Ted Grimsrud—June 18, 2018
What does it mean for the United States to be a “Christian nation”? For many, it seems to mean that people should support the political status quo, and they will quote the 13th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans to support that support (“be subject to the governing authorities”). We find this most often when Christians want to offer “biblical support” for obeying the state’s call to go to war. But it comes up in many other circumstances as well.
Just lately, our evangelical Attorney General used Romans 13 as a basis to demand acceptance of Donald Trump’s policy of separating would-be immigrant children from their parents when they are arrested trying to cross the border into the US. Many commentators have noted that such a use of Romans 13 is not appropriate. I agree, but I also think that when this passage comes up in a public and controversial way, it is good to take the opportunity to offer some suggestions for how this oft-cited text might best be read.
The message of Jesus
The first step for thinking about the issues that Romans 13 are purported to address (our relationship to the state, our responsibilities as citizens, et al) is to start with Jesus—just as the New Testament itself does. Though Paul wrote Romans decades before the gospel writers wrote the gospels, the early church used these writings in a way that placed the gospels first. I think we can assume that the stories about Jesus that make up the core of the gospels circulated from the time of his death.
Paul himself insisted he simply reinforced 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—love even your enemies.
Jesus embodied an approach to politics where compassion, respect, inclusion of outsiders, non-retaliation, forgiveness all stood at the center. He taught his followers to subvert the standard political dynamic of Empire where the rulers lord it over their subjects. “Not so among you!” (Mark 10:43).
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 from Jesus. Does Paul make the necessary adjustment of Jesus’ radical ethic to something more realistic and responsible in the “real world”? Is Paul a 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.
Paul’s social analysis
Paul introduces a way to speak of the structures of human life using the language of the “principalities and powers.” He refers to realities beyond simply our individual persons. He has in mind our institutions, traditions, social practices, belief systems, organizations, languages, and so on. This 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; we still need elements of life such as language, traditions, and ways of organizing our communities. 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 religion and 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.
Living in a broken world
Paul knew, all too well, that freedom in Jesus 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’s ethic.
Paul does not simply endorse status quo power arrangements 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 them 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 Jesus and welcomed into full membership in Jesus’s assembly. However, likely these addressees are not in positions to claim that liberation fully while at the same time remaining wholly committed to Jesus’s path of loving their neighbors.
Paul echoes Jesus in holding up two equally crucial convictions. We are free in Jesus 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.
The main term that Paul uses, hyptoassesthai, could best be translated something like “subordinate yourself to,” 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 cares about mutual subordination among the Christians in Rome. He emphasizes, by 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; his readers are called to conform to Jesus’s way in resistance to the world’s (12:1-2). 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.
The broader biblical context for “Romans 13”
Romans 13 (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—calling for submission, not resistance. I believe such readings of these verses fundamentally misunderstand Paul’s thought.
Our interpretation of Romans 13:1-7 should begin with consideration of the broader context of biblical politics. From Egypt in Genesis and Exodus, then Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and down to Rome in the book of Revelation, the Bible tells us that empires rebel against God and hinder the healing vocation of God’s people. The entire Bible calls people of faith to follow Torah in seeking to love God and neighbor. And it shows how to navigate the hostility, domination, idolatry, and violence toward this healing vocation that almost without exception characterize the world’s empires.
Romans 13:1-7 stands within this biblical framework of antipathy toward the empires. Hence, we should 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 before he met Jesus). However, Paul believes these widespread 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 about 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 earlier experience as a God-fearer who had failed to recognize God’s mercy revealed in Jesus. However, Paul’s failure (and the failure of many of his fellows) 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 as a single section (contrary to the common practice of isolating 13:1-7). And this section should be read in the context of this broader flow of thought in the book. In this section, the first word is a call, motivated by God’s mercy, to refuse to conform to the power politics of the world (“Do not be conformed to this world,” 12:2). 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 in 13:8-10.
Zeroing in on Romans 13
What, then, does Paul actually say in these seven so-often cited verses?
(1) Paul calls for a qualified 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 person who refuses to follow directives from the state that are discerned to be immoral but accepts the consequences for doing so is being subordinate even though not obeying.
(2) Paul intends to reject any notion of violent revolution. Paul rejected a reaction to the tyranny of the Roman Empire that relied on violence, even in the face of Rome’s devastating anti-Judaism and overall tyranny.
(3) Paul also intends to relativize the affirmation of any particular government. Though opposing violent revolution, these verses 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 governing Powers are in place—even along with the implication (more clear in Revelation) that this particular government is 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 take on. He expects readers to give what is “due to the authority” (13:6-7), but none of this involves direct work for the state. Whatever it is that the state does, Paul does not endorse Christians themselves having a responsibility to perform tasks that 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, 13:8, 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.
Romans 13:1-7, when read in light of Paul’s overall theology, may be understood as a statement of how the qualified 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 peacemaking. 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.
Paul’s punch line in Romans 13 comes at 13:9-10: “Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor.” Only by not reading past 13:7 have interpreters been able to imagine that Paul here offers a rationale for participation in violence. However, the paragraph break between 13:7 and 13:8 is not present in the original text. When Paul wrote “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities,” (13:1 NRSV translation), he meant that truth to complement the call to love all neighbors.
Living without idolatry
Peaceable faith 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 world of violent nation-states is fueled by minds that are transformed, being shaped by God’s mercy shown in Jesus rather than by the culture’s “elemental spirits.”
• Active love for one another leads to a renunciation of vengeance and a quest to overcome evil with good rather than heightening the spiral of violence with violent responses.
• Respect God’s ordering work in human government that, fallen and rebellious as it may be, still serves God’s purposes.
• Commit to doing good (following Jesus’ model that implicitly recognizes that genuinely doing good as defined by the gospel could lead to a cross) and repudiate 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.
• Make an overarching commitment to authentic practice of Torah, summarized (following Jesus) as love of neighbor.
What truly matters
Romans 13 calls upon Christians to hold together two uncompromisable convictions: resistance to empire and commitment to Jesus’s way of peace. 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.
Jesus and Paul both challenge people not to let the Empire set our agenda or determine our means of resistance. We must not, in seeking to overcome evil, add to the spiral of evil ourselves. The true problem with Empire is not that some empires are not benevolent enough in their domination. It is the practice of domination itself. Resistance to Empire that serves God’s intentions for human social life must repudiate domination itself. Resistance that leads to more domination ultimately is not nearly radical enough.