrying out its governance for the “good” of citizens including believers. Only then did the citizens have the obligation to provide such support. The restrictive gloss that the government satisfied the requirements of verse 3-4a also colored the mandates of verses 6-7.
If Paul did not intend for believers to be subject to (or not to not resist) a government , what was his intended meaning with respect to a believer who did not have to be in subjection or did not have to not resist? My observation of Romans 13:1-7 does not reveal any specific guidance directed to how a believer ought to not be subject to or not to not resist the government. In light of such an absence of guidance, the correct place to look is to other passages that have relevance to a believer and the government.
Impact of Other Scriptures – Payment of Monies
As recorded in Matthew 22:15–22, Mark 12:13-17, and Luke 20:20-26, when Jesus was confronted with the payment of taxes to the Roman government, He taught the Jewish leaders as follows:
Matthew 22:18-22 (ESV) – 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” 21 They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.
Mark 12:15-17 (ESV)- 15 But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” 16 And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.” 17 Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at him.
Luke 20:23–26 (ESV) – 23 But he perceived their craftiness, and said to them, 24 “Show me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” They said, “Caesar’s.” 25 He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 26 And they were not able in the presence of the people to catch him in what he said, but marveling at his answer they became silent.
Jesus paid the Temple tax per Matthew 17:24-27 (ESV), which reads:
24 When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax went up to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the tax?” 25 He said, “Yes.” And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?” 26 And when he said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. 27 However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.”
These passages teach the general principle that paying taxes to the government is not wrong, but it does not give guidance about what to do when a believer is not to be in subjection to or is not to not resist a government that does not satisfy the requirements of verses 3-4a.
Impact of Other Scriptures – The Government Comes from God
Jesus taught the principle that government comes from God. John 19:11 (ESV) reads:
11 Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.”
Jesus’ teaching is consistent with what Paul wrote throughout Romans 13:1-7 that the government was from God, instituted by God, God’s servant, the servant of God, a minister of God, and appointed by God. This passage from John adds no new guidance to what Paul already wrote in Romans 13:1-7.
Impact of Other Scriptures – Additional Pauline Advice
Per 1 Timothy 2:1–2 (ESV), Paul wrote:
1 First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.
Paul wrote that a believer was to pray for all people including governmental rulers. The reason was that believers, “may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” Paul wrote 1 Timothy in the autumn of A. D. 55 so his mindset would have been that the Roman government was beneficial to the spread of the gospel. This advice does not appear applicable to the situation where the believer is not to be in subjection or is not to not resist the government that does not satisfy the requirements of verses 3-4a.
Per Titus 3:1 (ESV), Paul wrote in late spring of A.D. 57, “1 Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work,…”. At the time Paul wrote Titus, Paul was still under the mindset that the Romans government was beneficial to the spread of the gospel. Therefore, Titus 3:1 does not give additional guidance to that Paul gave in Romans 13:1-7.
Impact of Other Scriptures – Petrine Advice
In the spring of A.D. 65, the Apostle Peter gave guidance that pertained to the relationship between the government and a believer when he wrote 1 Peter 2:13-17 and 3:13. 1 Peter 2:13–17 (ESV) reads:
13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
Notice that Peter’s advice to “be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution” included a description of the government similar to that written by Paul in Romans 13:1-7. The basic similarities between Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-13 are set forth below.
Paul and Peter advocated that a believer ought to be subject to the government, at least as a default response. Paul wrote, “Let every person be subject to” (Romans 13:1) and Peter wrote, “Be subject … to every human institution” (1 Peter 2:13). Note that Paul and Peter used the Greek verb hypotassō in these passages.
Throughout Romans 13:1-7, Paul taught that the government was a divinely-ordained entity. Therefore, a believer was to be subject to the government. Peter said essentially the same thing when he called for obedience to government “for the Lord’s sake” (1 Peter 2:1).
In Romans 13:3, Paul wrote that the government punished bad conduct and not good conduct. He added that the government was to give approval to good conduct. Romans 13:3 (ESV) reads:
3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval,
Likewise, in 1 Peter 2:14-15 (ESV), Peter wrote about the government punishing evil and praising good:
14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.
Implicit in Peter’s text is the requirement that the government to which a believer ought to be subject to governed for the good of believers. Overall, it does not appear that 1 Peter 2:13-17 adds anything guidance to what Paul had written in Romans 13:1-7.
Peter wrote that a government is not to punish good in 1 Peter 3:13 (ESV):
13 Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good?
