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Romans 13:1-7 NET

1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except by God’s appointment, and the authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2 So the person who resists such authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will incur judgment 3 (for rulers cause no fear for good conduct but for bad). Do you desire not to fear authority? Do good and you will receive its commendation, 4 for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be in fear, for it does not bear the sword in vain. It is God’s servant to administer retribution on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of the wrath of the authorities but also because of your conscience. 6 For this reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants devoted to governing. 7 Pay everyone what is owed: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.

I'm particularly struck by verse 3, "Do you desire not to fear authority? Do good and you will receive its commendation." Now, that simply cannot be a generalized statement about all authorities. It's completely inconsistent with the death of Christ, plus every other Christian martyr under Rome, including (later) Paul himself.

I've heard all sorts of interpretive and ethical implications claimed for this passage. But my question is different: what did Paul mean? Paul, writing to the church in Rome, can't possibly have meant to tell them that "If anyone anywhere does good, whatever authority exists will commend that person." But every English translation I see reads almost exactly like that. This means I'm reading something wrong, or the Greek is ambiguous, or there's some text-critical issue, or something.

What was Paul telling the church in Rome?

EDIT: based on the answers received, my question is not being well understood. Given as Paul cannot be talking about all authorities everywhere, because that reading makes 13:3 gibberish, what is he talking about?

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  • The passage speaks for itself. However, there are limits based on Acts 5:29. The demarcation has been under constant debate in Christianity ever since.
    – Dottard
    Oct 30, 2023 at 22:14
  • Higher Powers See relevant question BH.SE #83512. "To what does Paul refer when he said, 'Higher Powers' in Romans 13:1?"
    – ray grant
    Oct 30, 2023 at 22:38
  • Majority of the ques here are caused by not understanding general statements, you are also not understanding what a gen statement means. The concept of absolute language started just for last few decades. Search for "general statement" to see some of my answers. Also see other focused questions on the same chapter. It's believed that Paul wrote the letter from prison, he is a criminal. He's not saying bad things cant happen to those who do good. See Job. But it's common sense obedience statement.
    – Michael16
    Oct 31, 2023 at 10:34

5 Answers 5

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I've spent the last couple days beating on this passage. The Greek doesn't seem to be ambiguous at all, and the English translations appear to be straightforward and accurate. Paul really is saying the words he appears to be saying.

I would presently suggest that when Paul is talking about the authorities in this passage, he's not making a general statement about all authorities that exist at all times in all places. He's specifically talking about "the authorities that exist[ed]" in Rome at the time of his writing, before Rome began persecuting Christians. Recall that not long after Paul writes this, he finds himself in danger from Judean persecution, and Rome protects him. The Roman government of the time of Paul's writing may have more or less done what Paul suggests here: commend those who do good, punish those who do wrong.

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  • Your answer suggest he was being hypocrite or contradicting himself as he was prisoned by Romans during writing this letter.
    – Michael16
    Nov 4, 2023 at 14:35
  • It is dangerous to think that biblical teachings are time-limited Nov 4, 2023 at 21:54
  • Where does anything say he was imprisoned by Romans while writing Romans? Nov 5, 2023 at 16:32
  • It's dangerous to take teachings intended for one context and try to make them universal. Nov 5, 2023 at 16:32
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Historically, the relationship of the Christian community to state government has been difficult at best, and at times, resulted in horrific acts of cruelty from both sides. Indeed, it was the revoltingly disastrous experiment of the medieval church, at times indistinguishable from state government, that produced the modern notion of secular government which is neither theistic nor atheistic, as well as the modern concept of the separation of church and state. The resolution of these issues revolves around two questions:

  • To what extent should state government be involved in religious matters? That is, to what extent should state government be Christian, atheistic or secular, if at all?
  • To what extent should the Christian community be involved with state government? Should Christians vote, pay taxes or be members of a government?

Unfortunately, the Bible material on these questions is scant but succinct. Here is a summary of the Biblical data.

  • God rules the kings and governors of the earth. Rev 1:5, 6, Dan 2:21, 47.
  • Civil government leaders are called “God’s servants”, Rom 13:4, 6, ie, operate under divine delegated authority. [The implication is that we should obey what God’s servants reasonably command. The other side of this is that we should not obey what civil governments command that is not accord with God’s will.]
  • Every government is established and exists by God. John 19:11, Rom 13:1, Job 12:23
  • God even uses wicked governments to accomplish His divine purpose. Jer 25:8, 9, Acts 4:27, 28.
  • Christians should pray for those in government. 1 Tim 2:1, 2, Jer 29:7
  • Christians should honor and submit to government and civil law. Matt 22:15-22, Mark 12:13-17, Luke 20:20-26, Rom 13:1-7, Titus 3:1, 1 Peter 2:13-17. This includes paying taxes.
  • There are limits of conscience in obeying governments and laws – our first duty is to God. Dan 3, Acts 4:19, 5:29.
  • A Christian in government service should strive to be the best civil servant possible. Dan 6:1-4, Gen 41:37.
  • Foreigners and strangers (as well as poor) in a country should be subject to the same privileges and protections as others. Lev 19:34, Deut 10:18, Ps 146:9, Jer 7:6, 22:3, Zech 7:10, Mal 3:5.

