For many Christians, both on the left and the right, Romans 13 endorses the power and presence of a police state, a government court system and the right of governments to tax people to pay for it all.
According to the prevailing doctrine, it is the state which has the right to be armed in order to enforce obedience and it is Christians who have a duty to obey — not just for reasons of practicality or prudence, but as a moral obligation.
The term “powers that be” — a phrase first coined by early Bible publisher William Caxton, then used in the King James Version — is believed to mean government, which is “ordained” or set in place by God. Any official wielding this government power is understood to be a servant or "minister" of God and therefore, to resist would be to incur the wrath of God.
The primary and fearful means of meting out such wrath is believed to be the state bearing arms and using them not just against actual wrongdoers, but upon anyone who disobeys instructions, regulations, or state-created legislation. In this way, the state is ascribed a god-like authority to establish its own moral order.
Reference to "taxes" ("tribute" KJV) and "customs" in verses 6-7 is believed to tie this all together by underlining that the subject under discussion is the state — and that taxes, tribute and customs are endorsed by God, without limit.
Here is one translation of the passage, from the New King James Version:
“Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to [execute] wrath on him who practices evil. Therefore [you] must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes [are due], customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.”
However, although long overlooked or ignored, the prevailing interpretation of this passage presents a major problem for those who say they believe the Bible to be true…
In fact, if government courts, regulations and military/police state enforcement really were the “authorities” and "powers" referred to as God's ministers and servants — then there would appear to be a direct conflict within the Bible:
Because the same Apostle Paul… in the same period of time… in the same Bible… specifically instructed Christians to stay away from government court systems at all costs, and described the whole system as “unrighteous”.
Here is a section of 1 Corinthians 6, from the NKJV:
“Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world will be judged by you, are you unworthy to judge the smallest matters? Do you not know that we shall judge angels? How much more, things that pertain to this life? If then you have judgments concerning things pertaining to this life, do you appoint those who are least esteemed by the church to judge? I say this to your shame. Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you, not even one, who will be able to judge between his brethren? But brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers! Now therefore, it is already an utter failure for you that you go to law against one another. Why do you not rather accept wrong? Why do you not rather [let yourselves] be cheated?”
Although specifically addressing the early church in Corinth, at the very beginning of 1 Corinthians it is made clear that the whole letter is written to, "…all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord". So Paul was writing to all believers, including those of today.
But perhaps he was referring only to relatively minor internal church matters?
Not so. Paul specifically referred to being “cheated” and then even informed believers that it would be better to take a loss than to go before a government system. His further instruction was to appoint trustworthy persons from among themselves and to judge even these serious matters in private court.
Why is this passage of scripture almost completely ignored by both today’s Christian conservatives and liberals alike?
Both stick like glue to the mantra that the state is the divinely ordained and only conceivable means of law enforcement. But notice how the Apostle Paul writes here that officials of the state judicial system should be considered those “least esteemed by the church to judge.” He even goes on to say that Christians should be ashamed for making use of such a system at all — let alone believing it to be any kind of holy institution.
It certainly looks like there is a conflict between Romans 13 and 1 Corinthians 6 — and that Christians have come down hard on the Roman side. But that is not the only one:
Look first at Romans 13:3, which says, “For rulers are not a terror to good works… he is God’s minister to you for good.”
Then contrast that with another passage, 1 Corinthians 2:5-6, where Paul says, “…your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God… not the wisdom of this age, nor of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing.”
The word for “rulers” here is exactly the same in both passages — in the Greek, “archon”. Note how in the Corinthians passage Paul specifically refers to “men” (i.e. not just dark spiritual forces) who are “rulers of this age” as "coming to nothing" — i.e. worthless.
In plain words, and if the meaning is confined to the government overlords of this age, then Paul — writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit — is teaching anarchy, a word which simply means, "without rulers".
But that is still not all, because concerning the end of the age, Paul also writes (1 Cor. 15:24-25):
"Then [comes] the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet."
In this scripture, "rule" and "authority" are again exactly the same Greek words used in Romans 13. But here, far from being described as "ministers" of God, "all" kings, governments and rulers of this age are described as being the "enemies" of Christ (i.e. there are no good ones).
