Contextual Background: This passage starts without transitional links to preceding text. But it joins directly into the gnomic collection of sayings in chapter 12. It belongs to the section of 12:1-15:13, which talks about living together according to the gospel so as to sustain the hope of global transformation. Christians’ attitude toward government and authority is a key to earthly life. This passage emphasizes order, authority, civil obedience, payment of taxes or revenue, and honor for civil authorities as “God’s servants.”
Cultural / Historical Background: The passage has been interpreted as a warning not to participate in Jewish zealots, in revolutionary agitation, or create unrest that would jeopardize. It’s also has been seen as a warning against Christian enthusiasm that believed the requirement of a state was no longer necessary. Up to the time that Paul wrote there had been no official persecution of Christians in Rome (Fitzmyer, 662). Paul seems to have learned something about the situation and reaction of Christians at Rome to the conduct of the publican and the general tax-situation under Nero.
Structure: The thematic exhortation of 13:1 is followed by three coherently phrased arguments and a concluding ethical application concerning of taxes. The first argument provides a portrayal of a doctrine of the divine institution of earthly authority and the necessity for obedience. The second argument in 13:3b-5 is addressed to an imaginary conversation partner, providing why persons opposing the authorities bring judgment upon themselves. It explains the function of the authority according to God’s design. The third argument is 13:6-7 addressing to the congregation as a whole and draws out the practical implications and suggestions for the audience.
Original Language Observation: (1) In the first argument, there is a antithetical wordplay between the ὑποτάσσεσθαι (“to submit oneself”) in v1a and ὑποτάσσεσθαι (“who resisting”) in v2a, with repeated ἀνθίστημι (“oppose”) in v2a and 2b. The word ἐξουσία is repeated four times in the first three times, while the stemp τασσ- appears five times. The frequency of the words provides a potent rhetorical force to emphasize the source of the civil authority. (2) ἐξουσία has a wide semantic range, including individual freedom of choice, capability, authority in an individual as well as a governmental sphere, dominion and power. Plural expression used in 13:1 encompasses a variety of imperial and local offices. It is probably referring to government officials. (3) The verb ὑποτάσσεσθω is in middle or passive voice. It can have the sense of “to submit voluntarily,”, which has been lifted up as characteristic for early Christian ethics in contrast to “obedience.” (1 Cor 16:16) It refers to a proper ordering of oneself under the order God has established. (Witherington, 312) Paul does not counsel blind obedience. (4) v.4: Paul use the word διάκονος to describe the governmental officials. He used the same root to describe himself in 11:3 for church service. He did not select a Roman title for the officials, but a Christian word might due to considering the audience has both in-government Christians and normal citizens and slaves. (5) The phrase διὰ τὴν συνείδησιν also occurred in the 1 cor 10:25, 27. Paul is suggesting an internal motivation of avoiding the conscience-pang. (Jewett, 798). This means “becauseif you don’t, you will feel guilty.” (Witherington, 315) (6) Verse 7: φορος is the direct tax, while τέλος is the indirect taxes like tolls, sales tax, etc. It has some connection with Mark 12:17.
Difficult Text /Theology: (1) Is the submission to governing authorities creates the foundation of a political ethic for all Christians? What about Christians under an evil government (Communists in my situation)? A. There are biblical cases that we don’t need to submit to civil authority if the order is against God (Ac 4:18-20; 5:27-29); B. Jewett thinks that Paul has no interest in the concerns that would later burden Christian ethics. He suggests that Paul’s goal was “to appeal to the roman audience as he conceived it, addressing their concerns in a manner that fit the occasion of his forthcoming visit” (Jewett, 787). (2) ἐχουσίαις in the first verse was treat as double reference in the history – to the civil authorities and also to angelic powers thought of standing behind. Cranfield provided a good argument in his work (page 657). (3) The expression “receive judgment on themselves” is Semitic, reflecting the wording of Ezek 4:5; Job 9:19. The position of ἑαυτοῖς (“in relation to themselves”) is emphatic, conveys the sense that they will bring a penalty upon themselves. (Jewett, 791) It is also probable that by κρίμα a divine judgment is meant, not just civil authority’s reaction. (4) The “sword” refer to the general functions of the government or particularly the tax police? Witherington suggests it refers to the general principle that the officials do have the right to use force.
