In honor of election season and the Anabaptist discussions that inevitably come up about faith and government, here’s a study I did way back when (5 years ago?) on the most often cited passage in the argument for obeying the state.  Enjoy.  =)

Romans 13:1-7 is arguably one of the most debated and difficult passages in the whole book of Romans (and perhaps in the whole Pauline corpus). Although the rest of the letter to the Romans seems to have an anti-imperial bent, this passage seems to undo all of that in one fell swoop, suggesting that believers should be subject to the ruling authorities because they are ordained by God. There are several ways to encounter this, which I will begin to outline in the rest of the paper. Because there is so much to sift through in relation to this passage, I have chosen to take more of a large-picture view, evaluating and synthesizing many authors’ conclusions. Each of these authors has reasoning of which I am aware that points to the particular words and phrases that bolster his or her argument. I will include some of that, but to include much of that would bog this paper down in details that could fill (and indeed has filled) many books. Ultimately, Romans 13:1-7 remains complex and difficult to fit neatly into any schema. However, I believe that interpretation of this passage that holds it in light of the rest of the message of Paul and the Gospels can become an antidote to the all-too-common interpretation that sets this passage up as the justification for blind patriotism and oppressive regimes.

First, we must look at the tone and message of the rest of Romans in regards to the imperial regime of the Roman Caesar. Georgi makes a strong case that Romans is essentially an anti-imperial document, a fact that can be hidden from today’s readers. Words like “gospel” (evangelion), “faith” (pistis), “servant” (dikaiosyne), and “peace” (eirene) are regularly used in reference to Roman rule (especially Caesar), but here they are loaded terms that Paul intentionally uses to refer to Christ.   Ekklesia, also, the word used for the gatherings of Christ-followers, was more often used in the surrounding culture to denote a political gathering of citizens. Even the formulae that Paul uses are satires on political propaganda. Thus, Paul is intentionally setting up an alternative to imperial rule. In this letter, Georgi asserts, Paul’s primary adversary is not Judaism, such as it is at that point, but rather the Roman government. He envisions Christ as a ruler who makes Caesar irrelevant; he constructs the Christ-movement as alternative communities that are distinct from the body politic; and he designates the solidarity and loyalty of God as a direct commentary on rule that is maintained through violence. (Georgi, Horsley) In the midst of all this, Romans 13:1-7 can seem to be a shocking non sequitur and requires much care in understanding.

Because of this jarring nature of the passage, both in content and in style and flow, many have considered it to be one of the interpolations of the Pauline letters. Walker makes this case in several pages, citing differences in style between this passage and the rest of chapters 12 and 13. He also cites the seeming lack of Christological and eschatological framework that are so pervasive elsewhere in Paul. Perhaps his most convincing argument is the seamlessness of flow that occurs when one reads chapter 12, skips the first 8 verses of chapter 13, and continues reading at 13:8. Indeed, it seems to be one of the rare passages in Paul that can be excised completely without losing the flow of the surrounding argument. He notes that some particular words in the passage have meanings more akin to Stoic attitudes than to biblical or Pauline attitudes, and he also notes that this kind of appeasement of the government would be more typical of Christianity of the second century rather than the first. I find his logic to be circular, however, in explaining why there are such clear echoes between 12:19 and 13:4 (with wrath and vengeance themes) and between 13:7 and 13:8 (with themes of owing and what is due) – this, he says, is precisely the kind of word play the Stoic who inserted this passage would enjoy, and the inserter would have added those parallels to make the addition more convincing. In short, his argument is, for the most part, well developed, but most authors I read do not treat this passage as an interpolation. To me, this seems like a bit of convenient and wishful thinking. Regardless, whether interpolation or not, it is included in the canon and thereby deserves to be regarded on its own merit. From here forward, I will write under the assumption that this is, in fact, Paul’s original writing.