Romans 13 Revisited
If there is a conflict between Romans 13 and these scriptures; then it is a conflict in the minds of Christians, not in the holy written word of God. Because the real subject of the Romans 13 passage is not difficult to understand at all — simply by looking at the key subject word, “authorities” or in the KJV, “powers”. Here is the first verse again (NKJV):
“Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.”
But does the word “authorities” here really mean “government” as modern translations and interpretations claim?
It is a simple matter to find out, just by looking up its usage elsewhere in the scriptures. This can be done in a few clicks at any online Bible site (e.g. bible.cc or blueletterbible.org). Here are some other uses of exactly the same Greek word (exousia -underlined):
“Has not the potter power over the clay…” (Romans 9:21) “take heed lest this liberty of yours…” (1 Cor 8:9) “I abuse not my power in the Gospel…” (1 Cor 9:18) “they have no right to eat which serve the tabernacle” (Heb 13:10) “after it was sold, was it not in your own power” (Acts 5:4) “a man… left his house and gave authority to his servants” (Mark 13:35) “to turn from… the power of Satan to God” (Acts 26:18)
We can easily see that the word is a very general word for all kinds of authority, good or bad. The more specific Greek words for kings/emperors (basileus) and governors/officials (hegemon) of the state are not used at all in the passage.
Since one use of the term is for the “power” of Satan, the meaning therefore is clearly concerned only with practical reality and not moral legitimacy. Obviously, as Paul would never endorse the “power of Satan” he would want to limit his use of the term only to legitimate forms of authority. Look again at the second part of verse one:
“…For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.”
The commonly held belief about this seems to be that, where any government exists and calls itself an authority, then it must be because God put it there. This is not only absurd but is never actually believed anyway — exceptions always being found for tyrants like Hitler and Stalin. Violent Christian nationalists also manage to find convenient exceptions whenever required in order to justify invading or bombing the “divinely ordained” governments and people of other countries.
In reality, there is a much clearer meaning and through making use of the same online Bible resources, here is a perfectly accurate translation/amplification — but which in this case, is also consistent with the rest of scripture:
“…For no authority is real (exists) unless it is from God, but those authorities that are real (do exist) are set in place by God”
The second half of verse one is simply restricting the meaning of "authorities" to real, pre-existent God-given authority, not just rubber stamping any evil person or system that claims authority by force or threat. This places the rest of Romans 13 in an entirely new light.
What then are some of the real authorities that exist because they have been set in place by God? Here are some specific realms of authority — categorised by using the same Greek word from Romans 13:1 as found in other passages:
Personal liberty or self government: “take heed lest this liberty of yours…” 1 Corinthians 8:9 Private property rights: “Has not the potter power over the clay…” Romans 9:21 Financial rights: “after it was sold, was it not in your own power” Acts 5:4 Household/employer rights: “a man… left his house and gave authority to his servants” Mark 13:35 Church leadership: “I abuse not my power in the Gospel…” 1 Corinthians 9:18
In summary, Romans 13 is about respecting the legitimate overseeing rights and jurisdiction of others and about honouring our obligations to them as we interact in daily life.
However, some will doubtless notice that verses 6-7 refers specifically to taxes.
But in fact, they do not — my own understanding has recently changed on that very point. Here are those verses once more, from the translators of the New King James Version:
“For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes [are due], customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.”
The word translated as “taxes” (NKJV) or “tribute” (KJV) is in reality, a much more general word for bearing a burden or liability of payment. Certainly a tax is both a burden and liability, but payment cannot rightly be translated as “tax” without specific additional information. There are in fact other more specific Greek words for taxes and tribute — “kensos” for example.
The word translated “taxes” here, is the Greek word “phoros”. It only appears in two other passages of the Bible, so its meaning must also be derived from the ordinary use of the word.
