Who’s Afraid of Religious Liberty?

The following article is written by Richard Samuelson from a Jewish perspective but it applies equally to all religions. Over recent years I’ve gradually come to the realization that anti-discrimination laws are not compatible with liberty. Anti-discrimination laws conflict with the freedom of speech, the freedom of association, and the freedom of religion. Samuelson’s excellent article summarizes many of my thoughts and concerns.

Who’s Afraid of Religious Liberty?

Seeking to prohibit every kind of “discrimination,” activists in and out of government threaten the free practice of, among other faiths, Judaism. . . .

What this meant in practice was that Wasps were free to keep Jews out of their country clubs, and Jews were free to organize their own clubs. Similarly, Americans were generally free to refuse service to whomever they chose, for whatever reason they chose, and to decide with whom to associate in their daily affairs.

The same held for the free exercise of religion: by its very nature, the very thing that allowed Jews to be free and equal members of American society also allowed private discrimination in matters of faith. Indeed, with some notable exceptions—the persecution of Mormons in the 19th century being a conspicuous example—America was able to guarantee a robust area of religious liberty precisely because, just as the federal government generally left Americans free to act or not to act, to speak or not to speak, so it also left them free to worship or not to worship, to conduct or not to conduct their religious lives, as they chose. . . .

For most of American history, for better or worse, the common view was that private institutions, companies, clubs, and so forth had the right to choose with whom to associate and not to associate, whom to accept as customers, whom to decline or refuse to serve. There were, to be sure, exceptions: by law, a small class of businesses, most notably railroads and other conveyances, as well as inns and public amusements, had to take all comers. Somewhat more broadly, the same rule applied to monopolies, like the local grain elevator. The class was narrowly defined precisely because the liberty to associate with whom we choose was recognized as essential in a liberal nation that made a hard distinction between the realm of the state and the realm of civil society.

In the past half-century, America’s robust civil society has become increasingly subject to government regulation. The change was originally impelled by the best of reasons—namely, to end Jim Crow laws and to fight against racial segregation: the signal exceptions to the liberal program in America.

When it came to race, early America did not simply allow individuals to “discriminate” if they chose to do so. On the contrary, the government positively required such discrimination. Both slavery and segregation were creations of law. Throughout the South, government not only segregated public places and activities but also forced private corporations—railroads, restaurants, and other places where Americans gathered—to maintain separate sections for blacks and whites.

Segregation was expensive; the laws were designed to ensure that greedy capitalists did not save money by “forcing” whites and blacks to sit next to each other—precisely the happy outcome that 18th-century political philosophers had predicted would emerge once government left people free to go about their business together.

Note that I think the government forcing a business to discriminate is just as much a violation of liberty as the government not allowing a business to discriminate. Liberty requires that the business, not the government, determines with whom and in what way it will do business.

In the American South and elsewhere, Jim Crow laws subverted the market and the tolerant attitude it fostered.

It was to remedy this situation that Congress would eventually assert the right of the federal government to regulate not only local and state governments but civil society itself in an unprecedented manner. The instrument was the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Outlawing discrimination based on race or color—as well as religion, sex, or national origin—the act aimed mainly at undoing racial segregation in schools, workplaces, and “public accommodations”: in essence, what the legal scholar Richard Epstein dubbed “the totalitarian nature of the Old South.”

It is difficult for us at this distance to appreciate the radicalism of the Civil Rights Act. Law can change two things. It can change behavior regarding the particular problem it addresses; it can also change how citizens understand the purpose of law and the liberty that law is supposed to protect. The Civil Rights Act did both. A half-century after its passage, we are a very different country. . . .

In principle, the 1964 Civil Rights Act held that people were still generally free to decide with whom to associate, being prohibited from discriminating against only a small list of people in what the Act designated as “protected classes.” As Epstein has observed, the original law exempted some small businesses like the proverbial “Mrs. Murphy’s boarding house.” But it also declared that henceforth almost all businesses, and all charitable institutions, were, in essence, “public accommodations” in the eyes of the law. As such, the federal government had the right to tell every business whom it must serve or, even, hire.

Although the law was justified under the Constitution’s commerce clause, its purpose was not economic. It was social. In the service of that purpose, the government would come to regulate more and more aspects of our lives, creating a federal “police power” of the kind delegated by the Constitution exclusively to states and localities. Over time, and (ironically) as the racial situation improved, the enforcement mechanism applied by bureaucrats and legislators worked to make the law not less restrictive of civil rights but more so.

It is useful to recall that when the law passed, much of the new intrusion into civil society by government was recognized as a temporary measure, to meet a particular exigency. Even a progressive lion like Justice William Brennan recognized the temporary nature of, for example, affirmative-action programs that ran counter to the colorblind ideal. Indeed, Brennan thought such programs could be justified only as a temporary, remedial measure. A half-century later, however, many Americans have assimilated these intrusions into their understanding of the regular job of government. . . .

Do any Americans still understand the prohibition of discrimination as an exception, and a carefully hedged one, to the general rule of liberty? There is reason for skepticism—and nowhere more so than in the area of religious liberty. . . .

Traditional Judaism, after all, depends entirely on discriminating in the original sense of distinguishing: between holy and profane, Sabbath and weekday, man and woman, Jews and others. Such discriminations cannot be reworked without transforming classical Judaism into something unrecognizable to many Jews. Will Jewish institutions be able to withstand today’s freewheeling assault on religious liberty? Or will the enforcers of state-mandated “non-discrimination” not rest easy until they complete their Orwellian campaign of positive discrimination against every last dissenter from the progressive line? . . .

What goes for the freedom of association goes also for the freedom of expression and of religion: thanks to today’s “anti-discrimination” crusade, they, too, are slipping away. Already in his 1962 lecture, “Why We Remain Jews,” from which I have been quoting, Leo Strauss warned against efforts to end “discrimination,” period. This enterprise, he predicted, would kill liberalism. “The prohibition against every ‘discrimination,’” he said, “would mean the abolition of the private sphere, the denial of the difference between the state and society, in a word, the destruction of liberal society.” (Sensitive to the newly invidious sense of the term “discrimination,” Strauss insisted on using it only with quotation marks. “I would not use it of my own free will.”) Absent that private sphere, he concluded, Jews would no longer be free to be Jews in America.

David Bernstein’s follow-up article is also worth reading.

Commentary on Romans 13:8-14

Notes (NET Translation)

8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.

Paul cleverly uses the idea of “obligation” to make the transition from his advice about governing authorities (vv. 1-7) to his exhortation to love for the neighbor (vv. 8-10). In v. 7 Paul urges, “pay back what you owe to everyone.” Paul then repeats this exhortation in v. 8a, but adds to it a significant exception: the obligation of love for one another.1

The phrase “owe no one anything” should not be taken so literally as to forbid the taking of any loans. The point is that all debts should be repaid, but the debt to love one another can never be discharged.

In Rom. 13:8-10 the object of love is primarily the fellow believer, although unbelievers are not excluded. The words πλησίον (plēsion, neighbor) in verses 9-10, ἀλλήλους (allēlous, one another) in verse 8 (cf. 12:10, 16 with 12:14), and τὸν ἕτερον (ton heteron, the other) in verse 8 taken together indicate that the “neighbor” cannot be confined to the believer. Even if only believers were intended, it would be a travesty to conclude from this that love of nonbelievers is optional, for this would contradict Paul’s words in 12:17-21.2

Since v. 9 quotes the Law of Moses we know the “law” of v. 8 is the Law of Moses. For a believer to fulfill the law is for him to properly perform what the law requires.

9 For the commandments, “Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not covet,” (and if there is any other commandment) are summed up in this, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

These commandments can be found in Ex 20:13-17 and Deut 5:17-21. The moral norms of the law were part of the law of love for Paul.

Love in the NT is not mainly or merely a warm, mushy feeling or sentiment but a decision of the will to do what God commands in regard to the neighbor. It involves commitment and action, not just feelings or intentions or attitude.3

Various Jewish authors refer to the commandment to love the neighbor in Lev. 19:18, but it was given no special prominence in Judaism generally. Probably, therefore, the central position that Paul gives the commandment echoes Jesus, who paired Lev. 19:18 with Deut. 6:5 as the commandments on which “all the law and the prophets hang” (Matt. 22:34-40). Paul undoubtedly also follows Jesus (see the parable of the Good Samaritan, Luke 10:25-37) in interpreting the “neighbor” in the commandment to refer to other persons generally and not (as the original text of Lev. 19:18 might indicate) to the fellow Jew.4

What is perhaps . . . surprising is that Paul betrays no knowledge of Jesus’ summary of the law (Matt. 22:34-40 = Mark 12:28-34 = Luke 10:25-28), which includes love of God and of neighbor. The exclusion of any reference to God is probably not due to ignorance of the Jesus tradition. The whole of Romans is radically God-centered. The probable reason for this omission is that Paul concentrates here on social and horizontal relations within the Christian community.5

Cf. Lev 19:18; Matt 5:43-48; 19:19; 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-33; Luke 10:25-28; John 13:34-35; Gal 5:14; Jas 2:8.

