Church & State
3 Approaches to Romans 13:1-7
One commentator argues that in Romans 13 we have "the clearest statement in all of
Scripture concerning the function, the role and the origin of civil government"(Sproul
Another commentator insists that the primary message of this pericope is our obligation
to pay whatever kinds of taxes one owes(Furnish 125).
Yet another contends that Paul's instructions in 13:1-7 are not concerned with the
state, empire, or any secular government at all. Paul's concern rather is the obligation
of gentile Christians, associating 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 behaviour"(Nanos 291).
Up to the time that Paul wrote there had been no official persecution of Christians
in Rome(Fitzmeyer 662). Not until the disastrous fire of Rome in A.D. 64, which Nero
blamed on the Christians, was there concerted persecution, and even then it was local
and temporary(Furnish 122). Paul likely wrote to the Romans in 56 or 57 A.D., very
early in Nero's reign. It is therefore likely that Paul would have very few reasons
for not subjecting himself and exhorting other Christians to submit to Nero's authority(Furnish 122).
Strained Jewish-Roman Relations
When Paul wrote Romans "Judaism was on the brink of catastrophe as a result of its
longstanding resistance to Roman imperialism"(Fitzmeyer 664). Christianity was founded
by a Jew whom the Roman authorities had crucified, and Christianity was regarded
as a Jewish sect and were thus caught up in the crisis of Jewish-Roman relations. It is
possible that Paul wanted Christians to model civil obedience to distinguish themselves
from their Jewish neighbours.
Christ's Imminent Return
This text, like many other Pauline texts, is written with an awareness that history
is drawing to a close and that Christ's return is imminent(Furnish 116).
The introductory appeal(chapter 12) urges Christians to offer themselves wholly to
the spiritual worship of God. Paul's emphasis in chapter 12 is that the Christian's
present life is radically qualified by the imminence of the New Age(Furnish 123).
Paul's point in 13:1-7 is to remind the Christians that although we belong to the Age to
come, we still have responsibilities in this present age.
Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities.
Fitzmeyer argues that "Every person" stresses the obligation of every individual. Paul's instruction is not restricted
to Christians(Fitzmeyer 665).
Cranfield, on the other hand, insists that we understand "every person" in the context of Romans - that "every Christian" is what is being communicated.
No Christian is exempt from obeying the authorities(Cranfield 656).
Furnish observes that Paul nowhere speaks of "obeying" or "disobeying" the governing
authorities, but only of being "subject" to them. The opposite of subjection to them would be "resisting" them or "disruption"(Furnish
126). To be "subject" is to acknowledge the reality of the political structure under which one stands,
and to respect it(Furnish 126). Furnish's argument implies, however, that one might
be able to justify breaking the law. For example, I could disobey the law by speeding
and yet remain subject to the law by paying my fine(accepting the processes and penalties
of disobedience). Surely, Paul not only wants us to subject ourselves to the structure,
but to also obey the laws as they are set before us.
For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by
The reason why we are to obey the governing authorities is because they are "established by God".
And since "there is no authority except from God" one can infer that all types of authority and governments are to be submitted to(Hodge
Therefore he who resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who
have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.
An obvious inference to verse 1 - if the authority is from God, to resist the authority
is to resist God. The "condemnation" then, is not something the government inflicts here, but God, as a result of sin(Hodge
For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behaviour, but for evil. Do you want to
have no fear of authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same;
Paul does not seem to take into account the possibility of the government being unjust,
or punishing good and praising the evil(Cranfield 664). This is where the notion
of legitimate civil disobedience is raised: Are we to only submit to the authorities
that fit Paul's description of praising good and punishing evil?
for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid;
for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger
who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil.
The purpose of the government is stated in this verse, "it is a minister of God to you for good". Government is a benevolent institution of God, designed for our benefit, and therefore,
should be respected and obeyed(Hodge 407). As a servant of both society and God,
the welfare of the people "is the only legitimate object which they(the rulers) are
at liberty to pursue".
Wherefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also
for conscience' sake.
Paul moves the motivation out of the practical by appealing to his readers' conscience'.
We aren't to subject ourselves merely to avoid punishment, we are to subject ourselves
because it is the right thing to do.
For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves
to this very thing.
