I. Understanding Romans 13:1-7 in Context.
There has been a controversy in the media sparked off by a comment made by the leader of the Christians for Peace and Harmony Malaysia (CPHM) who urged Christians “to submit to and obey the government and those God had put in authority.” The leader added, “So don’t look at the person, as long as he is in position, the Scripture teaches us to honour and respect authority.”
Detractors protest that the comment is inappropriate as it takes a scriptural text out of context, to be used as a pretext for what is politically partisan. Indeed, many totalitarian states have caused much grief to the church when they sought to exploit this passage to justify their demand for unconditional submission from any Christian citizen who resists abusive authorities. We need therefore to emphasize that Paul’s call for submission is circumscribed by certain presuppositions.
First, Paul is specifying general principles drawn from the Roman situation. He is not legislating for every conceivable situation or different forms of government a Christian could possibly face. In general, Paul is just reminding his readers that Christians have a duty to contribute to good social order and that the state, for all its shortcomings still embodies social order. As Leon Morris writes, “He is presenting the norm, laying down conditions for living in a state in normal times, not covering every eventuality.”/1/
Second, it would be an anachronism to expect Paul to question openly the legitimacy of the Roman regime in the spirit of democracy whereby the electorate has the power to vote out any government that has become abusive and corrupt. It would also be a disastrous option for a Christian minority to initiate political resistance and rebellion against a powerful and ruthless tyranny.
Third, Paul’s focus is on when the government is punishing evil doing “as an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (v 4). He is not addressing a state which is demanding that its citizens act against the law of God.
Fourth, the passage should be seen as a part of a larger unit of Pauline exhortation: (1) Believers are urged not to conform to the pattern of this world (Romans 12:2). (2) Paul writes that Christians should follow the command to love (Romans 13:8-10). This would mean that submission to the state is only a means to an end which is, the love of one’s neighbors. (3) Paul stresses that the End Time is drawing near (Romans 13:11-14). The state, as such, is not a permanent institution. It will pass away to be replaced by the Kingdom of God.
II. Romans 13 is not the Last Word on the Christian Relationship with the State
That Romans 13 should not be seen as giving an exhaustive description of Paul’s teaching on the state is clear from his understanding of the principalities and powers, the cosmic elements (arche, exousiai and stoicheia) in Colossians 1:15-17, 2:8-15; Galatians 4:1-11; and Ephesians 6:10-20. Paul refers to them as forces that have rebelled against their appointed positions in the cosmos./2/ They have taken control of and perverted social structures, be they racial or political institutions. They even operate through tyrants. The reality of the defeat of these chaotic forces is not immediately apparent since they are still capable of creating considerable havoc. However, Scripture assures us that such rebellious powers of chaos have been decisively defeated by the risen Christ who led them away in a public procession (Colossians 2:14ff). This brings to mind the parallel drawn by Oscar Cullman who describes how the final surrender of the Nazis came only much later on V-day even though their armies had already been defeated decisively on D-Day in Normandy.
As such, Christians should view the states and the powers behind them as operating within the orbit of Christ’s present sovereign control and therefore, willy-nilly, they serve the purposes of the Lord of history (1 Corinthians 2:7-8). The Christian’s submission to the state must always be viewed from the eschatological perspective. Paul expects the state to execute temporal justice and be a terror only to those of bad conduct. What he does not deal with in Romans 13 is a state that has strayed from its divine mandate. Paul is writing before Nero viciously persecuted the Christians in 64 AD. We should therefore not take Romans 13 to be Paul’s last word on the subject of the Christian’s relationship with the state.
The underlying eschatological perspective, however, should provide encouragement that will sustain Christian resistance to oppressive governments. It is granted that bad government is preferable to social anarchy. Even though these governments are corrupted by sin and evil, principalities and powers, they are nevertheless still under God’s moral providence. More importantly, Christian effort to influence society is impelled by the awareness that even bad governments are still open to the influence of those who possess prophetic insight in their reading of the signs of the times.
III. The True Meaning of “Submission”
It should be stressed that Paul calls on believers to “submit” (hypotasso) rather than to “obey” (hypakouo) [to do what one is told to do] governing authorities. The word “submit” (hypotassesthai from hypotasso) which is used thirty times in the New Testament, is not to be reduced to the English equivalent of “obey.”
While hypotassesthai includes the notion of obedience, the dominant thought, nonetheless, is that of an attitude of respect for the other person as Christ’s representative. See, for example, Ephesians 5:21: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”/3/ Appropriate conduct flows naturally from the recognition that the Christian as God’s servant is placed below authority by God to do good deeds in society.
This posture of submission is may be expressed as a willingness to obey the government, but this should not be taken to require “an uncritical, blind obedience to the authority’s every command as the final arbiter of what constitutes hypostassesthai in a particular situation is not civil authority but God.”/4/ This understanding of hypostassesthai actually limits submission to respecting the authority of the state, obeying them only if such obedience does not conflict with God’s law. Douglas Moo agrees that, “perhaps our submission to government is compatible with disobedience to government in certain exceptional circumstances. For heading the hierarchy of relations in which Christians find themselves is God; and all subordinate “submissions” must always be measured in relationship to our all- embracing submission to him.” Moo weighs a fine balance between Christian submission (in general) and resistance (if the State’s demands are contrary to God’s commands).
