New Testament Theology of the State
by Norman Horn
to me, "My God, we – Israel – know you!" Israel has spurned the
good; the enemy shall pursue him. They made kings, but not through
me; they set up princes, but without my knowledge. With their silver
and gold they made idols for their own destruction. –
and state issues continue to be the source of many conflicts among
Christians today, resulting in a massive confusion in what exactly
a Biblical theology of the state and public policy entails. The
confusion often prompts awkward answers to important questions regarding
the relationship of Christians to government, such as "What
kind of government should a Christian support?," "What
public policy should be obeyed?," or "What does submission
to government mean?" Most Christians attempt to justify their
political philosophy Biblically with Romans 13 in some way, if they
attempt at all. At first glance, this appears to be an acceptable
solution – Paul seems to call for submission to government. But
how do we reconcile this passage with the undeniable fact that individuals
acting within the coercive machinations of states have been the
greatest culprits of criminal action and violence in the history
of mankind? In Germany during the 1930s and 40s, for instance, theologians
used Romans 13 to encourage submission to the Nazi regime, especially
since it was democratically elected. More recently, a member of
the Zimbabwean parliament declared
that the corrupt dictator-president Robert Mugabe was sent from
God and "should not be challenged in next year’s watershed
polls." Obviously, these are inappropriate ways for Scripture
to be used, but how much different are we who live in the United
States, a nation that often claims to be Christian? Are we simply
to comply with the government because the Bible says so, or is more
the church has a need for a better framework for evaluating the
nature of the state and the consequences of public policy. I propose
to begin this process with an analysis of some New Testament passages
that seem to address the relationship of Christians to civil government,
specifically what we find in the gospels and in Romans 13.
Gospels and the State
initial step toward developing a Biblical theology of government
must be to examine the teachings of Jesus. What did Jesus say and
do that helps us to understand what our reactions to government
must be? Often those who want to derive Biblical principles about
government from the gospels turn to the famous "Render to Caesar"
passages, an event recorded in each of the synoptic gospels (Matt.
20:20-26). But is this the only gospel text worth discussing
regarding civil government? In my opinion, it is not. One can also
obtain some important information about the nature of the state
through the temptations of Jesus and a brief comparison of the kingdom
of man to the Kingdom of God.
begin with an analysis of the "Render to Caesar" passages,
first examining the text of Matthew 22:
Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what
he said. 16 So they sent their disciples to him, along
with the Herodians, saying, "Teacher, we know that you are sincere,
and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference
to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17
Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to
the emperor, or not?" 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice,
said, "Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19
Show me the coin used for the tax." And they brought him a
denarius. 20 Then he said to them, "Whose head is this,
and whose title?" 21 They answered, "The emperor's."
Then he said to them, "Give therefore to the emperor the things
that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." 22
When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him
and went away. (Matthew 22:15-22, NRSV)
Matthew, the Pharisees send some of their disciples along with Herodians
to Jesus in order to "trap him in his words" at the temple.
The Gospel of Mark says that "they sent some of the
Pharisees and the Herodians to Jesus," they likely being
the chief priests, teachers of the law, and elders mentioned in
11:27. Strangely, Luke identifies the questioners as "spies"
from the priests, teachers, and elders. The identity of these interrogators
is not trivial. Indeed, the Pharisees and Herodians had stark differences
in philosophy. Herodians were pro-Roman rule, and they used the
Romans' power to obtain certain benefits. The Pharisees, in contrast,
were more ambivalent towards the Romans; Pharisees would generally
tolerate them as long as Jewish religious practices were left alone.
However, the Pharisees and Herodians are brought together because
of their shared opposition to Jesus.
each gospel, the question is prefaced differently, but the phrasing
of the question itself is always the same: "Is it lawful for
us to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?" The question is very clever.
