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Romans 13:8-14

It’s one of a few examples of Lectionary malpractice that Romans 13 is not read in its entirety during the three-year cycle. Romans 13 is a controversial and contested text and responsible interpretations of it deserve a hearing in the church. However, most readings dealing with Romans 13 tend to stop at verse 7, thus making it sound like Paul is offering a treatise on the God-given authority of the State, when in fact, v 1-7 must be read within the entire context of Paul’s letter to the Romans, which makes an extended argument throughout the letter regarding the nature of the gospel and God’s righteousness. In other words, Romans is a letter with an argument written to particular people in place and time and not just a compendium of Paul’s theology, and Romans 13 is more than just track 13 on Paul’s Greatest Hits album.

Failure to read all of Romans 13 within its context has led to interpretations that have given Scriptural authorization to multiple atrocities throughout history. The text has been used to justify German Christian support of Nazi policies during the Third Reich and South African Christian support of Apartheid policies in South Africa, and to fund support of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. Most recently it was used by former US Attorney General Jeff Sessions to justify the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” undocumented immigration policy that resulted in migrant children being separated from their parents in prison facilities by the thousands. In the ever more polarized, United States political context, each side’s supporters use this text against the other party when their own party is in power, but reads it with nuance when their party is not.

Suffice it to say, these kinds of interpretations are not what Paul intended this section of his letter to authorize. One of Paul’s main concerns throughout the letter is God’s righteousness/justice coming to bear in creation through the death and resurrection of the Messiah. That people are rectified/justified with God by faithfulness means that they are put in right relationship with God, they are made human in the way God always intended human life to be, becoming partners with God in ruling and tending to God’s creation (Rom 5:17). Paul’s constant theme of the “glory” of God that humans have failed to live into faithfully is best seen as the kind of glory spoken of in Psalm 8, where God has created the human to reign and rule justly in creation, and crowned them with “glory and honor,” (see the use of glory in 2:6-8 and 8:18-25). Paul calls the Roman Christians to give their bodies as weapons of justice rather than weapons of injustice (6:13). As people being transformed into the renewed humanity in the Messiah Jesus, the Roman Christians were to partner with God in ruling in creation not with dominating power, but in suffering love and lament (8:18-30). Likewise, Paul shows that this work of God through the Messiah and the presence of the Spirit is meant to form a people capable of welcoming each other as Christ has welcomed them, willing to lay down their preferences, rights, and even their very lives for the sake of the other (15:1-13).

It would be very odd, then, if Romans 13 was meant as some blanket authorization of whatever action the governing authorities undertake. If this passage occurs not as a separate section of “ethical instructions,” in this case having to do with relating to the governing authorities, but rather comes as Paul’s unspooling of the implications of the rectifying work God has done in the Messiah and in the community that bears his name, then it should be read specifically in connection with the rest of Paul’s vision throughout Romans. In that case, the examples of authorities we see in the letter previously are Sin and Death who “rule as king” (5:14, 17, 21; 6:9) and Pharaoh (9:17). Both of these examples are instructive, for in both cases, God has granted authority to these agents.[1] In both cases, these authorities have been granted authority not because God is particularly pleased with them or endorses their actions, but in order to demonstrate God’s own power and authority and justice in creation. The example of Pharaoh is more explicit about this. That verse reads, “For the scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth’” (9:17 NRSV). We can clearly say about Pharaoh that God did not raise him up to endorse his actions of enslaving the Israelites, rather God raised him up and placed him in authority specifically to liberate the enslaved Israelites in order that God’s power might be shown in God’s liberating justice, with the effect that God’s name might be glorified in creation.[2] Clearly then, God can raise up authorities in order to work at cross purposes[3] with that very authority. Similarly, God has handed humanity over to the authority of Sin and Death (see 1:24, 26, 28), not because God endorses their reign, but precisely to liberate humanity from their despotism (see 4:25; 8:32). As Paul has written merely two chapters prior to this text, “God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” (11:32 NRSV).

It’s not difficult to imagine that Paul could have something like this in mind when he discusses authorities in Romans 13. Though their authority is “at the hand of God” it does not necessarily follow that God endorses or is pleased with how that authority is exercised. It is also true that the governing authorities are God’s servants for order, to reward the good and punish evil, but again, that does not mean that the governing authorities’ priorities and purposes are always coterminous with God’s. The authorities are serving God’s purposes, but they are not the main instrument of God’s purposes. For example, Caesar Claudius issued a decree expelling Jews from the city of Rome in 49 CE. This was done, according to Seutonius, because of some unrest regarding a certain “Chrestus,” likely a reference to “Christos” and the simmering tension between Christ-believing Jews and unbelieving Jews (a tension with ramifications both inside and outside the church that Paul addresses throughout this letter). Claudius’s edict expired at his death in 54 CE and Paul writes shortly after that. It may be that Paul is aware of the threat Roman power presents to civil unrest and is therefore warning the church not to participate in it. In this way, they are to not resist that authority, because the authorities can punish evil, but they have been told not to participate in evil or even resist it, but to “conquer evil with good” (12:9, 14-21). For these reasons, they do not resist the authority on the authority’s playing field, nor do they stir up tension and trouble between unbelieving Jews, believing Jews, and gentiles; and they also pay their taxes. God has established the authorities, and the Christians’ task is not to resist God’s establishment. But beyond that, Paul does not say anything more about their legitimacy or righteous purposes. Anyone who might claim a God’s eye view into why God has established the authority is claiming too much. That much remains shrouded in mystery. What has been clearly revealed (“apocalypsed”) is God’s purposes for salvation for all in Jesus (1:16-17).

