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Spring 1985 · Vol. 14 No. 1 · pp. 44–50 

The Christian and the Authorities: Romans 13:1-7

Harold J. Dyck

Romans 13:1-7 is widely recognized as the standard Biblical text for an exposition of the Christian view of the state. This is not to suggest that it is the only one; 1 Peter 2:13-17 and Titus 3:1 represent parallel views, and such material from the Gospels as Mark 12:13-17, on the question of the tribute, has played a vital role in the discussion. Revelation 13 is often held to be at least as important as Romans 13 in describing the New Testament attitude toward the state. Nevertheless, no other text has seemed as definitive about the nature and status of political authority in view of God’s rule in Christ. As such, it has an extensive history of interpretation which cannot be reviewed here. We also cannot set forth a detailed exegesis of the passage, but we can identify the points where interpretation is critical and set the direction for a faithful and helpful understanding of the text.

Be subject . . . in general. Pay what is due them . . . up to a point.

It is generally agreed that 13:1-7 is part of a larger unit. Chapters 12 and 13 form a whole, which consists of instructions to the faithful concerning their relations to each other and to those about them. Lasserre maintains, therefore, that submission to authorities “should be interpreted by reference not to any doctrine of the State but to the brotherly charity to which believers are called.” 1 Yoder agrees, and adds that the hope in 13:11-14 is so central to the unit that it both motivates and explains the submission called for in vv. 1-7. 2 In support of this, it should be observed that the text fits smoothly into the surrounding material. The transition from 12:21 {45} to 13:1 is a natural one, given the frequency with which the enemies of the church were precisely those who held power. That the obligations listed in 13:7 should be followed by the general love injunction to “owe no one anything” (v.8), is also not surprising. Love of neighbor, which fulfills the law (vv. 8-10), is quite properly seen as a general expression of the larger theme of which 13:1-7 is only a part. Our interpretation must then be informed by the unit as a whole and cannot simply be taken in some private direction of our own choosing.

It cannot be denied, on the other hand, that this section deserves attention in its own right. Kaesemann’s argument, advanced on literary grounds, that it is an “alien body in Paul’s exhortation” 3 is overstated: but it is true that Paul gives this topic more space than he gives other topics in the larger unit. While we should be careful, therefore, not to inflate the role of 13:1-7 in defining a Christian view of the state or to free it from the constraints of its context, its contribution to the subject is not ruled out by contextual factors.

The passage may be summarized as follows: Paul’s readers are to be subject to the governing authorities and not to resist them, for they have been instituted by God. The ruler is, in fact, God’s servant for their good, bearing the sword as an avenger to execute God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Those who do good need not fear, but may expect approval. Conscience, not only fear of wrath, should motivate their subjection as the authorities attend to their service of God. Taxes, revenues, respect, and honor should, therefore, be rendered to those to whom they are due.

It may be said, in general, that two related concerns are apparent: (1) to establish a right way of thinking about rulers, and (2) to promote a right relationship to them. The former is seen in reference to the authorities’ institution by God (v. 1) and in their role as servants (vv. 4,6). The latter is evident in the admonitions to be subject (vv. 1,5) and to fulfill all proper obligations (v. 7). It may also be observed that these concerns are expressed roughly as two sets and in reverse order:

Admonition: “be subject” (for) Assertion: “authorities are instituted”
Assertion: “ruler is God’s servant” (therefore) Admonition: “pay dues”

For the purposes of clarity, further discussion will begin in each case with the assertion, which is given logical priority.

THE FIRST SET (13:1-2)

Concerning Authorities

It is widely believed that by the “governing authorities,” Paul means the state as a concrete reality and that he is here advancing a religious endorsement of the state. However, the state as presently understood, that is, as a constituted expression of democratic or socialist ideals and established along national lines, was foreign to Paul. Whether Paul had in mind the empire or the Greek polis (city), it is usually held that he would have meant his {46} remarks to apply to any state which happens to exist, whether benevolent or tyrannical, and regardless of its form. The reference to “all authority,” without discrimination or qualification, argues in favor of this view. Lutheran interpretation is generally associated with this position.

