Romans 13 is the absolute favorite chapter of the Bible for all rich and powerful empires since the 4th century. It is the ‘gotcha’ proof-text for ensuring that its citizens obey the authority of their masters. From kings to presidents, soldiers to police officers, every power-hungry statist loves Romans 13—and with good reason. Romans 13 plainly states that anyone who has governmental authority has been given that power by God himself, and everyone should obey them because of this. That’s what it says. Or does it?
¹ Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. ² Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. ³ For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, ⁴ for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. ⁵ Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. ⁶ For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. ⁷ Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
On the surface, this passage seems to make a few claims that fascist dictators dream about at night. Everyone should obey the government? God chooses government leaders? God approves of the government’s use of violence? Christians can or should work in government? These claims are in fact, myths. Romans 13 doesn’t undo the rest of Scripture.
Myth #1 – Everyone should obey the government
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.
The New Testament is filled with examples of Godly people who do not obey the government. The first, and perhaps most important example, is Joseph and Mary. The parents of Jesus intentionally disobeyed King Herod the Great when they escaped to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-14). King Herod’s governmental decree was that Roman police kill all baby boys, but Joseph and Mary disobeyed. The very fact that Jesus lived past two years old is a testament to the virtue of disobeying governmental power.
Paul himself, the author of the letter to the Romans, disobeyed the government on numerous occasions. The governor of Damascus sought to arrest Paul so that he might be executed. Paul disobeyed the authority of government and escaped through a window in the city’s walls (Acts 9:23-25). He even later cites this event to demonstrate his unwavering commitment to Jesus (2 Corinthians 11:30-33).
Ever since Paul started following the way of Jesus, he spent his days in rebellion against governments. He never disassociated himself from these actions; instead, he boasts about their consequences as proof of his commitment to Jesus (2 Corinthians 11:22-25). Paul went to prison at least three times because he disobeyed the government. Finally, like Jesus before him, he was executed by the government for his disobedience. If Paul actually meant to teach that followers of Jesus should obey the government, he was a major hypocrite.
So what is going on here? “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities” sounds pretty clear. First, let’s examine the word ‘subject.’ In the original Greek, Paul uses the word ‘hypotassō,’ which means “submission involving the recognition of an ordered structure”1 or “to place or arrange under.”2 The same word is used in verses that say wives should ‘submit’ to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22; Colossians 3:18; Titus 2:5; 1 Peter 3:1). Paul could have used the word ‘hypakouō’ which means ‘obey,’ but he doesn’t. Hypakouō (obey) is used in verses that tell children to obey their parents (Ephesians 6:1; Colossians 3:20), when the weather or demons obey Jesus (Matthew 8:27; Mark 1:27, 4:41; Luke 8:25), and how we must obey the Gospel (Romans 10:16 ESV; 2 Thessalonians 1:8; Hebrews 5:9). Instead, Paul uses ‘hypotassō.’ This difference in words was enough for Paul not to mean ‘obey’ when he said that every person (himself included) should be ‘hypotassō’ to the governing authorities because he obviously didn’t obey them.3 Paul could have used the word ‘obey,’ but he didn’t.
The only reason Christians ever ‘obey’ worldly governments is just out of coincidence that doing so coincides with obeying Jesus. Anytime obeying Jesus means disobeying the state, Christians should do so without hesitation but should do so with the wisdom and knowledge that persecution, arrest, or execution may follow (Matthew 5:10-12, 10:16-18; John 15:19-20; 1 Peter 4:12-14; Revelation 2:10-11).
Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.”
Myth #2 – God chooses government leaders
For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.
Some other translations, such as the NIV, say, “there is no authority except that which God has established.” Whether it be the English word ‘instituted’ or ‘established,’ the actual word in Greek is ‘tassō,’ which means to “arrange, put in place.”4 Theologian John H. Yoder compares God’s work here of ‘tassō’ 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.”5 This is a helpful illustration that assists us in making sense of history. During the time that Romans was written, the emperor of Rome was Nero, a desperately wicked ruler who fed Christians to wild animals as entertainment. God need not approve or agree with government leaders in order to tassō them.
