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Riddlebarger on the Old Covenant Context of Romans 13

I am quite convinced that understanding the difference between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant is foundational to properly exegeting Romans 13:1-7. I call this the “legitimacy interpretation.” I believe Paul is applying Jesus’ words in John 18:36 to the situation in Rome. I touched on this a bit in a previous post and I will do so more in the future. Here are some worthwhile comments from Kim Riddlebarger.

Another reason debate arises about this section of Romans is due to the Old Testament background as to how the people of Israel were to relate to the pagan kings around them. Jews viewed all Gentile nations in light of Israel’s divinely appointed mission–Israel was God’s chosen nation and the object of God’s care and affection…

as God’s chosen covenant community, the nation of Israel was not to submit to any pagan king. In Deuteronomy 17:15, we read “be sure to appoint over you the king the LORD your God chooses. He must be from among your own brothers. Do not place a foreigner over you, one who is not a brother Israelite.” Israel’s king must be a Jew. Thus it would be very difficult for Jewish converts to Christianity to adopt a Christian view of state…

As the covenant community, Israel was not to take for itself a Gentile king (much like its people were forbidden from inter-marrying with Gentiles), even though pagan kings were raised up by God according to his providential purposes. Jews could not but help think of their history and the Egyptian Pharaoh, from whose hand God had rescued Israel. It is because of Israel’s unfaithfulness that the nation came under the covenant sanctions, was conquered by the Babylonians and hauled off into captivity, and forced to submit to a Gentile king…

At the time Paul writes his letter to the church in Rome in the mid-fifties of the first century, the Roman empire was largely indifferent to Christianity. Throughout the Book of Acts, we read that Paul, a Roman citizen, is able to appeal to Roman authorities to protect him from those Jews who threatened to kill him. But there is also some indication that things were beginning to change. In Acts 18:2, we read that Paul “met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all the Jews to leave Rome.” This is a reference to the famous “edict of Claudius” which was promulgated in AD 50. According to the Roman historian Suetonius, rioting broke out in Rome among the Jews, instigated by a certain “Chrestus.” Most scholars believe this to be a reference to Christian preaching about Jesus Christ in the synagogues. This produced a violent reaction from the Jews, which, in turn, lead to rioting. To keep the peace, emperor Claudius ordered all Jews expelled from the city of Rome. But his edict was eased when the rioting ceased and there were many Jews and Christians back in Rome soon thereafter. The Jews in the Roman church would have likely considered Rome to be an evil Gentile nation and if, whenever the emperor felt like it, a persecutor of the Jewish people. Jews would have been very leery of being told to submit to such a government…

Now, as for the reason as to why Paul addresses this subject in the way in which he does in Romans, the issue is primarily a pastoral one. There are Jews in this church who have converted to Christianity. How can they now be expected to submit to a Gentile king? And a pagan king whom they feared and who has already ordered them out of the city. Gentile Christians faced an entirely different situation. If Rome viewed Christianity as a branch of Judaism, Christians would be offered the same toleration the Roman government gave to Jews. But if Christianity was regarded as a different religion entirely, then what legal protections would Christians now have? And how should Christians view a state which did not grant them official standing? This means that the issue here is not theoretical–“what is the ideal state?”–but practical, “how should Christians in Rome view this pagan empire?”…

We must also keep in mind the specific situation Paul is addressing with this congregation. Paul is not dealing with the question of what a Christian should do if/when the state (or its ruler) becomes a tyrant. The apostle is not writing a systematic treatise on civil government. Rather, Paul is affirming to Jewish and Gentile believers in the city of Rome that the Roman state is a servant of God [insofar as it legitimately exercises its legitimate authority]…

In context, then, Paul is telling Jewish and Gentile Christians in the Roman church that the Roman government is a legitimate civil authority [under the New Covenant – unlike under the Old Covenant], because such authority come from God. Christians should, therefore, submit to the government. But the question about what to do if and when the Roman government exceeds this God-given authority is not addressed here…

In verse 2, Paul goes on to say that there is no basis upon which to rebel against legitimate civil authority… Again, the question as to whether and when the state forfeits such authority is not answered here. As one writer puts it, what Paul does say is “resistance to legitimate authority legitimately exercised is wrong.”

Thus Rome has legitimately authority over Christians (insofar as it exercises a very narrow task), unlike pagan kings ruling over Israel.

Riddlebarger has other good things to say, but his treatment suffers one significant flaw. He believes “established by God” refers to God’s providence. I believe he is wrong and contradicts himself. If our submission stems from providence, then it is not limited. God establishes tyrants, just as he did against Israel in the Old Covenant. But Riddlebarger rightly notes that we are not required to submit to them. Thus, the simple fact that a ruler rules, according to God’s providence, is no reason that we must submit to them. Israel was not required to submit to foreign rulers who exercised dominion over Israelites at various times. Rather, God blessed their rebellion against foreign rulers to the extent that they obeyed Mosaic law (2 Kings 18:7, etc).

“Established” here, in my opinion, refers to the authority of sword given to all image bearers to defend and exercise vengeance according to lex talionis, as articulated in Genesis 9:6. Anyone who exercises that God-given authority, whether pagan or Christian, is exercising God-given authority and must be submitted to.

Published in Brandon Adams