10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

This verse is speaking of love as an activity.

It is clear that what Paul is asserting here is of limited application: love is the fulfillment of the law insofar as the law is concerned to ensure that no harm is done to a neighbor (13:10); he is not saying that love leads believers to observe all the demands of the Mosaic law. This text has important implications for our understanding of the relationship of Paul’s gospel to the Mosaic law. It indicates again that his gospel is not antinomian, for it results in the fulfillment of the law. However, this does not mean a reinstatement of the law. Rather, the effect of Paul’s gospel is that believers, by walking in the Spirit, are enabled to love one another, so that what the law sought, but was unable to produce, is fulfilled in them (cf. 8:3-4). Understood in this way, Paul’s teaching does not involve inner contradictions. It is not a matter of the apostle, having argued that believers have died to the law in 7:1-6, reinstating it again as a regulatory norm for them in 13:8-10.6

Paul is not saying that love completes the Law, like icing on a cake or a donum superadditum. He is saying rather that “another Law” has replaced and fulfills the heart of the old Mosaic Law. The new Law represents the quintessence of the old one, plus more and other commandments. He is saying that this is the heart of what God requires in regard to the neighbor. To love is, of course, to carry out the commandments that Paul lists. Love is not a substitute for the Law but the perfect expression and fulfillment of what the Law aims at and desires of God’s people. Indeed, love is, in a sense, a Law unto itself, for it goes well beyond the avoidance of doing harm, or even respecting and helping the neighbor.7

11 And do this because we know the time, that it is already the hour for us to awake from sleep, for our salvation is now nearer than when we became believers.

The phrase “and do this” calls the reader to put into practice the preceding exhortations (12:1-13:10) in light of the eschaton. The “time” is the age ushered in by the first advent of Christ (3:25-26; 5:6). “Sleep” refers to moral drowsiness (1 Thess 5:6-7; Eph 5:14). Some comments on Paul’s view of the second coming are appropriate here.

Ben Witherington III says:

There is little reason to dispute that Paul entertained the possibility that the end might come in his lifetime, but he does not insist on some particular timing for it or that he would live to see it (cf 4 Ezra 4.26). Paul did not foresee two thousand years of church history, but when the timing of the second coming is allowed to be uncertain while the event is believed to be certain, one can treat it like company coming from afar. One needs to be prepared always, because one does not know just when it will show up.8

Thomas Schreiner writes:

Because the end is imminent, the people of God should respond with appropriate behavior. Thus one cannot deny that the imminence of the end was one basis for ethics in Pauline thought. It is also evident that Paul had not surrendered his belief in the nearness of the end when Romans was written. Some scholars have questioned the relevance of Paul’s eschatology for today since the end has not arrived. Certainly Paul never expected history to last two thousand years. Neither did he teach, however, that the end would definitely come within his lifetime or shortly thereafter. He argued that in light of the certainty of the end, and the possibility that it could come soon, that believers should always be morally ready.9

Colin Kruse states:

This long delay has led some to argue that Paul was mistaken. Here Wright’s comment is apposite: ‘Paul does not say, as many of his interpreters have supposed that he said, that the final end of which he speaks in Romans 8, 1 Corinthians 15, 1 Thessalonians 4-5, and elsewhere, will certainly come within a generation; but he knows that it might well do so, and insists that it is the more urgent that Christians behave already in the manner that will then be appropriate’.10

And, finally, Douglas Moo writes:

Many scholars think that Paul’s statement here, along with many similar ones in the NT, shows that the early Christians were certain that Christ was going to return within a very short period of time. And, since Paul’s imperatives are, to some extent, based on this premise, the failure of Christ to return as soon as Paul expected requires that we critically evaluate the continuing validity of those imperatives. Paul certainly betrays a strong sense of expectation about the return of Christ (e.g., Phil. 4:5) and can even speak at times as if he will be alive at that time (e.g., 1 Thess. 4:15). But nowhere does he predict a near return; and, more importantly, he does not ground his exhortations on the conviction that the parousia would take place very soon but on the conviction that the parousia was always imminent–its coming certain, its timing incalculable. “On the certainty of the event, our faith is grounded: by the uncertainty of the time, our hope is stimulated, and our watchfulness aroused.” Christ’s return is the next event in God’s plan; Paul knew it could take place at any time and sought to prepare Christians–both in his generation and in ours–for that “blessed hope.”11

12 The night has advanced toward dawn; the day is near. So then we must lay aside the works of darkness, and put on the weapons of light.

The “night” is the present evil age (Gal 1:4; 4 Ezra 4:26-27). The “day” is the new age ushered in at the second coming of Christ (Matt 24:42-44; Acts 2:20; 1 Cor 5:5; 2 Cor 1:14; 1 Thess 5:2; 2 Thess 2:2; 2 Pet 3:10). Verses 13-14 explain what is meant by laying aside the works of darkness and putting on the weapons of light.

13 Let us live decently as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in discord and jealousy.

The word translated ‘carousing’ means excessive feasting or revelry in a bad sense. ‘Drunkenness’, when associated with ‘carousing’, denotes ‘a drinking bout’. ‘Sexual immorality’ translates a word which by itself denotes sexual intercourse, but together with ‘debauchery’ denotes ‘gross sexual excesses’. ‘Dissension’ denotes strife, discord, and contention, and ‘jealousy’ denotes ‘intense negative feelings over another’s achievements or success’. Jewett notes that ‘carousing remained typical for Roman dinners, as Bruce Winter reports: tables were reserved for drinking bouts and activities with prostitutes. Cicero describes how young men behaved in the parties celebrating their coming-of-age (toga virilis): “If there is anyone who thinks that youth should be forbidden affairs even with courtesans, he is doubtless eminently austere but his view is not only contrary to the license of this age, but also to the custom and concessions of our ancestors”‘.12

14 Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to arouse its desires.

When we compare 13:13-14 with Galatians 5:16-24, it seems clear that to clothe oneself with the Lord Jesus Christ is equivalent to living by the Spirit. Both lead to overcoming the desires of the sinful nature and promoting Christian character and virtues.13

Cf. Gal 3:27-29.


Kruse, Colin G. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.

Metzger, Bruce M., ed. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Second Edition. Hendrickson Pub, 2005.

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Kindle Edition. Baker Academic, 1998.

Witherington III, Ben, and Darlene Hyatt. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004.

  1. Moo 1996, 810 
  2. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 13380-13395 
  3. Witherington III 2004, 316 
  4. Moo 1996, 815-816 
  5. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 13429-13433 
  6. Kruse 2014, 502 
  7. Witherington III 2004, 316-317 
  8. Witherington III 2004, 317 
  9. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 13523-13529 
  10. Kruse 2014, 504 
  11. Moo 1996, 822 
  12. Kruse 2014, 505-506 
  13. Kruse 2014, 507 

Commentary on Romans 13:1-7

Notes (NET Translation)

1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except by God’s appointment, and the authorities that exist have been instituted by God.

The Christians in Rome were living in the capital city of the Roman Empire.

Paul calls on believers to “submit” to governing authorities rather than to “obey” them; and Paul’s choice of words may be important to our interpretation and application of Paul’s exhortation. To submit is to recognize one’s subordinate place in a hierarchy, to acknowledge as a general rule that certain people or institutions have “authority” over us. In addition to governing authorities (cf. also Tit. 3:1), Paul urges Christians to submit to their spiritual leaders (1 Cor. 16:16) and to “one another” (Eph. 5:21); and he calls on Christian slaves to submit to their masters (Tit. 2:9), Christian prophets to submit to other prophets (1 Cor. 14:32), and Christian wives to submit to their husbands (1 Cor. 14:34 [?]; Eph. 5:24; Col. 3:18; Tit. 2:5). It is this general posture toward government that Paul demands here of Christians. And such a posture will usually demand that we obey what the governing authorities tell us to do. But perhaps our submission to government is compatible with disobedience to government in certain exceptional circumstances. For heading the hierarchy of relations in which Christians find themselves is God; and all subordinate “submissions” must always be measured in relationship to our all-embracing submission to him.1

Exousiai hyperechousai could be translated “superior authorities,” and so some have seen here a reference to the emperor, with his dagger in v. 4, in this case Nero (cf. 1 Pet. 2.13), who not incidentally was about to institute tax reform right when Paul was writing this letter. But in view of the verb that follows it is unlikely that the emperor himself is in view. Rather, it is simply the governing officials who are over the people (cf. Wis. 6.5; Macc. 3.11) and under whom the Christians are to arrange themselves–submitting to their authority.2

Jewish literature recognizes that there are both good and bad rulers while affirming that ultimately God has sovereignty over them (Prov 8:15-16; 21:1; Jer 27:5-7; Dan 2:21; 4:17, 25, 32; Wis 6:1-11; Sir 10:4; Josephus, Wars 2.140). In John 19:11 Jesus says to Pilate: “You would have no authority over me at all, unless it was given to you from above.” Paul himself was mistreated by Roman officials (Acts 16:22-24; 2 Cor 6:5; 11:23-25, 32-33) and knew Jesus was crucified by the rulers of this age (1 Cor 2:8). Just because Paul says governing authorities are appointed or instituted by God does not mean he believes God approves of the behavior of said governing authorities. Even the evil beast of Revelation (13:5, 7, 14-15) was given power to rule by God.

