Tough Questions Concerning Romans 13

Romans 13:1-7 is a passage that invites several tough questions. It is my intent to explore some of these questions and perhaps offer a few answers regarding this difficult text. Hopefully, these questions will draw us closer to the truth, but sometimes we have to set with the questions before we can see the truth clearly. Of course, this will only happen if we approach this section of Scripture with open hearts and open minds.

Who is Paul’s intended audience?

We must begin by acknowledging that we see Romans 13 through a particular lens. The vast majority of people who live in America love this country. We have no problem with Romans 13 because we are a patriotic people. We have pride in our nation, and we want to trust our government. We must keep in mind that Romans 13 was not written solely for Christians living in 21st America. It was originally written to Christians living in the Roman empire. This was a government that at times persecuted Christians and enforced emperor worship. This text was also written for Christians living in communist China. It was written for Christians who are living in the middle east under sharia law. Whatever this passage says about America, it also says about these other countries. We cannot apply it one way when we are talking about a good and decent government, and another way when we are discussing a government bent on evil.

What is commanded of Christians in Romans 13?

This passage centers on one commandment. It is the first sentence in verse one. Paul writes, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.” Everything that follows is an expansion or explanation of this one statement. To submit to someone or something means we yield to them. It means we give up some right, privilege, desire, etc. we have in order to serve a bigger cause. Submission implies doing something we would not ordinarily do. If we were going to do it anyway, then we aren’t truly submitting. The command to submit to the governing authorities is broad. It could mean many different things. When Peter gives similar instructions in 1 Peter 2:13-17, he specifically mentions the emperor and governors. It could be that Christians in the first century were leery about submitting themselves to someone like Pilate or Nero. Zealots argued for open rebellion, but both Peter and Paul give instructions for another way. Paul specifically mentions paying taxes (13:6-7). Some Christians may have wondered why they should give their hard-earned money to a government that does not respect them and at times persecutes them. The answer is that Christians are called to be peacemakers (Rom. 12:14-21). We are to be good citizens even when we may not like it. We are not to fight power with power. The Zealots fought power with power and lost. Christians sought peace and Christianity flourished.

Does Romans 13 offer justification for a Christian to serve in war or participate in the death penalty?

Romans 13 associates violence with government. Violence is part of the fallen world in which we live. Governments are responsible for wars, capital punishment, etc. Governments maintain some sense of order through violence and order is preferred over chaos. Anarchy would invite even more violence. Although violence exists and at times may serve some sort of purpose, is Paul giving his blessing for Christians to participate in this violence? In this passage, Paul speaks about the government and the role of the Christian under the government. He does not address the role of the Christian within the government. If someone wants to use this passage as justification for Christians serving in war or participating in the death penalty, then there are some serious questions one must consider first.

Would it have been alright for a Christian to participate in the executions of Jesus, Paul, Peter, or any other Christian that was put to death by the Roman government?

Does Romans 13 authorize a Christian to participate in an unjust war? If not, then why not?

Romans 13 was written for Christians living under all governments. This means it was written for German Christians and British Christians in WWII. Does this mean a German Christian would be equally justified for following Romans 13 as a British Christian?

Paul is specifically speaking about the Roman government in Romans 13. He wanted Christians to respect the government and not rebel against it. He wanted them to pay their taxes, but this was also a government involved in evil, and they would later be punished for it by God. The book of Revelation is about God’s judgment on Rome. It is evident that although Christians are to live peaceably under the Roman government, God does not approve of all the actions of the Roman government.

Does Romans 13 mean I should do anything the government commands?

No! How do we know this? The man who wrote Romans 13 was put to death by the Roman government. We can assume that Paul paid his taxes, obeyed the laws to the best of his ability, etc., but there were some compromises Paul refused to make. Romans 13 describes a system in which God is the ultimate authority. God will tear down and build up governments. God is the authority we must obey above all else.

What does loving my enemy have to do with Romans 13?

Context is important. The one thing that has caused the most problems in interpreting Romans 13 is its separation from Romans 12. Often people will try to say something about Romans 13 without ever considering Romans 12. In Romans 13, Paul commands us to submit to the government and pay our taxes, but in Romans 12, he gives us many more commands. We are to bless anyone who persecutes us (12:14). We are to repay no one evil for evil (12:17). We are to live peaceably with all (12:18). We are never to avenge ourselves but leave vengeance to God (12:19). We are to feed our enemies and give them something to drink (12:20). Whatever Romans 13 means, it cannot contradict the commands Paul has just given. I do not think this is an issue as long as we understand Romans 13 as instructions on how a Christian should live under the government, not within the government.

We should notice that Romans 13 is situated between commands for us to love others (12:9-10; 13:8). At the end of Paul’s instructions regarding Christians and government, he makes the following statement.

Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. – Romans 13.1-8

The one thing Christians should be known for is love. If our interpretation of Romans 13 takes us away from this end, then we have not interpreted it correctly, and we should take another look. Governments will come and go, but the kingdom of God will stand forever. The ethics of governments vary drastically, but the ethic of the kingdom of God is love. Let us make sure we are devoting ourselves to the right ethic.

Originally published by Start2Finish and republished with their permission.
Scott Elliott is a graduate of Oklahoma State University and Austin Graduate School of Theology. He lives in La Grange, TX and is the minister for the La Grange Church of Christ. He is married and has two sons. He enjoys writing about the Christian faith and posting the occasional film review. His articles and reviews have appeared in RELEVANT magazine, Englewood Review of Books, and other publications.
Scripture quotations are from The ESV Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version).