By Arthur Kettelhut
The purpose here is to establish and interpret the meaning of Romans 13:1-7 in the context of first-century Christians, specifically their requirement to follow government mandates. First-century Christians had a unique view of religion and government. Their view consists of the understanding that government and religion are connected. Paul wishes to establish the proper interpretation and understanding of these laws. Without regard to the interpretation of the laws as being justly founded. Instead, Paul wishes his Christian fellowship to follow Roman law as the government that Christians are subject to is appointed by God. By demonstrating rebellion against the government, rebellion against God is implied. Gentile Christians do not follow the Jewish example of a rebellious attitude toward governmental tribute, regardless of the Torah’s teaching.
This verse’s analyses have included theologians and other exegetical examinations in one of two categories. The first is that Paul desires his audience to follow Jesus’ instruction to render Caesar all that belongs to Caesar. The second interpretation is that Paul suggests that Christians submit to all governmental authority regardless of civic moral grounds. The context of Romans 13:1-7 is closely related to the previous verse in Romans 12:14-21, where Paul offers a prescription for how a Christian should properly behave. Such subsequent correct behavior will keep Christians in a position of receiving praise from their governing authorities. The honor they will enjoy is their satisfaction that their tribute will go toward publicly supported moral pursuits.
The Christian response, as shown in Christ, must be the correct perspective. The Jewish people did not appreciate the payment of taxes, partially from the occupation of Jerusalem and the Roman coinage bore a likeness of the emperor, a reminder to the Jews of the imminent presence of imperial rule. Christians were to avoid imitating the Jews in this regard for moral purposes and to avoid persecution—the core message of following Jesus’ example is to always act in the spirit of sacrifice and love. The central theme of 13:1-7 does follow the broader context that Pauline theology establishes. Since Christ is love and love is Christ, the natural flow of love toward authority encourages the new Christians to live Christ’s attributes.
Paul’s use of love is crucial in the overall message in Rom 13:8-10. Paul uses his education in the Torah as his core doctrine, but there is criticism that he is contradictory in his instructions. The contradiction arises from the use of the Torah’s prescription for the law while at the same time teaching believers they are free from the law. To solve this contradiction, the view that Paul still values the Torah as valid instructions for life but not as an inherent regulation.
Another possible contradiction relates to the reasoning that Paul uses for morally justifying his position on civil obedience. As followers of Christ, his audience receives the instruction that belief in Jesus is of sole importance for justification. Yet, the believers must also comply with their civic duties to remain righteous. This contradiction’s dismissal is that through love and faith in Jesus, good works follow a desire in the heart to live like Christ. The love the audience is to observe is not blind but tempered by the immutable characteristic of love that God possesses.
The time of Paul’s writing to Corinth is essential for understanding his instructions. The old paradigm of the law under the Torah is now over. The new world of salvation through faith is only beginning. Specific instructions are to guide the believers forward correctly and provide a path to remain righteous. Paul keeps his message straightforward.
Paul uses various imagery in Romans to assist in his teaching and understanding, including references to clothing in Romans 13:14. The imagery of Christian clothing means establishing a Christian moral identity. How is one to adorn themselves with the world? The distinction of countenance applies to the new Christians as Asumang Annang reflects, “more than any other material product, clothing plays a symbolic role in mediating the relationship between nature, man and his socio-cultural environment.”
In the book of Romans, Paul seeks to demonstrate the convent issues encountered by his people. First, there was Adam, who broke God’s first covenant with humanity. Then there was Abraham’s covenant and finally, Christ, who came to establish the final covenant. These binding agreements with the society also find fulfillment in the behaviors and actions of Christians. By complying with Roman authority regarding taxation and other requirements of Roman rule, Christians demonstrate their commitment to all the good that God’s rulers accomplish. Tax and the covenants find a standard definition in obedience to the Lord’s will.
Paul uses the concept of the Last Adam, which places the person of Christ as being the last Adam or last man created in death. In Romans, to establish a primary motivation and explanation for governmental cooperation. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul employs Adam to cause our physical death, but he also associates Christ as the Last Adam. While Adam received the breath of God to begin physical human life, Christ brings eternal life to all who believe. The concept of Last Adam introduced in Corinthians establishes the context for Paul’s instructions in Romans 13:1-7 that are noted as being out of place since they lack any transitional statements.
