Romans 13

Todd is pastor of Berean Baptist Church in Ammon, Idaho.  He grew up in Idaho Falls, Idaho.

Romans 13 is the shortest chapter in the book, but don’t let that lessen its impact and relevance for today.  Whereas the opening message of Romans brought justification to Martin Luther and later in church history to John Wesley upon hearing Luther’s preface, the message of Romans 13 changed the course of Augustine’s life.

The chapter could primarily be broken up into three sections:  commandments in relation to your government, commandments in relation to your neighbor, and commandments in relation to Christ.  I think that one’s obedience in these three areas is directly connected to how much one is willing to grow in gospel grace, for it is only the gospel that enables one to live out any of this stuff.

The Christian’s Relationship to Secular Government (vv. 1-7)

First of all, I don’t quite understand some of Joseph Smith insertions in the text.  He is thinking of the church:  and punishment instead of damnation, a rod instead of the sword, and consecrations instead of tribute.  What did he think about the U.S. President during the time of these translational notes?

Paul is talking about civil authorities in this opening paragraph.  And Richard Holzapfel and Thomas Wayment in their book, Making Sense of the New Testament, make a fair observation, “[Paul’s] comments on government . . . should be interpreted in light of the fact that the rulers he was speaking of were not democratic leaders but foreign oligarchs with their own interests and agendas” (p. 338).  Just imagine the political leaders in Paul’s day.  Wow.  I am glad to live in America.

But can we apply this passage to President Barak Obama?  Certainly.  Paul was not a political revolutionary.  And in light of this passage, Christians would be in disobedience for dodging the paying of taxes.  And we ought to seriously take note that our city, county, state, and national servants are God’s deacons (v. 4).  Christians display the glorious Christian gospel and trust in God by their submission to government.  Christians can be accused of a lot of things.  But they shouldn’t be accused of being political rebels or rabble-raisers.

The Christian’s Relationship to His Neighbor (vv. 8-10)

Paul and James join hand in hand with one another.  Paul writes, “For the commandments . . . are all summed up in this saying, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” . . . and “love is the fulfilling of the law.”  James writes in James 2, “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you do well.”

But how do we do this?  And who really is the consistently good Samaritan?  We don’t have the strength within ourselves to love our neighbors as we should, let alone an enemy.  We need something or more specifically Someone – the one who perfectly loves neighbors and enemies – to live and love through us.

It is interesting how Eric Shusten and Charles Sale seek application from this text.  In their book, The Biblical Roots of Mormonism (2010), they write, “While the Bible is clear about the sin of homosexual sex, it is equally clear about love (Matthew 22:39).  Love the sinner, not the sin (Romans 13:9-10)” (p. 238).

The Christian’s Relationship to Christ (vv. 11-14)

A Christian does not get saved by grace and then try to live the Christian life by his or her effort.  It is all grace.  There must be a daily putting on of the Lord Jesus Christ by grace through faith.  Yes, Paul exhorts us in regards to our responsibility.  We must cast off by faith, our sinful tendencies.  We must put on by faith, the gospel armor.  Simply put, we must put on Christ.

So, we cast off.  We put on.  And we walk forward in the daily spiritual battle.  And we can do it all through only one – the Lord Jesus Christ.  Going beyond earthly politics, this King is our ultimate freedom fighter.  He set Augustine free.

Let me conclude with a snippet from Augustine’s testimony.  I finished reading his Confessions last month.

“I sent up these sorrowful cries:  “How long, how long?  Tomorrow and tomorrow?  Why not now?  Why not this very hour make an end to my uncleanness?”

“I was saying these things and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when suddenly I heard the voice of a boy or a girl—I know not which—coming from the neighboring house, chanting over and over again, “Pick up, read; pick up, read” [Tolle, lege; tolle, lege].  Immediately I ceased weeping and began most earnestly to think whether it was usual for children in some kind of game to sing such a song, but I could not remember ever having heard the like.  So, damming the torrent of my tears, I got to my feet, for I could only think that this was a divine command to open the book and read the first passage I should light upon.  For I had heard how Anthony, accidently coming into church while the gospel was being read, received the admonition as if what was read had been addressed to him:  “Go and sell what you have and give it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me.”  By such an oracle he was immediately converted to you.  So I quickly returned to the bench where Alypius was sitting, for there I had put down the apostle’s book when I had left.  I snatched it up, opened it, and in silence read the paragraph on which my eyes first fell:  “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.”  I wanted to read no further, nor did I need to.  For instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away.”

