Should Christians Submit to the Government? – Romans 13:1-7

No TrumpThe transformed life ought to effect one’s relationship with government. This is based on common idea from the Hebrew Bible that God ordains the rulers and the nations.  Since Paul is speaking about the Roman empire, it must mean that the Christian ought to obey even an evil government. Paul uses the same verb here in Romans 13 as he did in 8:7, with reference to submitting to the will of God.

Paul therefore means the transformed believer must obey the government because it is God’s appointed authority. By extension, when you obey the government, you obey God.

But most people immediately ask: if that government abuses its power and rules unjustly, is it then appropriate for a Christian to rebel to change that government?  Usually Christians will say they will obey the government insofar as the government commands that are not contrary to God’s commands.

What if the government restricts my personal freedom?  What if the government wants to take my guns away?  What if the government permits same-sex marriage, abortion, or the use of marijuana?  What if the government were to be controlled by Islam and Sharia law is imposed on us?  Should we rebel against the government then?

impeach ObamaI think it is critically important to realize that in the first century, no member of Paul’s congregation would have ever asked this question. No one would have plotted the fall of the Roman empire, nor would a Roman Guy Fawkes attempt to blow up the Roman Senate. Rome really did bring peace to the world and Rome really did provide services which raised the social and economic fortunes of everyone.  No one would have considered joining the “Occupy Appian Way” movement to protest the outrageous economic practices of the Roman Empire, nor (in the interest of being fair and balanced), would anyone dream of complaining about their taxes and joined the Tea Party.

Those categories simply do not exist in the first century, and if they did, Rome would have silenced them with extreme prejudice!  It was impossible for members of Paul’s churches to protest their emperor or hold up “Impeach Nero” signs in public.

Consider what the Roman empire was like in the mid-first century. They did oppress people, the enslaved millions, they promoted the worship of every god imaginable, and they imposed their religious laws on everyone.  Infanticide was practiced and homosexual relationships were permitted (although nothing like gay marriage really existed).  Paul does not add any sort of condition to the command to obey the established government, despite the fact that the Roman government was one of the most oppressive regimes in history!

I do not read anything in Romans 13 or in Paul’s relationship with Rome that sounds anything like a protest against the government.   Paul’s method for dealing with social ills was far more subtle than mass protests – and much more effective.  He told the church to fix the problems themselves by caring for the poor, the widow, the orphan.  There is nothing in Romans 13 which would support the overthrow of Rome, either in the first century or the twenty-first.

23 thoughts on “Should Christians Submit to the Government? – Romans 13:1-7

  1. Suggested Further reading:

    The Arrogance of Nations: Reading Romans in the Shadow of Empire, Neil Elliott, Fortress Press, 2008.

    Part of the Paul in Critical Contexts series. “Neil Elliott offers an interpretation of Paul’s letter to the Romans in the context of Roman imperial ideology, setting it alongside Roman works and bringing to the text recent insights from classical studies, rhetorical criticism, postcolonial criticism and people’s history.”

    The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon, Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan, HarperOne, 2010

    I would sum this book up as the Theology of Paul (The Cross) vs the Theology of Empire. Do you want Peace through Justice, or Peace through Conquest? Personally, I found the lessons of this book vital to our current century of War Without End regardless of how you personally critique the means by which they arrived at them.

  2. Stupid Question: Wasn’t the act of declaring Jesus Lord (and King?) in and of itself an act of sedition against the empire?

    • Great question, actually.

      I think that is the substance of anti-imperial readings of Paul, that declaring Jesus as Lord and Savior means Caesar is NOT lord and savior. But the evidence is mixed for whether Paul really meant this declaration to be a formal “act of sedition” against the empire.

      In my opinion, Acts 17 indicates at least some Roman authorities could hear Paul’s Gospel as a threat to empire (Paul is turning the world upside down), but Acts 18 seems to say Gallio (at least) could understand the difference between Paul’s “Lord and Savior” and the empire. Christians in the next century tried hard to show they could be good citizens without worshiping the empire.

      And thanks for the book recommendation, I have about ten books on my “anti-empire” shelf already, but I will probably add that one soon.

      • Thanks, Phil. Come to think of it, the letters to the churches that opens Revelation offers another glimpse into how the early church dealt with life within the empire.

      • As you seem to, I see Paul’s position re. civil rule of the Roman Empire as nuanced. Certainly not inciting revolution but probably ready/willing to commit civil disobedience if/when “kingdoms” came into direct conflict.