The way the early church fathers explained Paul’s teaching and applied it is very instructive, for they knew from experience that individual rulers could abuse their God-given authority. So Origen asks: ‘Is an authority which persecutes the children of God, which attacks the faith and which undermines our religion, from God? We shall answer this briefly. Nobody will deny that our senses — sight, sound and thought — are given to us by God. But although we get them from God, what we do with them is up to us. . . . God’s judgment against the authorities will be just, if they have used the powers they have received according to their own ungodliness and not according to the law of God.’

Apollinaris of Laodicea, citing the case of Judas the Galilean (who ‘in the days of the census . . . led a band of people in revolt’ [Acts 5:37]), says, ‘as Judas’s decision was the cause of domestic murders and of a rebellion against the authorities which did much harm to the people, it seems to me that here the apostle is condemning any attempt to imitate him based on the illusion that it is a godly thing to disobey rulers. He has a good deal to say about this, condemning it as a mistaken way of thinking’. Chrysostom adds: ‘He does not speak about individual rulers but about the principle of authority itself. For that there should be rulers and ruled and that things should not just lapse into anarchy, with the people swaying like waves from one extreme to the other, is the work of God’s wisdom’.

Augustine points out: ‘If anyone thinks that because he is a Christian he does not have to pay taxes or tribute nor show proper respect to the authorities who take care of these things, he is in very great error. Likewise, if anyone thinks that he ought to submit to the point where he accepts that someone who is his superior in temporal affairs should have authority even over his faith, he falls into an even greater error. But the balance which the Lord himself prescribed is to be maintained: Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s but unto God the things which are God’s. For although we are called into that kingdom where there will be no power of this world, nevertheless, while we are on the way there and until we have reached that state where every principality and power will be destroyed, let us put up with our condition for the sake of human affairs, doing nothing falsely and in this very thing obeying God who commands us to do it, rather than men’.

Theodoret of Cyrrhus comments: ‘The holy apostle teaches us that both authorities and obedience depend entirely on God’s providence, but he does not say that God has specifically appointed one person or another to exercise authority. For it is not the wickedness of individual rulers which comes from God but the establishment of the ruling power itself. . . . Since God wants sinners to be punished, he is prepared to tolerate even bad rulers’.3

2 So the person who resists such authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will incur judgment

The context suggests the judgment in question is that carried out by the governing authorities (vv. 3, 5) and not the eschatological judgment of God.

3 (for rulers cause no fear for good conduct but for bad). Do you desire not to fear authority? Do good and you will receive its commendation,

Verse 3a (“for rulers cause no fear for good conduct but for bad”) shows that Paul is talking about a government that is functioning properly.

When Paul says that those who do ‘good’ may expect commendation from the governing authority, he is using the terminology of Hellenistic civic life. Winter argues that ‘there is a considerable body of evidence from inscriptions which shows that Paul’s assurance, and also that of the parallel statement in 1 Pet. 2.15, was fully justified. This epigraphic evidence clearly demonstrates along with literary evidence that not only did rulers praise and honor those who undertook good works which benefited the city, but at the same time they promised likewise to publicly honor others who would undertake similar benefactions in the future’. To do ‘good’ was understood to mean doing things that were useful for society, things of worth and social significance. Jewett stresses, ‘the fact that Romans was drafted during a period of exemplary Roman administration led by Seneca and Burrus augments the likelihood that Paul’s formulation would have resonated positively in Rome. However, before and after that period, Paul’s unqualified formulation that officials punish the bad and praise the good seems far from accurate. . . . Paul’s wording clearly implies that within the Roman churches “there must have been Christians of very considerable means” who could play the role of public benefactors and gain such recognition’.4

4 for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be in fear, for it does not bear the sword in vain. It is God’s servant to administer retribution on the wrongdoer.

People can serve God’s purposes unconsciously so even a non-Christian ruler can be called a servant of God. The “sword” is frequently connected with a violent death in the NT (Acts 12:2; 16:27; Rom 8:35; Heb 11:34, 37) so the phrase “bear the sword” probably means having the power to inflict capital punishment. When the governing authorities administer punishment on wrongdoers they are acting as God’s agent. While individual believers are not to seek vengeance (12:17-21) it does not follow that the government cannot punish law breakers.

5 Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of the wrath of the authorities but also because of your conscience.

Verse 5a reiterates verse 1a. “Believers should obey the state because they know in their conscience that God has established the state as mediators of his rule.”5

Christians know what Paul has just taught: that secular rulers are appointed by God (v. 1b) and that they function therefore as his servants (v. 4). The “necessity” for Christians to submit to government is therefore no mere practical expedient, a means of avoiding punishment; it arises ultimately from insight into God’s providential ordering of human history. Such submission is part of that “good, well-pleasing, and perfect” will of God discovered by the renewed mind (cf. also 1 Pet. 2:13, where the believer is to submit to “every human institution” “because of the Lord”). “Not being conformed to this world” does not require Christians to renounce every institution now in place in society. For some of them–such as government and marriage–reflect God’s providential ordering of the world for our good and his glory.6

6 For this reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants devoted to governing.

The astonishing element here is that Paul ascribes to civil officials a divine service (not in a cultic sense) in collecting taxes! The phrase εἰς αὐτὸ τοῦτο προσκαρτεροῦντες (eis auto touto proskarterountes, adhering to this very thing) could refer to the paying of taxes, though it more likely refers to their serving God in their governmental function.7

It may also be the case that the onerous taxes imposed by Rome explain in part the insertion of this text. Suetonius (Lives [Nero] 6.10 § 1) records that taxes were exorbitantly high, and Tacitus (Annals 13.50-51) comments that in A.D. 57 or 58 complaints surfaced over the extortionary practices of some tax collectors. Nero considered repealing indirect taxes, but the senators dissuaded him from such a course, contending that the people would want direct taxes rescinded as well. Even though Nero’s decision was probably delivered after Romans was written, we can be confident that unhappiness over taxes had been brewing some time before Nero’s suggestion. Paul wanted to be certain that the Christian community in Rome was not responsible for any unrest, for they had already been ejected from Rome once for the tumult during the reign of Claudius.8

It has been suggested that Paul advocates civil obedience precisely because his gospel contained an implicit polemic against imperial power and this could lead some in his audience to withhold taxes.9

7 Pay everyone what is owed: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.

The “everyone” in question are Roman officials who collect taxes and revenue and to whom respect and honor is due. This command may be influenced by the teaching of Jesus (Matt 22:15-22 // Mark 12:13-17 // Luke 20:20-26; cf. 1 Pet 2:13-17).

The terms ‘taxes’ and ‘revenue’ represent tangible obligations to be met by citizens, and denote direct taxes and indirect taxes respectively. Coleman describes ‘taxes’ as the direct poll tax that carried overtones of subjugation imposed upon all imperial subjects, except those granted exemption (e.g., citizens of Rome and Italy). ‘Revenue’ he describes as an indirect tax levied on goods and services, such as sales of land, houses, oil, and grass.10

That Paul distinguishes between direct and indirect taxes is probably an indication that he had heard about the tensions over taxes in Rome. Nero considered abolishing all indirect taxes but upon reflection declined to do so.11


Since this passage is sometimes used to justify obeying any government some additional comments may be helpful. First, Paul is not speaking ironically in order to subvert the need to submit to the government.

Carter’s view that Paul is speaking ironically, and even subverting the need for submission, is doubtful for two reasons: (i) Jesus’ own response to those who asked whether it was right to pay taxes to Caesar (‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s’ [Mark 12:17 par. Matt 22:21; Luke 20:25]) would probably have been known to Paul and influenced him; (ii) it is consistent with the straightforward advice given in Titus 3:1: ‘Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good’.12

Douglas Moo states:

It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the history of the interpretation of Rom. 13:1-7 is the history of attempts to avoid what seems to be its plain meaning. At first glance, and taken on its own, this passage seems to require that Christians always, in whatever situation, obey whatever their governmental leaders tell them to do. Almost all Christians recoil from this conclusion. Our own sad experience of situations like the Holocaust during World War II suggests that genuine Christian devotion to God must sometimes require disobedience of the government. Moreover, this sense finds support within the NT itself. The classic text is Acts 5:29, in which Peter and John respond to the Jewish leaders’ order to stop teaching in Jesus’ name: “We must obey God rather than men” (see also Acts 4:18-20). Equally important is the book of Revelation, in which keeping the commandments of God in the face of governmental pressure to the contrary is the central demand placed on loyal believers.

