On Submission to Authority and Romans 13:1-7

When you ask someone what the New Testament says about politics, they’ll probably point you to Romans 13:1-7, which is one of the few explicit references to government. Unfortunately, this passage has historically been used to support and justify many governments, giving them the appearance of divine sanction and suggesting that supporting a government is a Christian’s duty. Here’s the passage:

Everyone must submit himself 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, he who 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 he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent 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 because of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: if you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honour, then honour. (Romans 13:1-7, NIV)

Historically, this passage was somewhat pivotal in the Lutheran “Two Kingdoms” theology, the distortion of which led to most of the German church being unconcerned about the rise of Adolph Hitler and the Nazi party. The implication of this passage, when taken out of context, is that governments will do what they will, but that they are set up by God and a good Christian must obey and support them.

While I’ve sometimes wondered about how God could want me to obey Hitler or someone like him, I’ve become increasingly skeptical of this interpretation for other reasons as I read more of Paul’s thoughts about powers and authorities. It seems that elsewhere he sees the gospel as being highly subversive of unjust authorities, and in some cases seems to be referring directly to Rome, though in vague or veiled language.  How could Paul talk about Christ’s victory over powers and authorities in one passage and tell us that the authorities are ordained by God and should be obeyed in another? There seems to be a disconnect.

Timothy G. Gombis sheds some light on this in his essay “The Political Vision of the Apostle to the Nations” in Christian Political Witness (Downers Grove: IVP, 2014). Gombis uses a narrative approach to examine Paul’s theology, beginning with a narrative summary of the Old Testament, then looking at how Saul’s xenophobic and violent legalism was transformed into Paul’s theology of a new polis in Christ, and then specifically examining Romans 13:1-7.

Gombis compares Romans 13:1-7 to Jeremiah 29, pointing out that even Gentile Christians in Paul’s day were strangers in a strange land as far as integration into Roman society went. Christians had been exiled from Rome only a few years earlier, and once they were allowed back there was higher taxation on them; they would have been interested in joining an anti-taxation movement at the time. But like Jeremiah, who told Israel to settle into Babylon and look out for the welfare of that city as for their own welfare, Paul was exhorting Christians toward the revolutionary community of Christ: non-violent, breaking no laws, and yet practising a kind of generous community that undermined the corrupted politics of their context. Jeremiah’s advice to Israel did not legitimate Babylon, and Paul’s advice did not legitimate Rome (or Nazi Germany); but it did legitimate the Church within Rome, giving it all the more power to subvert the corrupt powers and bring them into the loving community of Christ.

In regard to the authority being “God’s servant”, this still makes me (and Gombis) uncomfortable. For this, he refers to Isaiah’s reference to Cyrus as “messiah.” Cyrus wasn’t a good guy, but God used him for God’s own purposes. Doing so did not legitimate Cyrus, any more than it legitimated Pharaoh or the Canaanite kings or the corrupt kings of Israel before them. In the same way, Paul’s reference to Roman authorities as God’s servants doesn’t imply that they’re pious, or even legitimate; rather, it simply underscores the good advice he offered to the churches not to make trouble by directing his audience back to God’s purpose for order and peace in the world, which these authorities have the ability and calling to provide. The role of the church is not to subvert these offices, but rather to subvert their corruption by embodying a different kind of politics in their midst.

I like Gombis’ approach because it clarifies Paul’s thought in general even while tackling this particular passage. It’s challenging though: my own predilection is to embrace theologies that involve actively resisting unjust authority. Gombis does note that Paul may have softened his rhetoric in this case in order to avoid the appearance of supporting a revolt around the tax issue, or against Rome in general, but even so his political theology is harder to follow: revolt is easier than humbly giving yourself to your enemies in service.

This is a great chapter in an excellent book, with other contributors including Stanley Hauerwas, David P. Gushee, Mark Noll, Scot McKnight, and William Cavanaugh. I’ve only managed to get through 4 out of 12 chapters so far, and I hope to talk more about the other chapters soon.