The 5 Most Common Myths About Romans 13:1-7

Here’s a handy “guide” for the next time you are in a discussion with a Christian over war and Romans 13:1-7 gets brought up.  Please, avoid these common mistakes.

[1] Romans 13 only recognizes the authority of “just” governments

It is commonly asserted that the governing powers of Romans 13:1-7 are only legitimate authorities if they carry out of the “positive” functions in vv. 3-4.  However, that is clearly not what the text says.  In fact, there is no indication in the text that the authority given to the governing powers in v. 1 is in anyway conditioned on the motives or outcomes mentioned in vv. 3-4.  Verse 1 is clear that all powers that exist do so on the basis of God’s action and authority bestowed to them.  It’s slightly historically naive to consider that Paul, a first-century Jew, would have seen Rome in a positive light.  Yet it is the authority of this specific government which he is affirming in this text.  Romans 13 does not call Christians to make judgement calls on whether governments should have authority (such judgements are harder to make than many might assume], it instead calls on them to pay even the oppressive taxes common to Rome in the first-century.  And yes, that makes the US Revolution a direct act of disobedience to a clear Scriptural command [not a great start for a “Christian” nation].

[2] Romans 13 commands Christians to obey & support their governments 

The command that Paul gives Christians is not to obey but to submit.  Thus, Christians who find their Lord’s commands at odds with their government’s commands are called to civil disobedience.   Civil disobedience allows one to act in obedience to the Lord, yet still submit to whatever punishments are deemed necessary by the governing power’s attempt to “punish the wicked and reward the good.”  As Martin Luther King Jr. said: “An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over it’s injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.  One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.”  If only German Christians would have paid attention to this during the Nazi regime, a time in which Romans 13:1-7 was often marshaled to rally Christian obedience/support of horrendous evil.  And yes, once again, civil disobedience is inherently non-violent, not revolutionary. [The US Revolution fails this test, as well].

[3] Romans 13 gives Christians justification to act retributively towards enemies if they belong to the government

Christians are commanded by Jesus, in no ambiguous terms, to always love their enemies by responding to evil with acts of generosity.  The same command is echoed by Paul immediately preceding Romans 13 [12:14-21].  When one closely reads both texts in context with each other, it becomes obvious that Romans 13 is actually a way of further prohibiting Christians from acts of vengeance and violence, by noting the drastic difference between the Christian community and the governing powers.  Yoder points out an interesting “verbal interplay around the concepts of vengeance and wrath” in Romans 12 and 13.  The government, in exercising vengeance and wrath, are acting in ways that have already been explicitly ruled out for the Christian community.  In the first-century, Christians had no part in the Roman government.  Paul doesn’t address the issue of Christian participation in the government, but I can’t imagine him believing government service would exempt someone from the clear command to love one’s enemies.  A person behind the scope of a sniper faces an unfortunate choice: love their enemies (as commanded by Christ) or kill them (as commanded by Caesar).

[4] Romans 13 means that God morally approves of the government’s violent and coercive actions

Translating God’s actions toward the governing powers in V. 1 is a notoriously difficult problem.  The participle translated as “instituted” [NRSV, ESV], “ordained” [KJV], or “established [NIV] shares the same root for the earlier command to be “subject” and both N.T. Wright and John Yoder argue for understanding the force of the participle in the following way: “to arrange in an orderly manner.”  Yoder compares God’s work to that of a librarian: “The librarian does not make the books, does not write them, does not necessarily approve of them, but simply puts them in order.”  Paul here is drawing on an Old Testament tradition of affirming God’s providential sovereignty over the evil empires of Assyria and Babylon [Isaiah 10, Isaiah 44, Jeremiah 29].  God, revealed in Jesus, is cruciform.  He does not rule the world by the sword, yet in his mysterious and wise providence he weaves the disobedience of nations into his divine plan.

[5] Romans 13 authorizes governments to wage “just” wars

Romans 13 is primarily addressing police and judicial action towards citizens within a governing power [Rome, specifically].  This is what is meant by Paul’s phrase “bear the sword.”  Romans 13 is not concerned with warfare, much less the preemptive and preventative wars [/military action] so common to American foreign policy.  It’s simply inexcusable to baptize the nationalistic and imperialistic whims of superpowers in the name of this text.

5-Myths

6 thoughts on “The 5 Most Common Myths About Romans 13:1-7

  1. Interesting take Mike, I Totally disagree. This kind of teaching goes against how I see God moves in His word.

    We simply:
    1) Love God
    2) Love People
    3) Kill those whose intent is to kill others. “Loving your enemy” has nothing to do with a person who has a knife against the neck of my granddaughter in my house and I have a trained skills to utilize my Glock with Laser sights on his head. He is a dead man.

    As we actually search the scriptures we see God is a lot of things. He is kind, passionate, forgiving, generous, full of grace,forgiving etc, but He is also a warrior and a killer of thousands. As a child of the most high, I will be about the Lords business and not the teachings of any man. There is a time for peace and a time for war. War is about breaking things and killing humans. Sometimes thats the assignment is the one at hand. God only knows. We just listen and follow. Sometimes that assignment is one of killing the enemy. < Shalom

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    1. Stan,

      Please allow me to gently “push back” on your comment in Christian, brotherly love (I so enjoy our regular interaction on the blog!):

      Your first and second points are the two greatest commandments according the Jesus. I’m on board! 🙂 However, I do not see anything in God’s Word that wold lead someone to your third point: killing those whose intent to kill others.

      This third point not only contradicts the first two, it is also blatantly disobedient to the clear teachings of Scripture:
      – love your enemies (Jesus – Mt. 5:44)
      – never repay evil with more evil (Paul – Romans 12:17)
      – our fight should never be against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12)

      Where in Scripture are we given an exception to the above commands? You state that defending the life of a loved one has nothing to do with these commands, yet offer no evidence. Surely that person would be an “enemy” and surely killing them is not a way of showing them “love.” In fact, I would say in that case it would be you who are following the instincts of man and not the clear teachings of Scripture.

      At what point are we allowed to disobey Jesus and Paul, and what Scriptural evidence do you have for this judgement?

      Didn’t Jesus say in Luke 6 that in order to be a child of the Most High you must be generous, forgiving, and loving to your enemies, just as the Father is? To kill your enemies, it would seem to me, would be following the instincts of man instead of the commands of our Lord.

      Blessings,
      Mike

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