        His view of the coming Kingdom I think was definitely more “other-worldly”… his view much more cosmic/spiritual-world than his Apostle brothers based in Jerusalem (who he spent very little time with, ever), who remained Israel/Jerusalem centered for worship and awaiting the Messianic Kingdom. I believe his culturally and religiously pluralistic and more hellenized (than the Jerusalem leaders) upbringing outside Israel probably accounts for this… plus his turn to the visionary/mystical around the time of his “revelation” of God’s son to and “IN” him. I think the mystical “identification with” and revelatory/charismatic experiences he and many of his followers had (cf. especially Corinth), kept his focus mainly there. The result of this, plus means and freedom to travel around a relatively “free” Roman world, kept him from being as focused on economic and other oppression as was Jesus.

        That last point re. Jesus, I know, is either overlooked or seen differently in much of traditional theology. But I think that denies much clear, direct reading of the Gospel texts, when properly viewed in their full life context. (Cf. scholars like Crossan, Horsley, Silberman, Nelson-Pallmeyer, Liberation theologians, and many others.) The point pertinent here is mainly that we see a difference/progression from Jesus to Paul… and one in which the carry-over of Jesus’ message and actions became obscured because of the war and destruction of Jerusalem in 66-70. With this, and the fact that the Twelve and James were not interested in (or perhaps capable of) writing things down about their lives and beliefs after Jesus’ departure, the perspectives and theology of Paul, via Acts plus his letters, became our “standard”.

        (For any paying much attention, the above implies what I see as lack of any substantial evidence that Peter wrote anything, nor probably any of the other Jerusalem leaders… If James wrote “James”, it doesn’t tell us much re. the real situation for the earliest Jerusalem Jesus-followers. It certainly isn’t very Pauline, probably purposely challenging Paul, whether in his lifetime or later–the latter more likely.)

  3. Thanks for this, Phillip. Always timely, but perhaps more so now than usual, as I expect a time of particular discontent and reaction to political power in the US and Europe, as commonly there is in much of the rest of the world.

    Let me respond mainly in terms of armed resistance AGAINST or FOR an “empire” (our system included). Full disclosure, first: I am a progressive Xn who takes the Bible “seriously but not literally”, and as often not historically accurate (easily demonstrated on historical and objective-as-possible basis)…. Rather a mixture of literary device and mythology with historical facts.

    And, unusual even within “progressivism”, I lean toward a qualified pacifism stance as to support of wars and military ventures by nation-states. I wrestle with this aspect because the “devil is in the details”. Core, though, is that Jesus was a non-violent protester and advocated the same. (And, importantly, after MUCH study, I believe he was NOT a believer in an apocalyptic “end of the world”, as we see much of around the time of and within the NT.) However, I’m quite certain most Christians, across the full spectrum of theologies, do not give this issue proper consideration.

    On the other hand, most young Christian men of enlistment age, and many women as well, enter the military, seemingly with little critical thought. They pledge, essentially, to support whatever military ventures our government gets into. I don’t see HOW this can be biblical or “righteous” within any prominent theology. Especially with an all-volunteer military.

    A quick note on Paul in relation to submission to the state: Although Romans is one of his later works, I beleive he was still expecting the very-soon appearance (not necessarily bodily “return”) of Jesus in establishment of the Kingdom. I’m not sure if he’d had serious doubts or were taking a centuries-long perspective if he would have been as compliant with earthly kingdom(s), seemingly without qualification.

    • I see my wording in the next-to-last paragraph might be confusing. I don’t mean most young men enlist, but that those who do, as Christians, I suspect do not give much consideration to pacifism as at least potentially a biblical and godly position. Nor do they to the option of non-participation in militarism on a personal, conscientious basis.

    • Howard, I think the imminent return of Jesus is a factor, thank you for that reminder. Paul was really like most Pharisees, keep your head down, do not attract too much imperial attention, study the Torah and wait for the Messiah to sort it all out.

      I tend to think of the development from Paul in Romans 13 to John in Revelation 13, where Rome is no longer the God-ordained ruler to be obeyed, but the Beast rising from the chaos of the sea, empowered by the devil himself to make war on the saints, and eventually a great whore who is drunk on the blood of the saints.

      What is remarkable (to me) is that there is still no “overthrow Rome” in Revelation, or in then literature of the early church after Revelation. It is always passive resistance and acceptance of torture and death if necessary. The church does not get militant for a few centuries, and then the church becomes corrupt in both theology and ethically.

      From our perspective, the teaching of both Jesus and Paul did “overthrow” Rome by replacing the ethic of Rome with that of Judeo-Christianity. It is hard to avoid importing that into Romans 13 and thinking Paul had some sort of long-game strategy.

