What Does Romans 13:1-4 Teach?

Consider the following quotations.

Government is ordained of God, sanctioned and entrusted with power by him. The law must be enforced by power until the people are trained to obey from principle.

– Joseph T. Duryea, Minister of the Collegiate Dutch Reformed Church of New York, 1863


While the Scriptures recognize government as a divine institution…they tell us in the same breath that legitimate rulers are the ‘ministers of God’ for good…hence, when governments become a ‘terror to the good,’ and ‘a praise to the evil,’ they cease to be legitimate…and it becomes the right of the people to abolish them.

– Phillip Slaughter, Episcopalian Confederate Chaplain to the 19th Virginia

These two quotations were preached as commentary on Romans 13:1-4, the first quote to Union soldiers, the second to Confederate soldiers. Both interpreters of this passage sought to morally justify their sides’ involvement in the bloodshed of the American Civil War.

Can you imagine Christians on both sides of the battlefield with Romans 13:1-4 still fresh on their minds ready to kill their brothers in Christ? Daniel Boyd has done an excellent job explaining the two major misinterpretations of Romans 13:1-4: Divine Right and Divine Standard. Christian soldiers within the Confederate and Union armies applied one of these interpretations to their cause which led to the untenable position that one Christian ought to kill other Christians in the name of his earthly government.

Despite the 150 years since the American Civil War, this is still a relevant discussion. I’ve recently seen Facebook statuses and blog posts written by Christians that take a side on a big issues like gun control, Syrian refugees, or US military intervention in the Middle East. The writer of whatever blog or Facebook status usually makes their argument and then claims “Romans 13” as the biblical authority for whatever their position was. Unfortunately I’ve often seen this passage used as a blanket statement to prooftext certain political stances. This is a dangerous way to approach this passage because it assumes that if you disagree with the political opinion of the author of the Facebook status, you disagree with the Bible!

It is the purpose of this article to give an accurate interpretation of Romans 13:1-4 that fits within the context of Paul’s letter to the Romans and within the larger context of the New Testament. Daniel’s topic was “What Does Romans 13:1-4 Not Teach?” and mine is meant to be answering in the affirmative, “What in fact does it teach?” though I will deal with certain misconceptions along the way.

One of the Paul’s objectives within Romans 1-11 is to establish the unity of the Jewish and Gentile Christians within the body of Christ, despite their previous associations. Continuing onto what we know as chapter 12, Paul highlights the modus operandi of the newly assembled body of Christ: that instead of “being conformed to the pattern of this world,” they might be “transformed” into something visibly different than what the “pattern of this world” looks like.

The pattern of this world does not produce people who “bless those who persecute ” them (12:14). Neither does it produce those who aren’t “wise in their own sight” (12:16) nor those who “repay no-one evil for evil” (12:17). The cookie cutter of the world certainly doesn’t produce those who shun vengeance, opting instead to feed and take care of his enemy.

Romans 13 continues with apostolic commands as to how Christ followers, Jew and Gentile, ought to  behave with regard to governmental authorities.  Certainly it is an antithesis to the pattern that the world would produce under similar circumstances. Instead of rebelling against malicious dictators or seeking a forceful way to prevent Christian persecution, Paul tells the Romans to “be in subjection.”

Let’s consider the text Romans 13:1-4.

Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; 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 on the one who practices evil.

Notice that each person ought to be in subjection. Oftentimes I’ve heard Christians use Romans 13:1-4 to promote patriotism towards one’s earthly nation, or at least allegiance, devotion, and service to the governing authorities. Subjection, however, does not imply any of these things. In fact, every instance of “subjection” (ὑποτάσσω) in the New Testament indicates the presence of at least two seperate and potentially opposing entities: one entity placing itself subordinately under another entity. In each case of subjection, be it young Jesus to his parents (Luke 2:51), the wife to the husband (Colossians 3:18), or the church to Christ (Ephesians 5:24), one entity is limiting his powers or choices in relation to another entity. If subjection was a natural and unconscious process, the command to submit would not have been necessary. As Paul commands the Christians to submit to the government, one entity to another, he doesn’t imagine that the Christians in Rome were in complete agreement with everything the Roman government decided to do. He certainly doesn’t think that the Roman Christ followers had devoted their lives to the service of Rome. On the contrary, it is because they had pledged their allegiance to the Lord of Lords, Jesus Christ, why Paul commands them to submit to earthly government.