The Herodians would be for paying the tax, and if Jesus answers
in the negative they have grounds to arrest him for rebelling against
Caesar. On the other hand, the Pharisees would generally not
like the tax (although they are forced to pay it), and an answer
in the affirmative would likely result in a loss of popular support
of Jesus. Furthermore, there is a subtle legal phrasing in the question
by asking "is it lawful," or in some translations "is
it permitted." In other words, the Pharisees are asking, "Is
it consistent with Torah (Jewish Law) to pay the tax to Caesar
or not?" All those present were aware of the law and of the
words of Leviticus 25:23, "The land [of Israel] shall not be
sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine." The question is
now more complicated because Torah may be at stake. Since Caesar
is trying to take the land from God, is it not disobedience to pay
saw through the trickery, of course, and responds with a clever
gambit of his own. When he asks the Pharisees to produce a coin,
they unwittingly bring forth the very evidence that exposes their
hypocrisy. Jesus asks them whose image and inscription is on the
coin. They answer, probably reluctantly, "Caesar’s." But
they, and the surrounding people, realize their error, for the inscriptions
on these coins would always read, "Tiberius Caesar, Augustus,
son of the deified Augustus, chief priest." The Pharisees,
those leaders expected to uphold the law of God, have brought into
the temple an item that effectively breaks the second commandment,
to have no graven images, showing that in their hearts they break
the first commandment as well. They, not Jesus, are the hypocrites.
They are the ones who bought into the Roman’s pagan system. In commentator
Thomas Long’s estimation, Jesus’ response means, "Everybody
has to decide between Caesar and God. No man can serve two masters
6:24). You seem to have made your decision, forged your convenient
compromise. But what about your obligation to God? Render to God
what belongs to God. Choose this day whom you will serve" (251).
this interpretation is correct, then there is effectively no guideline
set forth here for resolving church and state issues. State practices
are not legitimized here by any means. Rather, Jesus says that any
neat schemes of division in life that we create must come down,
and discourages nationalism or jingoism as a legitimate church practice.
We may live under a state, but we belong wholly to the God who is
above all states. We are always to render to God what is God’s.
interesting clue to the nature of the state emerges in the temptations
of Jesus (Matt.
4:1-13), which few commentators develop. In Matthew, the third
temptation of Christ is "the kingdoms of the world and their
splendor," which Satan can give Jesus if he pays obeisance
to Satan. Strangely, even though Satan is considered "the Prince
[ruler] of this world" (John
we do not often seriously consider what Satan’s offer means. I think
that Satan was quite sincere in his offer; Jesus did not brush it
off as impossible. Jesus seems to understand that the kingdoms of
this world do belong to Satan, and we should not think otherwise.
Logically, this means that the kingdoms of the world are at enmity
with God. In fact, Scripture witnesses to this directly and indirectly
in multiple places. The Old Testament strongly indicates that the
pagan religions, often encouraged by Satan through their sorcery
and witchcraft, were intimately tied to a nation’s political leadership.
G.K. Chesterton agrees with this assessment and gives evidences
from history in his book The
Everlasting Man. Herod clearly perceives that the baby Christ-child
is a threat to his power, and hence orders the killing of hundreds,
if not thousands of infants in an attempt to stop this incursion
2). Furthermore, the theme of Babylon as an evil state under
the influence of Satan permeates the book of Revelation. In Revelation
18:4, for instance, God exhorts His church to "come out
of her [Babylon], my people, so that you will not share in her sins,
so that you will not receive any of her plagues."
discussing the differences between the kingdom of man and the Kingdom
of God is illustrative in this discussion. One of the recurring
themes in the gospels, especially Matthew, is that Jesus is a king
bringing forth the Kingdom of God. But Jesus explicitly says that,
"My kingdom is not from this world… my kingdom is not from
18:36). The "rules of the kingdom" as explained in
the Sermon on the Mount are unlike any sort of state laws that have
ever existed. Furthermore, it is not the job of the Christian to
use physical force to bring about his kingdom, but
rather to "seek first his kingdom and his righteousness"
6:33). The kingdoms of man are founded upon power and violence,
but the Kingdom of God is founded upon humility (Matt.
18:4), service (Matt.