Paul takes for granted that the Christians of Rome have been paying taxes; teleite
is to be understood as an indicative, not an imperative. The noun phoros
denotes the direct tributary payment, such as property tax or poll tax(Fitzmeyer 669).
From the Roman historian Tacitus, we know that the public outrage at the corrupt
practices of "revenue" collectors reached a climax in A.D. 58. Paul's letter to the
Romans was sent from Corinth in A.D. 56 or 57 just before this crisis, and just before
Nero's tax reforms(Furnish 132).
Mark Nanos understands the taxes spoken of here as the two-drachma Temple tax(Nanos
293). His argument hinges on the notion that Roman Christians would not have needed
a reminder of their obligations towards the Roman government(Nanos 298).
Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due, custom to whom custom; fear
to whom fear; honour to whom honour.
Here Paul distinguishes various kinds of taxation - "tax"(direct/phoros
) and "custom"(indirect tax/telos
; Furnish 132; Fitzmeyer 670).
Galatians 3:28 reminds us that "in Christ" there are no distinctions, but in civil
or political society this is not the case. Gal. 3:28 refers to distinctions before
God, while Rom.13:7("honour to whom honour" is due) refers to the obvious distinctions
within society which we must respect(Fitzmeyer 670).
The first question to consider concerns Nanos' interpretation of Romans 13 vs the
At the time Romans was written, was there a separate institution of the church in
-> If there was, there would be no need for instruction regarding the synagogue authorities.
-> If there wasn't, there is a great possibility that the instructions of 13:1-7 were
intended to help the Gentile Christians of Rome coexist with the Jews in the synagogue.
Problems with Nanos' arguments:
1)Depends largely on whether the church was a separate institution in Rome in 56-57
2)If "every person" refers to every person without exception, Nanos' argument makes
no sense since "everyone" in Rome would not be obligated to pay tax to the synagogue,
but "every person"(without exception) would be obligated to pay tax to Rome.
3)The "sword" as representing the Torah or synagogue discipline is a stretch compared
to the more natural representation of the sword as a symbol for physical punishment
and/or execution in Rome.
4)The two-drachma tax theory doesn't account for the fact that two different types
of taxes are named in Romans 13.
5)Speculating that Roman Christians wouldn't need to be reminded to pay taxes to Rome
has many difficulties when you consider:
a)the parousia(return of Christ) was thought to be imminent
b)Thessalonian Christians needed to be reminded to work(IIThes.3:11,12)
c)Corinthian Christians needed to be reminded not to deprive their spouse of sexual
d)Ephesian Christian slaves who were "free" in Christ, needed to be reminded to obey
their earthly masters(Eph.6:5)
It is evident in Scripture that many Christians, because of their undivided devotion
to Christ and their anticipation of His imminent return, had begun to neglect some
of their normal tasks in life.
"The authorities that exist are established by God" - Does that mean that Hitler's
and Stalin's governments were ordained by God? How are we to concur with Paul - that
the authorities are "established by God"?
"Whenever obedience to government is inconsistent with obedience to God, then disobedience
becomes a duty"(Hodge 406). But does Paul leave any room for this kind of civil disobedience?
It seems obvious from Romans 13:6,7 that Christians are obligated to pay taxes. However,
there have been some situations in recent history where Christians refused to pay
taxes. One crisis arose from the Vietnam war when some Christians opposed the amount of tax dollars being spent on the war effort - a war many judged to be an improper
use of military force. Another debate came out of the abortion crisis. When it became
known that tax dollars were being used to fund abortions, people who had strong ethical objections to abortion saw economic boycott of taxation as "a legitimate means to
protest this crime against humanity"(Sproul 221).
Beveridge, Henry, ed. Calvin's Commentaries: Acts 14-28 and Romans
. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1974.
Cranfield, C.E.B. The International Critical Commentary: Romans 9-16
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Fitzmeyer, Joseph. The Anchor Bible: Romans
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Furnish, Victor. The Moral Teaching of Paul
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Hessel, Dieter T. ed. The Church's Public Role
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Hodge, Charles. Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans
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Nanos, Mark. The Mystery of Romans
. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.
Sproul, R.C. Romans
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Temple, William. Christianity and Social Order
. Toronto: Penguin Books Limited, 1956.