Given that assumption, although the flow between chapters 12 and 13 is not at first obvious, the two chapters create a fairly seamless unit. Indeed, many authors indicate rightly that interpretation of passages from these two chapters suffer greatly when separated from the whole two-chapter unit. Romans 12 and 13 form a paranesis centered around the communal ethics of love. This exhortation moves from the personal and individual (presenting your bodies as a living sacrifice), to the relationships among believers (the body of Christ imagery), to an explanation of specific behaviors in that regard, to relationships with outsiders (extending hospitality to strangers), and finally to relationships with enemies (do not repay evil for evil). Thus, this argument at the beginning of chapter 13 extends the commandment of self-giving love into the social and political realm, many authors have said. In the rest of chapter 13, this is wrapped up with a summation of the paranesis, and then with an eschatological justification and urgency. In this view, the beginning of chapter 13 serves to further explain what self-giving love looks like “on the ground” in relation to a persecuting and violent government. This still does not answer the biggest question of all – why the shift from “be not conformed by the world but be transformed” to a section that seems to exhort a blind obedience and simple conformity with worldly powers? For this, we need to look more at the context.

Paul is writing to a relatively small group of Christ-followers in Rome, the imperial capital, at the beginning of Nero’s rule. Nero is attempting to centralize authority in himself through political propaganda that sets up a cult of Caesar worship. These Christ followers are a persecuted minority in the midst of a powerful and violent imperial context. For them, resistance must seem futile. (Ehrensperger) Although Paul is intentionally setting up alternative communities of freedom and grace, and although people are evidently finding much joy and hope in these communities, they are a threat to the status quo of the society. Christ-followers, then, are faced with the difficult choice that all oppressed cultures are faced with – how much to play the game to get along and simply survive, and how much to resist actively and vocally. The hardship here is that passivity can end up claiming the soul and identity of the oppressed, but active resistance can claim the physical life and health of the oppressed. Also, this community likely has a similar view of the imminence of the eschaton to Paul, with his conviction that the governments of this world are swiftly passing away to be replaced with God’s kingdom and Christ’s rule. Thus, the people Paul is writing to are likely struggling with how to live in the in-between – how to live in the world and not of it; how to be not conformed to the world but transformed within it. (Byrne)

To further contextualize this passage, the idea that rulers were instituted by God was a fairly commonplace understanding both in Judaism of the time and in Roman / Hellenistic thought. Nonresistance was being taught by the Qumran sect at the time. Also, Rabbinic Judaism included the framework of applying the commandments to love one’s neighbors and to not take vengeance into one’s own hands into the social realm of life. (Shulam) As previously mentioned, Walker and others note a valid strong connection to Stoicism. It is obvious that Paul is drawing strongly on the surrounding contexts of the day and echoing a status-quo worldview, which thought of secular authorities as arms of God (or gods themselves, in the case of some of the Caesars). This continues to beg the question, “What is Paul intending by all this?”

Some posit that Paul is being a pastor. (Ehrensperger, Van Denend) Here he is setting aside systematic theology (did he ever pick it up?) and even missional theology, and he is simply speaking to a people in fear for their lives. These writers believe that Paul is giving this group permission (and exhortation) to submit to authority so that they will not be killed for resisting. Thus, they say, this passage is not intended to be universal but is entirely particular; it does not intend to explain theology but to encourage specific behavior for a specific time (and worry about theology later!). Although this explanation makes much sense, it is still lacking, as no such qualification is present in the text, and the full text of the letter to the Romans is one of the more theological letters Paul has written (as opposed to letters like Galatians and 1 Corinthians, which are more clearly situational).

Another explanation that I find more intriguing is that Paul is being ironic, subversive or dissembling. This explanation could fit with the whole of Romans, as much of his use of imperial vocabulary and formulae has a satirical quality. However, this is not immediately apparent in a reading of the passage.

Herzog attempts a complete explanation of this direction of exegesis, noting that in the case of egregious power imbalances, there is always a “public transcript” and a “hidden transcript.” The way both the ruling class and the lower class interact in public is designed to keep both safe and to keep power imbalances in play. Thus, the oppressed do not openly challenge the authority of the rulers, and in many cases they are submissive within the public realm. However, behind closed doors, the way the oppressed talk about and think about the ruling class is often very different. This gap is so large, however, that it cries out to be bridged. Herzog says that what bridges it are examples of speech wherein what looks like public transcript speech actually contains hidden transcript speech. Although he does not mention this as an example, the African American spirituals in the time of slavery are this. To the ruling class they appeared to be just quaint songs that did not threaten the power differential. To the slaves, they were dripping with the hidden transcript, sometimes with practical messages (underground railroad times and places, etc.) and sometimes with spiritual or identity-related messages (you are not a slave of a white man, you are a child of God).