Paul also makes the claim that no authority exists except that which comes from God. This is consistent with the claims of the rest of Scripture. The Old Testament says that Yahweh is the chief creator God that delegates some of his authority to the lesser gods (Psalm 82:1 ESV, 95:3, 136:2; Deuteronomy 10:17). Yahweh even gave these gods (who were formerly on his ‘divine counsel’) nations to rule (Deuteronomy 32:8-9 ESV). These gods rebelled, much like humans, and defined good and evil for themselves.6 This is why all over the New Testament we are told that it is ultimately Satan and his demons that rule over the nations of the world as their gods (John 12:31, 14:30, 16:11; Ephesians 2:2; 2 Corinthians 4:4; 1 John 5:19). Authority came from Yahweh but is being abused by the lesser gods of the nations. These gods give their authority to those who worship them, which is how emperors, kings, and presidents receive their power (Luke 4:5-8). For Paul, earthly authorities and evil spiritual authorities cannot be separated; they are interconnected.7 It is upon this worldview that Romans 13 was written.
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities [exousia].
Our struggle is… against the authorities [exousia]…
Government leaders are inherently a rejection of God (1 Samuel 8:5-7). Ultimately, all earthly rulers and state authorities are the punishment of God for disobeying his ways.8 God allows government leaders to have their power, but he sent his Son to actively work against them (Colossians 2:15). In the end, Jesus will destroy rulers in government because they are his enemies (1 Corinthians 15:24-25). So naturally, Paul’s statement doesn’t in any way imply that the state’s actions are willed or approved by God. Perhaps more so than any book in the Bible, Revelation illustrates God’s hatred for empire.
They set up kings without my consent; they choose princes without my approval… they have rejected me as their king.
Hosea 8:4, 1 Samuel 8:7
Myth #3 – God approves of the government’s use of violence
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.
Right away, anyone can see that at face value, what Paul says here isn’t always true. Do governments only punish people who do wrong? Do governments never punish people who do what is right? The Gospel accounts, the book of Acts, and even Paul’s life stand in opposition to these claims. Jesus and most of his disciples were murdered by the government when they were doing what was right (proclaiming the Gospel of Christ’s Kingdom). God only has one nation—the Kingdom of Christ. Satan rules all other nations. It doesn’t even make sense to claim that Satan’s nations only punish wrongdoers. So then what is Paul saying? One truth that can be drawn from this passage is this: even if Christians die by the hands of the state, at least their martyrdom will magnify God’s glory, just like Jesus’ death did. No Christian should ‘fear’ the evil authority of the state.
Satan holds the power of death and executes that evil with the power of the sword. The author of Hebrews says that Jesus is breaking their power and setting his children free (Hebrews 2:14-15). We were once held in slavery by our fear of death, but no longer. We need not fear nations who wield the sword to deal death because we are promised resurrection into new life. We follow after a messiah that willingly laid down his life for his enemies out of love—an action we are called to imitate.
Most commenters agree that Paul is merely describing how worldly governments ought to function in the meantime before God brings them to nothing, not how they do function (1 Corinthians 2:6).9 Paul knows firsthand by his own experiences and his people’s history that rulers do not always reward good and punish evil. Unfortunately, throughout history, many liberal interpreters have used this passage to justify the actions of many evil rulers. It was used in Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 40s to support Hitler, and it is often used today in America to support the United States’ foreign policies.
With such violence the great city of Babylon will be thrown down, never to be found again.
Myth #4 – Christians can/should work in government
Do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.
This passage is often used to support the idea that Christians can or sometimes even should work in some governmental capacity. The thought is that if the government doesn’t bear the sword in vain, is a servant of God, and seems to carry out justice, then Christians should be involved. Romans 13 is used to support Christians working in government, serving in the military, and policing the streets. Ironically, Romans 13 stands in harmony with the rest of the New Testament’s teachings in that it prohibits Christians from doing any of these things.
