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Fall 1994 · Vol. 23 No. 2 · pp. 90–97 

Submission to Governing Authorities: A Study of Romans 13:1-7

Matthew G. Neufeld

Romans 13:1-7 is one of the most well-known and most hotly debated texts in the Pauline corpus. Historically it has been used by theologians and political leaders to justify various political orders, be they benevolent or oppressive in practice. The text has also served the cause of revolutions aimed at liberating the oppressed from unjust forms of government. Thus, an interpreter should approach Romans 13:1-7 with great caution. My attempt at an interpretation of this controversial passage centers on an understanding of the recipients of Paul’s letter, that is, the situation of the Christian communities in Rome. Based on this contextual reading of the text, I hope to show that in Romans 13:1-7, Paul did not set out a rigid doctrine of the State, nor of Church-State relations, but rather gave advice to a particular community of faith in a particular historical context. In Romans 13:1-7, Paul’s concern was primarily pastoral. He advised the Jewish Christians in Rome to submit to the governing authorities. Such action would keep them from withholding taxes or from becoming involved in any anti-Roman protests through sympathy with Palestinian Jewish nationalism. {91}


Romans 13:1-7 is part of the ethical advice that the readers encounter in chapters 12-15. Alan Culpepper has argued that in these four chapters, Paul is making it clear that he intends his previous theological arguments to call forth a response of gratitude and commitment which will reorient the life of the community. 1 If gratitude and commitment are Paul’s hope for the Roman believers, how does one understand the sudden shift in subject matter that occurs between 12:21 and 13:1, and continues for the next six verses? Some scholars, such as James Kallas, have argued that 13:1-7 is a later interpolation into the main body of Romans. 2 The text does indeed seem to be a self-contained unit within the ethical advice section of the letter (usually called “parenesis”). In a paranaetic section, breaks in the flow of material are not unusual.

Paul’s directions are for Jewish Christians to refrain from nationalistic agitations; here is not a universal manifesto on church-state relations.

Paul argues for an attitude of love and nonresistance in the face of suffering (chap. 12), hence it is not inconceivable that he should discuss the Roman community’s relationship to the governing authorities (the State) further on in the ethical section. Paul may have decided at this point in the epistle (13:1) to address a problem the Romans were experiencing. I believe that although the argument of 13:1-7 seems to stand on its own, it is not an interpolation and should be understood within the context, namely a letter written to a group (or groups) of people committed to a new Messiah who are living in the capital of the Empire.


It is important to identify exactly what Paul is arguing in a given text and how he attempts to convince the readers of his thesis, since not all of his examples and assertions are necessarily doctrinal. I begin by examining the text itself; the key words of the argument are shown in English together with the Greek.

Romans 13:1-7 3

(1) Let every person be subject (hypotassō) to the governing authorities (exousiais hyperechousasis); for there is no authority (exousia) except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted (tassō) by God. (2) Therefore, whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. (3) For rulers (archontes) are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; (4) for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. {92} (5) Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but because of conscience. (6) For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. (7) Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.

The thesis of Paul’s argument is in verse 1a, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities.” Paul then supports his thesis by appealing to different reasons why the Roman Christians are to submit to the authorities. First, no authority exists except from God, and all authorities that exist have been instituted by God (13:1b). Second, rulers are not a terror to good conduct but rather to bad (13:3a). Third, the authority/ruler is God’s servant in three ways: for the Romans’ good, to execute wrath on the wrongdoer, and by being busy with “this very thing,” that is, collecting taxes (13:4a,4c,6b). Paul intersperses his reasons with examples and consequences, such as at 13:2 where he notes the results of resisting authority. He also makes a noticeable shift from making statements of fact (the indicative mood) to a command “pay to all what is due them” (the imperative mood) at 13:7, thus connecting submission to the authorities with a duty to pay taxes and offer revenue. The reasons (facts) for submission to the governing authorities are fundamental to Paul’s command that the Roman Christians fulfill their civic obligations. In summary, Paul is arguing that because the authorities were instituted by God, and continue to serve both God and the Christian, the Roman believers must submit to their rule. He is telling the Roman believers that the rulers of Rome are to be respected and obeyed for reasons of conscience and their possible wrath (13:5).