Clearly, a willingness to resist the demands of secular rulers, when those conflict with the demand of the God we serve, is part of that “transformation” of life which Paul speaks about in these chapters. But how, then, can Paul apparently speak so absolutely about our need to “be submissive to the authorities”? Theologians and exegetes who have wrestled with this question have come up with several answers, which we will now survey briefly (moving from the least to the most likely).

(1) Paul does not demand such submission at all. The text is a late addition to Romans, put in when the original radical demands of the gospel had been lost sight of and Christians were seeking accommodation with the world. This desperate expedient has no textual basis.

(2) Paul is naive about the evil that governments might do or demand that we do. The apostle’s experience with governmental authorities, as Acts makes clear, had been rather positive: on several occasions, secular rulers acknowledged Paul’s right to preach the gospel. Moreover, Paul was writing Romans during the early years of Nero’s reign, a period of Roman stability and good government (quite in contrast to Nero’s later bizarre and anti-Christian behavior). But Paul knew the history of the often harsh treatment meted out to Israel by pagan nations, recorded both in the OT and in intertestamental Jewish literature. And he certainly knew that it was governmental leaders who put to death Jesus the Messiah, his Lord. Moreover, many of the Christians to whom he writes in Rome had recently been forced by the Roman emperor to leave their homes and businesses and live in exile. Surely Paul was not so naive as to ignore these blunt reminders of government’s capacity to do evil.

(3) Paul was demanding submission to the government only for the short interval before the kingdom would be established in power. This view assumes the “consistent,” or konsequente, view of early Christian eschatology and ethics made famous by A. Schweitzer. Such an interpretation does not do justice to the NT and must read into Rom. 13:1-7 an eschatological focus that is simply not there.

(4) Paul demands submission to “authorities,” interpreted as both secular rulers and the spiritual powers that stand behind them, only as long as those authorities manifest their own submission to Christ. We have already argued that this interpretation is linguistically impossible (see the notes on v. 1).

(5) Paul is demanding submission to secular rulers only of the Roman Christians and only in the immediate situation they are facing. Finding in the passage a universally applicable norm for the Christian’s attitude toward government is simply an overinterpretation that fails to take into account the specific local nature of the text. There is, of course, some truth in this point; and vv. 6-7 are thought by many to suggest that Paul is especially concerned to address an immediate problem in the Roman community (see the introduction to this section). But even if this is the case (and it is not clear either way), vv. 1-2 are hard to get around. Paul here goes out of his way to emphasize the universal scope of his demand: “every soul” is to submit; there is “no authority” except by appointment of God. The text does not clearly teach the divine ordination of government in general; for Paul speaks throughout concretely of governmental authorities and not about the concept or the institution of government. But, in keeping with the OT and Jewish tradition (see the notes on v. 1), he does make clear that God stands behind every governmental authority whom the Christian encounters. Application to situations beyond those in Rome in Paul’s day is entirely valid.

(6) Paul demands submission to government only as long as the government functions as Paul says it should function in vv. 3-4. The government that rewards good and punishes evil deserves Christian obedience; but the government that begins doing the reverse forfeits its divine prerogative, and Christians are free to disobey it. To be sure, Paul does not explicitly make our submission conditional on the way a government acts: vv. 3-4 are simply descriptive. But we must ask why Paul can describe government in such an unrelieved positive light when he knew very well that many governments do not, in fact, behave in this manner. And the answer may be that Paul is describing government as it should be. Perhaps, then, we are justified in thinking that Paul would require Christians to submit to government when it behaves in the way God intended it to behave. Thus, when a government arrogates to itself divine powers (as in the Revelation), Christians are no longer bound to it.

(7) Paul demands a “submission” to government: not strict and universal obedience. “Submission,” as we pointed out in the exegesis of v. 1, denotes a recognition of the place that God has given government in the ordering of the world. The Christian submits to government by acknowledging this divinely ordained status of government and its consequent right to demand the believer’s allegiance. In most cases, then, Christian submission to government will involve obeying what government tells the Christian to do. But government does not have absolute rights over the believer, for government, like every human institution, is subordinate to God himself. The ultimate claim of God, who stands at the peak of the hierarchy of relationships in which the Christian is placed, is always assumed. This means, then, that Christians may continue to “submit” to a particular government (acknowledging their subordination to it generally) even as they, in obedience to a “higher” authority, refuse to do, in a given instance, what that government requires. In a similar way, the Christian wife, called on to “submit” to her husband, may well have to disobey a particular request of her husband if it conflicts with her allegiance to God.

Balance is needed. On the one hand, we must not obscure the teaching of Rom. 13:1-7 in a flood of qualifications. Paul makes clear that government is ordained by God–indeed, that every particular governmental authority is ordained by God–and that the Christian must recognize and respond to this fact with an attitude of “submission.” Government is more than a nuisance to be put up with; it is an institution established by God to accomplish some of his purposes on earth (cf. vv. 3-4). On the other hand, we must not read Rom. 13:1-7 out of its broad NT context and put government in a position relative to the Christian that only God can hold. Christians should give thanks for government as an institution of God; we should pray regularly for our leaders (cf. 1 Tim. 2:1-2); and we should be prepared to follow the orders of our government. But we should also refuse to give to government any absolute rights and should evaluate all its demands in the light of the gospel.13

Charles D. Myers Jr. writes:

The Apostle Paul’s admonition to “be subject to the governing authorities” (13:1a) on the grounds that “those authorities that exist have been instituted by God” (13:1c) has caused much needless suffering and much misery even in the 20th century. This passage seems to lend support to any existing government, regardless of how tyrannical or how corrupt, and any governmental policy, however repressive or unjust. This passage has been invoked by Christians to put down revolt, support war, and justify genocide. In fact, many Christians in Hitler’s Germany appealed to this text as the decisive biblical warrant for obedience to the Nazi regime. And it has been regret over the Church’s alignment with the Nazi regime that has forced a reconsideration of these verses, particularly by German biblical scholars.

Again, a careful reading of the text along with an awareness of the historical context is essential for understanding this problem passage. It must be noted that Paul does not say “obey” or “disobey” governing authorities. He instead speaks of “being subject” (13:1, 5), which can include disobedience.

In Rom 13:1-2, Paul states that the authority of the governing authorities has been granted them by God. Here Paul is indebted to Hellenistic Judaism, which understood that earthly rulers had no authority except what God had given them (see Prov 8:15-16; 24:21; 1 Pet 2:17). But authority was not a license to do whatever one wanted. Tradition also held that earthly rulers were accountable to God for their own actions and were liable to God’s judgment (see, for example, Wis 6:1-11).

In Rom 13:3-4, Paul argues that earthly rulers function as servants of God to employ the authority granted them for the common good. According to Paul governing authorities are “God’s servants” and not divine representatives. Their authority is recognized, for it is given by God, and their rightful task is to serve. The proper function of governing authorities is to assure the welfare of society by punishing those who do wrong and by supporting those who work for what is good.

In Rom 13:5, Paul advances a third point by repeating the opening admonition to “be subject” not only for fear of punishment but also “for the sake of conscience.” Up to this point Paul has argued for being subject to governing authorities, because they are God’s servants for the maintenance of law and order. Now he says one must be subject “for the sake of conscience.” This refers to the capacity to reflect critically upon what is appropriate given the realities of existence. Therefore, Paul argues that if one thinks carefully and reasonably about it, subjection to the authorities will commend itself as a wise and prudent course. This passage sums up the argument to this point, but the conclusion and real point of the paragraph comes in 13:6-7.

In Rom 13:6-7, Paul states exactly how one should comply with the demands of the governing authorities: by paying taxes. Everything in 13:1-5 has been leading up to the topic of “taxes” in 13:6-7. But the way that the admonition is worded suggests that Paul has a specific issue in mind.

Rom 13:7 is an admonition, which uses two different words (phoros = “taxes” in the NRSV, and telos = “revenue” in the NRSV) to refer to taxes due, in contrast to 13:6, which is a statement that mentions only “taxes” (phoros). Moreover, the admonition in 13:7 stresses the need to render “to all what is due them” (NRSV).

What Paul apparently refers to in v 6 is direct taxes, which were collected by government officials. The reference to “revenue” in 13:7 is probably a reference to indirect taxes (such as harbor fees, import and export duties), which were collected by Roman citizens known for their exploitation the public. The Roman historian Tacitus (Ann. 13.50) says that public displeasure with the corrupt practices of these citizen collectors of “revenues” reached a climax in A.D. 58. As a result of the widespread discontent, Nero almost abolished these taxes, but instead he simply reformed the system.

Paul’s letter to Rome was written in ca. A.D. 55-57, while public pressure was building against abuses of revenue collectors. If the Roman church included some well-to-do people, then these would be ones most affected by revenue abuses. If this is true, then Paul is urging Roman believers to continue paying the direct tax (13:6) and also the controversial indirect tax (13:7). Paul urges the paying of whatever taxes are levied. This will prevent punishment for tax evasion, which is a reasonable thing to do as a sign of respect for law and order.

