CLAIM: Ethicists note that submission to government is not always ethical. Sometimes, governments are evil, and it is our civic duty to disobey them. How does this harmonize with Romans 13?
RESPONSE: A number of observations can be made:
First, Paul was writing to the Romans, who were not ignorant of evil government. Ironically, Paul was executed at the hands of this particular government under Emperor Nero about a decade after he wrote this letter. Moreover, the context of this passage is the persecution of Christians (Rom. 12:9, 14, 17, 21). Therefore, this letter should be interpreted in light of an evil government—not a peaceful one (see our earlier article Persecution of Christianity from AD 33 to 325).
Second, the context of this passage is to be at peace. Paul’s ethic for dealing with evil is to “overcome evil with good” (12:21). Earlier, Paul wrote, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (Rom. 12:18). Therefore, the context of Romans 13 is how to fight evil and injustice. If Christians had tried to revolt against the Roman government, it would have resulted in destruction and heavier persecution for the burgeoning Christian movement. About a decade after Paul wrote this, the Zealot party of the Jews tried to violently kick the Romans out of Jerusalem, and it resulted in the Jewish War in AD 66. Within four years, the Romans decimated Jerusalem and the Temple killing millions. If the Christians had tried this, it would’ve resulted in similar results. Instead, the Christians reached the Romans with the gospel. Now, centuries later, the Roman Empire is dead, and Christianity is thriving. This turned out to be the proper strategy!
Third, the purpose of government is to restrain anarchy. Paul’s purpose of writing Romans 13 is to explain the purpose of government. If human government did not exist (even evil government), we would be in a state of total anarchy. Therefore, God is not approving of human government; instead, he is delegating human government for the purpose of restraining complete evil and anarchy.
Fourth, Paul’s message is actually subversive, considering the time. Ancient documents have uncovered a lot about Roman culture. At this time in history, everyone in the Roman Empire knew that Caesar was the ultimate authority. However, Paul wrote that God is actually the ultimate authority (v.1), and Caesar is simply his “minister” that he permits to rule (v.4). What a subversive message! As Christians, we are to voluntarily submit ourselves to governments (like Caesar in Rome), while we know that Jesus is the ultimate King.
Fifth, the rest of the Bible clearly teaches a prioritized ethic in regards to serving human government. In fact, we see a number of instances in Scripture which give us a principle of serving God’s command, rather than men: (see Prioritized Ethics for a fuller discussion)
(Acts 4:19-20) But Peter and John answered and said to them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; 20for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
(Acts 5:29) But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.”
(Acts 17:6-7) When they did not find them, they began dragging Jason and some brethren before the city authorities, shouting, “These men who have upset the world have come here also; 7and Jason has welcomed them, and they all act contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.”
(Ex. 1:17) But the midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt had commanded them, but let the boys live.
(Josh. 2:1-12) Rahab hid Joshua’s spies from the authorities.
Douglas Moo: “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.” Note that the beast “was given” authority by God (Rev. 13:5, 7).
We agree with Douglas Moo, who writes, “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.” Later he writes, “We should also refuse to give to government any absolute rights and should evaluate all its demands in the light of the gospel.” Moo notes that “submission” is not the same as “universal obedience.”
Sixth, Paul writes that we should submit to government for our conscience sake. Those who are unable to submit to human authority often have a difficult time submitting to God’s authority. Paul is explaining that submission to government is a way to be transformed into someone who can submit. In other words, God gives us poor human authorities to serve under for our spiritual growth. Ask yourself: Do humans learn patience and forgiveness better under a perfect authority or under an imperfect one? By serving unloving people, we learn to model Jesus’ example of sacrificial love.
Seventh, Paul writes that honor is conditional. Many commentators overlook verse 7, which states: “Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor” (Rom. 13:7). This clearly explains that Christians do not have to honor unrighteous authorities. However, we are compelled to pay taxes, because we owe the government that money. Even if our taxes are somewhat misused, we still need to submit to human government, because they spend that money on keeping our society in order, which makes us indebted to them. This fits with Jesus’ personal example of paying taxes (c.f. Mt. 22:21).
Regarding the obligation of taxes, Osborne writes, “At the time this letter was written (a.d. 57) there was growing resistance to the indirect taxes (see on v. 7). Rome’s increasing demands on its people culminated in a tax revolt in a.d. 58 (so Tacitus). Paul thus would be telling the Roman Christians that they were obligated before God to pay these taxes as a sign of their submission to the state.”
Why does Paul say that rebelling against secular leaders will “receive condemnation”? (v.2)
This could refer to receiving judgment from the secular leaders themselves, as verse 4 stipulates. Moo holds this as a legitimate possibility.
By contrast, doing good will bring “praise” from these secular leaders (v.3). The goal is to win over these leaders—not to fight against them.
What does Paul mean by “bear the sword”? (v.4) Does this necessitate the death penalty?
Not necessarily. Most commentators agree that this phrase does not refer to the “law of the sword.” Osborne writes, “Most agree that the sword does not refer to ius gladii, the “law of the sword” that gave the governors the right of execution, for that was restricted to Roman citizens serving in the military. However, the sword still represents generally the power over life and death.” Moo believes this simply refers “generally to the right of the government to punish those who violate its laws.” He holds that this could include the death penalty, but not necessarily.
 Consider the Priene Inscription—an inscription about Caesar Augustus—which dates to 9 BC. It describes him as a “savior” for the world, because of the pax romana (Roman peace). Consider how subversive Paul’s words are in light of this understanding of Caesar: “Since Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior [sôtêr], both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance [phanein] (excelled even our anticipations), surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings for the world that came by reason of him [êrxen de tôi kosmôi tôn di auton euangeliôn hê genethlios tou theou],’ which Asia resolved in Smyrna…”
 Moo, D. J. (1996). The Epistle to the Romans (p. 806). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
 Moo, D. J. (1996). The Epistle to the Romans (p. 797). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
 Moo, D. J. (1996). The Epistle to the Romans (p. 810). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
 Moo, D. J. (1996). The Epistle to the Romans (p. 809). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
 Osborne, G. R. (2004). Romans (pp. 346–347). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
 Moo, D. J. (1996). The Epistle to the Romans (p. 799). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
 Moo notes that the “praise” is parallel to the “fear” given from secular leaders—not from God. Moo, D. J. (1996). The Epistle to the Romans (p. 800). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
 See footnote. Osborne, G. R. (2004). Romans (p. 345). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
 Moo, D. J. (1996). The Epistle to the Romans (p. 802). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.