“Bearing the sword,” whether in vain or not, is something that Jesus forbids. The only time in all of Scripture where a follower of Jesus attempts to use a sword, he gets rebuked (Matthew 26:52). This, of course, is because Jesus taught his followers never to use violence but instead to love and bless their enemies. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, continues this teaching. Directly before Romans chapter 13 is chapter 12, where Christian living is addressed.Romans 12:1-2 tells us to worship God and not be tempted to conform to the culture of the worldly nations we live in. Romans 12:3-8 tells us that within the body of Jesus, we all have specific gifts for lifting up the Church. Romans 12:9-13 tells us the importance of love and caring for other people. Romans 12:14-16 tells us to bless and love those who persecute us. Romans 12:17-21 tells us never to repay evil, never to take revenge, to feed our enemies, and to overcome evil with good. (the original letter didn’t have chapter markers) Romans 13:1-7 tells us to not be in violent rebellion against our enemy—the state. Romans 13:8-10 wraps up by telling us that only love fulfills the law.
Romans 12 and 13 take the reader on a progression of living rightly from within Church community, to the local community, to how we live in relation to those who persecute us, to how we live in relation to our enemies. Romans 13 describes our enemies, not permitted occupations. This is grammatically proven by the pronouns that Paul uses. In Romans 12, Paul constantly addresses ‘you’ (Romans 12:14-21 ESV). While in Romans 13, Paul uses the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘his’ (Romans 13:3-4 ESV). The first part of Romans 13 isn’t talking about Christians in authority; it is talking about Caesar and his appointed rulers.
Paul believed that Jesus will return to destroy everyone in governments (1 Corinthians 15:24-25 NLT). Paul’s first-century context couldn’t imagine Christians taking part in the Roman government. It wouldn’t make any sense then, and it doesn’t make any sense now. Working in government doesn’t exempt a follower of Jesus from the clear command to love one’s enemies. A person carrying a sword (or a gun) faces an unfortunate choice: love their enemies (as commanded by Christ) or kill them (as commanded by Caesar). Christians should never work for governments.
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.”
For he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.
An Alternate Interpretation
No matter which way you slice it, Romans 13 is tricky. It doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the New Testament’s teachings at first glance. Perhaps Romans 13 is so tricky because of Paul’s situation. Paul was writing to a church deep in the heart of the world’s most evil empire to date. Christians were a persecuted minority known for treasonous sedition. His letters were not secret and would have been subject to inspection by Roman government soldiers (Galatians 2:4-5). For this reason, the letter could have been cleverly written so as to appear compliant with the Roman government but also so a truly knowledgable Christian would have no doubt as to what it actually meant. So here below is a possible alternative interpretation.
Which authorities is Paul referring to?
The early Church understood that Jesus was King and Caesar was not. Caesar claimed a false authority by the power of the sword—deception, terror, and murder. Caesar claimed for himself what God the Father gave to his Son: all authority in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:18). Caesar was not a valid authority. So what if Paul didn’t mean Caesar when he said, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”? Instead, what if he meant the only valid authority, which is Jesus and his body? After all, the correct and only path to full Kingship for Jesus was through the cross, not through the sword. So Caesar’s authority, bought with the blood of the sword, was invalidated by Jesus’ example. According to Paul, Jesus is “the blessed and only Ruler” (1 Timothy 6:15, 1:17; Acts 17:6-7; James 4:12). God’s words to Hosea seem to validate this, “They set up kings without my consent; they choose princes without my approval.” (Hosea 8:4). Romans 13 begins to make more sense if understood in this light.
A terror for those who do right?
For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong.
God’s true and valid rulers are truly not a terror to those who do right. But does Paul actually think that Caesar is not a terror to those who do right? Not at all.
We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.
1 Corinthians 2:6-8
Paul clearly thinks that governments are a terror to those who do right, saying, “Remember… my gospel, for which I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal… In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2 Timothy 2:8-9, 3:12). The rulers of Rome were certainly a terror for Paul who was doing right. So if Paul is referring to Jesus in Romans 13:3 then he indeed holds no terror for those who do right.
What about the rulers who do “not bear the sword in vain”?