Herzog says that, far from being merely a “go along to get along” strategy, this way of inserting hidden transcript into the public transcript is a tool of power for the weak – sometimes one of the only tools they have. It subtly but inexorably upsets the status quo and can become an exhilaratingly subversive action. According to Herzog, this message of Paul in these 8 verses looks different when viewed from above than when viewed from below. Whereas the Roman authorities might be gratified by this seeming statement of submission, the Christ-followers will know that the government that Paul is describing is, in Herzog’s words, a Camelot. Paul implies that when this government rewards the good and punishes the evil and never the other way around, then we must respect it as being from God. The Christ-followers, who have seen good people among them killed for no other reason than that they are Christ-followers, know in their bones that this kind of Camelot does not exist.

Herzog also draws attention to a chiasm: “A) be subject to God-instituted authority, B) rebels who resist incur judgment, C) true rulers reward good and punish evil; in this they show themselves God’s servant for your good, B’) wrongdoers get the sword as an expression of wrath by God’s servant, and A’) be subject out of conscience.” From this he notices the twice-over emphasis on calling the rulers “servants” (which would not likely be flattering!), and that the central emphasis is the coded version of the hidden transcript – namely, that true rulers reward good and punish evil, along with the implication that if rulers are not doing this (and perhaps they are never fully doing this), they show themselves as not ordained by God.

While I think this is a compelling argument based on sound sociological phenomena from oppressed peoples, I find that Herzog plays a little too “fast and loose” with the language of the original text for my taste. He has to stretch to make the conditionals that he does, I think.

In comparison, Yoder points to the subtly subversive nature of the passage but sticks more closely to the text. Although Yoder does not speak directly of the hidden transcript, he seems to be pointing to the same kind of coded communication Herzog indicates. Yoder calls out the word often translated as “ordained” or “instituted” – this word, he says, has nothing to do with God creating or setting up authority but rather with God “ordering” authority. If this is so, then the order that has been God-given to all ruling authorities is that God is above them all and they are all relative and time-limited. This then indicates to Jesus-followers that, although they are to be subordinate (the word here is not obedient!) to authorities, God is above all authorities. Because of this, there is room for civil disobedience out of obedience to God. This attitude coincides with some Rabbinic Jewish thought of the day that encouraged people to be obedient to authority unless that authority asked them to disobey God. Yoder also says that, in the last verse of the section, giving each what is their due could imply not giving anyone more than is their due. Hence, exorbitant taxation or undue respect of Caesar might be withheld justly.

In my own way of thinking, Herzog goes too far along this road (he has difficulty, to my mind, justifying all the wording changes), but Yoder does not go quite far enough. In my research around this passage, I have come to regard it as satire and the kind of coded hidden transcript in public view that Herzog denotes. It would have been glaringly obvious to the Christ-followers of Paul’s intended audience, that government does not just reward good and punish evil. It would be similar to saying today that the government always has the interests of the poor people at heart and strives to protect them. It is patently false in general (even if true at times, in particular). Thus, I think Paul is saying something akin to this (adjusted to reflect our current situation):

The government protects the poor and always has their best interests at heart. So, of course, if you’re poor you have nothing to fear from the authorities. It’s only if you’re rich that you should fear the government, because the government is the great equalizing instrument that takes away the wealth of the rich. Therefore, you should be subject to the ruling authorities, not just because you’re afraid of them but also because your conscience tells you they’re right.

Viewed from above, this kind of statement might not create any offense. Perhaps a government official would see it as upholding the government. But to a poor person who hears it, it would likely be laughable and, far from making the point that government should be revered, might make the option of civil disobedience an appealing one.

This view of taking Paul’s injunction as one dripping with irony has its own flaws, however. First, if this is irony and ends up poking fun at the very thing it purports to be supporting, the aforementioned flow in the paranesis is disrupted. The kind of self-sacrificing love of the rest of chapters 12 and 13, although it fits well in civil disobedience, would not be demonstrated through this ironic interpretation. Second, similarly, if this is irony, this passage does not offer explanation of what resistance looks like – it only stirs one to resistance.

Ultimately, as stated earlier, this is a passage that requires continual wrestling. It is clear to me that the colonial interpretations that have upheld injustice down the ages are sorely lacking because one cannot read the rest of Paul and the Gospels and still glean the message that governmental authorities are to be blindly obeyed. There are too many passages that contradict that attitude. However, it is neither possible to excise this passage as irrelevant or not Pauline, nor is it possible to clean it up by prying it wholesale into a post-colonial and subversive framework. In the end, this passage seems to always escape definition and continue to call us to further examination of the ways in which we encounter civil authority as people of faith.