Rom 13:1-7, therefore, was originally directed to a specific situation in Rome during the mid-50s. When these words were composed, several years before Paul’s own death at the hands of the Romans and before the Neronian persecutions of the 60s, Paul must have been fairly confident that the Roman government would be just. Nevertheless, Paul’s thought about the governing authorities in these verses is not original; he was indebted to the Hellenistic Jewish tradition that he inherited. But Paul uses that tradition to address a specific situation in Rome, because Paul did not believe that Roman Christians should become embroiled in the tax issue. For that reason, the point of the discussion is the concluding admonition: “Pay to all what is due them” (13:7).14

Finally, Thomas R. Schreiner says:

This text is misunderstood if it is taken out of context and used as an absolute word so that Christians uncritically comply with the state no matter what is being demanded. What we have here is a general exhortation that delineates what is usually the case: people should normally obey ruling authorities. The text is not intended as a full-blown treatise on the relationship of believers to the state. It is a general exhortation setting forth the typical obligations one has to civil authorities. Indeed, Paul envisions a situation in which the governing authority carries out its task by punishing evildoers and rewarding those who do what is good. I am not persuaded that one can account for this passage by appealing to Paul’s good relationship with civil authorities or the more genial part of Nero’s reign. Paul was keenly aware that the ruling authorities had put Jesus to death, and as a student of the OT and Jewish tradition he was well schooled in the evil that governments had inflicted on the people of God. It was simply not his intention to detail here the full relationship of believers to the government. Stein says rightly, “Governments, even oppressive governments, by their very nature seek to prevent the evils of indiscriminate murder, riot, thievery, as well as general instability and chaos, and good acts do at times meet with its approval and praise.” Paul would not disagree with the call to obey God rather than rulers when they attempted to squelch the preaching of the gospel (Acts 5:29; cf. Mart. Pol. 10.1-2, where rulers are respected but Polycarp will not render worship to the genius of Caesar). Nor would he dispute the claim that the state can function as an evil beast (Rev. 13), since John’s teaching stems from Dan. 7, and Paul himself expects an evil ruler to arise (2 Thess. 2:1-12). The intention in Romans is to sketch in the normal and usual relationship between believers and ruling power (cf. Titus 3:1; 1 Pet. 2:13-17). Christians should submit to such authority and carry out its statutes, unless the state commands believers to do that which is contrary to the will of God.15


Kruse, Colin G. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.

Metzger, Bruce M., ed. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Second Edition. Hendrickson Pub, 2005.

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Myers Jr., Charles D. “Epistle to the Romans.” Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York: Doubleday, 1992. 5.828.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Kindle Edition. Baker Academic, 1998.

Witherington III, Ben, and Darlene Hyatt. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004.

  1. Moo 1996, 797 
  2. Witherington III 2004, 312-313 
  3. Kruse 2014, 494-495 
  4. Kruse 2014, 496 
  5. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 13193-13194 
  6. Moo 1996, 803 
  7. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 13293-13296 
  8. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 13163-13170 
  9. Kruse 2014, 498 
  10. Kruse 2014, 499 
  11. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 13307-13309 
  12. Kruse 2014, 492 
  13. Moo 1996, 806-810 
  14. Myers Jr. 1992, 5.828 
  15. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 13316-13332 

Commentary on Romans 12:9-21

Notes (NET Translation)

9 Love must be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil, cling to what is good.

It is noteworthy that these verses comprise a series of clauses employing only participles (rather than finite verbs). These participles are generally regarded as equivalent to imperatives (so, e.g., NIV, NRSV), a usage that is thought to reflect a Semitic origin. It is possible to construe the whole passage as descriptive rather than prescriptive — as a statement about love followed by examples of how this love expresses itself. The passage would then read: ‘love is genuine, abhorring the evil, clinging to the good, devoted to one another with brotherly love, outdoing one another showing honor, not lacking in zeal, being fervent in spirit, serving the Lord, rejoicing in hope, being patient in affliction, persevering in prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality’.1

Love without hypocrisy (anypokritos) means genuine, sincere love (2 Cor 6:6; 1 Pet 1:22) as opposed to merely being externally kind or nice.

The early Christians chose a relatively rare term to express the distinctive nature of the love that was to be the foundation of all their relationships: agapē. This is the term Paul uses here, the definite article (in the Greek) signifying that he is speaking about a well-known virtue. In fact, so basic does Paul consider love that he does not even exhort us here to love but to make sure that the love he presumes we already have is “genuine.” In urging that our love be genuine, Paul is warning about making our love a mere pretense, an outward display or emotion that does not conform to the nature of the God who is love and who has loved us.2

The terms “abhor” and “cling” are very strong terms.

10 Be devoted to one another with mutual love, showing eagerness in honoring one another.

The first command in verse 10 brings to the forefront the family affection that should characterize the people of God. The word ϕιλόστοργοι (philostorgoi, loving dearly) denotes warm, familial love, as does the term ϕιλαδελϕίᾳ (philadelphia, brotherly and sisterly love). Paul conceives of the church as a family that is even closer than one’s biological family, for all are united to Christ as brothers and sisters (cf. 1 Tim. 5:1-2). Thus warm affection should course among the members of the body.3

The general meaning of the second exhortation in this verse is clear enough: Christians are to be anxious to recognize and give credit to other believers. But its exact meaning is debated. The verb Paul uses here means “go before,” often with the additional nuance that one goes before to show the way to someone else. Taking the verb in this basic sense, many early translations and commentators as well as more recent ones think Paul means something like “surpassing one another in showing honor.” Others, however, suggest that the verb might here have an unusual sense, “consider better,” and so translate “in honor preferring one another.” Each interpretation has its weaknesses; I, however, prefer the former since the second assumes an otherwise unattested meaning for the verb. Paul is then calling on Christians to outdo each other in bestowing honor on one another; for example, to recognize and praise one another’s accomplishments and to defer to one another.4

In an honor and shame culture, honoring oneself or establishing one’s own and one’s family’s or tribe’s honor was a paramount concern. One honored others, but Paul is talking about a sort of mutual honoring of one another that pays no attention to hierarchical pecking orders or social status. Paul, in fact, is deconstructing or redirecting some of the major values of the culture. A good way of rendering the command here is “go first and lead the way in showing honor to one another.”5

11 Do not lag in zeal, be enthusiastic in spirit, serve the Lord.

The first positive exhortation is: but keep your spiritual fervor (lit. ‘be on the boil in spirit’). A similar expression is found is in Acts 18:25, in which Apollos is described as one who ‘spoke with great fervor’, indicating that the alternative rendition, ‘Be aglow with the [Holy] Spirit’, is unlikely. Some see the mention of ‘the spirit’ here as a reference, not to the human spirit, but the Holy Spirit. In this case Paul’s exhortation would be ‘to allow the Holy Spirit to “set us on fire”; to open ourselves to the Spirit as he seeks to excite us about the “rational worship” to which the Lord has called us’. However, as the other exhortations in the series relate to the attitude of believers as they serve the Lord, it is probably best to stay with the view that Paul is speaking about the need for believers to maintain fervor in their own spirits.6

Zeal and enthusiasm can carry people away in different directions. Paul reminds the reader that serving the Lord is to be the goal of zeal and enthusiasm.

12 Rejoice in hope, endure in suffering, persist in prayer.

The word translated ‘be patient’ means to maintain one’s belief or course of action in the face of opposition, that is, to stand one’s ground, to hold out, or to endure.7

One way to endure in suffering is to persist in prayer.

13 Contribute to the needs of the saints, pursue hospitality.

Contributing to the needs of the saints means financial and material support for those in need (Acts 2:44; 4:32; Rom 15:26-27; 2 Cor 8:4; 9:13; Gal 6:6; Phil 1:5; 4:15; 1 Tim 6:18; Heb 13:16).

The exhortation to hospitality is common in early Christian literature, and it is interesting that much of such exhortation seems to be directed to the church in Rome (cf. Heb. 13.2; 1 Clement 1.2; 10.7; 11.1; 12.1; Hermas, Mandate 8.10), perhaps because it was particularly fragmented.8

Hospitality may be defined as ‘the process by means of which an outsider’s status is changed from stranger to guest’. It is not something a person provides for family or friends but for strangers. Strangers need hospitality, for otherwise they will be treated as non-human because they are potentially a threat to the community. Strangers had no standing in law or custom, and therefore needed a patron in the community they were visiting. There was no universal brotherhood in the ancient Mediterranean world.

Certain ‘rules’ of hospitality had to be observed by guests and hosts. Guests must not (i) insult their host or show any kind of hostility or rivalry; (ii) usurp the role of their host in any way, for example, making themselves at home when not invited to do so, ordering the dependents of the host about, and making demands of their host; (iii) refuse what is offered, especially food. Hosts, for their part, must not (i) insult their guests or make any show of hostility or rivalry; (ii) neglect to protect their guests’ honor; (iii) fail to show concern for the needs of their guests.

