(Rom. 13:1-7) Are we supposed to submit to evil governments?

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, which is the most extensive passage on government in the New Testament?

RESPONSE: A number of observations can be made:

First, Paul was writing to the Romans, who were not ignorant of evil government. The context of Romans 13 is the persecution of Christians (Rom. 12:9, 14, 17, 21). Moreover, about a decade after he wrote this chapter, Paul was executed at the hands of this particular government under Emperor Nero (~AD 67). 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 avoid persecution through the means of Christian peace and love. 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). Peaceful submission was the way to subvert evil—not violence. If Christians had tried to revolt against Rome, it would have resulted in destruction and heavier persecution for the burgeoning Christian movement. About a decade after Paul wrote this, the Zealot party in Israel attempted a violent coup to oust the Romans from Jerusalem. This resulted in the Jewish War in AD 66. Within four years, the Romans decimated Jerusalem and the Temple. Josephus recorded that 1.1 million Jews were killed, 200,000 were taken captive,[1] and the Jewish children in the Roman siege of Jerusalem were canabalized![2] If the Christians had tried a violent revolt, it would’ve likely 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, we would be in a state of total anarchy. Even bad government is better than no government. Anarchy results in abject terror for people. 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 period. 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—even considered to be divine in some sense.[3] However, Paul wrote that God is actually the ultimate authority (v.1), and Caesar is simply God’s “minister” whom God permits to rule (v.4). What a subversive message! As Christians, we are to voluntarily submit ourselves to human government, while we know that Jesus is the ultimate King.

Fifth, the rest of the Bible teaches cases where it is right to disobey human government. Consider just a few below (see Prioritized Ethics for a fuller discussion):

(Acts 4:19-20) Peter and John answered [the authorities] 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; 20 for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.”

(Acts 5:29) 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) 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.

(Revelation) In the book of Revelation, we see the worst government imaginable—one which terrorizes and slaughters Christians. And yet, we read that the lead of this government is “the beast” who “was given” authority by God (Rev. 13:5, 7). Douglas Moo comments, “[In the book of Revelation] keeping the commandments of God in the face of governmental pressure to the contrary is the central demand placed on loyal believers.”[4]

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.”[5] 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.”[6] Moo rightly notes that “submission” is not the same as “universal obedience.”[7]

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 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.

Is this passage a later interpolation?

A very few scholars have held this position.[8] In our estimation, this is untenable. First, there is absolutely no textual support for this claim. Second, this passage fits in the context of suffering under persecution (Rom. 12:9, 14, 17, 21). Third, Roman persecution only got worse after Paul wrote this letter in AD 56-57. Therefore, why would a later Christian writer be motivated to add an interpolation to this effect?

An Exegesis of Romans 13:1-7

The context for this passage on the Christian’s relationship to government is persecution, and how to overcome it with love (Rom. 12:14, 17-21). This subject would be very difficult for a Jewish reader, because they were accustomed to a theocracy—not submission to an autocracy. Therefore, Paul must have needed to speak about this.

Historically, Christianity had already become an issue at the highest levels of government in Rome at this time. Just a few years before Paul wrote this letter, the Roman Emperor Claudius had expelled the Jewish population for rioting in Rome over “Chrestus” in AD 49, which most historians believe to be a misspelling of “Christus” (i.e. Christ). Suetonius wrote, “Because the Jews at Rome caused continuous disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he [Emperor Claudius] expelled them from the city” (Suetonius, Claudius, 25:4). For an explanation of this citation from Suetonius, see “Did Jesus Exist?” In the NT, we see that the authorities were frightened by the Christian movement, because in their minds, Christians had “caused trouble all over the world” (Acts 17:6 NLT). With this historical background in mind, consider Paul’s instructions regarding submission to government.

(13:1) “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities.” The word “subjection” (hypotasso) is used again in verse 5. Notice that Paul does not use the word “obey,” because “the believer may find it impossible to comply with every demand of the government.”[9] Moreover, “subjection” does not mean inferiority, because believers are told to “be subject to one another in the fear of Christ” (Eph. 5:21). Therefore, Paul’s statement is neither absolute obedience, nor is it taking away the moral dignity or value of Christians who voluntarily submit to imperfect authorities.

“For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.” This is really a subversive statement, concerning the time and place. In this culture, the king (Caesar) was the ultimate authority. Yet, Paul writes that there is “no authority except from God.” Similarly, the OT repeatedly taught that God is sovereign over the kings of the Earth (Prov. 8:15-16; Isa. 45:1; Dan. 2:21, 37; 4:17; 5:21).

Just because human governments have authority, this does not mean that God approves of everything that they do. For instance, Peter referred to Pontius Pilate as one of many “godless men” (Acts 2:23; 4:27). But Jesus still affirmed Pilate’s authority: “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above” (Jn. 19:11). At the end of history, God will give authority to the Antichrist or “the beast” (Rev. 13:5, 7),[10] who will be the worst dictator in all of human history. But this does not mean that God approves of him. Even Satan has been given authority over this world—even though he is utterly evil (Lk. 4:6). These are all examples of God’s permissive will—not his directive will.

(13:2) “Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.” This is similar to Jesus’ statement: “All those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword” (Mt. 26:52). If Christians tried to violently revolt against Rome, they would have been crushed.