According to common interpretations, many early Christians in the church possess a mind that seeks the kingdom of heaven. The focus on living for the next world cites the cause for the dismissal of their civic responsibilities. The new era of Christ and his rule over Earth is imminent to the Christian mind. However, this is no excuse to ignore the physical requirements of a life lived under governmental mandates. Respecting their civic duties is to acknowledge God as the appointer of their rulers and the maintainer of the public good. What is good for the government is also suitable for its subjects.
Thomas Coleman notes that Paul’s commands for submission to government authority are due to theological reasons. Coleman writes, “It is an appeal to the general truth of creation, not to Christological or eschatological grounds.” Since God’s grace has given rulers their authority, it is disrespect to God and the state to avoid responsibilities. Paul also sought to establish an identity for Christians separate from Jews. Paul is to establish and “address the issue of their political status and what that meant in the reality of daily existence – and particularly Rome, the very seat of the imperial government.“
In addition to obeying God in obeying his authorities, another reason for compliance is to avoid punishment. Government compulsion is a right of the secular state, so there should be no fear of reprisal if the citizen cooperates. Moreover, the government functions to maintain order and by so doing also helps the poor when the rule is just. It is essential to distinguish the just use of power and the unjust law of tyrants. Paul’s intention here is to instruct his audience to follow civic duties. Paul does not account for oppressive rulers or regimes but sets the context for governmental practice to maintain the status quo[TJA(A1] .
Strict cooperation with civil authority is not always the correct choice. In Scripture, there are numerous references to extraordinary circumstances. One such example is in Exodus 5:1, where the worship of God is made illegal. Another example is Acts 4:17-20, in the government’s case prohibiting the gospel’s spread. Christians must remain mindful that their final authority is God. No action of government can usurp this principle and remain righteous for believers.
Is Paul’s instruction counter imperial? Writer Denny Burk proposes that the emergence of American imperialism in the post-World War II era reflects a similar political environment that Paul experienced. The danger here is the blind acceptance of American hegemony in the current conservative evangelical platform. Consider that Rome would not be concerned with accusations of injustice by its administration. The United States is not worried about global charges of tyranny. However, as Burk notes, “Paul says that the gospel stands against all rival powers of the present evil age.” This concludes that Paul necessarily stood against irresponsible power, but in the context of Romans 13, there is no prescription for Christians to believe all great forces are evil. The coming kingdom promised in Christ’s return will replace all earthly authority as well as the spiritual realm. Paul’s message in Romans 13 is therefore not counter-imperialistic but supportive of rightful rule and civic obedience.
Paul addresses the issue of taxation on both what is moral and what is required. Roman rulers in Paul’s time required subjugation to all forms of taxation. The conquered peoples of the Roman empire were also required to pay a tribute tax, an indirect tax that finds resentment in Roman-occupied countries such as Jerusalem. Roman rulers had long concluded that it is best not to destroy a conquered land but tax them. Paul could have had an alternative or aggressive attitude toward the Roman Empire, but he is wise enough not to declare it publicly since it will place himself and his fellow Christians in danger.
Since God established a just universe, rewarding good behavior and punishing bad behavior are crucial. By failing to pay their due to Roman authorities, Christians risk governmental wrath and possibly the wrath of God. Lee Page offers a perspective on the context for civil disobedience and previously mentioned wrath of God, “In Romans 13 Paul is saying that the Christian is obligated to be obedient to the government, for the government, is God’s mediator of wrath.” The order of God’s creation is crucial in Paul’s thinking, a universe in which God governs this order must be at the center of Christian belief and practice.
The author Paul Lehman offers a view of this ethical choice “in which the act of knowing and doing provides the link between God’s humanizing activity and man’s freedom in obedience in the concretes situation.” It is found that in one’s knowledge of good and evil, humanity requires the absolute objective morality of God to maintain good conscience choices properly. Left without this objective standard, there is no way to distinguish the particulars regarding rule limits. Humans are born with the innate ability to distinguish right from wrong behavior, and their decisions receive guidance through the acts of God via politics.
John Crossan continues by the historical reconstruction and criticism in his book In Search of Paul, where he argues that the assumptions for Paul’s motivations are non-egalitarian. Their hypothesis considers that the book of 1 Timothy and Ephesians was non-Pauline since their language is not consistent with Paul’s other Scripture corpus. These assumptions prove without merit. Indeed, the Christian reader of Scripture should avoid any approach to Paul’s writings as another origin.