The Christian submits to government by acknowledging this divinely ordained status of government and its consequent right to demand the believer’s allegiance. In most cases, then, Christian submission to government will involve obeying what government tells the Christian to do. But government does not have absolute rights over the believer, for government, like every human institution, is subordinate to God himself. The ultimate claim of God, who stands at the peak of the hierarchy of relationships in which the Christian is placed, is always assumed. This means the Christian may continue to “submit” to a particular government (acknowledging their subordination to it in general) even as they, in obedience to a “higher” authority, refuse to do, in a given instance, what that government requires./5/
The Christian is aware that he lives always in a tension between two competing claims; indeed, in certain circumstances disobedience to the state may not only be a right but also a duty. Such an occasion is exemplified when the apostles declare that they ought to obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29).
IV. The State is only a Servant
Far from regarding the state as a divinely ordained institution that is beyond criticism, Paul assigns only limited validity of the state in God’s ordering of society. The state “is God’s servant for your good…For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (vv 4, 6).
Leon Morris elaborates, “In the Greek the word God’s comes first for emphasis. The ruler is God’s servant, no less. And servant reminds us that he is no more; he is not God even if some rulers have had very exalted views of themselves and their functions…However exalted he may be among people, the ruler is nothing more than a lowly servant before God…The ruler is God’s servant to enable God’s other servants to get on with the job of doing God’s will. We should not overlook the point that the ruler is to act responsibly.” /6/
The role of the state is not only to punish evil; it is also to promote and reward goodness. Unfortunately, the state is often more interested in punishing (to protect the self-interests of the authorities) than enforcing laws to uphold justice and fostering public virtues. While the Christian remains willing to pay taxes and to honor the government, he has a duty to urge to government to fulfil its God’s appointed role and to step in to offset the failure of the government by rendering public service. Thus, Paul’s counsel is to “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed (v7).
Surely, Paul is here echoing Jesus’ famous saying, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mark 12:17). The significance of this allusion should not be missed. F.F. Bruce observes: “It is implied that the person to whom payment or repayment is made is the rightful owner or the recipient of whatever is paid or repaid; the action amounts to giving back to someone property to which he is entitled. Caesar, it is implied, is entitled to demand tribute; to pay tribute is to give back to him what is in any case is his./7/
We must not miss the a fortiori argument of Jesus: just as the coin is given to Caesar because it bears his image, likewise, each person who is made in the image of God ought to surrender his life back to God. Contrary to popular misconceptions, Jesus is advocating that we must not give to Caesar more than his due. Caesar’s sovereignty is limited. We must not give to him that which belongs to God alone. Jesus thus rejects any totalitarian claim by the state especially when such claims infringed on the demands of God./8/
In short, Paul encourages Christians to give honor that is due to the state, but this does not comprise the whole duty of Christians to God and man. This passage is not talking about an all-inclusive obligation which Paul gives later in verses 8-10. It is a general exhortation about obligation to the state as God’s appointed servants which is clearly limited by the context.
It would be a gross abuse of the meaning of Romans 13:1-7 to call for uncritical submission to the dictates of authoritarian governments, as the thrust of the of the apostolic writings (cf. 1Peter 2:1-17 and Revelation 13:1-18) is to emphasize that the state may legitimately command obedience only within the limits of the good purposes for which God has instituted.
Undoubtedly, such qualified allegiance to the state is often misunderstood as disloyalty, if not treason. Persecuted Christians throughout history provide ample evidence of this. For this reason, Paul strongly urges that persistent prayer and intercession be specially made for those in power so that Christians may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness (1 Timothy 2:lff; Titus 3:1ff).
1. Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans (Eerdmans 1988), p. 463.
2. Recent contributions to the debate on the nature of the principalities and powers may be found in John Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Eerdmans 1994), Richard Mouw, Politics and the Biblical Drama (Baker 1976), Wesley Carr, Angels and Principalities (CUP 1981), P.T. O’Brien, Principalities and Powers in Biblical Interpretation and the Church (Paternoster 1986) and Clinton Arnold, Ephesians, Power and Magic (CUP 1989).
3. To submit is to recognize one’s subordinate place in a hierarchy, to acknowledge as a general rule that certain people or institutions have “authority” over us. In addition to governing authorities (cf. also Tit. 3:1), Paul urges Christians to submit to their spiritual leaders (1 Cor. 16:16) and to “one another” (Eph. 5:21); and he calls on Christian slaves to submit to their masters (Tit. 2:9), Christian prophets to submit to other prophets (1 Cor. 14:32), and Christian wives to submit to their husbands (1 Cor. 14:34 [?]; Eph. 5:24; Col. 3:18; Tit. 2:5). See Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans. NICNT (Eerdmans 1996), p. 797.
4. C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans ICC (T&T Clark 1979), p. 662.
5. Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, p. 809.
6. Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans, pp. 463-464.
7. F. F. Bruce, “Render to Caesar” in Jesus and the Politics of His Day, ed. E. Bammel and C.F.D. Moule (CUP 1984), p. 258. Important discussion on the political views of Jesus may be found in Oscar Cullman, The State in the New Testament (Scribner’s 1956); Jesus and the Revolutionaries (Harper & Row 1970), John Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Eerdmans 1972), Richard Cassidy, Jesus, Politics and Society (Orbis 1978).
8. Alan Storkey’s succinctly laid out Jesus’ strategy: “It is like a game of chess, the small sacrifice and then the mate. The small coin goes to Caesar; but every Jew would have to acknowledge that since everything belongs to God (e.g., Psalm 24:1), everything else goes to God….In the middle of the Roman Empire’s oppressive taxation system, Jesus requires that all issues of tax be laid before God and God’s requirements of justice and help for the poor.” See his Jesus and Politics: Confronting the Powers (Baker 2005), p. 226.