Romans 13:7 (ESV)

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.

Romans 13:7 (NLT)

Give to everyone what you owe them: Pay your taxes and government fees to those who collect them, and give respect and honor to those who are in authority.

Of course, the context of Romans 13:1-6 is very important, but my focus is on this one verse. Did the NLT translators make a gross error or did they get it pretty much right?

To clarify, the ESV does not specify that government authorities are to be owed respect and honor. Thus it is possible to hold the position that if some authority does not deserve respect or honor, then don't give it to them. The NLT on the other hand pretty specifically says that government authorities do deserve respect and honor.


5 Answers 5


The ESV is clearly the more faithful to the way the Greek is structured as a result of their "essentially literal" philosophy. So each item that is owed is owed individually. I may owe taxes to the various levels of government, revenue to the people who work for me, respect to the people I work for, and honor to those people who deserve honor. Those categories may or may not overlap.

On the other hand, the strong parallel structure combined with the cultural assumptions of Paul's audience and the immediate context show he intended all of these things to be owed to those in authority. In the Psalms and in Paul's writing, heavily parallel phrases are meant to draw a line of equivalence between two or more concepts. For instance, earlier in the letter Paul writes:

And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.—Romans 8:30 (ESV)

In this case, it's a bit more clear that the same people are referred to in each clause. But the strong repetition of "and those whom ... he also ..." reinforces the connection. In Romans 13:7 it is possible that the parallel could be pointing to the principle of owing what is owed. However, in Roman culture, far more than our own, people forged powerful, hierarchical relationships with each other. Reading the rest of the letter, a Roman citizen might be assume that the patronage relationship Paul described between Jesus and the church might supplant the human relationships. This verse contradicts that misunderstanding.

And, of course, Paul uses the entire section starting with Romans 12:3 to make his point that we should not use the revolutionary work of Jesus on the cross to attempt to climb the social ladder. Paul reaffirms the philosophical notion of the chain of being, but asserts that God governs even the top human authorities. We don't have to leave our current network of obligations because ultimately God is in control of even our political processes.


The NLT is the only translation I could find that took the liberty of translating the end of verse 7 as "honour those in authority". The Good News Bible is in a similar vein in its translation of Romans 13:6-7:

That is also why you pay taxes, because the authorities are working for God when they fulfill their duties. Pay, then, what you owe them; pay them your personal and property taxes, and show respect and honor for them all.

Both these translations in their paraphrase reword verse 7 to tie in directly with 3:1, and as you point out the context of the preceding 6 verses is very important. These paraphrases make that context explicit.

I don't think that only some are due honour, and some others respect. The Interpreter's Bible goes into further detail in its exegesis of verse 6-7:

Certainly he does not think of respect and honor as separately due to two distinct classes of men. The form of this sentence is in large part determined by rhetorical considerations. The point is that whatever one truly owes another (i.e., their dues), whether it is money or respect, one must fully pay.

  • That's a really good answer. If it had been here yesterday (when I started my answer) I probably wouldn't have bothered. ;-) Nov 7, 2012 at 18:14

I am far from convinced that this whole passage refers to the government at all. The context is pretty clearly talking about church leadership (read chapter 12 if you have any doubts on that), and the word higher powers could certainly be used to refer to the church elders and leaders, it isn't all that specific. In regards to the verse itself, Jon does a good job of analyzing the Greek, and "tribute" is used in reference to the annual poll tax the Romans applied to all their subjects.

But I find it a little galling to tell the Christians in Africa who are being oppressed and murdered for the faith even today, that they should be subject to their oppressors, or that the murderous thugs who kill their children and rape their wives are to look to those same people as minsters of God, or for their own good.

FWIW, whenever you ask a question like "the NLT is different here, is it better?" The answer is almost always no. The NLT is not a suitable translation for careful, word by word study. It bristles with very dubious, heavily opinionated translations.

The Greek here says "honor to whom honor [is due]." Murderous thugs are not due honor, regardless of their elective office or position in government.

  • I did not ask if the NLT was better; I asked if their interpretation was valid. As it turns out, your answer deals with the meaning of the passage, not the relevant translations. Nov 11, 2012 at 18:40

Translation of actual words is certainly very, very important. One could get a totally different doctrine on the matter. However, in this particular situation, the translation in both cases doesn't destroy the fact that followers of Christ are to be in subjection to those who are in authority. Other verses clearly state the "unless" clause or objection. Only when authorities give orders against God and His word in relation to being able to freely worship and carry out His commands are Christians to not submit. So the doctrine is not lost in either case of translation. Both confirm to the truth and are considered without error.

  • Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange! Be sure to take our site tour to learn more about us. We're a little different from other sites.
    – Dan
    Mar 1, 2014 at 21:14
  • 1
    Hello Lamar. I edited your post so the voice does not assume your readers are Christian. While there are Christians here, this is not a Christian site. Thus, the recommendation is to avoid the third person plural voice. Here is a summary of core procedure for posting answers on BH-SE. 1) keep the text the focus and the Q in mind. 2) show your work logically, step by step. 3) support all assertions with quotations/citations/links to credible sources. 4) stop short of application (Stick to what the text means). That should get you off to a fairly good start.
    – user2027
    Mar 17, 2014 at 15:41

Too many people misinterpret this passage.

As pointed out by another poster, its most likely referring to religious leaders, probably from Jerusalem. Romans 11-14 deal with Gentile and Jewish relations in the Church.

Think about it for a moment - Paul is addressing ROMANS. These people are GENTILES. These people were paying taxes long before they became Christians, so why would they need to be exhorted to a habit they already had? They were not being persecuted, except very sporadically, as Nero had barely come to power at the time of Pauls letter to Romans. Clearly Paul wouldnt be exhorting Christians angry at a government persecuting them.

The fact is that a lot of modern translations make the feeble leap assuming that "rulers" as used in these passages are believed to be government. Nowhere in the original language can this be assumed. Its simply not there. There is never any such term relating to "State" or "State Authorities". These are just subheadings in many Bible editions, put there by publishers who think they know what the chapter is about.

It seems Romans 13 needs a lot more exegesis before making a final determination.

  • Due to the nature of this site, a reference may be required to support your conclusions. Jun 19, 2014 at 15:55
  • Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange! Be sure to take our site tour to learn more about us. We're a little different from other sites. Your beginning appears to be the introduction to a good answer, but then it seems you got derailed.
    – Dan
    Jun 19, 2014 at 16:15
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    According to our site guidelines, "It's OK to a degree for an answer to include personal anecdotes and other tangents, where this adds flavour and character, so long as the main line of an answer is supported, connecting the dots starting from the text. It's also ok to include opinions so long as they are relevant and labelled as your opinion or belief. Opinions and tangents should be garnishes, not the entire meal. If a post is essentially an opinion-based argument or testimony, it doesn't fit and will need to be removed or edited."
    – Dan
    Jun 19, 2014 at 16:16
  • I've removed the tangential digression. As you've pointed out, this text was written to citizens of the ancient Roman Empire. We stop short of applying these texts to modern nation-states such as the USA on this site. We prefer to stick with the text and explain its meaning in its original context. Your introduction is a good start towards this.
    – Dan
    Jun 19, 2014 at 16:18

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