Romans 13 supports pacifism!

Ted Grimsrud—May 1, 2011

Several years ago I began a project where I would study the writings of Christians who reject pacifism in order to learn from and respond to them. After spending some time on this, the project moved to the back burner—hopefully to be fired up again before long.

Probably the main thing I learned from the reading I did do was that at the center for almost everyone was an understanding that the Apostle Paul’s words in Romans 13 provide about all Christians need in order to realize that it is not God’s will for Christians to be pacifists.

One place where I encountered this use of Romans 13 to support violence surprised me. The staunchly right-wing Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia is well-known to be a deeply traditional Roman Catholic—though that religious affiliation does not seem to hinder Scalia taking strong positions in opposition to current Catholic theology and Papal pronouncements on an issue such as the death penalty. Scalia published a short article justifying his affirmation of the death penalty in the neo-conservative journal First Things. Here, the traditionalist Catholic cites as the core of his position not natural law but the Bible—specifically Romans 13. I didn’t expect that.

So, a Christian pacifist has a problem. How do we respond to these ways of using Romans 13 as a proof text undermining one of our core convictions? We may, appropriately assert that we base our views on a higher authority than Paul: Jesus. But we may also show that Romans 13 actually supports pacifism. Here’s how.

The message of Jesus

We do start with Jesus—like the New Testament itself. Though Paul wrote decades before the gospel writers, the actual use in the early church that established the form the New Testament would take placed the gospels first. Paul himself insisted he was simply reinforcing Jesus’ message. If our basic question in looking at Romans 13 is a question of social ethics, we need to set the context for Paul’s own life and thought by taking note of what Jesus did and said that establish his own approach to social ethics.

The social ethic Jesus articulates has as its core two key elements: imitate God’s love even for God’s enemies (Luke 6:35-36) and practice a style of life utterly different from the “natural law” behavior of people in the world (6:32-34). That is, go beyond simply loving those who love you and doing good to those who do good to you.

So, Jesus did embody an approach to politics—one where compassion, respect, inclusion of outsiders, non-retaliation, forgiveness all stood at the center. He taught his follows to subvert the standard political dynamic of empire where the rulers lord it over their subject. “Not so among you!”

Those who make Romans 13 central to their political theology act as if Paul then came along and intentionally moved things in a different direction. Should Paul be seen as making the necessary adjustment of Jesus’ radical ethic to something more realistic and responsible in the “real world” of power politics? Is Paul our teacher of accommodation that helps make Christian faith politically relevant? Or, is it rather the case that Paul actually reinforces the radicality of Jesus original message?

Before we look at Romans 13 itself, let’s note a couple of key elements in Paul’s thought more generally.

Justification’s social character

For Paul, “justification” has at its heart social concerns. Paul’s central concerns were with the social character of the faith community.  Would it be one community miraculously including as equals both Jews and Gentiles?  Or would it be a loose association of distinct Jewish and Gentile groups?

Paul’s theology of justification of faith in Galatians and Romans emerges directly his own experience as the perpetrator of social injustice—and speaks to how important he now saw it to be that the churches embody the new social reality Jesus inaugurated.

The reconciliation of former human enemies reflects the reconciliation that is most central for Paul.  He was not nearly so much concerned with the end of “hostility” between God and human beings (as a good Jew, he understood God to be merciful) as the end of the hostility between Jew and Gentile.

Paul’s most detailed theological statement, his letter to the Romans, emphasizes the social nature of justification. Paul envisions in Romans a faith community that embodies Torah but without the exclusionary emphasis on defending boundary markers that had led Paul himself to become violent.  Torah would be embodied most of all, according to 13:8-10, by the Romans loving their neighbors.  The place of “justification” here is to bring together Jewish and Gentile Christians in one “just” (whole) community, established by God’s mercy shown in Jesus Christ (Rom 3:21-26).

Paul’s social analysis: The Powers that be

Paul’s language of “the Powers” provides a way to speak of the structures of human life, realities beyond simply our individual persons or even beyond simply the sum of separate individuals—our institutions, traditions, social practices, belief systems, organizations, languages, and so on. The Powers language speaks metaphorically about the discrete “personalities” and even “wills” that these structures have.