J. I. H. McDonald is right in his contention that the logic of Romans 13:1-7 is not conditioned by a dogmatic or philosophical theory of State power, but is Paul’s assessment of the positive function of the authorities from his vantage point within the first-century Roman Empire. 4 Paul’s linking of the governing authorities and God springs out of a particular set of historical circumstances. As we shall see below, this glowing account of the Imperium’s function and nature is part of his pastoral or paranaetic concern for the Roman Church.


At this point it is helpful to define the main words Paul uses to convince his readers of their need to submit to the authorities and rulers. The work hypotassō (to be subject, to submit) is a hierarchical term which stresses the relation of a person to his or her superiors; in Classical Greek it means {93} “to place under.” Gerhard Delling points out that the subordination which hypotassō connotes may be either voluntary or compulsory. 5 It appears from the context of chapter 13 that the mark of a Christian is selfless love for the other (cf. chap. 12). The argument of 13:1-7 itself is that the Christian should voluntarily submit him/herself in love to divinely instituted authorities.

Underlying Paul’s argument in Romans 13:1-7 is the conviction that the authorities have been instituted (tassō) 6 by God. Tassō has numerous nuances, meaning to appoint, to order, to ordain, or to determine. John H. Yoder has argued that tassō should be translated “ordered” in Romans 13:2 because God does not take responsibility for the State as such, but “brings it into line.” 7 Ernst Käsemann asserts that the term deals only with the sovereign action of God by which he makes arrangements in creation. 8 Whether Paul is saying that God instituted or arranged the authorities (exousia), it is clear that Paul believes God did not err in his actions regarding the authorities (powers) and rulers.

The Greek terms that refer to the governing authorities (exousiais hyperechousais) are exousia (powers) and archontes (rulers). 9 In Classical Greek, exousia refers to an ability to perform an action and the right or permission to perform that action, while archon means one who exercises a divinely-willed rule over individual parts of the world. In the New Testament, “power” is linked with the power of God in nature, referring as well to both earthly and angelic beings. A “ruler” may imply a supernatural commander of spiritual forces, or one who leads and oversees human beings. The ambiguous nature of these two words leads one to a major textual problem of Romans 13:1-7.

The Identity of the “Authorities/Rulers”

One difficulty facing an interpreter of Romans 13:1-7 is the identity of the authorities/rulers (13:1,2,3,4,6). Are they spiritual or secular powers and rulers? Should the Christians in Rome submit to their Imperial masters, or only to the “spiritual power” which is the basis of Rome’s power and authority? Oscar Cullmann believes that the powers are angelic beings, which he links to a Jewish idea of a supernatural council of nations with a different angel representing each country. 10 The consensus view, however, is that Paul was referring to human beings in positions of authority, hence the NRSV translation of exousia as “authorities.” Walter Wink has pointed out, however, that Paul did not have a modern secular view of the State, and that it is improper for us to interpret the text by separating the earthly authorities from the heavenly powers, because Paul would have acknowledged their interconnectedness. 11 Nonetheless, it {94} appears that Paul had human powers in mind when he wrote to the Roman Church. That the archontes bear the sword is strong evidence for the view that Paul was concerned with the type of authorities Roman Christians might encounter in their everyday lives.


There are three main hypotheses for the historical and social context in Rome that formed the background to Paul’s argument in 13:1-7. Käsemann believes that Paul’s exhortation in chapter 12 is against “enthusiasm” and that this carries over into chapter 13, where Paul is “resisting the attitude which in virtue of heavenly citizenship views earthly authorities with indifference or contempt.” 12 The problem with this view is that “enthusiasm” is not apparent within the argument itself. Caution must be used with Käsemann’s conclusions; he has a tendency to draw questionable parallels between the situation in the Corinthian community and the one in Rome.