One common public usage was during the Delian League of Greek city states, where it was not a tax, but a voluntary contribution of dues toward common defence. Later, when Athens became more powerful it was turned into a compulsory tribute, however the word “phoros” stuck as it served political PR purposes. One historical article confirms this: "The change can be seen in the transmutation of the word phoros’ meaning. Originally it meant ‘contribution’, but as the Delian League changed into the Athenian Empire, it came to mean ‘tribute.’"
Governments dominate the public record, and have done so by force throughout much of history. However, the public record still shows that the word “phoros” was used for private rent. Even one proponent of the prevailing doctrine (see page 20) admits: "The noun phoros… means literally u2018that which is brought in by way of payment' (Liddell-Scott, page 1951). It has a broad sense of u2018payment' which is owed for whatever reason. This sense is found in the papyri, which have examples of bill for the u2018payment' of rent on property (Moulton-Milligan, page 674)." Another secular historian writes, "Phoros and ekphorion were… the most common words in Greek for rents paid by tenants to their landlords, but the semantic range was hardly limited to this legal context." (Morton, page 165)
The word phoros is used about tax in one Gospel account of the well known “render unto Caesar” teaching. But in the other two accounts of the same event; the word “kensos” is used. Since Jesus actually spoke Aramaic, the translation of meaning into Greek is in the one case (Luke 20:22) rendered “liability/payment (phoros) to Caesar” and in the other two (Mark 12:14, Matt 22:17) “Caesar’s tax (kensos)”. Both are accurate, because where “phoros” is used, the meaning is clear as Caesar is also mentioned. (More on this particular passage can be found in the article, "Rights, Liberties and Romans 13").
The word “phoros” then, is a general word for a liability or payment, whether private rent, voluntary membership dues, or a compulsory tribute. The word refers to the reality of a burden not to its moral legitimacy and so in these verses, Paul is instructing Christians to honour their liabilities to all, where properly due.
Likewise, the word “customs” as translated in some versions of the Bible, is also inaccurate and easily confirmed to be so.
The Greek word here is “telos” (click for details) and means any kind of conclusion or settlement — of a bill, agreement or any other obligation. Of course, customs officers do demand a settlement and the word can be used for that. But it is even translated multiple times in the New Testament as simply, “the end”.
There are many obligations and settlements in life toward those in rightful charge of businesses or property. There is no reason to presume that Romans 13:6-7 refers to taxes and customs.
Much of the reasoning on this in Bible commentaries and dictionaries is circular, party due to tradition, and because the word phoros is little used elsewhere in the Bible. Romans 13 has long been presumed to be about government; phoros and telos are therefore presumed to mean payments and settlements only to the government; which is presumed to confirm the initial presumption that Romans 13 is about government…
In reality, God through Paul the Apostle is instructing Christians to settle their economic and moral obligations to all who render us a service, and to show regard for their rights — be it an agreement, lease, rent, debt, settlement of a bill, or invoice at the conclusion of a transaction.
Moreover, only this meaning makes any sense when the context of the verses which follow are taken into account, such as “Owe no man anything, but to love one another.”
For some, it may take a while to reprogram the mind when reading the passage. But once these simple basics are known, Romans 13 proves to be one of the strongest scriptures upholding the right to armed defence of person or property. The key verse here being:
“But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to [execute] wrath on him who practices evil.”
Of course, government officials who try to lord it over us, seek to give themselves a veneer of legitimacy by staking a claim to words like “minister” or “public servant”. But the real subjects here are those who serve as leaders and proprietors in daily life. For example, the same Greek word for "ministers" is used in John 2:9 to refer to "…the servants which drew the water…"
Those who do business or perform other duties and responsibilities under their jurisdiction or proprietorship are supplying a service to others: A father is God’s minister to his family, a church leader is a minister to his congregation, a businessman or employee operates in service of others and “ministers” to their needs in the marketplace.
As we saw earlier, Paul condemned the governmental rulers and authorities of this age as "enemies" of Christ and "coming to nothing" — but it is also important to note that there are voluntary, legitimate, "non-kleptocratic", non-governmental public authorities and rulers. In fact, many uses of the term "ruler" (Greek- archon) in the New Testament are in reference to these leaders. In a natural family based society these are the elders, heads of family groups, church leaders, employers, and especially the Judges who resolve disputes others cannot.