20:26), and love (John
13:35). While we cannot help being tied to states in this world,
we are reminded once again that "our citizenship is in heaven"
summary, Jesus’ direct teachings about civil government are virtually
non-existent, but the gospels make some strong implications about
the nature of the state that might surprise us. The state appears
to have a strong connection to Satan and his kingdom, and is antithetical
to the Kingdom of God, which shuns the use of power for personal
Teachings on the State
one is hard-pressed in the gospels to develop a thorough theology
for how Christians should interact with the state, the epistles
of Paul and Peter address these issues much further. Romans 13:1-7
is the clearest exposition regarding civil government,1
but other significant Scriptures include Titus
Timothy 2:1-3, and 1
Peter 2:11-17. However, for brevity’s sake only Romans 13 will
be examined in detail. The following analysis has benefitted greatly
from the works of Dr. John Cobin, specifically his books Bible
and Government and Christian
Theology of Public Policy, which in this author’s opinion
provide the best and most thorough attempt to integrate this passage
into a consistent understanding of public policy theology.
was a Roman citizen by birth, and even used his citizenship to his
advantage on one occasion in Acts
22 and 23.
Yet, he was a "Hebrew of Hebrews" and a Pharisee in regard
to the law of God (Phil.
3:5). Hence, one would expect for him, like the Pharisees in
the gospels, to be somewhat resentful towards the Romans because
of their rule over the land of Israel. Yet in Romans 13, Paul seems
to be quite positive towards Roman rule. A "face value"
reading of the text might lead one to believe that the state is
a very positive force in society and perhaps even a divinely ordained
institution in the same way that the family and the church are divinely
I do not think this sort of interpretation is warranted. Apostolic
admonitions regarding civil government cannot easily be reconciled
with a casual, plain reading of the New Testament texts. Otherwise,
you would conclude that the apostles were either wrong, speaking
within an irrelevant cultural context, or just out of their minds.
When one considers the actual historical context of Romans 13, rather
than lifting it out of Scripture as merely abstract ideas, a surprising
reading emerges. To illustrate this, how would the interpretation
change if one replaced the words "governing authorities,"
"rulers," and the personal pronouns with the names of
the emperor and kings of that time, namely Nero, Herod, or Agrippa?
The text would read as follows:
every person be subject to Nero and Herod; for there is
no authority except from God, and Nero and Herod have been
instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists Nero
and Herod resists what God has appointed, and those who resist
will incur judgment. 3 For Nero and Herod are
not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have
no fear of Nero and Herod? Then do what is good, and you
will receive Nero and Herod’s approval; 4 for
Nero and Herod are God's servants for your good. But if
you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the Nero and
Herod do not bear the sword in vain! Nero and Herod
are the servants of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. 5
Therefore one must be subject to Nero and Herod,
not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. 6
For the same reason you also pay taxes, for Nero and Herod
are God's servants, busy with this very thing. 7 Pay
to Nero and Herod what is due them – taxes to whom taxes
are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect
is due, honor to whom honor is due. (Romans
should Christians today interpret this knowing that Nero was in
power at the time of Paul's writing? How can we resolve the problem
of knowing that Nero killed good people, namely Christians, when
the passage clearly says that civil government rewards and commends
those who do good? Clearly, the interpretation problem is not resolved
with an immutable maxim as simple as "do what the government
says." Both the Old and New Testaments manifest that this is
not right or true on multiple occasions. Some examples include:
defying Pharaoh’s decrees to murder their infants (Exodus
- Rahab lying
to the King of Jericho about the Hebrew spies (Joshua
- Ehud deceiving
the king's ministers and assassinating the king (Judges
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refusing to comply with the king's
decrees, and were miraculously saved twice (Daniel
3 and 6)
- The Magi
from the East disobeying Herod's direct orders (Matthew
- Peter and
John choosing to obey God rather than men (Acts
text of Romans 13 can be better understood with an appreciation
for the historical context and evident reason through Scripture
and experience, rather than taking a "face value" interpretation
as so many Christians often do.