In Rom 13:1-7, the pivotal section comes in V6 which says:

For the authorities are God’s servants, who devote themselves to their work.

Thus, Christians should be loyal to governments, to the extent that civil authorities are "God's servants". Now, just when this is true or otherwise is very hotly debated, so I will not comment further. Recall further that service to God is a greater demand on Christians that civil authority as per

Acts 5:29 - But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.

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Some of this is not considered canon, and may be from the book of Enoch.

But as I understand it, those in authority have been given authority to display what lies inside of them. That is to say, they are appointed by "God", if you will.

In scripture, "God" uses nations to reprimand and reprove other nations constantly. For example, God claims the Assyrians and Egyptians as his people, and utilizes them to reprove Israel several times. He raises the Assyrians up to be a Terror to a backsliding Israel. And later, he reproves them for believing it was not by God's authority they were given dominion, but by their own authority, leading to idolatry and backsliding.

In NT, the messiah says to give unto caeser what belongs to caeser, and when asked by pilot, he does not declare himself an enemy or Rome, nor does he declare himself king. Everytime he is asked "who are you" in so many words, he responds "who do you say I am?". "You say I am king. You say I am the son of God. You say, you say, you say..."

He never declared himself a political opponent to any ruler or nation in all his travels. He did not contest taxation. He did not contest or break the laws of the ruling nation. It was the pharisaical Jews of the time who presented him as a radical who need be removed from the equation. Pilot said "I find no fault with him."

Consequently, he was constantly correcting his disciples for their violent, defensive and offensive rebellious behavior toward the state and his adversaries who would turn him over to the state and prosecute him.

In summary, it goes all the way back to Abel and Caine and their sacrifice.

"If only you would do good, wouldn't you also be accepted?" That is to say, the righteous have God's grace, whether in or out of trouble with your neighbors. The courage to do good and abide by the ten commands or sayings, God's Torah or Instruction, fulfills the laws of man and supercedes them.

That of course does not contradict the happen stance of ill will. Such as Job's case. It merely means that if you are faithful, as Job or Daniel were, you will overcome and withstand any tresspass. And not only that, but you will flourish in blessings by doing so, despite the seemingly unfair circumstance.

I'm not a huge fan of Paul, personally. But I can't deny the experience and wisdom, despite how foolish he may appear to me.

We are to know that all things are in His hands. Even the "devil" has to abide by God's permissions, and does nothing outside of His will. Often, this is displayed as reproof for the iniquity of nations and men. That is to say, Evil happens to us as a consequence of our iniquity. It doesn't just fall out of the sky for no reason.

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    – agarza
    Oct 31, 2023 at 13:55
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In the work "The Complete Works of MARCUS TULLIUS CICERO, (106 BC–43 BC) " published by Delphi Classics in 2014, we find the following quotations:

  1. "Therefore, I will cite some of the legal maxims that govern this branch of law: 'Let all authorities be just and be obeyed by the people honestly without hesitation. Let the magistrate restrain disobedience and civic sedition through fines, imprisonment, and corporal punishment.'"

  2. "The ministers of the law are the magistrates; the interpreters of the law are the judges; lastly, we are all servants of the laws, with the purpose of being able to be free men."

  3. "All magistrates were ordered to protect the city with the force of the public."

  4. "Happiness is as impossible for a mind distracted by passions as for a city divided by conflicting factions. The terrors of death haunt the wretched guilty, 'who discover too late that they devoted themselves to money, power, or glory without any purpose.'"

Using these arguments and quotations, let's address the question: What was Paul talking about when he wrote Romans 13:1-7?

The text from Romans 13:1-7 in the Bible, part of the New Testament, addresses the relationship between Christians and secular authority. The passage discusses the importance of obeying and respecting governmental authorities because they are established by God to maintain order and justice in society.

When reflecting on these verses and considering the quotes from Cicero, remarkable parallels can be drawn between the principles highlighted in the biblical passage and the teachings on the role of authority and obedience in laws and governance.

  1. Cicero emphasizes the importance of all authorities being just and respected by the people without hesitation, suggesting that magistrates should curb disobedience and sedition through appropriate punishments.

  2. The idea of magistrates as ministers of the law and judges as interpreters reflects the legal structure and the importance of law compliance, demonstrating that all are servants of the laws to maintain freedom.

  3. The obligation of magistrates to protect the city with public force shows the responsibility to maintain order and security in society.

  4. Cicero addresses the importance of avoiding divisions and conflicts in the city, highlighting that happiness is impossible when distracted by passions or when the city is divided by factions.

Analogously, the Romans passage discusses obedience to authorities as something ordained by God to maintain social order and peace. These principles resonate with Cicero's emphasis on the importance of justice, obedience to the laws, and the preservation of harmony in society, reflecting fundamental values of governance and social coexistence.

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Paul meant that we human are not in the position to judge the governing authorities. Only God is the judge.

The covenant with God has rules, and social norms are also rules. If we break social norms according to our judgement, we are likely doing the same to the covenant with God. This is why the Lord says,

Romans 12:19 NIV

Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.

Paul advised us not to judge the governing authorities but to follow their institutions. Submission to the authorities is seen in the Lord's eyes submission to Him. This is the conscience to honor the Lord.

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