Judges of this kind have no governmental power of their own, and in both the Old and New Testaments they are upheld as representatives of the pre-existent natural laws already set in place by Heaven — not arbitrary lawmakers unto themselves and not tools of politics or the state.
Judges, owners, managers, and leaders of all kinds therefore, are in service to others for their good — but woe betide anyone who tries to do harm within their domain of service: Not only does Romans 13 directly ascribe to owners, proprietors, or leaders the right to bear a sword and use it against wrongdoers, but this right is confirmed by multiple other New and Old Testament examples and teachings:
- Jesus own teaching includes the example of a householder who “fully armed, guards his house and his goods are at peace”. (Luke 11:21)
- Likewise, believers are admonished by illustration to “put on the whole armour of God… that you may be able to stand in the evil day…” (Ephesians 6:13)
- Jesus illustrated teaching shows that landowners are right to defend and recover their property by force from murderous thieves: "Therefore what will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and destroy those vinedressers" (Luke 20:15-16)
- The disciples were specifically told, “he who has no sword let him sell his garment and buy one” (Luke 22:36). The word used was machaira — the short Roman close combat weapon.
- Abraham led his armed household, and even defeated neighbouring kings.
- Hebrews 11:27 commends Moses, who “defended and avenged him who was oppressed, and struck down the Egyptian” (Acts 7:24) forcing him to flee Egypt.
- Israel were always armed except under tyrants when, “…there was no blacksmith to be found throughout all the land of Israel, for the Philistines said, “Lest the Hebrews make swords or spears.” (1 Samuel 13:9)
Some of these examples certainly illustrate greater spiritual truth — but how could a false earthly principle illustrate a greater heavenly truth?
Trust in God — Not a Weapon
However, just before his crucifixion, Jesus did instruct the disciple Peter to put away his sword, and amongst other reasons, he said “for all who take the sword will die by the sword”. Clearly, it would not be consistent with the above passages to interpret this as a condemnation of defending an innocent person under threat.
The Old Testament says, “whoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.” In this regard, Jesus may have been referring not to Peter, but to the end of the Pharisees and soldiers of the Chief Priests to whom he had just said “are you come against me as a robber with swords and clubs?” The prophesied destruction of Jerusalem came some 37 years later.
In any case, Peter's action in taking to the sword was certainly inappropriate: A sword may be a tool of daily life preservation but Peter’s response was presumptive and foolish. He had been trained to have faith and should have turned to God, not to a practically useless sword — and he could have been killed for it.
The force against them was overwhelming and the need was for a miracle, not for a last stand of totally inadequate physical force. Jesus affirmed this by telling Peter that he could have called a host of angels if such force was required. Furthermore, Peter’s action — although well meaning — was not only foolhardy but also stood against the plan of God for the Christ to be crucified for us all. Peter was rebuked for this also.
Some Old Testament incidents relate how that when Israel went to battle against overwhelming force, if they did not turn to and seek God first, they were slaughtered. At other times, when they did look to and trust in God, their enemies even fought amongst and killed themselves. However, more usually, weapons were still needed — if only a sling, as in the case of David against Goliath.
Trust in God — Bear a Weapon
It is true that God can and will protect all who look to him in accordance with wonderful scriptures like Psalm 91. Yet, it was also God who in the beginning established human dominion on the earth.
God does not lightly undermine his own Word. The first chapters of the Bible reveal that we have been made sovereign individuals in the image and likeness of God to exercise that dominion on this earth. God as the ultimate Owner stands ready to help us — but will never undermine that which we have been assigned.
Following an earlier special mission, the instruction of Jesus to make provision for life’s risks by carrying a weapon is consistent with this:
“When I sent you without money bag, knapsack, and sandals, did you lack anything?” So they said, “Nothing.” Then He said to them, “But now, he who has a money bag, let him take [it], and likewise a knapsack; and he who has no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one… So they said, “Lord, look, here [are] two swords.” And He said to them, “It is enough.”
