Let’s talk about Romans 13

Let every person be subordinate to the higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been established by God. Therefore, whoever resists authority opposes what God has appointed, and those who oppose it will bring judgment upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear to good conduct, but to evil. Do you wish to have no fear of authority? Then do what is good and you will receive approval from it, for it is a servant of God for your good. But if you do evil, be afraid, for it doe not bear the sword without purpose; it is the servant of God to inflict wrat on the evildoer. Therefore, it is necessary to be subject not only because of the wrath but also because of conscience. This is why you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Py to all their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, toll to whom toll is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.

—Romans 13:1-7

Since I majored in religion with a focus on the New Testament and minored in politics, did a master’s thesis on an element of Catholic social teaching, and started a doctoral program in Christian political thought (before thinking better of it), Romans 13 (specifically 13:1-7) is a passage that I spent a lot of my post-secondary academic career wrestling with. So earlier this year, when that passage was making news because government officials were citing it as proof that what they were doing was aligned with Christian teaching, it touched a nerve. If, say, you spent most of your young adulthood obsessed about a particular TV show or movie or band, and 25 years later somebody brought it/them up in the popular conversation in a way that didn’t really do the original experience you had justice…well, it’s kinda like that.

I didn’t write right away, mostly because I didn’t have the time then and I knew it would take more than my customary one-evening first-draft. When the furor died down, or at least moved on from Romans 13 to something else, I thought about letting it go. But then, I noticed conservative friends continuing to cite the passage to justify government policy, and I also anticipated progressive friends filing this away for the next time their side is in power, and I realized I still needed to get this off my chest.

Romans 13 is really one of only two passages in the New Testament (along with the “Render unto Caesar” story in the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke) that speak explicitly about how Christians should relate to the government of the time, the Roman Empire. I would argue that the way that we misunderstand this passage stems from three things: how little attention we give to the context in which it was written, how much we have changed as Christians, and how inured we’ve become to the transformation wrought by the American democratic experiment on the experience of citizenship. A serious reading of this passage in these contexts shouldn’t give us comfort or self-justification; it should raise an entirely new set of questions about what it means to be Christian in modern political society, questions that even after several centuries we are still struggling to answer.

Romans 13 in its literary context

Of the 27 books in the New Testament (the part of the Christian Bible that is distinctly Christian), about half are attributed to St. Paul, although more critical scholars would say only seven are likely to have been written by Paul himself. (The others attributed to Paul were most likely written by his disciples, a convention that sounds shady today but was common and accepted at the time.) Regardless of which ones you count as Paul’s, his letter tot he Romans stands out as his most comprehensive written explication of what Christians should believe and do. (If you’re wondering, this is because Romans is the only letter Paul wrote to a community he hadn’t founded and in fact had not at the time ever visited. This letter served as an introduction of Paul to the Church of Rome, as he sought to visit them on his way to a missionary journey to Spain.) In the first 11 chapters, Paul explains his understanding of what Christians believe; in chapters 12-15, he focuses on what Christians are obliged to do in light of those beliefs. The first part, chapter 12 and 13, is more focused on overarching ethical issues, while 14 and 15 are more focused on issues arising within the community of Christians over the divide between Jewish and Gentile believers.

Romans 12:1-2 opens the section with a general call to holiness:

”I urge you, therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship. Do not conform yourself to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perefect.

(That second sentence is one of my favorites.)

So then there’s a section on humility and diversity of gifts (12:3-8), a beautiful section on the call to love (12:9-21 & 13:8-10) bracketing the section everyone talks about, and 13:11-14 closes the section with the underlying rationale behind all of this. Those surroundings are critical for understanding the verses everyone focuses on, yet we seldom pay them attention in that context. When Paul wrote the letter, he didn’t set up the chapters and verses – that didn’t happen until more than 1500 years later. So it’s meaningful that starting in 12:14, Paul says things like “bless those who persecute you,” “do not be haughty but assoiciate with the lowly,” “do not repay anyone evil for evil,” “do not look for revenge but leave room for the wrath,” “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink,” and “do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good.” Likewise, right after the section in question, Paul goes to “owe nothing to anyone,” and “love is the fulfillment of the law.” Romans 13:1-7 is pretty clearly a claim that authority is divinely ordained, but it’s within a context of Christian action that is neither a will to power nor passive submission but active, even countercultural love. (As an aside, many of Paul’s writings on authority are misinterpreted because we overlook the element of loving self-sacrifice to which those believers privileged with authority are called.)