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25 thoughts on “Romans 13

  1. Todd said:

    Christians can be accused of a lot of things. But they shouldn’t be accused of being political rebels or rabble-raisers.

    In light of this passage, is there any room in the Christian life for civil disobedience, or for supporting a revolution?

    I honestly don’t know what to make of it, which is why I’m asking. What bothers me is that I have seen Christians of various stripes (including Mormons and evangelicals) endorse a straightforward reading of the passage when it suits them while justifying anti-government actions at other times when it suits them. I don’t think that’s what Paul intended, but how not sure how far we’re supposed to take his teaching either.

  2. Christians can be accused of a lot of things. But they shouldn’t be accused of being political rebels or rabble-raisers.

    Isn’t that what Jesus was accused of?

  3. I think that Pilate had a hard time believing the Jewish authorities’ accusations concerning Jesus.

    It is pretty tough to make a case that Jesus or Paul were encouraging the people of the Way to be political zealots.

    Now Eric, when it comes to a Christian who fought for political change, I think William Wilberforce was an excellent example.

  4. Obviously, Fred Phelps and Kent Hovind aren’t good examples to use if you want to make the case that it’s OK under certain circumstances for Christians to break the law. But how about the founders of the U.S. who were Christians and broke British law (and even engaged in violence) in doing so? How about those who smuggle Bibles into China? How about what Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Helmuth Hübener did?

    Tim said:

    Always remember that Paul was eventually killed for disobeying the government.

    So does that make Paul a hypocrite? Or does it mean that something other than a straightforward reading is preferable here?

    These are serious questions. This is one of those things I have thought about over the years (after all, I was a poli sci major once upon a time) and have yet to arrive at an answer that makes sense.

  5. Eric, I would have greatly struggled, rebelling against mother England. It is a very serious question.

    I don’t think Paul was a hypocrite. How could he stop confessing Jesus as Lord of all (Rom. 10)?

  6. On vs. 1-6., It seems that Paul has a naivety regarding political power and governance, or maybe he was just blind to oppression and error of those in power. You see this all the time among the partisan. Paul was a roman citizen and probably thought Rome was generally good compared to the legal backwardness of many of the communities he saw.

    I also think you can’t believe that Paul was aware that he was writing scripture that would be universally applied. So he may have been going out on a limb that he might later back down from.

    Even if he did understand that centuries later people would hang on his every word. . . He is making an argument, but the argument is not supported by true premises. Is there any reason you can’t just dismiss this counsel as errant because the reasoning is not correct?

  7. Pingback: Paul’s Epistle To The Romans | Songs From The Wood

  8. Unless you are willing to dismiss Jeremiah, Jesus, and Peter along with Paul I am not sure how you can dismiss Paul. The basic teaching to honor earthly rulers is found in to many places in the Old and New Testament to just dismiss it as flawed (Jer 29:7; Mark 12:13-17; Matt 22:15-22; Luke 20:20-26; 1 Pet 2:13-17 etc).

    Add to that the fact that Paul repeated this same exhortation after he had been imprisoned, flogged, beaten, and stoned in his letter to Titus. I wonder just how blind and naive someone is after a good flogging.

  9. Not resisting the government is different than thinking it is good and has reason to oppress when it does. Paul exceeds Jesus, Jeremiah and even Peter here. His premises are really preposterous when taken literally.

    “For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. ”

    “But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. ”

    “They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”

  10. I wonder if Paul was throwing in a little juice to help his letters get through the authorities. Modern day missionaries do it all the time.

    Paul was a Jew before he was a Roman citizen. He knew how oppressive they were. I think there are some principles for us to take from here about the role of government and a Christian’s place under government. But I don’t think we can or should take it as a wholesale endorsement of every government or anything government might do.

    Todd, I’m with you on the American Revolution. This last spring I revisited Virgina and started to see the founders as opportunist. I love what they set up and I think they had real grievances, but a war over a half-cent tax? Hard to say it was a “just” war.

  11. It is not particularly astonishing that a passage with a strong emphasis on the sovereignty of God might be troubling, but as Tim points out Paul was a Jew and he is only teaching the same Old Testament injunctions of Jeremiah to the exiles of Judah. If God can use the Babylonians for His purposes it is not all that naive of a thought that God appoints the ruler of the earth, and that He will hold them accountable for their actions. We see this played out in redemptive history from their arrival in Egypt of Joseph, Moses and Pharaoh, the fall of the Northern Kingdom, the Exile and return. Paul and his contemporary Peter are preparing the Church to live as exiles and pilgrims looking forward to the coming of the Kingdom of God.