Note that Jesus also told believers to carry a purse and spare provisions. So the key point clearly is one of making proper preparation and not that it is necessarily an immediate sin to step outside without a wallet, extra provisions, or a weapon.
However, there will be a penalty both for ourselves, our families, our neighbours and our communities if we do not take heed. In particular, for those who bow the knee to the state and surrender their God-given sovereignty and dominion, in the vain idolatrous hope that the state will protect them from all evil. The hypocrisy of some who say we should disarm and just “trust God” is that few also advocate disarming the government. In reality, they are placing their trust not in God, but in the state.
But there is no true King but Christ, and no protector of our liberties and rights except the one from whom they came. His instruction is to obtain a sword and Romans 13 amplifies this, making clear what the sword is to be used for and when.
The summary therefore as underlined by Romans 13 is to trust in God and wherever prudent (the greater risk may be anti-weapon laws) to carry an appropriate close combat weapon.
"Good Gun Samaritans"
One common approach of gun-rights advocates today is to recite statistics, then offer a clenched fist, “my guns, my rights” self-interest argument. This can be very commendable: The truth must be highlighted, and self interest which is not at the expense of others is right, because we can only show love to others as we love ourselves.
However, some do take a purely selfish approach. Some sound like they would actually enjoy blowing a burglar away, straight to hell. Many of the same, while defending their own rights, also support the killing of innocents in overseas wars due to a perceived self-defence interest. Others have actually talked of killing the children of US Senators who vote to take away guns. Probably these were agent provocateurs — state sponsored forum trolls — but of greater concern is that this was openly admired as a show of strength by some in the broader "liberty movement".
This is not the spirit of true liberty, it is selfishness. Selfishness inherently disregards the liberty of others and their lives. In fact, a selfish so-called “libertarian” may well decide they can receive maximum liberty for themselves by collaborating with the statist society around them. One former head of the Federal Reserve System springs to mind, but he is hardly the only example…
Another related point is that upholding the right and duty to bear arms is a battle for hearts as well as minds — but harsh and violent words send a negative message to the undecided, even when technically correct.
The story of the “Good Samaritan” is familiar to most people. But here is a question: What would the Good Samaritan have done, had he come to the scene perhaps a few minutes earlier, just before the victim was set about by robbers?
The answer to that presents another focus for the message of personal rights and self-defence:
First: a message of concern for the untold numbers of defenceless victims, who are made defenceless by gun control laws or choose to be so due to propaganda.
Second: a message of genuine compassion for others — that we will not just "pass by on the other side." As armed “Good Samaritans” we can come to the assistance of others and in doing so have true faith in God — not just a weapon — for protection and victory.
The message for Christians is that Romans 13 does not authorize the slaughter and violence of the state, but rather condemns the state as a chief violator of those rights Romans 13 upholds — including the right to bear arms.
This may mean difficult choices: It could mean persecution — no longer can subservience and fear be dressed up as holiness. Speaking out could mean losing a comfortable church leadership position or loss of esteem in a circle of fellowship. Criticism of the state or its activities may even result in imprisonment, like John the Baptist and some in the early church.
However, Jesus' restraint of Peter's haste with his sword demonstrates that the cause of the Gospel and of liberty is normally best served by those who are alive and outside of a jail cell. Tyranny, although against the will of God, can exist due to the free will of those around us. Sometimes people support that which enslaves them and believe those who flaunt unjust rules to be wrongdoers –and will not listen to their message. Even when some do listen, change takes time and so the wisdom of a choice to physically resist tyranny depends very much on the time, the place and the people.
This perceived public image is cited in 1 Peter 2:12-17 by the Apostle Peter as one reason for his later instruction that, in addition to proper morality and honesty, "for the Lord's sake" it is prudent to comply with "every ordinance of man…" Another reason mentioned, is so our opponents will have no way to ensnare us. It is also right to pray for earthly rulers, as our enemies, that evil plans may be thwarted and that instead we "may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness" (1Ti 2).
But at the same time, we are exhorted to live "as free" people, fearing only God, honouring the true King, and teaching the Kingdom of God — not propaganda for the governments of this age, which are "coming to nothing".