Paul’s letter to the Romans is filled with great teachings and inspirational passages. Some of my favorite verses in Scripture are in that letter. It teaches love, compassion, acceptance, and the grace of God.
Yet it also contains seven verses that baffle me as much as anything in the Bible. I struggle with these sentences:
Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
Taken on their face, these verses equate revolution and resistance to governing authorities with sin. According to this reasoning, our revolutionary ancestors “brought judgment on themselves,” as did anyone who ever challenged governing authorities, no matter how evil or unjust they were. Rebelling against Hitler, Stalin or any other murderous tyrant, was “rebelling against God.” Indeed, these passages suggest that they and their kind were “God’s servants.”
Some will immediately object that these words were not meant to apply to such cruel and evil men as this. But when Paul sent this letter to the believers in Rome, the emperor was Nero. Nero was an insane bloodthirsty murderer, who had believers tortured and killed for sport. They don’t get much worse than him. It was Nero, in fact, who eventually had Paul (and Peter) put to death.
So what are we to make of this?
Obviously these words have been studiously analyzed over the centuries. It is undeniable that Paul himself frequently disobeyed the authorities and spent a lot of time in prison as a result. The consensus now is that we are only required to obey leaders as long as doing so does not conflict with the higher law of God, but that’s not what these words seem to say.
Over the years, I’ve read many analyses of these verses. There are many interesting interpretations. It is true, for example, that to tell Romans that the emperor’s authority comes from God, and that he is a servant of God, was a radical departure from the notion that the emperor was God. But still, to tell First Century Christians that they if they do good the Roman authorities will commend them, seems utterly preposterous.
Norman Horn has suggested reading these passages with the words “Herod and Nero” substituted for “governing authorities,” “rulers,” and the personal pronouns. Doing so makes the verses even more incredible:
Everyone must submit himself to Herod and Nero, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authority of Herod and Nero has been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against Herod and Nero is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For Herod and Nero hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of Herod and Nero? Then do what is right and they will commend you. For Herod and Nero are God’s servants to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for Herod and Nero do not bear the sword for nothing. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.
This does not compute.
Recently I was reading about an occurance in the life of Deitrich Boenhoffer and I had a new idea about these verses. Boenhoffer was a great Protestant theologian. Despite being of nonviolent and arguably anarchist principles, he eventually became convinced that, for the good of mankind, Adolph Hitler should be eliminated, and Boenhoffer became involved in the plot to assassinate him. For his participation in that unsuccessful attempt, Boenhoffer was executed.
Interestingly, even as he was plotting the assassination, Boenhoffer’s writings urged believers to submit to the Nazi authorities, citing these passages from Romans 13.
I suspect that Boenhoffer’s writings on this were to help shield him from suspicion while he was secretly plotting against Hitler.
Which caused me to wonder, what if Paul’s words were never meant by him to be taken seriously?
I’ve never seen this theory anywhere, and it may be complete baloney. And in any event I’m just noodling around and would have to do a lot more research before seriously advocating the truth of what I’m about to suppose.
But just suppose.
Suppose that Paul worried that if his letter to the believers in Rome fell into the hands of authorities, the lives of those believers would be jeopardized. Rome was generally tolerant of other religions, as long as they didn’t contradict the authority of Rome. Might Paul have wanted to protect the young Christian church in Rome from persecution, by letting the civil powers believe that the Christ-followers were committed to submission and obedience to the Roman government?
As I read these sentences, I imagine the small group of believers, gathered in someone’s home, huddled around the person reading the letter aloud to them. As Paul’s words described the beauty of life in the Spirit and revealed the new place of Gentiles in the faith, they would be smiling, warmed by the truth, glowing in their faith. How awesome it must have been to hear the words of what we know as chapter 12 of the letter, for the first time ever. Paul tells them to love sincerely, to hate evil and cling to good, to be joyful, faithful, generous, hospitable and humble. He tells them to not be vengeful, but rather, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him something to drink.” The young believers should “overcome evil with good,” and “live at peace with everyone.”
Then, suddenly, amidst all this wonderful teaching on peace and love, the reader would reach the startling words we are discussing. As he continued to read them, I imagine those in the little group starting to look puzzled, then beginning to blink in disbelief.
The authorities that exist have been established by God.
Nero? Rome? Established by God?
Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good.
At this point surely them of them would be protesting aloud. What? That can’t be what it says! Nero is God’s servant to do us good?? Read it again!
As the reader proceeded with the letter, I imagine his audience of believers becoming more and more restless.
Then this line:
This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing.
At this point, I imagine light bulbs going off over the heads of a few of them. “Oh, I get it now.” Wry smiles begin to appear, as they come to see what Paul is doing, and as they begin to appreciate the humor of it. Of course the idea that the Roman tax collectors were “God’s servants” and that the “ruling authorities give their full time to governing,” would just be too silly to be anything other than Paul’s coded way of saying, “This is just in case this letter falls into the wrong hands.” The reference to the ruling authorities deserving taxes because they work so hard, is the epistolary equivalent of a wink.
And then, the final clue:
Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
If you owe respect, give them respect. If you owe them honor, then give them honor.
These early Christians would’ve known right away that they did not owe respect or honor to Nero, and that Paul was letting them know that on this sentence, everything before it hinged.
They might have chuckled, nodded at one another reassuringly, then returned their rapt attention to the reader as he continued with words that would not have puzzled them at all:
Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellow man has fulfilled the law….
This is all pure speculation on my part. And as with all my wrestlings with scripture, I do it with humility and healthy unconfidence.
But for now, I’m going to quit worrying so much about Romans 13: 1-7. I’d rather spend my time with Romans 13: 8.