Hospitality was not reciprocated between individuals (because once people became guests they were no longer strangers), but it was reciprocated between communities. And it was to the strangers’ own community that they were obliged to sing the praises of their hosts if they had been treated well (cf. 3 John 5-8) and to which they would report adversely if they had not been welcomed properly (cf. 3 John 9-10). Communities would repay hospitality to strangers from another community if that community had treated their own people well.

Letters of recommendation were important in the matter of hospitality. Their function was ‘to help divest the stranger of his strangeness, to make him at least only a partial stranger, if not an immediate guest’. To refuse to accept those recommended was to dishonor the one who recommended them, and in the Mediterranean culture of the first century the one dishonored had to seek satisfaction or bear the shame heaped upon him by the refusal of his commendation.9

14 Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse.

Verse 14 is a paraphrase of Matt 5:44/Luke 6:27-28 (cf. 1 Cor 4:12; 1 Pet 3:9).

Matt 5:44: But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you

Luke 6:27-28: But I say to you who are listening: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.

Paul seems to combine these two forms of Jesus’ saying from the “Sermon on the Mount/Plain,” suggesting perhaps that he quotes here a pre-Synoptic form of one of Jesus’ best-known and most startling kingdom demands. For Jesus’ command that his followers respond to persecution and hatred with love and blessing was unprecedented in both the Greek and Jewish worlds. Paul’s dependence on Jesus’ teaching at this point is bolstered by the fact that he appears to allude in this same paragraph to other portions of Jesus’ teaching on love of the enemy from this same “sermon” (cf. vv. 17a and 21). Paul does not, of course, identify the teaching as coming from Jesus. But this may indicate not that he did not know its source, but that the source was so well known as to require no explicit mention.10

There is little evidence for non-retaliation as a code early Jews lived by, outside the community of Jesus. What few such exhortations there are refer to vengeance not being exercised against fellow Jews. Jesus’ exhortation goes further than that. As Dunn says, Paul treats Jesus’ words as something familiar and as a living tradition, so there is no need to cite it verbatim or identify the source.11

In the Scriptures, “blessing” is typically associated with God; he “possesses and dispenses all blessings.” To “bless” one’s persecutors, therefore, is to call on God to bestow his favor upon them. Its opposite is, of course, cursing–asking God to bring disaster and/or spiritual ruin on a person. By prohibiting cursing as well as enjoining blessing, Paul stresses the sincerity and single-mindedness of the loving attitude we are to have toward our persecutors.12

15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.

These two actions are concrete indications of genuine love. Cf. 1 Cor 12:25-26; Sir 7:34.

16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty but associate with the lowly. Do not be conceited.

Living in harmony involves living with one mind (Acts 4:32; Phil 2:2-4). “The sense of these instructions is not that believers should hold exactly the same opinions but that they should think and act in ways that promote harmony and agreement.”13

Paul wants a wholehearted and self-effacing kind of service that embraces the lowly and takes on even menial tasks. Paul is speaking against both Roman patrician notions about menial labor being beneath one’s dignity and the stratifying tendencies of the culture. He is particularly speaking to Gentiles for whom humility and treating all the same were not familiar and widespread virtues.14

The last injunction in verse 16 is probably related to the previous one. Those who do not associate with the humble are “wise in their own estimation.” They refuse to associate with others because they deem themselves to be superior in wisdom. The redeemed community should be marked by humble concern for one another and all should be treated as valued persons made in the image of God and redeemed by him.15

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil; consider what is good before all people.

Verse 17a echoes Jesus’s words in Matt 5:38-45/Luke 6:27-35 (cf. Ex 23:4-5; Prov 17:13; 20:22; Sir 28:1; TGad 6:1-3, 7; TJos 18:2; TBen 4:2-3; Jos. As. 28:5; 1 Thess 5:15; 1 Pet 3:9). Verse 17b echoes Prov 3:4 (cf. Matt 5:16; 2 Cor 8:21; 1 Pet 2:12, 15; 3:16). Thomas Schreiner connects v. 17b to v. 17a and takes it to be saying that even unbelievers recognize that refraining from revenge is good. If v. 17b stands on its own we should understand that, while our behavior is not to be determined by public opinion, we should be careful not to unnecessarily offend others.

18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all people.

This may allude to Matt 5:9 or Mark 9:50. Paul realizes that conflict may still come to the believer but he does not want the believer to be responsible for the conflict.

One cannot violate the truth of the gospel and devotion to Christ in order to make peace with those who resist the truth. Further, one may desire to be at peace with others, but they do not extend the same hand of charity back. In this instance peace is unattainable, not because we have failed to strive for peace but because the other person refuses to reconcile.16

19 Do not avenge yourselves, dear friends, but give place to God’s wrath, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord.

Verse 19 echoes Lev 19:18 and Matt 5:39 (cf. 2 Thess 1:3-10).

The prohibition of vengeance is found in both the OT and Judaism, but it tends to be confined to relations with co-religionists. Paul’s prohibition of vengeance even upon enemies is an extension of the idea that reflects Jesus’ revolutionary ethic.17

It is hard to imagine in what circumstances the politically powerless Christian minority in Rome might be tempted to take revenge against their persecutors, but as Dunn points out, ‘the growing and increasingly desperate activity of the Zealots in Palestine was warning enough of how an oppressed people or persecuted minority might turn to acts of revenge, and the Christian congregations would not need reminding of how vulnerable they were to hostile pressures’.18

The quotation is based on Deut 32:35 LXX.

20 Rather, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in doing this you will be heaping burning coals on his head.

Verse 20 quotes Prov 25:21-22 and Matt 5:43-44; Luke 6:27, 35. Food and drink stand for doing good of every kind to our enemies.

The meaning of “heaping burning coals on his head” is disputed. One unfruitful line of interpretation connects the phrase to an ancient Egyptian reconciliation ritual:

Isaak describes the ritual as follows: ‘Apparently, by giving coals of fire to the one you have wronged, you show that you are sorry for hurting them (fire is a valuable commodity for desert people where wood for cooking and heating is not in abundance). Paul takes this ancient figure (Prov 25:21-22) and modifies it for his purpose here — such life-giving demonstrations of restored relationships are regularly used to characterize the hope the Christian community brings to all interactions. . . . “Heaping burning coals on the head” is not manipulative. It is a significant life-giving act to heap fire-starting coals into the neighbor’s — and even enemy’s — pot so that they may carry them on their heads back to their campsites to use and enjoy. In this way, the community is not “overcome with evil, but overcomes evil with good”‘. There are two problems with this interpretation. First, it is questionable that Paul would have been familiar with Egyptian reconciliation rituals, and second, in Paul’s exhortation it is the one who is wronged who does the act of kindness, not the one who did the wrong as in the Egyptian ritual.19

Several early church fathers and perhaps the majority of recent commentators take the phrase “heaping burning coals on his head” to refer to the burning pangs of shame that acts of kindness may cause. Acts of kindness may lead the enemy to become ashamed and repent.

This second interpretation is not entirely convincing because “burning coals” is a negative metaphor in the OT often associated with God’s judgment (2 Sam 22:9, 13 = Ps 18:8, 12; Job 41:20-21 [41:12-13 LXX]; Ps 140:10; Prov 6:27-29; Isa 47:14; Ezek 24:11; Sir 8:10; 11:32). We should also consider 2 Esdras (4 Ezra) 16:53: “Sinners must not say that they have not sinned; for God will burn coals of fire on the head of everyone who says, ‘I have not sinned before God and his glory'” (NRSV). In light of these passages, Paul seems to be telling the reader to leave the punishment to God.