(1) The Powers are part of the good creation.  They were brought into being by God as a “divine gift” that makes human social life possible.  When God created human beings, necessarily elements of human life such as language, traditions, and ways of ordering community life all came into existence alongside the individual human beings.  And like the original human beings, the Powers were also good.

(2) The Powers are fallen. They are so closely linked with humanity that when human beings turned from God—spoken of traditionally as “the fall”—so, too, did the Powers.  It is as if the Powers, as part of created reality, turn against human beings when humans are alienated from God.  The fallen Powers then seek to take God’s place as the center of human devotion, often becoming idols.

(3) The Powers remain necessary.  In spite of their fallenness, the Powers retain their original function. Human life still requires ordering; the Powers are still used by God in the sustenance of human social life. Consequently, the Powers are both a huge part of the problem human beings face in living in our fallen world and a necessary part of whatever solutions might be found.

(4) The Powers must be redeemed.  What is required for a potential resolution of the “Powers dilemma” is that the Powers be transformed (they cannot be abolished or ignored). The Powers must be “put in their place.”  We need them but they should be our servants (on behalf of life) not our masters (idols that make us become like them).  Such a putting the Powers in their place can only happen when we see them as what they are—creatures, not God substitutes.

(5) Jesus does redeem the Powers. Jesus lived free from the Powers’ control and as a consequence was crucified. In his death the Powers (representatives of Jewish religion and Roman politics) collaborate. However, Jesus remained free from their allure, even in face of the deadly violence.  In doing so, he brings to light their true character. As Colossians 2:15 states, on the cross he “disarmed” the Powers, “making a public example of them and thereby triumphing over them.”

In Jesus’ resurrection, it becomes clear that his challenge to the Powers was endorsed and vindicated by God.  In Jesus, God has ventured into the Powers’ territory, remained true to God’s loving character, and defeated them.

A crucial part of faithful witness to the Powers is the formation of communities of liberated people whose life together manifests their freedom from idolatry to the powers.  For Paul, the way messianic communities include reconciled Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus stands at the heart of the gospel.

Romans, when read in light of Paul theology of the Powers, proclaims a salvation from Empire-idolatry and from Torah-idolatry.  This salvation, accomplished “apart from the law” (that is, apart from legalistic adherence to sharp boundary markers that reflected Torah-idolatry) and also, apart from Empire, must be practiced and thereby displayed to the Powers, to the nations, to all of creation.

Revolutionary subordination: Neither fight nor flight

Paul knew, all too well, that freedom in Christ must be lived in a broken world.  So, he reflects on how Christian freedom may be lived most faithfully in an unfree world. Pauline writings concerning subordination in interpersonal relationships may deepen our analysis of how Paul reinforces and applies Jesus’ ethic.

Paul articulates a position we may call, in John Howard Yoder’s language, “revolutionary subordination.”  In using the language of subordination, Paul calls upon Christians to walk with Jesus in our responses to our social situations.  He does not simply endorse status quo power arrangements and that require those in the “lower” positions to give all their power to their “superiors.”

Paul writes to people in the “lower” positions and treats as responsible moral agents who have full (and equal) worth as human beings with those of higher social status.  These addressees, according to Paul, have indeed been liberated in Christ and welcomed into full membership in Christ’s assembly.  However, quite likely these addressees are not in positions to claim that liberation fully while at the same time remaining (as they must) wholly committed to Jesus’ path of loving their neighbors.

Paul echoes Jesus in holding up two equally crucial convictions.  We are free in Christ and we are called to love even our enemies.  In this love we refrain from smashing existing social arrangements.  Paul’s points on “subordination” are best seen as part of his thinking on the processes of negotiating this liberation/path of love tension.

In the newness of Jesus’ community that Paul speaks to, we see a calling on husbands, masters, and parents also to practice mutuality, in some sense subordinating themselves to those “below” them.