  12. The American Revolutionary War was about a lot more than just a half-cent tax. The grievances of the colonists who gathered to rebel had been accumulating for a very long time. The last tax was really just the one little bit that pushed things over the edge.

    Read the Declaration of Independence, and you’ll quickly see that the entire thing is couched in language that explains why it was just for the colonists to rebel. King George had violated his divine role by oppressing his subjects. He broke faith first. In essence, the Declaration is a way of saying that they tried to follow Paul’s counsel in Romans 13:7, but the king, by violating his own divine mandate, was no longer worthy of the dues, customs, tributes, fear, and honour of the Americans. (Just to take one example. I am well aware that the colonists did not specifically use any one passage of scripture to justify their rebellion.) The colonists did not want to fight, but there was no other recourse. Without the Declaration written in such a way, it is rather doubtful that France would have come to support the Americans.

    As a Mormon, I find that D&C 134 gives us an interesting twist on the idea of being subject to secular governments: We believe that all men are bound to sustain and uphold the respective governments in which they reside, while protected in their inherent and inalienable rights by the laws of such governments; and that sedition and rebellion are unbecoming every citizen thus protected…” (D&C 134:5, emphasis added). I think this gives us the “out” that Paul didn’t.

    But then, Paul didn’t live in a democratic society. I can see that Tim’s idea that these verses were just a throw-away shout-out to the Roman authorities as being a reasonable interpretation.

  13. It seems that Paul has a naivety regarding political power and governance, or maybe he was just blind to oppression and error of those in power.

    That seems doubtful to me. Elsewhere, Paul seems to be quite aware of what’s going on around him, so I’d have a hard time attributing anything he says to naivete.

    Is there any reason you can’t just dismiss this counsel as errant because the reasoning is not correct?

    That’s a good question, and probably one that would be worth a topic of its own.

    The short answer is that with my prima scriptura view, I’m reluctant to toss anything out, especially if it pertains to matters of faith and practice. But I do think it’s possible, even essential, to look at cultural context (as I do, for example, with Paul’s admonition against women teaching) as well as motives that Paul might have had for writing what he did (as in Tim’s remark that “I wonder if Paul was throwing in a little juice to help his letters get through the authorities”).

    In this case, I’m also reluctant to dismiss what Paul said because Paul’s comments are an obvious source for the 12th article of faith. The history of polygamy notwithstanding, the Church has placed a strong emphasis on obeying the law; that attitude is what allowed the Church to open a temple in East Germany, and we have explicitly avoided proselytizing in countries where doing so is illegal (even while other Christians have courageously defied the laws). Even though I don’t ascribe infallibility to Church leaders, I can’t lightly dismiss something they find important.

    I think what’s most likely with this passage is that Paul may be speaking to a specific situation, the details of which have been lost in history. Or, while I can accept a doctrine that civil authorities are instituted by God, that doesn’t preclude the possibility that they can (and do) overstep their authority, and at this particular time and place Paul simply didn’t have the need to address when that occurs.

    I’m a little bit sensitive to this issue because I was growing up during the Vietnam War (that’s history to some of you folks here), and there were plenty of Christians around who taught that opposing the war (which I believed, and still do, was immoral) violated God’s commands because of what Paul wrote here. It was difficult being on an evangelical college campus and even supporting George McGovern for president — doing so was seen as a sign of rebellion by some.

    Needless to say, I don’t think Paul is saying we should always agree with our government.

    My tendency these days is to take a somewhat minimalistic approach to this section: Maintaining order is a legitimate and even God-ordained purpose of government, and if we treat civil authorities well we are more likely to be treated well in return. Paul, just a few verses earlier, had admonished us to do everything we can to get along with others, and deferring to authorities is part of that.

    This last spring I revisited Virgina and started to see the founders as opportunist. I love what they set up and I think they had real grievances, but a war over a half-cent tax? Hard to say it was a “just” war.

    Yeah. I’m grateful for what we got out of the Revolutionary War, the Constitution, especially its Bill of Rights, and all that. I truly am. But was a violent insurrection (some acts of which we’d call domestic terrorism today) necessary to bring that about? I don’t know.