  4. For a completely different reading of Romans 13:1-7, I refer you to Chapter 6, Christian Obedience to Synagogue Authority in The Mystery of Romans, bu Mark D. Nanos. (289-336)

    Nanos sees the tragic results of the traditional interpretation as too many to number, not least of them being the permissive position of many churches with the Nazis. In a footnote he says the traditional view has not successfully accounted for the fact the letter was addressed to Rome under Nero, by a Jew, Paul, who had seen the continual and tyrannical destruction of Jews and Christ following Jews, giving rise to the apocalyptic reference to Rome as “Babylon”. This was hardly a time in which the posture toward Roman authority was unequivocally positive.

    Following the thesis of the book, Nanos reads 13:1-7 as not concerned with the State or empire. His concern is to address the obligation of Christian gentiles with the synagogues of Rome for the practice of their new “faith” to subordinate themselves to the leaders of the synagogues and to the customary “rules of behavior” that had been developed in the Diaspora synagogues for defining the behavior of “righteous gentiles” seeking association with Jews and their God.

    This was part of Paul’s two step program to promote a peaceful path to proclaiming the gospel first in the synagogues, to the end that both circumcised and uncircumcised might worship together in harmony in fulfillment of the promises “…that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (15:5-6) as the Shema commands.

    Nanos concludes the chapter with an expanded contextual translation of 13:1-7 in which he may address the Greek as it pertains to the above.

  5. “Should we rebel and (sic) against the government then?

    “I think it is critically important to realize that in the first century, no member of Paul’s congregation would have ever asked this question.”

    Ha! This is the question which Paul addresses. No ‘member…would have ever” referred to “Romans 13” as chapter numbers did not exist until the next millenium.

    But very few will actually care about that enough to read this text in context.

    • Of course not, Mike. Book titles were added by the second century and chapters/verses much later (the sixteenth century). That is a silly objection.

      Paul was writing to congregations in Rome, and my point anyone who heard this letter read to them in the first century would not have thought into terms of “overthrow Rome.”

      I *think* your linked blog post argues for pacifism, that seems to be the gist of the final paragraph anyway. Your strange “context” beginning with 586 BC does not really provide much background to Roman pagans recently converted to Christianity. That sweep of history is common knowledge and most is hardly in the background here. I suggest you focus on the Roman expulsions you have on your list and do some reading on the imperial cult in the first century.

  6. I agree that Paul explains we need to act rather than react to government policies. In Romans 13:8-10, Moo brings insight to the displaying the message of the Gospel through the action of love rather than correction (173). It is so obvious that love is the center of the Gospel and it what Christians should be displaying to understand rather than a person protesting that it is wrong and not showing what is right. I believe God knew people gain and understand more by observing actions and through relationships. By directly meeting the need of the problem or conflict, I believe people are more open up to Christians who meet their needs first before correct can be made. Paul finishes in 13:11-14 that Christians need to be “light” which means we need to be an example to the world how to live. I know it may be hard to act according to the Bible because of our sinful nature, but Paul explains that are acts are the only way people will see our message of love.

  7. The latest presidential election has caused a great divide among the people of the United States. There are many people who are unhappy with the way the election turned out, and the phrase “not my president” has been thrown around quite a bit. Paul tells us that we are to submit to the governing authorities because they have been instituted by God (v. 13:1). So, whether Christians like it or not, Donald Trump is the president elect and will be their president for the next four years. As a Christian they must submit to Trump as a governing authority because it is the will of God. What Christians should do in reaction to this election is to follow the commandment to love our neighbors. Christians need to do their best to repair the divide this election has created by shining the light of Jesus rather than hatefully protesting what God has willed.

    • Lauren, certainly I find it within the “light of Jesus” to try to repair divides among many in the country and be peacemakers. But protesting isn’t always hateful (if the claim that God wills the ascension of every leader, regardless of their behavior, is even valid).

      Additionally, a couple other factors within our constitution and laws must also be remembered. (Presumably these count as part of God-ordained government.)

      One, the electors in our electoral college are generally (in most states) NOT bound to vote for the winner of the popular vote of their state. They can vote their conscience. It’s arguable that the original intent was to PREVENT the ascension of tyrants who may have deceived the public or merely to affirm that sometimes particularly informed, experienced people (electors in this case) may have better judgment than the general populace. Regardless, until the electoral college has voted (scheduled, as of now, for Dec. 19), Trump is technically NOT president-elect.

      Two, our laws provide for peaceful impeachment of the President by Congress. While unlikely to be pursued in such a case, I believe the provision may include “high crimes and misdemeanors” committed before entering office. It is quite possible that Trump could run into impeachment for past actions (before the election) or for improper conduct either before or after inauguration. So it’s far from an “open and closed case” that Christians (or others) at this point “… must submit to Trump…”, as you say.