Other passages in the New Testament regarding the role of Christians to earthly governments use the same terminology of submission to earthly governments because of ultimate loyalty to God.

Remind them to be subject to rulers, to authorities…For we also once were foolish ourselves…but when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us. (Titus 3:1, 3-5)

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For this is the will of God… (1 Peter 2:13-15)

Romans 13:1 tells us that our reason for subjection is because of God’s priority over earthly governments. This passage is reminiscent of the dialogue between Jesus and Pilate.

Pilate said to Him, “You do not speak to me? Do You not know that I have authority to release You, and I have authority to crucify You?” Jesus answered, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above.” (John 19:10-11)

Notice that in both the above quoted passage and in  Romans 13:1-4, God is credited with establishing the governing authorities and giving them authority. What does it mean that God established them?

What the NASB translates as establish (τάσσω) is translated elsewhere as institute, appoint, set into place, even specify. Jesus specified the mountain where He wanted to meet His disciples (Matthew 28:16). A specific day was appointed for Paul to meet with the Jewish leaders in Rome (Acts 28:23). We make appointments and specifications all of the time and think nothing of it. This passage tells us that God has appointed human governments to bear the sword to bring vengeance on the evildoer. Despite its importance, nowhere in this passage or other passages does the Scripture imply that God is pleased with this appointment, or that He wants His people to be involved in carrying it out. The Septuagint is full of examples of similar appointments (that also use the same Greek word). For instance, in Jeremiah 19:8, God appointed Jerusalem to be destroyed. Israel was said to have been appointed to be a wilderness by God in Hosea 2:3. Zechariah 7:14 and Malachi 1:3 are other examples of appointments made by God that weren’t exactly honourable.

More important to our discussion is Habakkuk 1:12b.

You, O Lord, have appointed [the Chaldeans] to judge; And You, O Rock, have established them to correct.

Did God approve of the “violence” (1:9) of the idolatrous Chaldeans, the means by which they would “judge” and “correct” His people? Not at all, for He Himself says, “They will be held guilty, they whose strength is their god” (1:11). Though they were serving God by delivering His cup of wrath upon the nations, eventually they would be forced to drink of that wrath as well (Habakkuk 2:15-16). The Chaldeans would be held accountable for their “bloodshed and violence” (2:8), as those who practice such things today can expect as well. God’s appointment of the Chaldeans was not for their glory or their good, but because of their tendency towards violence. Their violent nature was useful in accomplishing God’s purposes, but was not rewarded.

Romans 13:2 uses the term  “ordinance” (διαταγή) to describe God’s appointment of earthly governments. This word normally comes with positive connotations. Though unbiblical, it is a common thing to hear someone speak of a religious minister being “ordained” by God. We shouldn’t, however, give special importance to this word either.  These connotations aren’t seen in Strong’s Dictionary, which defines διαταγή as an “arrangement or institution.” Matthew 25:41 reminds us that hell is a place that has been “prepared for the devil and his angels.” Who was it that prepared hell? Who else, other than God would have the ability to do so? That being said, God’s preparation, arrangement, or even ordination of something, doesn’t mean He desires his people to take part in it, though it will serve his purposes.

Romans 13:4 and 6 gives two more words that ought not be given the positive connotation commonly given them in a Christian setting: minister (διάκονος) and servant (λειτουργός). Though these words are frequently used in a positive light, Satan’s angels are described as his “ministers” (2 Corinthians 11:15). These words simply denote a position of service.

Consider Jeremiah 25:9 and 12.

Behold, I will send and take all the families of the north,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will send to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, My servant, and will bring them against this land and against its inhabitants and against all these nations round about; and I will utterly destroy them and make them a horror and a hissing, and an everlasting desolation…Then it will be when seventy years are completed I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation,’ declares the Lord, ‘for their iniquity, and the land of the Chaldeans; and I will make it an everlasting desolation.’