  14. Well, nuts. Okay, I’ll try to remember what I said before…

    The instigators of the Revolutionary War were rebelling over much more than just a half-cent tax. The tax was just the latest of a long list of grievances that they had been compiling over the course of many, many years. When they decided to rebel, they were aware of the belief that the king was divinely invested in his throne, and thus a rebellion against the king was a rebellion against God. I have no idea if they were considering Paul’s writing at the time, but I can definitely see a connection.

    So when they wrote the Declaration of Independence, they felt the heavy burden of explaining why they were just in rebelling against a king who, according to the beliefs of not just the English but all the monarchs in Europe, and more importantly in France, all believed that royalty ruled under a divine mandate. The Declaration sought to establish why King George III, especially, had broken faith. He had not lived up to his responsibilities as king, and therefore had lost the right to rule over them:

    Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

    Which is a very lengthy way of saying that the American Revolutionary War was, in the eyes of God, a “just war” as these men believed. Therefore they were not in violation of divine mandates, such as Paul’s assertion in Romans 13. (Again, I don’t know that this was specifically what they were referencing, but I see a definite connect.)

    With all this in mind, I find the nuanced wording of D&C 134:7 very interesting:

    “We believe that all men are bound to sustain and uphold the respective governments in which they reside, while protected in their inherent and inalienable rights by the laws of such governments; and that sedition and rebellion are unbecoming every citizen thus protected…” (emphasis added).

    This verse leaves open the option to not sustain a government if it does not protect inalienable rights. So when the LDS church’s right to plural marriage, as they saw it, was not be guaranteed, they felt it was acceptable to God to disobey the laws of man.

    I am sure that Paul, as well-schooled and intelligent as he was, surely could have written an equally nuanced line about submission to government. I wouldn’t be surprised if Tim’s theory is correct: Paul was trying to appease the government officials who would most likely read his letter.

  15. Various commentators have pointed out that being subject to the “governing authorities” (NET) does not call for absolute obedience to secular governments where their laws and commands would violate the law of God. Theologians from the beginning of the Church have struggled to explain how the Church and Christians are to live in submission to a government while ultimately being answerable Christ. From Augustine’s “two kingdoms”, the medieval scholastic “two swords”, the “two kingdoms” of Luther and the magisterial Reformation, the separatism of the Anabaptists, the transformation of culture of the Dutch neo-Calvinists and the American religious right/left, to the Christ and Culture of Niebur Christians have had to deal with Romans 13:1-7.

    I think Eric’s example of the Viet Nam war is a particularly compelling example of how a Christian is going to be subject to the Roman Empire and how a Christian is going to be subject to the United States Government is, by necessity, going to be contextually different. He had a conscientious objection to the war, one that I assume was well thought out and based on a moral objection to what he understood to be an unjust war (sorry if I am putting words in your mouth). In the United States a citizen can be “subject” to the ruling authority while both disagreeing with it and working within the electoral process to bring about a new authority. I would think that Eric was well within the spirit and the letter of Romans 13. For that matter a Christian in America can also be subject to the ruling authority while actively protesting the policies of the government. No laws are broke by disagreeing with and protesting a war. This is the context that we find ourselves in. To use Romans 13 as a brickbat against an unpopular political position is, I think, outside of the context that Paul and the Roman church.

    Americans simply must realize that how we deal with the governing authorities is going to be radically different that how Christians in China or India are forced to deal with this passage. I am not at all sure that a reference to inherent inalienable rights is going to be particularly helpful to the minority Christian in a persecuted Church struggling daily just to live and worship for the glory of God. To be honest this seems to be an attempt at applying a divine sanction to the American form of government lacking any form of nuance. While this might sell well in a Western Democracy it fails to recognize that most of the Church has not and does not existed in a Western Democracy.

    I am also not all that comfortable with the thought that Christians are not to be rabble rousers. The history of the Church is full of men and women who were forced to take a stand of conscience disobeying the governing authorities in order to obey Christ. I am thinking of the Christians in the Roman Empire during eras of persecution, the Huguenots in France, the nonconformist ministers in Britain and the American colonies, missionaries in forbidden countries and Christians today who are forced to violate the law in order to worship. I don’t think a Christian is obligated to seek martyrdom (either figuratively or literally) but there are times when conscience may demand it. I do think that we in America have a schizophrenic understanding of civil disobedience without civil punishment.

  16. Todd,

    I always assumed that you would be a rabble rouser if the situation dictated such. I pray to a merciful God that you and your congregation are always allowed to worship in peace.

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