  8. As you said in the last paragraph of your blog post, I also do not think that the people Paul is writing to were being told to overthrow their government by any means. This was not a way for Paul to get a group together to take over Rome, but rather to show the love of Christ to everyone around them through their actions. Verses 13-14 of chapter 13 in Romans give us a clear direction of what not to do and what actions should be upheld as Christians. ” 13 Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. 14 Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.” The part about dissension and jealousy almost hits home for Americans right now with the way that the elections have gone and the disarray of the nation rioting and pouting over the turn out of it all. But as Paul states in verse 14 we are not to dwell on those things, but instead think not of things that would gratify our fleshly desires.

    • As you say, “…the disarray of the nation rioting and pouting over the turn out of it all.” Maybe someone should quote some humility and “things decently and in order” Scriptures to Mr. Trump himself… the need there is ‘uuge! And, as to pouting, I’d not think he’d want, as winner where it matters – electoral votes – to support the case for large-scale recounts or investigation of “rigging”. But he IS (probably unwittingly), with his totally unsupported (and “ridiculous”) claim that around 3 million votes were illegal, and went for Hillary. (None for him???). These, per his claim, in states not being recounted. Shouldn’t this definitely be investigated, as part of his “drain the swamp”?

      I’ll not be at all surprised if his own party may eventually have to open impeachment proceedings, tho he’s not even in office yet. It’s a wise option that God ordained (per Paul’s argument) in our system.

  9. I agree with what Lauren said, about how Christians should be responding to Trumps election and on her approach when it comes to stitching up the divide that has arisen in the country over the two candidates. I believe that although we do not have to agree with what the government does, and there are governments who pass laws in opposition to what God’s will is. However, He still wants us to submit to its governing authority. If Trump won, then Christians need to be willing to accept that fact. In his book, Moo talked about how submitting to the government meant Christians are under a hierarchy in life, and Paul needed to tell them they should submit to their government because they are placed there by God, who is at the top of the hierarchy (Moo, 172). With God at the top of the hierarchy we are supposed to be adhering to, we then are to first follow His will. It is his will that we submit to our governing authorities, but that does not give us a free pass to do as we please, or if the government makes a law that is against what God wants,that is the only time we should not be submitting. Romans 13 makes it clear that God is ultimately in control, and we need to always remember that, before we react to a situation.

  10. Autumn, I respect your perspective and caring perspective. And your last sentence is a great reminder! But given the tremendous potential for governments to become authoritarian and totally run rough-shod over all godly principles and actions, I’d suggest one important addition: Our very careful watchfulness, discernment and readiness to oppose, in non-violent ways (as Jesus did), economic and governmental systems (and sometimes specific leaders).

    Perhaps Trump is not, at this point, a leader to be directly opposed, beyond the typical political opposition that any leader faces (as CERTAINLY Obama did). However, he DOES display many behavior patterns of an authoritarian! This in his long business career and in the last 18 months or so of campaigning and now preparing to govern. This alerts us to both prayer FOR him and preparedness to actively OPPOSE him if warning signs continue to mount up and actions signal a dangerous direction.

    At the risk of being misunderstood (I’ll explain) I offer this: This is a time everyone, and especially Christians who should more readily “get” what was done then, should look at the period of especially 1933 to 1938 in Germany and the German speaking world. Explanation: I’m NOT suggesting Trump is equivalent to Hitler…. Repeat: NOT saying that. However, this time period does have a number of correspondences to our situation now, both here and in Europe.

    Many Christians have believed (wrongly, in my view) Trump will be a protector of religious liberty, etc. Quite the opposite could easily be true. Please take a couple hours, or more, to do at least some minimal reading (Wikipedia alone is fairly helpful) on things like the opposition of the “Confessing Church” in Germany after Hitler’s appointment as chancellor in 1933. Read about Barth (then in Switzerland, his home country) and his leadership in the writing and release of the Barmen Declaration. Read about the fascinating, courageous Bonhoeffer, which many have, without knowing the larger picture of opposing (“Confessing”) Christians. These dedicated Christians did much more than pray, although they were unable to get enough others with them to ultimately unseat or hold back Hitler and his nefarious plans. How/why did they know to oppose Hitler early on? They were observing, thinking people who were able to read signs relatively early, especially Karl Barth. But not enough listened to Barth’s strong and clear warnings. Let us not be guilty of the same, if things continue to go the way they currently look like they MIGHT.

  11. I find, Paul understood very well, how the Romans were civil to the Jews in Christ’s time, as long as the Jews kept their own people in line and paid the required taxes. Paul was not stupid. If you wish to live your faith while under the rule of an over bearing Empire, you don’t go about it by claiming you independence in their face. Like the Jews, they had to show restraint, if they were to survive. It’s simple logic.

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