An Abused Text: Romans 13 (pt 4)

(Continued from PART THREE.)

Romans 12:9-13:10

The passage at hand only makes sense within the overarching context of Romans 12:9-13:10. Although Paul undoubtedly changes topics at 13:1, the thematic links between 13:1-7 and 12:9-21 are difficult to ignore. Kakos (“evil”) and agathos (“good”) occur in Rom 12:17, 21 and 13:3-4. Orge (“wrath”) is mentioned in 12:19 and 13:4, 5. Also, conceptually, vengeance is mentioned in 12:19 and 13:4.[1] It is therefore quite reasonable to see a connection between 13:1-7 and 12:9-21.

The links between this passage and the one immediately preceding it, however, should not overshadow the importance of the thematic verses earlier in 12:1-2. There Paul effectively redefines the people of God as no longer just Jews, but Gentiles as well. This is a common enough theme throughout the entire epistle and in almost all of Paul’s writings,[2] but in Romans 12:1-15:13, it is of particular importance. Having spent the first eleven chapters of the epistle explaining the identity of the people of God as a mix of Jews and Gentiles and defending the covenant loyalty of God in the process, Paul now devotes chapters 12-15 to redefining the “rule of life” of the people of God.[3] In 12:9-21, Paul proclaims “love as the fundamental moral imperative in human relationships,”[4] urging his readers to pursue harmony (12:16) and peace (12:18). He then redefines in 13:1-7 how the people of God in the church at Rome should relate to the power structures of the society in which they dwell.

12:9-21

Romans 12:9-21 is one of the most loosely-constructed passages in the entire epistle. This means that it would take quite a bit of time and space to comprehensively analyze the syntax and detailed meaning of the passage. However, some general observations are in order. The thematic verse of this paragraph is 12:9 (NET)[5], “Love must be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil, cling to what is good.” From there, Paul emphasizes the important manifestations of genuine love: mutual devotion and eagerness in showing honor (12:10), enthusiastic spiritual service (12:11), hopeful joy and persistent prayer in the face of suffering (12:12), and hospitably meeting the needs of the saints (12:13). Harmony is commanded within and outside the church, extending even to persecutors (12:14, 16). Instead of responding in kind to their persecutors and therefore being “overcome by evil” (12:21a), Paul urges them to live peaceably (12:17-18), forbidding them from taking vengeance into their own hands (12:19). Instead, the Roman believers are to “overcome evil with good” (12:21b), and this is illustrated in 12:20, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in doing this you will be heaping burning coals on his head.”

13:1-7

At this point after 12:21, most modern English readers of Scripture are confronted by a large “13” and perhaps a subject heading, such as “Submission to Civil Government.” The advantages of verse and chapter divisions for Bible reading and study are well-known. However, the chapter division here has had detrimental effects on the exegesis of this passage. Although seemingly a very minor change, it puts undue emphasis on Paul’s supposed change of topic, prompting the interpretations of many that this is Paul’s comprehensive theology of church and state relations, ignoring the passage’s context and the historical situation of the original audience, who would have heard this epistle read without the explanation of a chapter division or sub-heading.

Romans 13:1-7 is most naturally read as the unpacking of the principles of 12:9-21, in the context of how Christians in Rome should behave in relation to the powers that governed the society in which they dwelt. It answers the implied question (after reading 12:9-21): “Paul, if we are to do these things (love genuinely, pursue harmony and peace, do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good, etc.), how should this apply in regards to our relationship with the rulers of our city and empire?”

The specific rules that governed the theocracy of ancient Israel no longer held sway for the international and multi-ethnic body of Christ. As noted above, the situation in Rome, although relatively peaceful, was still quite tense within and outside of the church. Jews and Gentiles were struggling to remain unified in the Messiah in spite of their cultural differences. Furthermore, Jews in Rome, only recently allowed back into the city, may have been culturally stigmatized as superstitious and unwanted. Tensions were building because of indirect taxation. And Jews in Palestine were growing more and more rebellious.[6] It is not therefore hard to imagine why Paul felt the pastoral need to apply the principles of 12:9-21 to the realm of society and government. A “perfect storm” was brewing underneath the surface, one that could put the Christians in Rome at odds with not only each other but with the Roman Empire itself very quickly if the believers there tended towards promoting social unrest, perhaps due to an over-realized eschatology that would want to usher in the kingdom of God by overthrowing Roman rule. If the Christians in Rome made a wrong move, evil could quickly overcome them. 