It is the Reformed view that Paul means no particular state, but the state in the abstract, the idea of the state. Every given state, then, gives relative but concrete expression to the purposes for which it is ordained, and is therefore entitled to be obeyed. Sometimes a state may, however, abandon its calling so thoroughly that a revolt may be justified (e.g., the Puritan revolt in England) without negating the spirit of this text.

A perspective promoted by Cullmann in The State in the New Testament is that, as in other passages, the “authorities” (exousiai) denote angelic or demonic beings that lie behind all human government. Lasserre’s analysis makes some use of this and Yoder regards it as at least a possibility. 4 The state may then be “demonized” at the same time as it is instituted by God. F. F. Bruce finds Paul’s description of the authorities too concrete to accept such a view; but he also asks, “Can we recognize Paul’s magistrate, ‘the minister of God’ . . . in John’s ‘beast from the abyss,’ who receives his authority from the great dragon . . . ?” and answers, “We can indeed.” 5

Kaesemann sees no metaphysical background in the text and argues that the exousiai or “powers” are easily recognized in Hellenistic usage as political leaders. He deplores also the tendency of exegesis to seek a “maximum” interpretation where a “minimum” one is demanded. The text, he writes, is not really dealing with the state as such, but with functionaries with whom Christians have to do. 6 Actually, many who use the word “state” in their analysis, seem to mean something very similar. “Neither Paul, nor Christians in their lives, are concerned with the abstract entity of the state,” writes Brunner, “but with persons who have something definite to do, who occupy a definite position, and expect something definite from them.” 7 On the whole, this is a sensible position. It allows for an ordinary reading of the terms for authorities, it accommodates easily the transitions between singular and plural usage, and it does not call for undue stretching into abstractions. It says simply that, along with other kinds of people with whom Christians may well have difficulty, there are also people of authority. Like masters to slaves, they are a fact of life, and they must be related to in the spirit of Christ.

Paul’s claim is that the authorities have been instituted by God. This is the heart of the argument, and all agree that a positive value is here being recognized. Luther finds this to mean that governmental power (in itself) is good and of God (even if rulers are wicked). Relating it to the church, as discussed in chapter 12, he writes

The former serves the guidance and peace of the inner (spiritual) man and his concerns; the latter serves that of the outward (earthly) man and his concerns. (That is, the church directs people as Christians; the state, as citizens.) 8

The obvious problem for the idea of the divine institution of all authority is the fact of evil government, which in the text seems not to be excepted. {47} Luther’s approach in directing attention to government in itself is followed by many. Kaesemann, echoing Barth at this point, rejects any notions of justice as the foundation of the state, for “Paul does not forget that the world is fallen creation, and it is only “by God’s will” that “even the fallen world can point to the order which God has set up.” 9 Lasserre holds that, “while all authority comes from God in principle,” it does not follow that all de facto authorities are equally ordained by him. “His view that political authority remains a “sign” of Christ’s sovereignty and God’s judgment is similar to Kaesemann’s.” 10

Yoder presents another option. He does not read the text to say that God ordains, or institutes, the state, but simply that he orders it.

Likewise God does not take the responsibility for the existence of the rebellious “powers that be” or for their shape or identity; they already are. What the text says is that he orders them, brings them into line, that by his permissive government he lines them up with his purpose.” 11

The participle tetagmenai, from the verb tasso, does have the idea of order at its root, and this is not lost in its derived forms, although it is usually understood to mean “ordained,” “determined, or “instituted,” both in Hellenistic and New Testament use. 12 In thus elevating the root meaning of the verb, Yoder parts with the mainstream of interpretive tradition; but, in doing so, he is able to apply the term to all existing authorities, as the text seems to do, without resorting to distinctions between de jure and de facto or between actual authorities and authority “in itself” to solve the problem.