The main term that Paul uses, hyptoassesthai, could best be translated something like “subordinate yourself,” better than flatly “submit to.”  It is not connoting slavish obedience.  It is best defined in relation to Jesus.  According to Paul in Philippians two, Jesus, being free, subordinated himself for our sake and gave himself for us.  And, Paul emphasizes in Philippians 2:5, believers should “let this same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

In Romans, Paul has in mind a strong concern for mutual subordination among the Christians in Rome.  Paul develops his powerful theology of justification in order to emphasize, by the time we get to the end of the book, the crucial importance to the Roman Christians of loving one another (13:8-10), refraining from judging each other (14:1-12), avoiding making one another stumble (14:13-23), pleasing others and not oneself (15:1-6), and recognizing that the gospel is for Jews and Gentiles together (15:7-13).

Paul advocates a genuine revolution against the Roman Empire’s hegemony.  However, the revolutionary means he advocates are consistent with the healing mercy of God extended to the entire world.  The certainty Paul has—and all followers of Jesus should have—in the world-transforming efficacy of God’s healing mercy undergirds lives of patient love, extended even (as with God Godself) toward enemies.

Turning interpretations of “Romans 13” on their head

Now let’s turn directly to Romans 13.  This passage (specifically 13:1-7) often serves as a counter-testimony in the Christian tradition to the belief that Paul taught nonviolent resistance to the Roman Empire.  As well, Romans 13 is often seen to go against the idea that Paul understood Jesus’ pacifistic ethic as normative for Christian social ethics.

Our interpretation of Romans 13:1-7 should begin with reading these verses in light of their broader biblical context.  From Egypt in Genesis and Exodus, then Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and down to Rome in the book of Revelation, the Bible shows empires rebelling against God and hindering the healing vocation of God’s people.  The entire Bible could appropriately be read as a manual on how people who follow Torah in seeking to love God and neighbor negotiate the dynamics of hostility, domination, idolatry, and violence that almost without exception characterize the world’s empires.

Romans 13:1-7 stands in this general biblical context of antipathy toward the empires.  If we take this context seriously, we will turn to these Romans verses assuming that their concern is something like this: given the fallenness of Rome, how might we live within this empire as people committed uncompromisingly to love of neighbor?  Paul has no illusions about Rome being in a positive sense a servant of God.  However, we know from biblical stories that God nonetheless can and does use the corrupt nations for God’s purposes.  Yet these nations also remain under God’s judgment.

The message of Romans as a whole reinforces the broader biblical perspective—both on the problematic nature of human empires and on the relevance of the message of God’s healing love to the faithful response to the reality of empire.

Paul discusses two major strains of idolatry in chapters 1–3: (1) the Empire and its injustices that demand the highest loyalty and (religious) devotion and (2) a legalistic approach to Torah that leads to its own kind of violence (witness Paul’s own death-dealing zealotry). However, Paul believes these universal problems provide an opportunity for him to witness to the universality of God’s healing response.  Indeed, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  Nonetheless, all may find salvation in Jesus.  The sovereignty of hostility to God ultimately bows to the sovereignty of God’s healing love.

In Romans 4–8 Paul further develops this message of the mercies of God—reflected in Abraham’s pre-circumcision trust in God that serves as our model (chapter 4), in God’s transforming love even of God’s enemies (chapter 5), in Paul’s own liberation from his idolatrous “sacred violence” (chapter 7), and in the promise that creation itself will be healed as God’s children come to themselves (chapter 8).

Chapters 9–11 involve Paul’s deeper wrestling with his own experience as a Jew who had failed to recognize God’s mercy revealed in Jesus.  However, Paul’s failure (and the failure of many of his fellows) ultimately did not stop the revelation of God’s mercy.  This mercy will have its healing conclusion even with the unfaithfulness of so many of the chosen people.

Finally, in chapters 14–16, in response to his certainty about God’s mercy, Paul sketches the practical outworking of living in light of this mercy—all for the sake of spreading the gospel to the ends of the earth (i.e., “Spain,” 15:28).

Romans 12 and 13 should be read in the context of this broader flow of thought in the book.  These two chapters form a unit like the other sections I’ve just mentioned. In this unit, the first word is a call, motivated by God’s mercy, to nonconformity in relation to the power politics of the world. Such nonconformity takes the positive shape of mutuality within the faith community and suffering love in response to enemies. Then comes 13:1-7, followed by a reiteration of the call to love.