We know from Jesus that anyone who wields actual swords does indeed do so in vain (Matthew 26:52, Revelation 13:10 NLV), so Paul could likely be speaking metaphorically. Several places in the New Testament refer to Jesus’s words of truth as a metaphorical sword (Ephesians 6:17, Matthew 10:34; Hebrews 4:12; Revelation 1:16; 19:15, 21). If Jesus is in view as the valid authority, then his sword would be the truth.
What about Paul telling us to pay taxes?
Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
To whom are taxes and customs owed? Paul previously was arrested for practicing non-Roman customs (Acts 16:20-22). Does Paul believe that Christians owe Rome the practicing of their customs? No, of course not. Does Paul think that Christians owe Caesar taxes? Also no. You can notice that Paul, just like Jesus, never actually tells his readers to pay taxes. Tax collectors were hated because the Jews understood that taxation was theft—or extortion more precisely.
Governments demand money from people without their consent and will use violence and/or murder if anyone refuses to pay. By the very definition used to arrest any normal person for committing this action, taxation is theft. Stealing is outlawed because it is wrong. “You shall not steal” (Romans 13:9). So governments do to people what they don’t allow their subjects to do to them. This violates what Paul continues on to say is the summary of the whole law: “love your neighbor as yourself.” So to whom are taxes owed? Paul answers his own question, “owe no one anything except to love each other” (Romans 13:8 ESV).
The Enemies of God
Romans 13 doesn’t teach that we should obey governments. We obey God, not men. God doesn’t choose who is in government, he merely arranges them the best he is able while maintaining our free will. God doesn’t approve of any violence done by any person, whether they are his children or not. And since government leaders are given their authority directly from the devil, of course, Romans 13 doesn’t give Christians permission to ever be a part of any government.
Jesus didn’t consider human rulers to be true rulers and authorities (Mark 10:42-45). He considers them to be his enemies, which he will destroy (1 Corinthians 15:24-25 NLT).10 He rebukes their supposed ‘authority,’ and so should we.
- William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 1042.
- Henry George Liddell et al., A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 1897.
- Eller emphasizes that to “be subject to” does not mean to worship, to “recognize the legitimacy of” or to “own allegiance to.” Eller, Vernard. Christian Anarchy: Jesus’ Primacy over the Powers, Wipf and Stock, 1999.
- Tassō in verse 1 means “arranges” and so does diatagē in verse 2 (John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994], 201-202). Ernst Käsemann argued that the term used in Romans 13:2 deals only with the sovereign action of God by which he makes arrangements in creation (Ernst Käsemann, Commentary on Romans [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980], 356). In his commentary on Romans, Karl Barth held to this interpretation also, suggesting that the powers that be have no overtones of recognizing their legitimacy or being worthy of our allegiance. Yoder added this additional insight: “The medieval and the classic Protestant idea of government as being specifically instituted by an act of the divine will always assumes that if it were not for this creative act ‘anarchy’ would reign. But in real history there is no such thing as anarchy. Where one power does not rule, another does” (The Politics of Jesus, 202). It should also be noted that the language in Romans 13:4 about the governing authorities being “God‘s servant” doesn‘t mean that they love and obey God consciously. It just means they are agents of God‘s use. God used the bloodthirsty Assyrians to accomplish His will, and they are called God’s “warriors” for that reason (Isaiah 10:5-7, 12-13; 13:3-5). In the same way, Scripture calls the pagan king Cyrus God’s “anointed” (Isaiah 45:1, 4, 13).
- Yoder, John H., Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution, p. 329.
- For a more expansive study of other gods found in the Bible, see Heiser, Michael S.. Supernatural: What the Bible Teaches about the Unseen World And Why It Matters. Lexham Press.
- Walter Wink, Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984).
- Molnár, A Study of Peter Chelčický’s Life, 95
- Douglas J. Moo, “The Letters and Revelation,” in NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018), 2042.
- ‘Destroy’ here in 1 Corinthians 15 is clearly metaphorical of him destroying their false authority, since in verse 25 they are still alive as he humbles them beneath his feet.