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities;
for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities
that exist have been instituted by God.
1 says that state authorities are instituted by God. Paul’s primary
message for Christians, however, is not that states are specially
instituted in the same way as the family and church, but rather
that the state is not operating outside of the plans of God. In
this sense, the state is divinely instituted in the same way that
Satan is divinely instituted. God is not surprised when states act
the way they do. As noted specifically in the Gospels, the state
is understood throughout Scripture as being intimately tied to Satan
and his kingdom, and patently opposed to the Kingdom of God. The
state’s status within God’s ultimate plan does not legitimize the
evil the state commits.
to civil government, then, is always qualified. The command is to
obey in general, but sometimes we will disobey public policy because
of personal and Scriptural conviction. Christians are to obey most
policy whenever directly requested to do so, but ensuring
active compliance with every public policy is unnecessary.
All submission is directed at being expedient and practical toward
men and glorifying toward God. Cobin explains that, "Any sin
problem for disobedience arises only when one’s action is unwise,
involves poor stewardship, requires neglecting one’s family duties,
or detracts from the believer’s principal purpose in life"
(Christian Theology and Public Policy, 120).
Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed,
and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers
are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have
no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive
its approval; 4 for it is God's servant for your good.
But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority
does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute
wrath on the wrongdoer.
2-4 indicate that if you irritate the state then you will face wrath,
but if you behave in the way the state wants then they will be pleased.
At many points, what the state defines as good and evil may be very
much opposed to what God defines as good and evil. But what Paul
is telling the believers in Rome is that if they do something that
the Roman government defines as evil then they will likely be punished
for it. We cannot abstract this verse from its cultural context
and make it an absolute requirement on all cultures at all times.
To do so would be to put Christians under a great bondage to bad
public policy. There is no compelling reason to think that Paul
was deliberately writing about any particular rulers other than
those in the first century Roman Empire.
knew full well the power of Nero and the potential harm he could
cause to Christians in Rome – he calls it "the sword"
– and he does not want believers to be persecuted for anything other
than the name of Christ and what he stands for. Paul reminds the
Roman Christians, though, that even the dreadful power of the state
is not outside the power of God. His message to them is the same
8:28, that "all things work together for good for those
who love God, who are called according to his purpose." The
state can indeed be a means of sanctification for the Lord’s church.
Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also
because of conscience. 6 For the same reason you also
pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, busy with this
very thing.7 Pay to all what is due them – taxes to whom
taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect
is due, honor to whom honor is due.
5-7 expand upon the reasons for submitting and include practical
ways the Roman Christians were to respond to Paul’s message. Cobin
says, "The reason we must submit to government is to
avoid wrath or worrying about being harmed by the state authority.
God does not want us to be entangled with the affairs of this world
to the point where such involvement detracts from our primary mission"
(Christian Theology of Public Policy, 125). The word "conscience"
in verse 5 should be interpreted in a similar manner as 1
Corinthians 10 (regarding food sacrificed to idols). The believers
were concerned that the Roman state would find a legal reason
to persecute them. One cannot use this verse in an absolutist sense
to say that Christians can never participate in removing any authority,
such as in the American Revolution. Paul also encourages Christians
to "overcome evil with good" as understood in Romans
12:21 (this includes evil authority), and to work to be free
if at all possible (1
also says to submit to paying taxes for the same reason: avoiding
state wrath in order to live for God. One despises paying taxes,
but in order to abate the state’s wrath one pays them. Likewise,
"pay to all what is due them" is commanded for the same
purpose, especially considering the political tumult of the time.