When we approach 13:1-7, we may think of it in the middle of several concentric circles—the furthest out being the general biblical theme of antipathy toward empires and a call to active countercultural witness to God’s healing love. The next closest circle, the book of Romans as a whole, focuses on the call to witness to the social nature of God’s healing work in the heart of the Roman Empire. Then, the closest circle, Romans 12-13 emphasizes nonconformity embodied in all-encompassing love (“love is the fulfilling of Torah,” 13:10).

What, then, does Paul actually say in these seven so-often cited verses?

(1) Paul calls for a kind of revolutionary subordination in relation to government.  These verses begin with a call to subordination, not literally to obedience.  The term here that is often translated “submit” actually is better translated “subordinate yourselves.” It reflects Paul’s notion of how God orders the Powers.  The subordination has to do with respect for God’s work through the social structures of the world—not with unconditional obedience.  For example, the Christian who refuses to worship Caesar but still permits Caesar to put him or her to death, is being subordinate even though not obeying.

(2) Paul intends to reject any notion of violent revolution. Paul would have been rejecting a reaction to the tyranny of the Roman Empire that relied on violence, even in the face of Rome’s official anti-Semitism and overall tyranny.

(3) Paul also intends to relativize the affirmation of any particular government.  While opposing revolution, these verses also do nothing to imply active moral support for Rome (or any other particular government). Paul here echoes Revelation 13, a text often contrasted with Romans 13.  Both passages advocate subordination in relation to whatever powers that be are in place—even along with the implication (more clear in Revelation) that this particular government is quite idolatrous and blasphemous.

(4) God orders the Powers—a different notion than ordaining the Powers.  God is not said to create or institute or ordain any particular governments, but only to order them. This sense of “ordering” implies that God’s participation in human life is more indirect than often understood.  All states are “ordered” by God and thus in some sense serve God’s purposes.  However, no states are directly blessed by God as God’s direct representatives—least of all the Roman Empire that executed Jesus.

(5) Nothing here speaks to Christians as participants in the state’s work. When Paul mentions several functions in 13:3-4, he does not have in mind tasks that Christians themselves would accept. His readers may have things that are “due to the authority” (13:6-7), but none of these involve direct work for the state. Whatever it is that the state does, Paul is not endorsing Christians themselves having a responsibility to perform those tasks—especially if the tasks violate the call to neighbor love.

(6) Paul calls for discrimination.  “Pay to all what is due them” echoes Jesus’ call for discernment. When Jesus stated, “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s,” he meant: Be sure not to give Caesar the loyalty that belongs only to God.  Paul writes in 13:7, “render to all what is due them.”  In the very next verse, unfortunately often not noticed when we quit reading at 13:7, Paul states “nothing is due to anyone except love.”  This is Paul’s concern—is what Caesar claims is due to him part of the obligation of love? Only that which is part of the call to love is part of the Christian’s duty.

(7) Romans 13 is consistent with the Sermon on the Mount.  The logic that uses Romans 13:1-7 as a basis for participation in coercive practices relies on a disjunction between Romans 13:1-7 and the Sermon on the Mount.  However, there is no disjunction.  Both Romans 12–13 as a unit and Matthew 5–7 instruct Christians to be nonviolent in all their relationships, including the social.  Both call on the disciples of Jesus to renounce participation in vengeance.  Both call Christians “to respect and be subject to the historical process in which the sword continues to be wielded and to bring about a kind of order under fire, but not to perceive in the wielding of the sword their own reconciling ministry” (Yoder, Politics of Jesus).

Romans 13:1-7, when read in light of Paul’s overall theology, may be understood as a statement of how the revolutionary subordination of Christians contributes to Christ’s victory over the Powers.  Christians do so by holding together their rejection of Empire-idolatry with their commitment to active pacifism.  Their most radical task (and most subversive) is to live visibly as communities where the enmity that had driven Paul himself to murderous violence is overcome—Jew and Gentile joined together in one fellowship, a witness to genuine peace in a violent world.

Such communities empower a freedom from the Powers idolatry.  These are some of the imperatives from Romans 12–13 for living out such freedom:

• Nonconformity to the Roman world fueled by minds that are transformed, being shaped by God’s mercy shown in Jesus rather than by the culture’s “elemental spirits.”