So that’s the literary context in which Romans 13 exists, but let’s also note the historic context. Consider the actions of the authorities Paul lauds, and given that this was written to the church in Rome, let’s focus on the Roman Empire and leave out King Herod:

  • In about 33, they executed Jesus. Maybe you heard.
  • In 49, they evicted all the Jews and Christians from Rome because they were seen as seditious for not worshipping the emperor (this comes not from the Bible but from contemporary histories). Romans was written less than a decade after this.
  • They martyred most of the original twelve apostles of Jesus as well as thousands of other early believers.
  • After Paul wrote this letter, he went to Jerusalem and got into some trouble. The Roman authorities saved Paul from a mob of Jewish leaders (yay!), but sent him to Rome as a prisoner, where he was eventually executed, likely in 64, about the same time Peter was also crucified in Rome.
  • In 70 they destroyed the Jewish temple.

And for the next several centuries, Roman emperors until Constantine would imprison, torture and kill Christians in waves because they dared to claim that they would worship Jesus, but not the emperor.

So why does Paul attribute divine ordination to these powers? Clearly they are not consistent in enforcing goodness and justice. Clearly, as Paul himself learned, those who do good had ample reason to fear their wrath.

Romans 13 in its theological context: the big thing that changed

Don’t get scared now, but I’m about to throw out the term “eschatological expectation.”

Wait, wait, read on.

We Christians tend to read the Bible as if it were contemporary, and there’s some value to that, as we seek to apply it to our lives. In the process, though, we tend to forget that we’re living 20 centuries after the time of Jesus, and a lot has changed. I’m going to draw on two points from the best teachers on Biblical stuff in my academic years – first a point I picked up from Luke Timothy Johnson (no relation), and then one from Charles Talbert.

Dr. Johnson’s basic point on Christianity as a whole is that it stemmed from an experienced the very first believers had with the resurrected Jesus. We cover this every Easter season, when we recount the stories of the risen Jesus appearing to Mary, to the disciples journeying to Emmaus, to the apostles in the upper room, and again when Thomas was around. From Johnson’s view, those experiences are the central point of Christian faith; the Gospels can be studied, in some sense, as an effort to “reverse engineer” Christ — to find a way of expressing exactly who this Jesus must have been in order to have created an experience of resurrection that was felt as so clearly real and uniquely Him, but couldn’t be fully explained. Jesus wasn’t experienced as a ghost, but neither was he a resuscitated corpse as Lazarus had been. This was something without precedent, and in casting about for ways to describe it, the Jewish concept of resurrection of the dead was the best they could come up with. We’ve spent 2000 years adding grace notes and texture to this understanding, but we need to remember that, in the beginning, this was fresh and unpredictable and freaky.

The concept that best fit their experience, though, was a Jewish one that wasn’t about the resurrection of one person, or about some alternate plane (as many of us think of heaven, which has more of a Greek origin), but an era of mass resurrection of the righteous. This wasn’t fully accepted by Jews at the time, even; we see fights between a sect that believed in the resurrection of the dead (Pharisees) and one that didn’t (Sadducees). But to the extent that it had any understanding, the presumption is that all the dead who were going to be resurrected would come back at once.