Overall, what Peter wrote does not add guidance for the situation where a believer is not to be subject and not to not resist a government that does not satisfy the requirements of verses 3-4a.
Impact of Other Scriptures – Examples from Acts
The most relevant guidance comes from two accounts in Acts. First, Peter and John had been arrested and then brought before the Jewish authorities. Acts 4:15-21a, 23-24, 29-31 (ESV) read:
15 But when they had commanded them to leave the council, they conferred with one another, 16 saying, “What shall we do with these men? For that a notable sign has been performed through them is evident to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it. 17 But in order that it may spread no further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.” 18 So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. 19 But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, 20 for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” 21 And when they had further threatened them, they let them go, … 23 When they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. 24 And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said, “… 29 And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, 30 while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” 31 And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.
The response from Peter and John to the order to remain silent about Jesus showed that in their minds, God trumped mankind’s laws. The same mindset is evident from their prayer and from the account of their post-prayer evangelism. When it comes to the proclamation of the saving gospel of Jesus Christ, a believer does not have to be subject to and does not have to not resist laws, orders, etc. that interfere or impede evangelism activities.
In another instance, in response to questioning by Jewish leaders, Peter and the apostles said they must obey Giod rather than men. The relevant text is Acts 5:27–32 (ESV)
27 And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest questioned them, 28 saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” 29 But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. 30 The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32 And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”
Like with the account of Peter and John in Acts 4, obedience to God in the context of proclaiming the gospel trumps any governmental action that stifles evangelism activities. The follow up question is what is the scope of the notion of evangelism?
Obviously, the most apparent feature of evangelism would be the actual proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This can include any action that facilitates the proclamation of the gospel such as set forth in Romans 10:13–15 (ESV):
13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” 14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”
A believer would not be subject to or would not have to not resist any governmental action that would impede the evangelism process.
Another feature of evangelism would be the substantive content of the gospel message. The substantive content of the message cannot be incorrect or the message does not have salvific efficacy. A believer would not be subject to or would not have to not resist any governmental action that would somehow distort or misrepresent the substantive content of the saving gospel of Jesus Christ.
Still another action that would stifle the gospel would be the encouragement of a sinful lifestyle. Part of the gospel message is that man is a sinner and in need of a Savior. So to advocate that something is not sin when biblically speaking it is sin would impede the spread of the gospel since a sinner would not appreciate that he or she is a sinner in need of salvation. A believer would not be subject to or would not have to not resist any governmental action that would somehow advocate something that is sin to not be sin.
The single correct interpretation of Romans 13:1-7 is set forth below.
A believer must be subject to and not resist a government that satisfied the requirements of verses 3-4a. More specially, these requirements were: (1) the government must govern for its citizens (which included believers) in such a fashion that was consistent with God’s will, (2) the government must govern for its citizens (which included believers) in such a fashion that was consistent with the teachings of the Scriptures, and (3) the government must govern for its citizens (which included believers) in such a fashion that promoted (or rewarded) what the Bible defined as good and did not promote (or reward) what the Bible defined as evil. If a government did not satisfy the requirements of verses 3-4a, a believer was not required to be subject to and was not to not resist such a government.
In Romans 13:1-7, Paul did not give definite guidance about the nature and extent of a believer not being subject to and not to not resist a government. Because of Paul’s silence about specifics, the proper course of action for the interpreter is to turn to other relevant Scripture.
The Scriptures that appear to provide additional guidance are found in the account in Acts 4 of Peter and John before the Jewish leaders and the account of Peter and the apostles before the Jewish leaders in Acts 5. Very clearly, Acts 4 and 5 provide the biblical warrant for a believer to not be subject to and not to not resist any government that impedes the proclamation of the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. Since Paul’s focus in life was on the spread of the gospel and was a huge factor in his counsel to be subject to the government, an interpretation that includes the above-stated biblical warrant is consistent with Paul’s overall mindset.
THE NEXT ARTICLE
In the next article, i.e., Article 11, I discuss the application of the properly interpreted Romans 13:1-7 passage to certain issues that exist in 21st Century America. These issues pertain to the beginning of human life, human sexuality and gender, the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the free assembly of believers to worship God.
If you are reading this post and are not a Christian, unless God intervenes, your eternal destination is hell. But, your destiny can change. Today can be the day of your salvation. Please see my blog (https://stevebelsheim.com/2020/04/20/for-god-so-loves-you-2/) for a description of how you can be saved and a more concise description at my (https://stevebelsheim.com/2020/10/20/there-is-hope-even-when-there-seems-to-be-no-hope-2/ ).
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