• Humility and shared respect in the ministry of the faith community that recognizes and affirms all the gifts of those in the community.

• Active love for one another leading to a renunciation of vengeance and a quest to overcome evil with good rather than heightening the spiral of violence with violent responses.

• Respect for God’s ordering work in human government that, fallen and rebellious as it may be, still serves God’s purposes.

• A commitment to doing good (following Jesus’ model that implicitly recognizes that genuinely doing good as defined by the gospel could lead to a cross) and repudiation of temptations to seek to overcome evil with evil through violent resistance.

• Work at discerning what belongs to God and what is allowable to be given to Caesar.

• An overarching commitment to authentic practice of Torah, summarized (following Jesus) as love of neighbor (here as in Jesus’ Good Samaritan story, including the enemy).

Romans 13 calls upon Christians to hold together two uncompromisable convictions: resistance to empire and commitment to pacifism.  Resistance without pacifism ends up only heightening the spiral of violence and serving the domination of the fallen Powers.  Pacifism without resistance validates the stereotypes of the cultured despisers of pacifism—parasitic, withdrawal focused on purity, irresponsible.

We must not let the Empire set our agenda or determine our means of resistance.  We must not, in seeking to overcome evil, become evil ourselves. For those who would walk with Jesus, what should determine our agenda in relation to Empire should not be anger and hostility.

The true problem with Empire is not that some empires are not benevolent enough in their domination. It is the practice of domination itself.  So, ultimately whatever resistance to Empire that hopes genuinely to operate in harmony with God’s intentions for human social life must repudiate domination itself.  Resistance that leads to more domination but with different figureheads on top ultimately is not nearly radical enough.

According to Paul, what God brings forth in response to human brokenness and the oppressions of the nations and their empires are communities of people who know God’s peace and share that peace with all the families of the earth (linking with Genesis 12).

The formation and witness of these communities leads ultimately, in the biblical story, to the healing of the nations.  Paul especially emphasizes the significance of these communities being made up of reconciled enemies.  In his response to Rome’s hegemony, Paul works tirelessly to create an alternative social reality, the ekklesia, that practices the politics of Jesus within the Pax Romana.  These new communities, made up of Jews and Gentile alike, provide a context for human flourishing.

[This entire article draws on John Howard Yoder’s thought, especially from The Politics of Jesus. An older, longer version of my essay here was published as “Against Empire: A Yoderian Reading of Romans,” in Sharon L. Baker and Michael Hardin, eds., Peace Be with You: Christ’s Benediction amid Violent Empires (Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House, 2010, 120-37 and is available online here.]

9 thoughts on “Romans 13 supports pacifism!

  1. Hi Ted,
    Thanks for this post. I am going to chew on it time and time again, until I have digested all the arguments carefully. It is wonderfully Yoderian and I am inspired by it.

    Thanks also for the links at the end. I will be relfecting on them as well.

    John Arthur

    1. Thanks, John. I would enjoy “talking” about these issues if the occasion should arise.


  2. Thank you Ted for this way of looking at Romans 13. Putting it into the context of Jesus’ teaching, and Paul’s social teaching in the rest of the book of Romans is very powerful. Our situation here in the USA is different from the occupied lands of the Roman empire, but probably more challenging because we have less oppression, and there are many more voices saying that the followers of Jesus must support our government in its wars.
    So I think we are challenged to support our sisters and brothers who find ways to make peace instead of war in the areas of conflict often generated by the USA practice of Empire.
    In addition, we here in the USA have justice challenges as we seek to understand how we should respond to the past practices of Empire that stole land from the original owners, and stole lives from citizens of Africa to enhance the prosperity of the USA. Many of us have lived with this prosperity and White privilege and never understood the doors that were open simply to us by the color of our skin, or our family relationships. And we have not understood the cost to those who suffered the atrocities that made us at least somewhat prosperous.
    Understanding our Biblical response, our Romans 13 response to the USA Empire is more than deciding whether to join the army, or pay taxes.
    May we hear the Jesus of Luke and Romans challenging us to present ourselves as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to the Lord.

  3. Thank you for this. I had to write an essay for my Chaplain about how Christians should respond to this passage. It was extremely helpful as a stepping stone for what I was writing.

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