A Tyrant’s Dream? (Disarming Romans 13.1-7)

For most of this series on Empire and Spirit, we’ve seen how the stories of our Scriptures and the teachings of Jesus and Paul challenged Rome’s power and authority. But as I noted last week, this isn’t the whole story. In that post, I looked at Jesus’ famous teaching, to “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.” Today, I have to turn to a far more difficult passage, Romans 13.1-7, a passage which Neil Elliott has called “the reef that threatens to capsize every Christian liberative project.” *

It’s easy to see what Elliott means. The passage reads like a tyrant’s dream and has been used throughout history time and time again — from Nazi Germany to Guatemala to the United States today — by the powerful to justify authoritarian actions, consolidate power, and silence and discredit opposition. In these seven verses, Paul:

  • gives all secular government divine authority (13.1, 4)
  • marks all political rebels as working against God (13.2)
  • voices the common — and untrue — refrain that you only have to fear the authorities if you’re doing something wrong (13.3); and
  • commands Christians to submit to authorities (13.5).

What on Earth are we to make of this?

I think there are several ways we can (and, indeed must) disarm the text.

Before we do anything else, we must remind ourselves of the passage’s context within Romans as a whole. Because of a serendipitous alignment with the Sunday lectionary, we’ve spent the past two Sundays in Romans 12, from beginning to end. We’ve seen that it casts a vision for what a community built on the principles of the Gospel, rather than Empire, looks like. This community is rooted in genuine love: people whose love for God and each other transcends barriers of gender, ethnicity, class, and education to the point where they understand that they are as intimately interconnected as parts of the same body. The chapter ends with an exhortation not to fight evil with evil but to overcome it with good. As Sylvia K. Keesmaat and Brian J. Walsh note, in Romans 12, Paul “is striving to engender an alternative imagination that will shape a new and liberating household of faith at the center of the empire.”

In this context, Romans 13.1-7 is particularly jarring. Paul casts a revolutionary vision of a new way of being and follows it with what seem to be reactionary words requiring obedience to forces which promote the exact opposite vision. Indeed, it marks such a drastic shift in tone and message that some scholars have assumed it must be a later interpolation. While such a radical proposal has received little support among biblical scholars and theologians, it does remind us that no matter what these seven verses mean, they do not undo the rest of what Paul has to say about Empire and must be interpreted within that broader context.

In other words, our goal must be to interpret these seven verses as just as much an expression of life in the household of God as the teachings on humility, genuine relationships, and forgiveness that precede them. (This goal is further justified by Romans 13.8ff, which returns to the theme of love as the fulfillment of the law.) So, how does this text which has been so often used to prop up the powerful few and silence the many, fit into the ethic of this Christian community of love?

The first point is that we hear this passage quite differently from how it must have sounded to its first readers. Paul’s affirmation that civil authorities are established by God is not the ringing endorsement of authoritarianism it seems to be. He isn’t repeating the law-and-order platitudes of Empire, but is, rather, drawing on ancient Biblical traditions which subjugate the world’s self-serious Empires to God: Egypt, Assyria, Babylon were all understood in the Prophets to have been raised up by God only to be cast aside when they had served their purpose; and, as with Babylon, so with Rome. This is far from the narratives of imperial propaganda. As Elliott puts it, “The emperor was a ‘god upon the earth’, and the notion that he and his officials served the Jewish God would have been doubly offensive to the auctoritas [that is, ‘authority, gravitas, initiative’] and projected self-image of the emperor.” Similarly, N.T. Wright considers Romans 13 to be “a severe demotion of arrogant and self-divinizing rulers.” And so, while to our ears this passage seems to grant government an uncomfortable amount of divine authority, it would have struck its first readers very differently. Any power Rome had was conditional and hanging by a thread.

Secondly, we have to ask what Paul means by ‘submitting’. The word Paul uses, a form of ὑποτάσσω (hypotasso, ‘place, set down’), refers primarily to the orderly arrangement of things and people. It does not have a moral or cognitive connotation; as Ben Witherington III notes, Greek had three verbs that meant ‘obey’, and Paul doesn’t use any of them. What Paul is talking about is a disposition of one’s energies and efforts, not a disposition of the heart or mind. Paul is opposing lawlessness and anarchy, nothing more and nothing less. As Paul’s own life demonstrates, submitting to authorities included the strong and necessary possibility of civil disobedience, provided one was willing to accept the punishment the government meted out for it. This interpretation is borne out by the historical record. For, as surprising as it may be to us, in the early centuries after Christ, the ideas of Romans 13.1-7 were most often found on the lips of martyrs:

  • Polycarp of Smyrna proclaimed at his martyrdom: “We have been taught to show appropriate honor to the principalities and powers ordained by God, if that does not compromise us” (Martyrdom of Polycarp 10).
  • Apollonius of Rome, at his trial before the Senate, declared that Jesus “taught us to tame our anger, to moderate our desires, to bridle our cravings, to banish sadness, to be peaceable, to increase in love, to lay aside vanity, not to permit ourselves to be carried away with vengeance toward those who offend us, to despise death on the basis of a legal sentence, not because one has done wrong, but by bearing it patiently, additionally to obey the laws of Caesar and to honor him; however, to worship and adore God alone, the only immortal one” (Acts of Scilitan Martyrs 37).
  • A North African Christian named Speratus in the late 2nd Century is reputed to have said: “We have never done evil to anyone and have in no manner worked for the cause of injustice: we have never cursed, we have rather been thankful when we were mistreated; therefore we give honor to Caesar” (Acts of the Scilitan Martyrs 2).
  • The same text records the pithier remark by the martyr Donata: “Honor Caesar as Caesar, but fear God!” (Acts of the Scilitan Martyrs 9).

These Christian martyrs’ insistence that they were respectful and law-abiding subjects of the Empire connects them with generations of Jewish martyrs who had preceded them (see for example the deuterocanonical books of the Maccabees for some of these stories), who willingly submitted to execution while proclaiming their clear conscience as those who honoured the state.

Both of the points we’ve looked at so far have shown how Romans 13.1-7 stands in continuity with — not in contrast to — the history of an oppressed people. Paul isn’t abandoning the oppressed and marginalized to the whims of Empire, but drawing on the traditional resources of his people that had provided them with the resilience to survive (and even thrive during) centuries of foreign domination.

The idea here isn’t to obey the state unquestionably, but not to court trouble. In a world where if you give them an inch they’ll take a mile, Paul is telling the Roman Christians not to give them an inch. It’s reminiscent of a comment the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria makes comparing the authorities to large animals; you respect them not because they own you or control you, but because they could trample you and hardly notice. Read in this way, this text is not a sweeping approval of government power, but a strategic and limited one. It is limited because, as Talbert concludes, “All that is asked of the readers is that they ‘do good,’ ‘pay taxes,’ and ‘honor and respect those in power.’ All that is legitimately ascribed to the authorities is punishing the evil and rewarding the good.” And, it is strategic because the point isn’t to reject faithful civil disobedience, but to ensure civil disobedience is faithful: There may come a time when you need to disobey the law for the sake of your faith, so don’t muddy the waters and discredit that faithful act of disobedience by being a scofflaw. Pay your taxes, give the state and its officers their due respect, and don’t go looking for trouble. This approach has the benefit of not only keeping the members of the community relatively safe, but also by revealing the actions of the oppressive state for what they are: acts of evil and brutality, without any just cause.

What we have in Romans 13.1-7, then, is an elaboration on what Paul means in 12.21, where he exhorted his readers not to fight evil with evil but to overcome it with goodness. It asks, “How does the household of Jesus relate to the household that is subject to a ‘Lord Caesar’ who is the embodied political opposite of the Lord Christ?” (Keesmaat and Walsh, 134). In working this out, Paul follows the teachings of Jesus, who taught us to turn the other cheek and to bless our persecutors. It is not a legitimation of government oppression, but embodies the same spirit of nonviolent resistance that inspired pacifist Anabaptist communities in Eastern Europe, the Indian Salt March, the sit-ins and marches of the American Civil Rights movement, and continues to inspire activists and community organizers to this day. This doesn’t make it any less challenging or difficult or controversial. As I tried to show in the post on Sunday, Christian love is hard work; and this particular expression of that love is perhaps harder still. But it is the way of Jesus and I am convinced that when lived out, it is nothing short of apocalyptic in its power to transform the world.

In light of this, the problem with Romans 13.1-7 is not a text insufficiently opposed to repressive governments, but that we’ve allowed it to be co-opted by the forces of evil. We have allowed words which were “first found on the lips of martyrs” (Elliott) to justify silence in the face of all manner of oppression. And so, perhaps the best way to end this study is to put the words back on the lips of the martyrs:

Honour Caesar as Caesar, but fear God.


* See the bibliography for the series for details.

6 thoughts on “A Tyrant’s Dream? (Disarming Romans 13.1-7)

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