Why does Paul say that those who rebel against secular leaders will “receive condemnation”? This could refer to receiving judgment from the secular leaders themselves, as verse 4 stipulates (“[Government] is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil”).[11] Moo holds this as a legitimate possibility. By contrast, doing good will bring “praise” from these secular leaders (v.3).[12] The goal is to win over these leaders for Christ—not to kill them.

(13:3) “For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same.” Clearly, governments do not perfectly carry out justice. Paul is simply giving a general maxim—not a universal statement of truth. Peter writes, “Who is there to harm you if you prove zealous for what is good?” (1 Pet. 3:13) But he immediately follows this question by writing that Christians will still be persecuted: “But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed” (1 Pet. 3:14).

(13:4) “For it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.”

“It is a minister of God…” Again, this is a subversive statement by Paul. Harrison writes, “While ‘God’s servant’ is an honorable title, it contains a reminder that the state is not God.”[13] Furthermore, this is not teaching the infallibility of the state. Christians are God’s “ministers” as well, but we would never claim to be infallible.

“Bear the sword…” This doesn’t necessarily mean “the law of the sword” (ius gladii), as some commentators have held. Roman historian A.N. Sherwin-White observes, “For the first two centuries of the Empire the term referred only to the power given to provincial governors who had Roman citizen troops under their command, to enable them to maintain military discipline without being hampered by the provisions of the laws of provocatio [i.e. the right of appeal].”[14] Grant Osborne concurs, “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.”[15] Moo agrees that “the sword” simply refers “generally to the right of the government to punish those who violate its laws.”[16] He holds that this could include the death penalty, but not necessarily.

Less than a decade later, Nero launched a vicious campaign against Christians, killing them in large numbers.[17] Persecution persisted at various intensities and levels for centuries afterward. Harrison writes, “Paul is warning believers against becoming involved in activity that could be construed by the Roman government as encouraging revolution or injury to the state. In that case he is not referring to crime in general. To engage in subversive activity would invite speedy retribution, as the word ‘sword’ implies.”[18]

(13:5) “Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake.” Paul gives two reasons why we should submit: (1) self-preservation or “wrath” from the government and (2) the distorting effect that this could have on our own conscience. When believers suffer for the sake of Christ, their conscience is clear. Peter writes, “This finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a person bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly” (1 Pet. 2:19).

(13:6) “For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing.” Again, the “servants” in government are fallible, and our tax dollars are not used perfectly in a fallen world with fallen leader. At the same time, without taxes, governments will collapse, and we will be left with utter anarchy.

Incidentally, in AD 58, citizens in Rome participated in a “tax revolt,” because of Nero’s “custom” tax, which was a “sales tax, customs duty, tolls and so on.”[19] Paul wanted to avoid all of these problems for the Christian community in Rome.

(13:7) “Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom…” The term “render” (apodote) literally means “give back.”[20] BDAG states that this term means “to give out” or “to meet a contractual… obligation” or “to give back, return.” Governments give us various accommodations (e.g. paved roads, trash removal, fire fighters, law enforcement, military protection, etc.). It would be hypocritical to benefit from these services without paying for them. Similarly, Jesus taught, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s” (Mt. 22:21; cf. Mt. 17:24-27).

“…fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.” Peter writes that we “honor” the king, but we “fear” God (1 Pet. 2:17). Similarly, Paul writes that believers who do good do not need to “fear” or be “afraid” of the government (v.3). This tacitly implies that we should fear God alone.

[1] Josephus, Jewish War, 6.5.271-73; 6.9.420; 7.5.118; 7.5.138; 7.5.154.

[2] Josephus, Jewish War, 6.3.201-213.

[3] 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…”

[4] Moo, D. J. (1996). The Epistle to the Romans (p. 806). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

[5] Moo, D. J. (1996). The Epistle to the Romans (p. 797). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

[6] Moo, D. J. (1996). The Epistle to the Romans (p. 810). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

[7] Moo, D. J. (1996). The Epistle to the Romans (p. 809). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

[8] See for example Winsome Munro, Authority in Paul and Peter: The Identification of a Pastoral Stratum in the Pauline Corpus and 1 Peter (Society of New Testament Studies Monograph Series 45. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 56-67.

[9] Harrison, E. F. (1976). Romans. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans through Galatians (Vol. 10, p. 136). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[10] This is what Grant Osborne calls a “divine passive.” Osborne, G. R. (2002). Revelation (p. 492). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

[11] Moo, D. J. (1996). The Epistle to the Romans (p. 799). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

[12] 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.

[13] Harrison, E. F. (1976). Romans. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans through Galatians (Vol. 10, p. 138). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[14] A.N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Oxford: 1963), p. 10.

[15] See footnote. Osborne, G. R. (2004). Romans (p. 345). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[16] Moo, D. J. (1996). The Epistle to the Romans (p. 802). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

[17] Tacitus, Annals, 15:44; Suetonius, The Neronian Persecution, 64.

[18] Harrison, E. F. (1976). Romans. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans through Galatians (Vol. 10, pp. 138–139). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[19] Osborne, G. R. (2004). Romans (p. 347). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[20] Harrison, E. F. (1976). Romans. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans through Galatians (Vol. 10, p. 139). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.