Notice, God calls Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, His servant. He then takes full credit for the desolation brought upon Judah, thought it was Nebuchadnezzar who physically carried it out. Further, He claims full credit for the punishment of the Babylonians 70 years later, though it was Cyrus the Persian who physically carried it out.  So, Nebuchadnezzar’s service to God was little more than God’s allowance of a violent nation to conquer a neighbouring people group, the Judeans.

Passages about Cyrus the Persian, mentioned earlier, give us the clearest picture of how God used and continues to use earthly nations, by their own penchant for violence, to accomplish His purposes for His people.

Examine the following passage closely.

Thus says the Lord to Cyrus His anointed,
Whom I have taken by the right hand,
To subdue nations before him
And to loose the loins of kings…
For the sake of Jacob My servant,
And Israel My chosen one,
I have also called you by your name;
I have given you a title of honor
Though you have not known Me.
“I am the Lord, and there is no other;
Besides Me there is no God.
I will gird you, though you have not known MeIsaiah 45:1, 4-5.

Both the explicit terminology as well as its implications in this passage are meaningful. In verse 1, Cyrus is called the anointed of the Lord. The Hebrew transliteration of this word is “Messiah.” From the Greek it is transliterated as “Christ.” In the Christian mindset these words are normally reserved solely for Jesus, God’s chosen one to bring salvation to the world. While this is correct, the vocabulary wasn’t invented solely for the purpose of describing Jesus’ position of service. In this case, Cyrus was anointed by God to “subdue nations” “for the sake of” Israel, “though [Cyrus had] not known [God].” Cyrus, as “Messiah” (also called God’s chosen shepherd in Isaiah 44:28) would serve God by toppling the Babylonians and paving the way for the Israelites to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. Though he played a crucial part in bringing about God’s plan, Cyrus was said to “have not known” God. In the same way, earthly governments today can still be pictured as serving God without knowing Him. This service, as seen in the cases of Cyrus and Nebuchadnezzar, does not result in salvation or glory for the servants, since they did not know God (2 Thessalonians 1:8).

What type of service do the earthly governments carry out? Romans 13:4 calls them “an avenger” who “bears the sword” to “bring wrath on the one who practices evil.” Certainly being an avenger is a good thing right!? Like Captain America or Iron Man! Well…not in the biblical sense of the word. Jeremiah 50 shows us that those who have been the bearers of God’s vengeance (the Babylonians) will incur God’s vengeance themselves!

Draw up your battle lines against Babylon on every side,
All you who bend the bow;
Shoot at her, do not be sparing with your arrows,
For she has sinned against the Lord.
Raise your battle cry against her on every side!
She has given herself up, her pillars have fallen,
Her walls have been torn down.
For this is the vengeance of the Lord:
Take vengeance on her;
As she has done to others, so do to her. Jeremiah 50:14-15.

This passage is reminiscent of Jesus’ command to Peter in Matthew 26:52b: “for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.” In their active obedience to Romans 12, Christians would be free from God’s vengeance, never having taken vengeance on their own enemies. Instead the Christian remembers the sermon on the mount: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Matt. 5:7). Indeed, “whatever one sows, that will he also reap” (Gal. 6:7).

The “sword” is the named weapon of God’s vengeance used by the civil governments. In Isaiah 10:5-7, Assyria is described as a “rod” and an “axe” that God used to carry out his purposes. Note the fact that God is using Assyria though their intentions are different than His.

Woe to Assyria, the rod of My anger                           And the staff in whose hands is My indignation,          I send it against a godless nation                                     And commission it against the people of My fury         To capture booty and to seize plunder,
And to trample them down like mud in the streets. Yet it does not so intend,                                               Nor does it plan so in its heart,                                         But rather it is its purpose to destroy                             And to cut off many nations. 

It’s critical to note that the weapon held by Assyria is associated with God’s “indignation.” Though Assyria arrogantly assumed its own plans and purposes, God simply used them as a tool in His hand. As a tool, Assyria is implemented to accomplish God’s plan.

Is the axe to boast itself over the one who chops with it?
Is the saw to exalt itself over the one who wields it?
That would be like a club wielding those who lift it,
Or like a rod lifting him who is not wood.                 Isaiah 10:15.

Despite the usefulness of the tool, the One who used it has no need for it after His purposes are completed. Note the final outcome for the Assyrians.

So it will be that when the Lord has completed all His work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, He will say, “I will punish the fruit of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria and the pomp of his haughtiness.” Isaiah 10:12.