Most scholars today reject this view because how can one do good to others if one’s ultimate motivation is that God will heap coals of fire on them in the eschaton? The difficulties of this interpretation are exaggerated by most scholars, for the reference to God’s judgment here parallels the promise of God’s vengeance in verse 19. Indeed, that verses 19-20 are parallel strengthens the case for “coals of fire” being a reference to God’s judgment. Just as readers are to refrain from revenge because God will judge (v. 19), so too they are to do good because he will punish their enemies (v. 20). Dunn says that ἀλλά indicates that verse 20 stands in contrast to verse 19, so that God’s judgment cannot be in view in both cases. But he misses the point of the contrast. The contrast between the two verses is found in the actions of believers, not in the judgment of God. In verse 19 believers are commanded not to take vengeance, but in verse 20 they are now commanded to do good. But is it not psychologically improbable that the promise of God’s judgment would free believers to do good to their opponents? Not any more improbable than the argument found in verse 19, where God’s future vengeance frees believers from taking revenge on their enemies. In both cases, believers are liberated from taking justice into their own hands and are free to do good because they know that God will right all wrongs in the end. Those who continue to resist repentance must experience God’s wrath, for otherwise he cannot remain faithful to his name. Similarly, Jesus could refrain from cursing his adversaries because he entrusted himself to God, “who judges righteously” (1 Pet. 2:23). The sure realization that God will vindicate us frees us to love others and to do good to them, and even to pray that God will bless them (Rom. 12:14) and bring them to repentance. Believers will not chafe at any oppressor being brought to repentance, because they trust the goodness and justice of God, knowing that he does all things well and that they themselves were deserving of wrath (1:18-3:20).20

21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Evil can overcome us when we allow the pressure put on us by a hostile world to force us into attitudes and actions that are out of keeping with the transformed character of the new realm. Paul urges us to resist such temptation. But, more than that, sounding a note typical both of this paragraph and of the teaching of Jesus that it reflects, he urges us to take a positive step as well: to work constantly at triumphing over the evil others do to us by doing good. By responding to evil with “the good” rather than with evil, we gain a victory over that evil. Not only have we not allowed it to corrupt our own moral integrity, but we have displayed the character of Christ before a watching and skeptical world.21

[T]he ringing call to “overcome evil with good” (νίκα ἐν τῷ ἀγαθῷ τὸ κακόν, nika en tō agathō to kakon) is a restatement of 12:20a. The evil to be overcome is not the evil that lodges in the heart of believers. It is the evil of their enemies that inflicts such misery on them. Believers should not let the evil they experience at the hands of others master them, so that they fall prey to evil (v. 21a). They are called to surmount every evil by doing good, and what gives them the courage and strength to do so is the belief that God is a righteous judge who will set straight every wrong that is done.22


Kruse, Colin G. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.

Metzger, Bruce M., ed. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Second Edition. Hendrickson Pub, 2005.

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Kindle Edition. Baker Academic, 1998.

Witherington III, Ben, and Darlene Hyatt. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004.

  1. Kruse 2014, 474-475) 
  2. Moo 1996, 775 
  3. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 12892-12896 
  4. Moo 1996, 777–778 
  5. Witherington III 2004, 293 
  6. Kruse 2014, 476 
  7. Kruse 2014, 477 
  8. Witherington III 2004, 294 
  9. Kruse 2014, 478-479 
  10. Moo 1996, 781 
  11. Witherington III 2004, 295 
  12. Moo 1996, 780 
  13. Kruse 2014, 481 
  14. Witherington III 2004, 296 
  15. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 12988-12991 
  16. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 13066-13069 
  17. Moo 1996, 787 
  18. Kruse 2014, 483 
  19. Kruse 2014, 484-485 
  20. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 13108-13124 
  21. Moo 1996, 789–790 
  22. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 13124-13128 

Commentary on Romans 12:3-8

Notes (NET Translation)

3 For by the grace given to me I say to every one of you not to think more highly of yourself than you ought to think, but to think with sober discernment, as God has distributed to each of you a measure of faith.

The word “for” suggests that this passage provides concrete examples for the transformed way of life mentioned in vv. 1-2.

Paul emphasizes his apostolic authority (“For by the grace given to me I say”). He is passing on authoritative teaching, not mere personal opinion. He realizes his apostolic office is due to God’s grace, not his own accomplishments. This exhortation is for “every one” in the church without exception.

It is wrong . . . to see the material here as just generalized exhortations, with Paul hoping that some will strike the mark. He is talking about an appropriate estimate of oneself. No one should overestimate himself or herself, or esteem himself or herself higher than is necessary. This echoes what Paul has already said specifically to Gentiles in 11.25. The Greco-Roman world used much hyperbolic rhetoric about one’s status and standing and abilities, as on the honorific columns and in the imperial decrees. A sound or sober mind neither over- nor underestimates itself. It is interesting that sober-mindedness was among the virtues Aristotle stressed (Nicomachean Ethics 1117b 13). The essence of the meaning is soundness of mind, discretion, and moderation with regard to things.1

The meaning of “measure of faith” is disputed. One option is that it does not refer to saving faith, but to a kind of faith that gives one a gift (Rom 12:6; 2 Cor 10:13; Eph 4:7-13). Another option is that it refers to the grace common to all believers and from which the gifts stem. A third option is that it refers to a standard, either the gospel or Christ. The believer should judge himself in light of this standard. The following verses indicate the “measure of faith” plays out differently in the lives of different believers.

4 For just as in one body we have many members, and not all the members serve the same function, 5 so we who are many are one body in Christ, and individually we are members who belong to one another.

This counters divisions in a very similar way to the argument in 1 Corinthians 12. If one understands oneself as but one member among many in the body of Christ, then one will not have an overinflated view of oneself. And, further, if one recognizes that there is no gift or function that should be exalted over others, there need be no competition to do particular tasks, for not all persons have the same function in the body.2

Paul’s point is that while members of the church, like the parts of the human body, have different functions, they belong to one another and therefore are to serve and promote the well-being of one another. The apostle gives instructions about how this should be put into practice in relation to seven different gifts (charismata) in the next few verses.3

6 And we have different gifts according to the grace given to us. If the gift is prophecy, that individual must use it in proportion to his faith.

In Greek charismata means “gifts” and charis means “grace”. Here Paul says the gifts are given to us by God (12:3), in Eph 4:7 he says they are given by Christ, and in 1 Cor 12:7-11 he says they are given by the Spirit. Other gifts are mentioned in 1 Cor 12:8-10, 28-30; Eph 4:11. This passage is merely a representative list of gifts.

According to 1 Cor 14:29-33 prophets received revelations and then shared them with the congregation. The congregation was to judge the validity of the prophecy (1 Thess 5:19-22). What is meant by prophesying in proportion (right relationship) to one’s faith? One option is that it means prophecy should not contradict the norms of the Christian faith. A second option is that it means one should prophesy in dependence on God. The act of prophecy only comes about because of the grace of God. The prophet should not try to impress others and go beyond what God has revealed to him.

7 If it is service, he must serve; if it is teaching, he must teach; 8 if it is exhortation, he must exhort; if it is contributing, he must do so with sincerity; if it is leadership, he must do so with diligence; if it is showing mercy, he must do so with cheerfulness.

The believer is to devote himself to his gifts and not try to emulate the gifts of others out of envy. This is not to say that a teacher cannot show mercy, for example, it just means more of his attention should be on study and teaching than someone with other gifts.

Elsewhere in Paul’s letters “service” (diakonia) means giving general assistance to believers (1 Cor 16:15), the financial support provided by Gentiles to the saints in Jerusalem (Rom 15:31; 2 Cor 8:4, 19-20; 9:1, 12-13), and the building up of the body of Christ (Eph 4:11-12). Service/ministering involves organizing and providing for the material needs of the church.

Teaching involves the explanation of the OT, the life of Jesus, and apostolic teaching (the original audience did not have the NT).

The verb translated “exhort” can also mean “encourage”. Positive exhortation and encouragement are closely related so we can take a both/and approach in understanding the term. Exhortation involves stirring someone to live out the truth of the gospel.

Contributing involves giving or sharing. The noun translated “sincerity” (haploteti) can also mean “generosity” or “simplicity”. The one who shares should do so generously and straightforwardly and without any ulterior motives.

The verb meaning “to lead” can also mean “to care for/give aid”. “To lead” is the meaning Paul uses most of the time in his letters (1 Thess 5:12; 1 Tim 3:4-5, 12; 5:17; Titus 3:8, 14). One should lead with diligence/zeal (en spoude).

The Christian who shows mercy imitates the God who shows mercy. Showing mercy cheerfully makes it a ministry of grace to the recipient.

The one who shows mercy must not have a begrudging spirit that communicates to the person on the receiving end that the mercy given is a debt instead of a joy (cf. Prov. 22:8a LXX; Sir. 35:11 [35: 8 LXX]; Philo, Spec. Laws 4.13 §74; T. Job 12.1). The kind of mercy that honors God and shows love to the recipient is filled with joy and finds it a greater blessing to give than to receive (Acts 20:35).4


Kruse, Colin G. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.

Metzger, Bruce M., ed. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Second Edition. Hendrickson Pub, 2005.

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Kindle Edition. Baker Academic, 1998.

Witherington III, Ben, and Darlene Hyatt. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004.

  1. Witherington III 2004, 288 
  2. Witherington III 2004, 289 
  3. Kruse 2014, 470 
  4. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 12840-12843 

Commentary on Romans 12:1-2

Notes (NET Translation)

1 Therefore I exhort you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a sacrifice — alive, holy, and pleasing to God — which is your reasonable service.

The “therefore” indicates that 12:1-15:13 should be understood in light of chapters 1-11. Chapters 1-11 teach that both Jews and Gentiles are on equal footing before God. Paul is trying to create a united people of God, made up of both Jews and Gentiles. “The Christian faith and praxis which the Roman Christians share in common should distinguish them from others more than their differences divide them from each other.”1 Rom 12:1-15:13 addresses matters that did or could divide Roman Christians.