Another view, held by J. I. H. McDonald, is that the text refers to the problem of taxation during the beginning of Nero’s reign (56-58 CE). 13 This is supported by the inner logic of the text and what we now know of the popular outcry against taxation from the Roman historians Suetonius and Tacitus. Paul is thus warning his readers in 13:1-7 against joining a selfish opposition to excessive taxation, which is a form of conforming to “this world” (12:1-2).

A third way of understanding the social context has been proposed by Marcus Borg, a scholar known most recently for his work on the historical Jesus. 14 Borg believes that the Church in Rome had a sizable Jewish element who kept in contact with their kinsfolk in Palestine. These Roman Jewish Christians often suffered from anti-Jewish imperial policy in the capital, and were also aware of the hardships facing their brothers and sisters in Palestine, the land of God’s promise and elect people. Borg argues that some Jewish Christians, linked to Palestine by family and commercial ties, may have developed nationalistic, anti-Roman sentiments around 56 CE, a date accepted for the epistle’s composition. Such sentiments could only serve to fragment the Christian community in Rome along ethnic lines.

After having argued for the equality of Jews and Gentiles in God’s plan of salvation (Rom. 1:16-11:36), Paul perhaps realized the need to address concerns specific to his audience (Rom. 12). In 13:1-7 Paul advises Jewish Christians, recently returned to the Empire’s capital (after having been exiled by Emperor Claudius) against becoming involved in any {95} Palestinian-Jewish nationalist fervor. Unity among the Roman believers would be impossible in mixed Jew-Gentile communities, were the Jews to be voicing or even thinking anti-Roman (and anti-Gentile) ideas. Culpepper agrees with Borg that Paul’s specific concern in Romans 13:1-7 is that Jewish Christians refrain from joining a revolutionary, nationalistic movement which might undermine the unity of Jews and Gentiles in the Roman Church. 15

Borg’s understanding of the social context behind Romans 13 is most compelling. Paul expressed his understanding of the problem of the Jews’ rejection of the gospel (chaps. 9-11), and in chapter 13 turns to a problem that could potentially divide Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome: their attitude towards the Empire. If the Jewish Christians in Rome were to agitate for the cleansing of the Holy Land from Roman/Gentile rule, a true spirit of unity in the church at Rome would be impossible. Paul, aware of this possibility, argued that as an extension of the love they have for one another, the Jewish Christians in Rome must accept the rule of the empire and not rebel or provoke another expulsion from the capital city.

McDonald is too narrow, in my opinion, in focusing solely on the inner logic of the passage and its concern with taxation. The problem of the Jewish people is behind much of the entire epistle (chaps. 9-11), and to interpret the text as a self-contained unit, contending that payment of taxes was Paul’s only concern, is not to allow the rest of the letter to inform the interpretation. For a Jewish person to withhold taxes from the Romans was itself a very subversive act; note the question put to Jesus to the lawfulness (rightness according to the Torah) of paying tax to Caesar (Mark 12:13-17).

Paul was not attempting in Romans 13:1-7 to write out a manifesto for Church-State relations for the next two or three millennia; his concern was pastoral and local. Pastorally concerned, Paul was advising against anti-Roman and Palestinian nationalist sentiments among the Jewish Christians in Rome. They were to submit to the governing authority (the Roman Empire) because its authority was derived from God.

Paul’s argument may have been difficult for a Jewish Christian in Rome, or elsewhere for that matter, to accept. How could one mentally connect the regime that was brutally oppressing and dominating Palestine, the promised land, with a good and just God? It may be that Paul’s Roman citizenship made him look more favorably at the Empire than would some of his Jewish kinsfolk, especially those from Palestine. The relative safety Rome’s rule afforded travellers might also have been a factor in Paul’s positive assessment of the Empire’s authority. It is a moot point whether Paul would have written about the need to submit to governing authorities, had he sent his epistle to the capital during Nero’s persecution of the {96} Church during the 60s CE. Nonetheless, a Jewish Christian living in Rome, should he or she heed Paul’s advice, would mean to put the unity of the Church, love for others, and obedience to God’s instituted authorities ahead of love for race and homeland. In short, love and obedience to God was to take precedence over national sentiments.

