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An Exposition of Romans 13

The very first objection statist Christians make when they meet a Christian anarchist is “well, what about Romans 13?” Does Romans 13 actually teach us that God created the state as an institution good and necessary for society? Or has the meaning of this passage been distorted over the centuries? In this essay, it will be shown that Romans 13 does not require one to accept the state. This subject is of utter importance because without the corrupted meaning of this passage, there is little evidence from the rest of Scripture supporting statism and a tremendous amount supporting anarchism. The relevant passage is Romans 13:1-7:

1 Let everyone be subject 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, whoever 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 you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents 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 as a matter of conscience.This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

Verses 1-2:

1 Let everyone be subject 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, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.

The Greek word that is translated to “ordained” or “established” or “instituted” is τεταγμέναι. But the word means to “order”, to “arrange in a certain order”, designating a specific status or to “put into place” more so than “establish”, or “ordain.” Thus, it isn’t that God has ordained or approved of the state so much as it is he allowed it to exist and uses it for his purposes. In fact, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said “No State is entitled to read St. Paul’s words as a justification for its own existence” (The Cost of Discipleship, p.294). The point is that the state is not operating outside of God’s control or outside of his plans. For example, he allowed the Egyptian government to exist and Pharaoh to be the ruler, but He did not approve of what Pharaoh did. He led the Israelites to freedom from that oppressive state. As the theologian John Howard Yoder said, “it’s not as if there was a time when there was no government and then God made government” (Politics, p. 201-202). It was not specially ordained like the family or the Church. Revelation 13 makes this clear as it says that the state was given authority for a brief period and allowed to go after the saints. The fact that God has allowed the state to exist does not mean the state is not evil and Christians are never told that they ought to excuse this evil and say it is approved of by God. Throughout Scripture, the state is portrayed as evil and as a powerful instrument of Satan, whether it be the many wicked kings spoken of in the Old Testament or the evil Roman Empire that crucified Jesus Christ. Just because God uses the state in His overall plan doesn’t excuse the evil it commits or provide it with justification for its existence.

Regarding “submission,” this does not mean total obedience. “We must obey God rather than man” (Acts 5:29), Peter responded after he was told by the authorities to stop speaking in the name of Christ. But there many instances in the Bible of people righteously defying the state. Some examples include: the Hebrews defying Pharaoh’s decrees to murder their infants, Rahab lying to the King of Jericho about the Hebrew spies, Ehud deceiving the king’s ministers and assassinating the king, and the Magi from the East disobeying Herod’s direct orders. In 1 Kings 11, we learn that God is going to raise up a rebellion against Solomon because of his wickedness. Why then are we required to believe rebellion against the state is always bad? Sometimes it is actually led by God. Throughout the history of Christian thought major thinkers have argued that defying the state is acceptable. Such thinkers include Aquinas, John of Salisbury, Juan de Mariana, John Milton, John Locke, Samuel Adams, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Finally, submission is commanded by God in more important situations but never is it implied that it is absolute. One such example is marriage. Submission is commanded but that doesn’t mean a spouse should stay in an abusive situation. If total obedience isn’t commanded in marriage, an institution created in the Garden of Eden, it certainly isn’t when it comes to the state, an institution that lives off of the use of violence.

Verses 3-5:

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 you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents 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 as a matter of conscience.

These verses talk about a state that is carrying out justice, punishing evil people. But what about a state that isn’t doing this? What if the state is being run by a tyrant or by individuals who allow evil to occur and actually punish good people? This passage is commanding Christians to obey a state that is carrying out justice. There are two main reasons why He is commanding us to do this. First, because He doesn’t want believers to be persecuted for anything other than the Gospel and because He doesn’t want us to spend our limited time on earth fighting the government. He wants us to be preaching the gospel and serving others. Paul knew that if the Roman state could find a legal reason to persecute Christians, they would. The second reason is because of justice. In the Old Testament, there was an Avenger of Blood to punish murderers. But that is no longer in effect, and the state is the only organization at that time (and now) that is legally allowed to do that. God wants justice carried out and is willing to use the state to do that. Thus, since the state is doing that, God is commanding us to obey it because He wants justice carried out and evil people to be punished. In other words, God wants justice done and He has allowed the state in certain situations to carry out that role. But that also means there is room for rejecting the state if it isn’t carrying out justice. The passage makes clear that the only reason God allows the state to exist and commands obedience to it, is to punish evil people, not to carry out violence against innocent people.

