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

Comments

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

Bibliography

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 
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