Thought-flow of 13:1-7

While a full analysis of the argument of the text at hand is beyond the scope of this essay, a brief trace of the thought-flow of Romans 13:1-7 will aid in comprehension of its contextually-appropriate meaning. The general command to submit to the authorities is found in 13:1a, and is reiterated in 13:5. The first reason for this submission is that the authorities have been appointed by God (13:1b). Logically, then, those who oppose the authorities oppose “the ordinance of God” (13:2b). The consequence of disobeying the general command is therefore God’s judgment[7] (13:2b). The second reason for submission is that the rulers are servants of God to commend good and to administer retribution to evil, although these two verses can also be seen as support for the claim that those who resist the authorities can expect judgment on earth[8] (13:3-4). Paul then restates the main thesis of 13:1-4 in 13:5, urging his readers to submit because of “wrath” (they would face judgment if disobedient) and “conscience” (they would be opposing God’s ordinance). He then closes this paragraph with an appeal to the readers’ current practice of paying taxes in submission to the government (13:6), urging them therefore to continue respectfully in what they have already been doing (13:7).[9]

Contextualized

When unhindered by the chapter division, it is easy to see how Romans 13:1-7 relates to 12:9-21. The genuine love commanded in 12:9a would be quite hard to apply to the impersonal institution of the Roman government. On the other hand, it would have been quite easy for the rebellious attitudes of the Jews in Palestine to seep into the Roman context, prompting the Roman Christians to rebel and try and institute the kingdom of God in opposition to Roman rule.

Paul steps in and applies the principles of non-violence, non-retribution, and enemy love (12:14, 17, 18-20) to the context of government and society. In order to “overcome evil with good” (12:21) when it came to the Roman powers, the believers in Rome were not to rebel violently or cause unnecessary civil unrest, but to submit to the governing authorities (13:1a) with the acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty over the said powers (13:1b).

It would be a mistake, however, to go to the other end of the spectrum and argue that Paul is urging his audience to give unthinking and critical approval of everything the Roman government did. As mentioned above, Paul was more than willing to critique governments and empires for the sake of God’s kingdom and the cause of Christ. It would also be a mistake to argue that Romans 13:1-7 is a justification for the active participation in government activities (political office, warfare, etc.) both ancient and modern. Although God is still sovereign over modern nations, Paul’s argument here does not address the issue of active Christian participation in government because that was not on the radar of first-century Christian life in the Roman Empire. Instead, Paul’s main point is that his readers should not revolt, but that they should instead stay out of trouble by obeying the authorities and participating in the basic constructs of their society (i.e. paying taxes).

13:8-10

The argument for placing 13:1-7 in the overarching context of Paul’s focus on genuine love in 12:9-13:10 is strengthened by his return to the topic of love in 13:8-10. After the sobering instruction to not rebel but to stay out of trouble and obey the governing authorities, Paul reminds his audience of the importance of love, not only of enemy (of which it could be strongly argued that the governing authorities were a subset!), but of neighbor. This returns the Roman Christians’ focus to love as the central virtue of Christianity and the “fulfillment of the law” (13:8, 10). They were to faithfully follow Jesus the Messiah King, seeking to bring in his kingdom. But it was unthinkable to Paul to effect God’s kingdom in a way that ran against the grain of that kingdom of love, justice, and peace. Therefore, in the middle of exhortations to genuinely love one’s enemies and neighbors, Paul urges his audience to humbly obey their governing authorities so that they might remain faithful to their King’s calling as they went about his work in the city of Rome.

(Continued in PART FIVE.)


[1] Schreiner (1998: 678) provides these examples of textual and conceptual links between the two passages. Dunn (1988: 758) also mentions the phrases ekdikew / ekdikoV (12:19; 13:4) and pantwn anqrwpwn / pasin (12:17-18; 13:7) to provide evidence for a link between the two passages, before demonstrating links between Romans 2:7-11 and 13:3-4 in order to refute the claims of some that this passage is a non-Pauline insertion.

[2] I appeal to Dr. Chris Miller’s class notes from BENT 4110 – Romans and Galatians (Spring 2012), and also Wright’s work on Romans (2004) to prove this point, for a complete discussion of this common theme exceeds the scope of this essay. However, for an overview of this theme in Romans, Dunn (1988: 705) cites Rom 1:16-17; 2:15, 17, 28-29; 3:20, 29; 4:16; 9:8, 12; 11:6, 30-32.

[3] Dunn (1988: 705) sees chapters 12-15 as providing a replacement to Lev 18:5 (“this do and live”) as the rule of life for the people of God: “…‘the walk in newness of life’ as over against the walk in the ordinances of Israel’s law (6:4), the service in newness of Spirit as over against oldness of letter (7:6), the obedience of faith in accord with the Spirit fulfilling the requirement of the law unconfused with Jewish ‘works’ (8:4).”

[4] Ibid., 706.

[5] All Bible quotations, unless otherwise noted, come from the NET Bible.

[6] Here I summarize my conclusions from “Historical Background” above.

[7] Schreiner (1998: 679) notes that there is considerable debate as to whether this refers to the eschatological judgment of God or to judgment imposed by earthly rulers. He appeals to the structure of the text (gar in 3a) to conclude that the latter option is more likely.

[8] Ibid., 680.

[9] I am indebted to Moo (1996: 794) and Schreiner (1998: 680) for this overview of the passage’s argument.

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