Bringing our discussion back to Romans 13:1-4, what exactly is God accomplishing for His people by allowing earthly governments who do not know Him to be the ones who bear the sword of vengeance? The Bible doesn’t specifically say. Perhaps 1 Timothy 2:1-4 provides an answer.

First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

God’s primary concern is the salvation of mankind. Paul isn’t telling us to pray for the good of the earthly kingdoms or that their plans will prosper. He is telling us to pray that they will stay out of the way of the advancement of the gospel! Jeremiah 29:7 echoes this as well.

Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare.

Ought we to seek the welfare of our earthly country? Of course, but only because we will partake in the good of its welfare and the difficulties of its hardships. However, we ought not forget that God can use seemingly difficult situations, even persecutions, to bring about His glory. The early Christian writer Tertullian noted in Apologeticus 50, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”  If one lost soul was brought to Christ because of your physical death, would it be worth it? Jesus certainly thought so. As we follow His example we must always remember that this world is not our home. We’re just passing through. We are exiles.

Contrary to popular belief, Romans 13 does not say anything about whether Christians can be involved in the vengeance of the governing forces. It does not encourage Christians to rejoice in the government’s use of the sword. It simply teaches the responsibilities of each group. Notice that in every command to the church in Romans 12 and 13, Paul speaks in second person plural pronouns (“You all”). In every description of the governing authorities he uses either the third person singular (“He”) or third person plural (“they”) pronouns, verbs, and participles. The Greek cases show a distinct separation between the “You” (Church) and the “They” (governing authorities).

If we were to ask the question, as many have, “Should a Christian take part in the vengeance prescribed to governing authorities?”, we could respond with another fitting question: How could the Christian fulfill both responsibilities?

Romans 12 Romans 13
Never avenge yourself Avenge the evil doer
Leave it to God’s wrath Carry out God’s wrath
Feed your enemy Bear the sword

One might ask, “How could blood-thirsty, deranged, Nero, who regularly persecuted Christians for his own pleasure, be considered God’s minister for good”? The same way that Nebuchadnezzar could be called His servant, Assyria His rod, and Cyrus His messiah. But we know the outcome for each of these kingdoms (Daniel 2:31-45) as well as the final outcome for the earthly kingdoms of today (1 Corinthians 15:24-25).

As long as sinners are in rebellion against God, it would be resisting the ordinance of God to resist one’s human government by seeking to overthrow it. It is God’s ordinance for punishing sin and sinners, and as such it is right and good for the end for which God ordained it. Christians are commanded to submit to the authorities that exist, not the authorities they prefer, not the authorities they may believe constitutional, but the authorities they happen to be under.

God has demanded Christians to submit to earthly governments, not anything more than that. Romans 13:1-7 doesn’t give license to participate or support earthly governments by using the same methods that these governments do. It certainly doesn’t show obligation of the Christian to “protect their country” as many have taught. A great example of this was the prophet Daniel. Daniel knew life as an exile. When under the government of Babylon he submitted to Nebuchadnezzar and was subservient to him as his slave. When Babylon was overthrown by the Persians, Daniel submitted to Darius, and served him with equal fidelity. Can you imagine Daniel fighting the Persians to uphold the Babylonian government? It seems absurd, yet we hear many using Romans 13:1-7 to teach that Christians are somehow obligated to physically defend the “freedoms” of their earthly governments.

In summary, the text of Romans 13:1-7 tells Christians to be in subjection to governing authorities. It also tells us of God’s appointment of them to bear the sword. To this end, they are His “minister” and his “servant.” Despite the positive connotation these words usually carry, it is obvious from similarities between the Old Testament passages referenced and the explanation of governmental authorities in Romans 13 that modern governments are part and parcel with the ancient Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians. Their anger and warmongering were used by God to punish the people of Israel. Their actions were not pleasing to God, but he used them to accomplish His purposes before destroying them as well.

Let us pray that we and all of our Christian brethren will submit to our earthly governments, wherever we happen to live. Let us pray also that we give all allegiance, devotion, and service to Jesus and Christ and His otherworldly kingdom. Let us work diligently for the kingdom established by God “that will never be destroyed” (Daniel 2:44).