Another idea to keep in mind is to note that in 13:11-12, Paul’s end-time consciousness is apparent. This suggests that part of his argument for acquiescence to the governing authorities was based on his consciousness of the parousia’s (the end of the age) nearness. The hope that the world and the Empire itself was passing away (being rendered inoperative) might have given a Jewish Christian in Rome a sign of humanity’s ultimate liberation from all authorities, oppressive or otherwise. The very rulers that had been instituted by God, including even the Empire itself, were to be brought under the final rule of Christ on the near Day (13:12).


How then is a Christian in 1994, who is committed to nonresistance and discipleship, to respond to Paul’s argument for submission to governing authorities? One could argue that because Paul’s concern was specifically aimed at the Jewish Christians in Rome, Romans 13:1-7 has no direct implications for believers today. However, most Mennonites confess that the letters of Paul are more than just occasional documents; they are the Word of God, and as such speak to us even in the late twentieth century. Must we then submit to all authorities, since according to Paul there is no authority except from God? Should Christians have submitted to Hitler’s regime in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s? Are Mennonites in North America, Russia, or India to answer their government’s call to arms during a war, since government does not bear the sword in vain? These are difficult questions; I suggest some tentative replies.

One possible response to Paul’s counsel in Romans 13:1-7 in 1994 is to affirm that, although all governing authorities have been instituted by God, they have been tainted with human sin, and as such do not always conform to the rule of God. Clearly, Hitler’s regime, which produced massive death and destruction, was not an authority in God’s service (13:5). If a government or authority ceases to be a force for good and order, but instead becomes an instrument of evil and death, it is no longer a Christian’s duty to submit and obey that authority (cf. Acts 5:29).

A more characteristically “Mennonite” response to Romans 13:1-7 might be to claim that obedience to God, concern for the unity of the Church, and love for other people—the concerns that led Paul to direct the Christians in Rome to submit to imperial rulers—take precedence over {97} being subject to governing authorities. If a governing authority calls its citizenry to acts that run counter to obedience to God, Christian unity, and love for others, such as fighting in war, then a Mennonite may say with a clear conscience that he or she is heeding the call of God by refusing to submit and obey the government. It is God, the institutor of all authorities on earth, to whom a believer owes his or her ultimate allegiance. Submission to the authorities is not something a Mennonite or other Christian person does lightly. He or she must live as a citizen of two ages, aeons, or worlds: one to which the governing authorities are subordinate and which is passing away, and another, under the rule of Christ, that is struggling to be born (Rom. 8:23).


  1. Alan R. Culpepper., “God’s Righteousness in the Life of His People: Romans 12-15,” Review and Expositor 73 (4, 1974), 451.
  2. James Kallas, “Romans 13:1-7: An Interpolation,” New Testament Studies, 11 (1965), 365-66.
  3. The text is from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
  4. J. I. H. McDonald, “Romans 13:1-7: A Test Case for New Testament Interpretation,” New Testament Studies 35 (1989), 544.
  5. Gerhard Friedrich, ed. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume VIII. Translated by Geoffrey Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), s.v. “hypotassō” by Gerhard Delling, 39-46.
  6. Gerhard Friedrich, ed. TDNT, Volume III. (1972), s.v. “tassō” by Gerhard Delling, 27
  7. John H. Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966), 203.
  8. Ernst Käsemann, Commentary on Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 356.
  9. Gerhard Kittel, ed., TDNT Volume 11 (1964), s.v. “exousia” by Werner Foerester, 562-574; G. Kittel, TDNT, Volume I (1963), s.v. “archon” by G. Delling, 27-31.
  10. Oscar Cullmann, The State in the New Testament (London: SCM, 1957), 93-114.
  11. Walter Wink, Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984).
  12. Käsemann, Romans, 351.
  13. McDonald, “Romans 13:1-7,” 546.
  14. Marcus Borg, “A New Context for Romans XIII,” New Testament Studies 19 (1972-73), 205-18.
  15. Culpepper, “God’s Righteousness,” 457.
Matthew G. Neufeld is a recent graduate (1993) of Concord College in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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