The idea of using the state to carry out justice because it is currently the only one doing so is further reinforced in verse 4. The word that is translated to “they are God’s servants” is “διάκονος” but the more accurate translation is singular- “he is God’s servant.” This is saying that the person wielding the sword in order to carry out justice is under God’s control and therefore, we ought to obey him, regardless of who it happens to be (the state at this time, but this is not always the case and certainly should not be the case). The idea behind this is the Avenger of Blood.

Verses 6-7:

This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

There are two reasons for the command to pay taxes. First, because, as said before, the government is the organization at this time wielding the sword, carrying out justice. Again, God wants justice done and since the only entity punishing evil people right now is the state, He is commanding us to pay the taxes so that this can be done. But that doesn’t necessarily apply to all states, as not all states actually carry out justice. Second, and more importantly, God is commanding us to pay taxes because He doesn’t want us to spend our lives fighting the government. We are supposed to be spreading the Gospel. In fact, the Gospel of Matthew makes this clear: in talking about a tax Jesus said “the children are exempt…but so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line” (Matthew 17:26). Jesus is saying that we do not really owe the state our money, but in this situation the disciples ought to pay it so they do not arouse the anger of the state.

Also, the time Romans 13 was written should be taken into account. This was at a time when there were many tax rebels and they were being suppressed by Caesar. The Church was just starting and Paul did not want it to be associated with the tax rebels, which would have given Caesar a reason to persecute the Church.

By the way, it should be noted that the Roman tax was a head tax, a far less intrusive tax than the current US tax system.

We see God’s view of taxation in 1 Samuel 8, where God told Samuel to “warn” the Israelites of what the king would do: “He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants.16 Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle[c] and donkeys he will take for his own use. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. 18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” In this passage, God is equating taxation with slavery. We again see God’s opposition to taxation in Matthew 5:46, when Jesus implies that, generally, tax collectors are evil.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Romans 13 is not what statist Christians claim it to be. It is not a justification for the existence of a state, it simply instructs believers what to do when a state exists. A biblical view of the state can be seen throughout the Scriptures, and it is quite clearly a negative one. Paul, the writer of Romans 13, also wrote that government courts were “unrighteous” and that believers should stay away from them (1 Corinthians 6:4). Of course, the clearest evidence in the Bible of the rightness of anarchy and the wrongness of the state is found in 1 Samuel 8. Israel had no government at the time, instead being governed by a system of laws set in place by God. It is important to note that God did not invent a state to enforce these laws, and yet order and justice prevailed in Israel. However, the Israelites noticed other groups of people had kings and demanded they have one as well. God called this demand a rejection by the people of Him and warned them that it will lead to oppression and misery. But it must be noted that this oppression God warns them of consists of acts every state does: drafting men for war and taxing people heavily. Thus, it is clear that God did not invent the state as some type of force for good, but actually opposes it.

Finally, to assert that God thinks the state and taxation are morally acceptable is to accept the premise that Jesus supports initiating violence against a peaceful person. This is completely antithetical to the character of Christ. In fact this can be seen clearly when Jesus said “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first” (John 8:7). This shows that God never gave people the right to punish someone for a sin that isn’t an initiation of violence, even if it is a major violation of one of God’s commandments, like it was in this case. If that situation had been an individual caught murdering someone, it is clear that Jesus would not have had the same reaction. All initiation of violence against a person who has not violated another’s rights is wrong and not the job of earthly authorities. Taxation, by definition, requires violence against someone who chooses not to pay the tax, a peaceful act that violates no one’s rights. Thus, Romans 13 does not and cannot justify taxation and the state.

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