In current contexts, I found several interesting articles. This passage has caused struggle throughout Christianity’s history. Singgih’s article on present day Indonesia indicated that Protestant Christians at the time of the “Reformation” – the time of gaining independence, and of Soeharto’s dictatorial rule (and his regime’s eventual collapse) – were mostly passive in the face of injustice, division, and violence. Singgih draws the connection between that passivity and the lack of a theology about the relationship to government. The “theology of obedience” was the only operative theology at the time, largely influenced by a traditional interpretation of Romans 13. Singgih asks whether or not it is possible to find a post-colonial interpretation of this passage, when it is evident that the passage itself comes out of a very colonial context. He looks to Barth (who also struggled mightily with Romans 13 in the lead-up to World War II) to perhaps provide a new interpretation through his dialectical theology, but ultimately Singgih finds Barth’s theology wanting, too. Barth’s theology is heady and unwieldy in a crisis situation; and so, the search for a way of seeing this scripture in a post-colonial world must continue.

The second article I read about the modern contexts for Romans 13 was Van Denend’s article. Of all that I read, this had by far the most profound impact on my thinking. Van Denend, a chaplain at a women’s maximum-security prison, writes about how the women she ministers among wrestle with Romans 13. As people who live a life that is defined by forced subjection to powers beyond their control, in a situation in which telling the truth can be dangerous and in which it is difficult to maintain any sense of trust or dignity, these women perhaps have a better idea than most of us about what life in an oppressive regime is like. Van Denend draws many parallels, working with the interpretation of Luise Schottroff, and writes of the ways that Romans 13 has been a pivotal scripture for some of these women. Romans 13 (and 12), she says speaks to “the presence of infighting due to the stress of a pressure from above, the complicated reality of telling the truth under trial situations, and the insecurity of life in a place filled with hierarchies.” And far from being destructive, the passage has been empowering for the women, writes Van Denend, in its encouragement of “unity under oppression, ability to transcend the system, and understanding of the temporality of evil.” (34)

Although I have done much research and thinking, and although a fair portion of it is contained in the above pages, I get the clear sense that interpretation of this passage will be a lifelong journey. To be sure, the question of how to live with an eschatological horizon in the midst of this world is one that must always be part of the Christian struggle. Likewise, another lifelong question is that of how much to engage in the rules and practices of one’s culture and how much to withdraw from culture, especially as it has to do with obeying (or not) civil authorities. If we ever think we have the full answers to these questions, these questions that are raised by these eight verses in Paul’s letter to the Romans, we are in a dangerous space – this must always be a dance, filled with subtle adjustments to the changing situations in which we find ourselves.


Works Consulted

Byrne, Brendan, S.J. Sacra Pagina Series: Romans. Ed. Daniel J. Harrington, S.J. Vol. 6. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007.

Ehrensperger, Kathy. Communication and Interaction in the Early Christ-Movement. New York, NY: T&T Clark, Intl, 2007.

Georgi, Dieter. “God Turned Upside Down.” Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society. Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1997.

Herzog, William R., II. “Dissembling, a Weapon of the Weak: The Case of Christ and Caesar in Mark 12:13-17 and Romans 13:1-7.” Perspectives in Religious Studies, Vol. 21, No. 4. Winter 1994: 339-360.

Horsley, Richard A. “General Introduction.” Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society. Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1997.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Romans. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998.

Shulam, Joseph, with Hillary Lecornu. A Commentary on the Jewish Roots of Romans. Baltimore, MD: Messianic Jewish Publishers, 1960.

Singgih, E. G. “Towards a Postcolonial Interpretation of Romans 13:1-7: Karl Barth, Robert Jewett and the context of reformation in present-day Indonesia.” Asia Journal of Theology, Vol. 23, No. 1. April 2009: 111-122.

Van Denend, Jessica. “The People V. the State: Understanding Romans 13:1-7 in a Maximum Security Women’s Prison.” Union Seminary Quarterly Review, Vol. 61, No. 3-4. 2008: 34-43.

Walker, William O., Jr. Interpolations in the Pauline Letters. New York, NY: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001.

Yoder, John Howard. The Politics of Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972.