The reader is to respond to Paul’s exhortations “because of” the mercies of God. The mercies of God are described in the preceding chapters.

It would be incorrect to deduce that exhortations are limited to this part of Romans, for parenesis also punctuates chapters 5-8, especially chapters 6 and 8. Yet it is certainly the case that the exhortation section here is predominant and more sustained than in any earlier section of the letter. The reason for this is doubtless that the indicative of God’s grace and mercy — telling what God has done for sinful humans — must underlie the imperatives outlining one’s duty and obligation to God. Carrying out the imperatives would be an impossibility without the indicative. Indeed, those who strive to fulfill the commands in Rom. 12-15 apart from the gospel enunciated in chapters 1-11 have truncated the Pauline gospel. The indicative is the basis for the imperative, and the latter should never be separated from the former. It is also the case that those who proclaim the gospel without any parenetic element do an injustice to the Pauline gospel, for parenesis is a vital and central element of the Pauline gospel (cf. 1 Thess. 4:1-2). The mercies of God summon us to active effort, but this active effort (if it is based on the indicative of God’s grace) should never be confused with legalism. The energy of God’s grace summons human beings not to passivity but to exertion. But it is an exertion rooted in faith and energized by the power of the Holy Spirit.2

We are to present our bodies, meaning our whole selves, as living sacrifices. Animal sacrifices are no longer required/acceptable.

The sacrificial dimension of the text emerges with clarity when the presentation of the body is described as “a sacrifice, living, holy, and well pleasing to God” (θυσίαν ζῶσαν ἁγίαν εὐάρεστον τῷ θεῷ, thysian zōsan hagian euareston tō theō). Cranfield observes rightly that many English readers gain a wrong impression of the text since some English versions translate the phrase “living sacrifice, holy and well pleasing to God,” which suggests that “living sacrifice” is somehow separable from the adjectives “holy” and “well pleasing” in the Greek text. In fact, all three adjectives (“living,” “holy,” and “well pleasing”) follow θυσίαν, and thus there is no exegetical warrant for isolating the word “living.” Nor is it likely that ζῶσαν is intended to contrast the state of humans with animals since the latter were alive when sacrificed as well. Rather, the word “living” denotes the spiritual state of believers. They are now “alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:11, 13; 8:13). It is precisely those who are alive in Christ who are called to give their lives to him as a sacrifice. The terms ἁγίαν and εὐάρεστον have cultic associations as well. The former term denotes the idea that the sacrifice is dedicated to God, while the latter evokes OT notions of sacrifices that are pleasing and fragrant to God.3

Those who have presented their bodies to God as a sacrifice belong no longer to themselves but to God. The offerer no longer has the final say over his behavior. He or she is now God’s property and must behave according to God’s dictates. But God does not want a dead human sacrifice but a living and lively one. He does not want something from us; he wants us.4

This self-offering is our “reasonable” or “logical” worship (cf. 1 Pet. 2.2, 5). Here the Jerusalem Bible is helpful with its paraphrase: “worship worthy of thinking beings.” Worship, that is, reflective of what we know and recognize to be true of God and what God has done. Humans are capable of being rational and recognizing that God is worthy of worship. Paul here is again perhaps drawing on a connection with thought that would be familiar to his Roman audience. Epictetus 1.16.20-21 says: “If I were a nightingale, I should be singing as a nightingale; if a swan as a swan. But as it is I am a rational (logikos) being, therefore I must be singing hymns of praise to God.” Paul is also in some respects close here to Philo, who says “The soul . . . ought to honor God not irrationally nor ignorantly, but with knowledge and reason” (Special Laws 1.209).

But there may be more meaning. As Wright suggests, Paul may mean the worship to which our logic or arguments have been pointing. Paul’s arguments have led to doxology at the end of chs. 8 and 11. Furthermore, oun, the connective “therefore,” means that what Paul says in 12.1 is based on what he has argued previously. It is a conclusion based on the preceding arguments. So he can be saying “in light of what we have argued in chs. 1-11 about the compassion of God, I appeal to you to present yourselves to God in a form and sort of worship toward which our logic or arguments have been pointing.” This does full justice to the connection, especially between the end of ch. 11, with its theme of mercy, and what we find here.5

The word λατρείαν is another cultic term. What is remarkable is that Paul has applied the language of the cult to everyday existence. The worship described does not relate to public assemblies but to the yielding of one’s whole life to God in the concrete reality of everyday existence. Paul’s application of the OT is of immense importance here. Activity and language that focused on the cult in the OT is now extended to embrace every facet of the believer’s existence. Neusner has emphasized how the Pharisees expanded their conception of purity so that it included everyday life. Paul does much the same thing but in a very different way. The worship and sacrifices of the OT can no longer be confined to the cult. The cultic language is spiritualized to include the whole of one’s existence. In Judaism the spiritualization of sacrifices was never understood to replace literal sacrifices and was a necessary condition after A.D. 70, whereas Paul rejected literal sacrifices in principle. We must also see that the term “spiritualize” alone does not do justice to Paul’s reshaping of cultic language. He understands the OT cult as now being fulfilled because the new age is inaugurated. In other words, Paul’s understanding of the cult is fundamentally eschatological. The call to worship (λατρεία) causes the theme of the letter to resurface, for the fundamental sin is the failure to worship (λατρεύειν, latreuein; see 1:25) God. Those who worship God give their entire lives over to him so that he is honored and praised in everything they do.6

Regular meetings together of Christians for praise and mutual edification are appropriate and, indeed, commanded in Scripture. And what happens at these meetings is certainly “worship.” But such special times of corporate worship are only one aspect of the continual worship that each of us is to offer the Lord in the sacrifice of our bodies day by day.7

2 Do not be conformed to this present world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may test and approve what is the will of God — what is good and well-pleasing and perfect.

Rom 12:2 is a continuation of the sentence in 12:1 and so provides a clue as to the kind of worship the believer should perform. Stated negatively, believers are not to be conformed to or guided by the present sinful world (literally, age). Stated positively, believers are to be transformed by the renewing their mind. The present tense of the verb “renewing” suggests that this is an ongoing process.

“The renewing of your mind” is the means by which this transformation takes place. “Mind” translates a word that Paul uses especially to connote a person’s “practical reason,” or “moral consciousness.” Christians are to adjust their way of thinking about everything in accordance with the “newness” of their life in the Spirit (cf. 7:6). This “re-programming” of the mind does not take place overnight but is a lifelong process by which our way of thinking is to resemble more and more the way God wants us to think. In Rom. 1:28 Paul has pointed out that people’s rejection of God has resulted in God’s giving them over to a “worthless” mind: one that is “unqualified” (adokimos) in assessing the truth about God and the world he has made. Now, Paul asserts, the purpose of our being transformed by the renewing of the mind is that this state might be reversed; that we might be able to “approve” (dokimazō) the will of God. “Approving” the will of God means to understand and agree with what God wants of us with a view to putting it into practice. That Paul means here by “the will of God” his moral direction is clear from the way Paul describes it: this will is that which is “good,” “acceptable [to God],” and “perfect.”8

In this context Paul does not explain how the renewal of the mind takes place. However, in Ephesians 4:21-24 he urges his audience: ‘be made new in the attitude of your minds’ in accordance with ‘the truth that is in Jesus’. Linking this with what the apostle says in 2 Corinthians 3:18 and 4:3-4 about believers being transformed as the veil is lifted from their minds to see the glory of Christ in the Scriptures, we may conclude that Paul understood the renewal of the mind to take place as people encountered and embraced the teaching of Scripture. Cranfield correctly notes that what Paul says implies that the mind, ‘so far from being an unfallen element of human nature, needs to be renewed, if it is to be able to recognize and embrace the will of God’.9

Paul describes the will of God as his good, pleasing and perfect will. It is axiomatic that the will of God is both ‘good’ and ‘perfect’, but in what sense and to whom is it ‘pleasing’? Paul employs the word ‘pleasing’ regularly in his letters (12:1, 2; 14:18; 2 Cor 5:9; Eph 5:10; Phil 4:18; Col 3:20; Tit 2:9) to refer to what is pleasing to God; therefore, we conclude that he is using it in this sense here also. He is exhorting his audience, then, to be transformed by the renewing of their minds so that they may practice what is good, perfect, and pleasing to God. Paul certainly made it the aim of his life to be pleasing to God (2 Cor 5:9).10


Kruse, Colin G. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.

Metzger, Bruce M., ed. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Second Edition. Hendrickson Pub, 2005.

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Kindle Edition. Baker Academic, 1998.

Witherington III, Ben, and Darlene Hyatt. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004.

  1. Witherington III 2004, 280 
  2. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 12437-12446 
  3. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 12519-12529 
  4. Witherington III 2004, 284-285 
  5. Witherington III 2004, 285-286 
  6. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 12555-12568 
  7. Moo 1996, 754 
  8. Moo 1996, 756–757 
  9. Kruse 2014, 465 
  10. Kruse 2014, 466