So the early Christians bent this a little, assuming that Jesus’ resurrection would inaugurate a new creation that the faithful would partake in, whether they were dead or not. (I Thessalonians, Paul’s first letter, written around 20 years after Jesus dies, has a major theme explaining to the church that their fellow believers who died won’t miss out on this resurrection.) But even as the days turned to years and the years to decades, the 1st century church was rooted in the belief that the resurrection, the end times, the eschaton, had begun to happen with Jesus and would continue and conclude very, very soon. The writings of Paul have to be read with that “eschatological expectation,” that belief that the end was truly nigh. So Romans 13 ends with:

And do this because you know the time; it is the our now for you to awake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than wen we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand. (Romans 13:11-12)

And it is through this lens, Talbert would argue (and I would agree), that you have to understand Paul’s ethics, especially his social ethics. If you believed that the world would likely end tomorrow, or maybe the next day, you wouldn’t waste a lot of time trying to reform it. You wouldn’t jump into entanglements like marriage and family life if you weren’t already so committed, but you also wouldn’t try to reform social structures, especially since there weren’t readily available ways to do that if you were a persecuted minority. You might instead focus on just preparing your inner circle – your family and friends – as we invariably see people who predict the world’s end doing. It’s a notable feature of early Christianity that they believed they had been commissioned (as in the end of Mark, the first Gospel) to spread the Good News about Jesus as far and wide as possible in the short time left so as many believers as could be reached would be able to enjoy the benefit of new life in Christ.

It’s that short-timer, eschatological Christianity that can say to persecuted believers that you are better off trusting that God has ordained the power structure we don’t have time to change and that your best course of action is to focus on spreading love.

Romans 13 in political context

So what about us? While we profess a hope in the resurrection of the dead, and many strands of Christian theology emphasize eternal life as a payoff for faith in this life, for the most part we do not live with the same urgent expectancy that today may be the end.

But beyond that major theological difference, there is an enormous political difference. In the Western world, Christianity of some form has been the religion of the dominant culture since the 4th century. There is a reason government officials in the US refer to Romans 13 for validation and not, say the Koran or the Talmud. There is a whole separate riff on the sociological role of religion in propping up existing power structures versus the subversive, prophetic role religions can play that I will save for another day, but for now let me just posit that Christianity is firmly entrenched within the power structure, which is a complete reversal of where it was when Paul wrote to the Romans.

Beyond that, the game-changer in modern Western culture is the rise of representative democracy. Since the 18th century and the American Revolution, government’s authority has been claimed to be derived from the consent of the governed.

So go back up to the actual passage, and replace “authorities” and “rulers” with “we” and “us”. It’s hard to underestimate the difference it makes for Christian believers to acknowledge that in this society, we can’t yield passively to the ruling authorities, because they are us. And the challenge of being a Christian in a democratic society is that the early Church that crafted the Scriptures had no concept that a Christian, participatory government was a possibility (or even something desirable), so any guidance we find there is extrapolated out from the ethical demands of Christian community (which were intimate in a way that presupposed little need for formal government) or from denying our own role as citizens and assuming falsely that “the authorities” are somehow an “other.”

Consider it this way: if you take Romans 13 at face value, and we are to fulfill the requirements put upon us by the governing authorities, we run into the circle that our responsibility as citizens is to exercise our right to vote and select who those authorities should be and what they should do, making us the creator (or at least endorser) of the authorities we claim to be following. It doesn’t work; it’s one of those infinite loops.

So in conclusion (finally!), Romans 13 isn’t all that helpful. It falsely implies that the authorities are acting with divine justice because it presents a social ethic for a people with a political position and an eschatological orientation that are not at all ours. We ought not indulge political leaders or followers who want to use these verses to justify their actions. We should instead point to the surrounding verses on love and forgiveness to challenge them to better model the justice of the crucified and resurrected Christ.

2 responses to “Let’s talk about Romans 13”

  1. […] Murray and the concept of religious freedom in American Catholic thought, as a follow up to the piece I did on Romans 13 that exactly three people read. But I wasn’t up to it. I will admit that the news from the […]

  2. Beth Schwarzmueller Avatar
    Beth Schwarzmueller

    Our Bible Study is doing Romans this year … I have printed this out so I will be ready for the night we do Romans 13. Thank you.

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