Paul knows that his audience lives in the Roman Empire and the Christian diaspora in the first-century world. So, the context of his instructions for civil obedience is meant to be taken for all levels of governmental authority. Paul’s context is rooted in his rabbinical education in the Old Testament gives him the knowledge that empires will fall before God in time. The principle that there is no authority except by God is fundamental to his instructions. Nonetheless, all previous efforts to delegitimize God’s sovereignty will ultimately fail.
The message of Paul in Romans 13 is finding its basis in the kingdom of God. Paul’s allegiance to the Old Testament’s position on right living is meant to excite and encourage his early Christian audience. It may be unspoken, but Paul desires to exalt God above the authority of local or national governments. Paul’s words are a testament to his faith. Even as he writes the letter, he is undoubtedly scarred mentally and physically from punitive punishment inflicted by the Roman authorities.
Paul’s reason for writing Romans 13 is to relate his message that God controls all aspects of human endeavor. Therefore, governmental mandates required their subjects also to enjoy God’s blessing. Government is not a human institution but one of divine origin.
It follows that any person that fails to comply with submission to civil authority sins against God. The resultant sin exposes the Christian to earthly punishment by the authorities and an insult to God. The government maintains the power to rule under God’s will. Their laws contribute to the public good and establish order in society.
Despite accusations that verses of Romans 13 are non-Pauline, a careful interpretive review of the verses agrees with the previous prescription found in the Old Testament and Romans 12. The alleged contradictions commonly interpreted are eschewed when we consider the consistency of Paul’s message. Paul wishes to relate the importance of love to God as the basis for Christian civic duty. Love God by doing what is right by his placement of rulers, not for the love of the rulers themselves. However, one must be aware that we must not heed any law that is offensive to God. Just as any unconstitutional law is void, any man’s rules that go against God cannot be faithfully observed.
Annang, Asumang, “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, Put on the Last Adam: The Background of Paul’s Ethical instructions in Romans 13:11-14.” Conspectus 04:1 (2007).
Burk, Denny, Is Paul’s Gospel Counterimperial? Evaluating The Prospects Of The Fresh Perspective.” For Evangelical Theology, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society JETS 51:2 (2008): 309-336.
Coleman, Thomas “Binding Obligations In Romans 13:7: A Semantic Field And Social Context.” Tyndale Bulletin TYNBUL 48:2 (NA 1997) (1997): 307–327.
Crossan, John Dominic, and Jonathan L Reed. In Search of Paul: How Jesus’ Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom, 2009.
Feinberg, Paul “The Christian And Civil Authorities,” Masters Seminary Journal 10:1, no. Spring 1999 (1999): 87–99.
Hanc, Ovidiu Paul’s Response to the Empire in Romans 13.1-7 in the Context of the New Exodus as a Paradigm of Deliverance(Unpublished Ph.D. Thesis, Queen’s University of Belfast, 2014)
Dunn, James D. G. Word Biblical Commentary: Romans 9-16. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1988.
Page Lee, “Conscience” In Romans 13:5,” Faith and Mission 08:1 (1990): 85–92.
 Asumang Annang, “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, Put on the Last Adam: The Background of Paul’s Ethical Instructions in Romans 13:11-14,” Conspectus 04:1 (2007), 5
 Thomas Coleman, “Binding Obligations In Romans 13:7: A Semantic Field And Social Context,” Tyndale Bulletin 48:2 (NA 1997) (1997), 93
 James D. G. Dunn, Word Biblical Commentary: Romans 9-16 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1988), 769.
 Denny Burk, Is Paul’s Gospel Counterimperial? Evaluating The Prospects Of The Fresh Perspective” For Evangelical Theology, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society JETS 51:2 (2008), 322
 Denny Burk, Is Paul’s Gospel Counterimperial? Evaluating The Prospects Of The Fresh Perspective” For Evangelical Theology, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society JETS 51:2 (2008), 321
 Lee Page, “Conscience” In Romans 13:5,” Faith and Mission 08:1 (1990), 86
 John Dominic Crossan, John, and Jonathan L Reed. In Search of Paul: How Jesus’ Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom, 2009.