I’ve touched on Romans 13 often over the years; after all, it is probably the most important passage of the Bible relating to matters of politics and state. And while I’ve attempted to write an in-depth consideration of the chapter elsewhere, it needs to be updated to reflect further reflection I’ve had since then. The other problem is that it is way too long. Nobody reads things that long. So I am in need of a more succinct article of the problems and solutions of Romans 13.
This post is not that article. What it is, though, is a simple set of thoughts that I can link to in the future when the same old objections to our political theory come up. Often, people will cite Romans 13 as if I’ve never read it. Trust me. I have. So let me just add a thought or two per verse so that it can serve only as a reference point for others. It is not a defense of my position. Only a summary statement of my position.
1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.
God has ordained everything. From evil things to good, nothing exists, even the state or the devil, outside of God’s ordaining plan. Not all things ordained are morally good (God’s will of command), but all are according to God’s will of decree. Paul is describing to the readers that God ordained Roman tyrants. We should “be arranged” (hypotassō) under the authorities because we are generally to turn the other cheek and not live rebellious lives.
2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.
This is the logical implication of verse 1. If God appointed the authorities, then to resist the authorities is to resist what he appointed. It is to remind us to think about God’s sovereign plan before we act out against evil rulers. Sometimes acting out is fine, and acting out will incur the state’s judgement. Nothing could be so obvious.
3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval,
Rulers are a terror to those who do what the ruler considers bad. This can be anything from stealing to operating a free market business to preaching the Bible, depending on the regime. If you want to be free from the ruler’s wrath, you’d have to do what he considers good, not what he considers bad. However, sometimes, we ought to fear God more and do what God commands, even if the ruler considers it bad (preach the gospel).
4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.
Rulers are servants in the sense that everyone is God’s servant because everyone is a tool that God uses to accomplish his ultimate end. Even the evil ruler Nebuchadnezzar was God’s servant (Jer. 43:10). God uses them sometimes to mold us, to turn our attention to him, to make us invest in eternal things. Sometimes they are for our benefit because they make just decisions, other times they are for our benefit because, in making an unjust decision, they focus our attention on the true Just King. God has given the ruler ordaining permission (not necessarily moral permission) to exercise wrath. Hitler was given God’s permission in time and space to carry out wrath on Jewish people, for instance. This does not mean what Hitler did was morally sound (obviously).
5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.
Therefore, generally be arranged under the ruler for the sake of peace. Don’t live too obviously in rebellion or otherwise you will be threatened by the state. Live under the radar and don’t attract the state’s attention.
6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
Whether taxes are actually morally legitimate, this is besides the point. Just pay them. You don’t want to go to jail or have your family threatened. Yes, taxation is theft and these resources aren’t owned to the Congress or President just because they want them. Pay them anyway. Don’t cause a commotion and put yourself in danger.