Kaesemann, indeed, is not far from this when he writes that “the text deals only with the sovereign action of God by which he makes arrangements, sets up instruments, and in place of earthly equality sanctions super- and sub-ordination.” 13

Yoder may well be right, but whatever solution we adopt, it must square both with the realistic view found elsewhere in Paul and the New Testament, not to mention human history, of actual evil and pretension in all human government. Paul also knows this evil is true of the state which is of God.

Concerning Subjection

Paul calls for every person to be subject to the authorities on the ground discussed above. Pacifists, like Lasserre and Yoder, can be expected to limit the degree of subjection intended, and they do, but there is in fact almost complete consensus that subjection here does not mean absolute obedience. The apostles’ words, “We must obey God rather than men,” (Acts 5:29) are universally accepted as a limitation of the requirement to be subject. Often, however, this is applied only to the specific mandate to evangelize. An exception is also generally made when the state deifies itself and demands recognition as such. On other matters, the state’s authority is often regarded as absolute. Luther’s distinction between the jurisdictions of church and state allows for almost unlimited political authority in outward matters. Unlike the soul, however, which touches the external world, he claims that “the spirit is exalted and subject to no one.” 14 Moral integrity is thus preserved in the {48} inner life.

Others also permit morally motivated limitations to outward obedience. Mennonites, who have always taken this position, are becoming accustomed to seeing other Christians resorting to civil disobedience on issues ranging from welfare to abortion, racism, and the illegal harboring of refugees. One difficulty in this position is that Christians disagree not only on whether disobedience on moral issues not specifically religious is allowed by Paul, but also on what the moral demands are (witness the dividing of ranks on the issues cited above). The apparent difficulty of reconciling even warranted disobedience with submission can be answered, first, by observing that respectful disobedience is possible while remaining subject and, second, by acknowledging that the subjection required by the text is not absolute.

Obviously, more than a piecemeal approach to the limiting of subjection is required. We must establish the basis for disobedience to powers “ordained by God” as well as sketch legitimate occasions for disobedience. This entails a corresponding limitation of that ordination itself. Barth rightly calls for a fundamental recognition of the Powers’ spurious claim to be “that order and direction which constitute the solution of the problem” for which only the rule of Christ is the solution. Paul wants Christians neither to legitimate the state nor to revolt against it, but simply not to disobey its ordinances. This constitutes for Barth a comprehensive “negative behavior in a human not-doing” 15 which stands over against the “great positive possibility” of 13:8-14. The implication is that only when we have freed ourselves from false hopes in governmental institutions are we free to place our hopes elsewhere, and then give such obedience to the passing powers as we can.

Paul’s real task, then, is not to encourage an exalted view of the state, but to discourage rebellion. The temptation to revolt is probably in view in verse 2, where it is regarded as both futile and wrong. The rising tide of zealotry in Palestine cannot have escaped Paul’s notice. Though it may not be the background for this text, it may have made him more acutely aware of similar tendencies among other Roman subjects. Moreover, it is not simply his relatively good experience under Roman law at this stage that motivates this attitude, but his desire that love of neighbor should prevail (vv. 8-10) and his conviction that the night of the present age must yield to the new day of the end of the age (vv. 11-14). Such a hope is quite the opposite of the hope that underlies rebellion, and it harbors no illusions about the immediate prospects. It calls for the bodily sacrifice and renewal of mind (12:1-2) with which this section begins.