While they are to owe the governing authorities respect and taxes, what claims their ultimate indebtedness is grace. The gift of God has been given with such profundity that it creates an infinite indebtedness that invites a kind of uneven reciprocity (see 1:14-15; 8:12-13; 15:27).[4] What they owe to all is the debt of love. And this is more than merely generalized feelings or emotive disposition toward others. Love here is expressed in concrete practices within the community. The two uses of “Love” in verse ten carry the definite article (hé agapé) and should be translated as “the love.” Robert Jewett has convincingly suggested that Paul intends to reference the love feast as the concrete practice that undergirds Christian ethics. “The love feast does no wrong to a neighbor therefore the love feast is the fulfilling of law.”[5] Given that the remainder of the letter from this point turns to the practices of table fellowship, I find this reading highly plausible. While they have obligation to the authorities, and should seek to pursue peace rather than agitation (12:18), their main concern is not with the activity of the authorities, but what God is doing among this local Jesus community when they come around the table.

This is precisely why Paul turns to what is clearly revealed to those in Christ. “You know what time it is,” he says. “Salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers” (13:11 NRSV). While the authorities have been established by God, the Roman authorities’ claims of salvation ring false in the light of the coming salvation in the return of King Jesus. And it is this Day that has the ultimate claim on followers of Christ. They are those who live “as in the Day [of the Lord]” (13:13); they live in the present as all will when Christ comes to reign and rule with justice (14:11). Their table fellowship, as Jews and gentiles brought together in the Messiah, bears witness to God’s intentions to restore all of humanity through the family of Abraham and the Messiah. As participants in the renewed humanity, they are to live in love and equip themselves with the weapons of light (see 6:13) and have nothing to do with the practices of darkness. Indeed, the practices of darkness that Paul lists would have been readily identifiable to all in Paul’s audience in Rome as practices associated with the reign of economic injustice and violence of Nero.[6] While the authorities have been established by God, and may or may not be acting in accordance with God’s purposes, the Christians’ primary allegiance is to King Jesus as they act in the present as subjects of his future reign and rule (Philippians 1:27; 2:5-11; 3:20-21).

Preaching this text is a challenge, especially in our polarized climate in the US. However, the message of this text is crucial, when read in context, and it is important for responsible readings to have a hearing, especially in light of the disastrous consequences throughout history of irresponsible interpretations of this passage. Two recent test cases may be raised here for consideration of how this passage might speak to the church: the Trump administration’s family separation policy for migrants at the southern border, and the mask mandate many states have put in place during the Covid-19 pandemic. Both are hot button issues that have the potential to go nuclear on Twitter feeds and Facebook comment sections. The preacher’s task might best be seen not in answering definitively what the Christian response to these governmental actions is, but rather to raise the issue for congregational discernment in light of the apocalyptically revealed gospel of Jesus. Responsible interpretation, then, lies not in definitive “answers” doled out from the pulpit, but a declaration of the activity of God in Christ and an invitation to prayerful discernment and discipleship, in light of that ongoing gospel activity, around the table. If what God is doing through Christ and the Spirit is the most definitive reality in all of creation, then what ways does our life together in the present embody a foretaste of Jesus’ coming reign? If “the love feast” we share each time we gather at the table “does no evil to a neighbor,” then what practices should the church take up (or eschew) that help us “conquer evil with good”? The answers to these types of questions will be not be easily won, and it is much easier to utilize Romans 13 as a blanket authorization of governmental actions (at least the ones we already endorse), the type of discernment it takes to address these questions produces the kinds of disciples the world so desperately needs the church to be.


[1] In the case of King Sin and King Death see Beverly Roberts Gaventa’s excellent essay “God Handed Them Over,” in Our Mother Saint Paul (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 113-123.

[2] See Beverly Roberts Gaventa, “Reading Romans 13 with Simone Weil: Toward a More Generous Hermeneutic,” in Journal of Biblical Literature 136.1 (2017): 7-22, specifically 14-17.

[3] The pun is intended here.

[4] See John M. G. Barclay, Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015).

[5] Robert Jewett, Romans: A Commentary, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 813-815.

[6] See Sylvia C. Keesmaat and Brian J. Walsh, Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2019), 209-242.

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Sep 07, 2023