But does this mean that a man sins if he makes a mistake on his
Federal tax return? Paul would very likely answer no. Modern
taxes are very different from Roman taxes. In fact, the Greek word
for "taxes" in verse 7 is more accurately rendered "tribute,"
which is specifically the capitation tax (or "head tax")
in a Roman township census. The Romans would send soldiers from
house to house, count the residents there, calculate the tax, and
then demand full payment immediately. If a Christian did not comply
at once, then he, his family, and possibly even his fellow believers
could be in imminent, serious trouble. Paul says to not resist these
men when they do this, just pay the tax. Refusal to pay would identify
them as part of the tax rebels and political rogues of the day,
and would give the Romans a reason to persecute Christians in Rome
and perhaps throughout the empire. Paul wanted the Roman Christians
to avoid becoming public spectacles and government targets.
a general principle, modern Christians should do the same when immediate
threat of state force is upon them, taxes or otherwise. However,
modern taxes are not often like this; tributes and tariffs are not
culturally transcendent forms of payments to states. Hence, one
is most certainly not sinning if a mistake is made on a tax return.
Cobin would even go so far to say that some taxes can be completely
avoided without guilt (Christian Theology of Public Policy,
13 is not an abstract, blanket statement that requires submission
to all state laws, in all places, for all circumstances, at all
times. Nor is it a prescription for what particular form of government
is sanctioned by God or for how states should act. The historical
context and wording requires us to be careful when making pronouncements
about what a Christian’s submission to the state looks like.
obedience to government is for the purpose of expedient peaceful
living and bringing no dishonor to the name of Christ. We are not
obligated to follow every jot of public policy. Moreover, we are
not supposed to follow any law that goes against the law
of God. If we are to be persecuted, it should be for the name of
Christ and what he stands for, not for refusing to follow
some random law when directly threatened by state action.
conclusion, developing a theology of the state from the New Testament
is understandably difficult. Examining the gospels, one finds that
the state is not related to the Kingdom of God in any way, and in
fact the state stands with Satan in direct opposition to God. The
"Render to Caesar" encounter with Jesus does not legitimize
the state and does not form the basis of a Christian’s interaction
with government. Finally, a full understanding of Romans 13, taking
into account its proper context, helps us to make better decisions
within whatever state authority we find ourselves under.
Some scholars are not convinced that Romans 13 is actually referring
to civil government. Mark Nanos argues that what Paul is
talking about here is the obligation of Christians, particularly
Christian gentiles who associated with the Jewish synagogues
of Rome, to "subordinate themselves to the leaders of the synagogues
and to the customary "rules of behavior" that had been developed
in Diaspora synagogues for defining the appropriate behavior of
"righteous gentiles" seeking association with Jews and their God."
P. J. Achtemeier, Romans (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press,
R. A. Batey, The Letter of Paul to the Romans (Austin, TX:
R.B. Sweet Co., Inc., 1969).
G. Berry, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Romans (Downer's
Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998).
J. Cobin, Bible and Government: Public Policy from a Christian
Perspective (Greenville, S.C.: Alertness Books, Ltd., 2003).
J. Cobin, Christian Theology of Public Policy: Highlighting the
American Experience (Greenville, SC: Alertness, Ltd., 2006).
D. English, The Message of Mark (Downer's Grove, IL: InterVarsity
C. R. Erdman, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans (Philadelphia,
PA: Westminster Press, 1929).
P. F. Esler, Conflict and Identity in Romans: The Social Setting
of Paul's Letter (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003).
J. A. Fitzmyer, The Anchor Bible: Romans (New York, NY: Doubleday,
K. Grayston, The Epistle to the Romans (Peterborough, England:
Epworth Press, 1997).
M. Green, The Message of Matthew (Downer's Grove, IL: InterVarsity
D. R. A. Hare, Matthew (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press,
T. G. Long, Matthew (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1997).
I. H. Marshall, New Testament Theology (Downer's Grove, IL:
InterVarsity Press, 2004).
M. D. Nanos, The Mystery of Romans: The Jewish Context of Paul's
Letter (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996).
T. H. Olbricht, His Love Compels: The Sacrificial Message of
God from the New Testament (Joplin, MO: College Press, 2000).
[send him mail] is
a graduate student in Chemical Engineering at the University of
Texas at Austin. Norman also studies theology at the Austin
Graduate School of Theology and Austrian economics on the side.
He attended Mises University in 2006.
Visit his blog.
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