Concerning Authorities

Rulers are here presented as servants of God. It is tempting to find in the words diakonos (v. 4) and leitourgoi (v. 6) a suggestion of sacred ministry that runs parallel to that of Christ’s servants in the church. This is possible especially with the latter term, which often carries a ritualistic connotation, {49} but it is also found in non-religious settings where the dignity of office is in mind. Probably the ordinary use is meant here. If the parallel is intended, it certainly does not equate the unwitting service rendered by the authorities with the conscious service of the apostles. A better model for thinking about this is the designation of the pagan Cyrus as God’s “shepherd” and God’s “anointed” (Isa. 44:28-45:1), not because he is being given messianic status, but because he is the unknowing instrument of God. Like the nation of Assyria, “the rod of (God’s) anger” (Isa. 10:5), the ruler in our text, as God’s servant, is “an avenger for wrath” (v. 4), an agent of God’s purposes in society.

The ruler bears the sword and is expected to bring “wrath” upon those who do evil. This is a role forbidden to Christians, who are told to leave vengeance to God (12:19). Paul seems to mean that the rulers are God’s agents in this function, although Lasserre sees their punitive functions only as “signs” of divine judgment and not as God’s wrath itself. 16 Paul’s portrait of society as a domain where rulers need to be feared only by evildoers is quite out of touch with history unless he means to be understood only in a relative and in the most general sense. It is just in that sense that evil rulers do have a good effect. It is for that reason that being good citizens is practically worthwhile. Paul knows there is more to a Christian mentality than fear of punishment. That is why he appeals also to conscience as a basis for doing good (being “subject” in v. 5 is the way to avoid wrath, and is therefore parallel to doing good in vv. 3-4).

Paul’s reference to the diligence of the authorities, presumably in punishing the wicked and approving the good (v. 6), seems equally romantic unless it is again understood in only a general sense. Most interpreters do so but Yoder finds it surprising for the participle proskartemuntes to be so regularly regarded as simply another predication of rulers. From a grammatical standpoint, he notes, it should be considered an adverbial modifier. The sentence would then read, “they are ministers of God when they devote themselves . . .” and would not seem to express approval for everything the authorities actually do. 17 His point is well made but both options are grammatically possible. In either case, the statement does not imply approval of all that the state does. It restates the earlier truth that rulers are serving God’s purposes in their official functions, which are for the general good.

Concerning Subjection

A proper response of believers to rulers is to do nothing to deserve punishment. They are to be generally obedient and, in doing good, to show themselves subject. Conscience should motivate them to give due recognition to the role of the authorities.

Paul concludes these instructions with the admonition to pay each what is due to each. As in the injunction of Jesus to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17), what is due to whom is not made explicit. Calvin sees in all four elements listed in verse 7 “the particulars in which the duties of subjects to magistrates consist.” 18 Others doubt that the authorities are entitled to fear and honor. Some {50} are persuaded that taxes are not always due, just as obedience is not. It is probably best to apply the same logic here as in the initial command to “be subject.” The problem cannot be solved by assigning two or four of the “dues” to the authorities and directing the rest to God. The entire thrust of the text is toward the acknowledgement of at least the tentative legitimacy of the authorities’ demands and away from resistance. To some degree, they are due all of the obligations listed in v. 7. But they are due none of them absolutely. Therein lies the ongoing tension which calls for courage and discernment in the church.


  1. Jean Lasserre, War and the Gospel (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1962), p. 101.
  2. John H. Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1972), p. 198.
  3. Ernst Kaesemann, Commentary on Romans (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1980), p. 352.
  4. Yoder, p. 196.
  5. F. F. Bruce, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1966), p. 234.
  6. Kaesemann, p. 354.
  7. Emil Brunner, The Letter to the Romans (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1959), p. 110.
  8. Martin Luther, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publ. Co., 1954), p. 164.
  9. Kaesemann, p. 356.
  10. Lasserre, pp. 104-5.
  11. Yoder, p. 203.
  12. Gerhard Delling, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, VIII (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1972), pp. 27-31.
  13. Kaesemann, p. 356.
  14. Luther, p. 165.
  15. Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans (London: Oxford University Press, 1933), p. 477.
  16. Lasserre, p. 108.
  17. Yoder, pp. 207-8.
  18. John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1947), p. 483.
Harold Dyck teaches Bible and Theology at Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas.

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