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Does Paul tell us to always obey the government?

11 January 2024

A passage from Paul's letter to the Romans seems to say that you have to obey the rules of the government, even if they offend you. Does Paul mean it that way?

In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul writes:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.(Source: Romans 13:1-7 (New International Version))

In 1975, Bible scholar John C. O'Neill wrote: "These seven verses have caused more misery and suffering in the Christian world than any other seven verses in the New Testament. They have given tyrants a free pass. The church has felt compelled to support tyrants because Romans 13 is in the canon."

Justifying injustice

Examples of such misery can be read in any respectable Bible commentary. Words by Luther in 1525 to the peasants, quoting Paul: "That government is evil and unjust offers no excuse for rebellion and rioting." Sermons around 1850 in the US, when pastors called on their congregations to respect slavery laws with an appeal to Paul. Swastikas on churches in Berlin, on 2 July 1933, when the leader of the Deutsche Christen gave thanks for Hitler's rise to power and preached on Romans 13. South African President P. W. Botha's Bible during the apartheid era, a Bible he gladly opened at Romans 13.

And Jeff Sessions, US Attorney General, who in June 2018 defended the policy of separating children and parents of arrested immigrants with the following words, especially to his 'church friends': "I refer you to the apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government, because God has ordained the government for his purposes."

What has been done with this text of Paul's is tragic and god-awful. Slavery, Nazism, apartheid, inhuman immigration policies, it has all been defended using Paul's words. It is almost impossible to still see his text apart from how it has been read in the past, but I would still like to try to tinker with a few self-evident truths.

A different reading?

There are a number of successful and less successful proposals to better handle this text. I will start with the latter. There is a conspiracy theory that claims Paul was a Roman spy, and Romans 13 was meant to lead the Jesus movement to obedience to the Roman government. Such a theory is amusing, but no more than that. 

You can also try to defend that the chapter is meant to be ironic. Irony can indeed be used to make an author say the opposite of what he or she seems to be claiming. In this case though, it is too far-fetched, as there are no signs in the text that it would be irony. Slightly less forced but still untenable is to assume that the words are not Paul's own, but were later added to his letter. That is what biblical scholar O'Neill himself thought, but you need better evidence for that too.

Variation in the Bible

You can point out the polyphony of the Bible, though. Next to Romans 13 stands Revelation 13, which depicts the same Roman government as a dangerous and deceitful tyrant. In Acts 5:29, the apostles justify their obstinacy by saying, "We must obey God rather than human beings."

The latter text was invoked as far back as the time of the Reformation: if the government is patently not "God's servant for your good" (Romans 13:4), then there is no need to obey it. On this rested the conviction of Calvin and others that you may fight tyranny and that government has a calling for the common good. That way, they carefully limited the absolute validity of Paul's words.

No fixed dogmatics

The polyphony of the Bible has a reason: Romans is a real letter, from a flesh-and-blood man in a particular situation. The history of Christianity has made it a miniature doctrine, not least because Paul takes quite a bit of space to elaborate his thoughts. But the letter is not such a doctrine, it is not even a theological treatise. So it does not contain a "doctrine of the state" either. Also, Romans 13 is found in the practical part of the letter (Rom. 12-15), not in the more contemplative (Rom. 1-11). More important to my argument: the whole letter is characterised by Paul's travel plans. He wants to continue his mission in Spain and seeks support in Rome to do so. To that end, he presents himself, his plans and his ideas. Seen this way, the message of Romans 13 is far less strange, as well as much more practical: Paul does not want to endanger the church, there in the centre of the Empire. He wants to show that he is not a troublemaker, despite his reputation.

Here is another thing: when Paul says that authority has been established by God, it does not mean he thinks that all authority is good. A few chapters earlier in the same letter, he gives the example of the Egyptian Pharaoh, who took the life of the people of Israel. Paul just wants to say that everything is in God's hand, the whole earth and all history.

It is also very odd for rulers such as a US senator to quote Romans 13: Paul was not writing for them, and we cannot even know what advice Paul would have had for the Roman government of his time, let alone the American one of today. Probably none, because the idea could not really have occurred to him.

Then and now

Which brings me to one last point, certainly not the least. In Paul's time, 'government' was something completely different from 'government' today. Back then, the division between 'powers' and 'subjects' was so self-evident that anything else was not even conceivable, but in today's world that division is not so obvious anymore. Instead, it is now conceivable and desirable for citizens to form their own government, bound by clear norms and rules. For this reason alone, any contemporary appeal to Romans 13 is suspect.

This Bible blog is a slightly edited version of an earlier contribution to the Dutch newspaper Friesch Dagblad (4 July 2020).