Historical Matters:Though this passage of Romans is often spoken of as that in which Paul discusses the relation of Christians to the “state,” there is no mention in it of the “state.” In medieval and Renaissance times commentators were divided over whether Paul was referring solely to civil rulers. Luther’s interpretation of this passage (“Christians should not refuse, under the pretext of religion, to obey men, especially evil ones.”) was used by “German Christians” to support the obedience to Hitler. According to Fitzmyer, the passage has created a major problem in modern theological discussion because Paul’s teacher has at times been invoked to justify any sort of human government. The text indicates that the civil authorities are good and are conducting themselves rightly in seeking the interests of the public. Witherington suggests that the text implies a limited endorsement of the state in principle until Christ returns. (Witherington, 307) And it does guide Roman Christians on to how to respond if the state is operating in a just and fair manner. It is also suggested that Paul means that consciously or uncounsiously, willingly or unwillingly, in one way or another, the power will praise the good work and punish the evil. It also not speak of International conflict or whether the war is just. Nothing is said about war or joining army. I believe this text is used incorrectly by many Christians who are passionate about politics.
Preaching Hints: (1) Direct problem for PRC, DPRK and Syrian Christians – What if government misuses the authority God has granted? Where do we sense a call to fight against the government just like American Revolution? It’s important to balance the teaching from this text and the primary obedience to God (Acts 5:29) to Christians under persecution. Moreover, whatever the nature of limited permission granted by God to the state’s use of force, 1 Peter 2:21, 23 and Rom 12:18-21 suggest that Christians are not to fight back using force, but take up cross and follow the crucified Messiah. God is the judge. However, at the very least, Christian community is obliged to voice its criticism of the state’s failure, pointing out the deviation from the divinely ordained pattern. Subject to the state is not an obedience of unthinking and blind. (2) Joseph and Daniel are both good examples of faithful believers living under pagan authorities. (3) Another supplement is from 1 Tim 2: pray persistently for the government authorities.
Bibliography: Achtemeier, Paul J. Romans. John Knox Press, 1985 | Cranfield, C.E.B. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, T. & T. Clark, 1979 | Fitzmyer, Joseph A. Romans: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. DoubleDay, 1992 | Harrison, Everett F. & Hagner, Donald A. The Expositor’s bible Commentary: Romans. Zondervan, 2008 | Jewett, Robert. Romans: A Commentary. Fortress, 2007. | Witherington III, Ben. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Eerdmans, 2004
Submit to Earthly Authorities under the Sovereign God
Introduction: What is the role of a police officer in your view? In western world, many people think a police officer is someone hired by taxpayers to do something we don’t have time to do. In communist China, a police officer represents the Party and the State thus whatever he says or asks are correct and shall be obeyed. Unfortunately, these two views are both from the fallen world and thus they are both incorrect.
Proposition: Christians shall submit to authorities.
Organizational Sentence: In this text, Paul encourages Christians in Rome to submit to the government. He provides two reasons for submission and also the practical instructions on how to submit.
I. We submit to the governing authorities because all authorities are from God. (vv. 1-2)
a. God is the source of all authorities in the world. (v.1)
b. Resisting civil authorities are equal to resisting God. (v.2)
2. Explanation: Even bad government is also under God’s control. (Example: Pharaoh in Exodus 9 and Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 4)
3. Application: Submission to governing authorities and officials is submission to God. If the civil authority asks us to disobey God, we should submit to higher authority who is God (Acts 5:29).
II. We submit to the governing authorities because the function of them is designed by God. (vv. 3-5)
a. God institutes rulers for his righteousness. (v.3)
b. God institutes rulers for human being’s good. (v.4)
2. Illustration: (1) The functionality of government described here is from God; (2) Even bad political powers will enforce universal moral values in some sense; (3) Therefore we submit to the rulers because of God. (v.5)
3. Application: The submission is originated from submission to God. Thus we should abide by laws regardless of presence of officers.
III. We submit to the governing authorities through obeying both the system and the officials. (vv. 6-7)
1. Validation: Tax and fees indicate the system that we ought to obey; officials are the people that we ought to honor and respect.
2. Illustration: The obedience to the system and the respect to the officials do not because they are reasonable and righteous, but because God ordained them and allowed them.
3. Application: Even if we think a fee or law is not reasonable, we shall leverage the system to appeal not through disobedience, unless it’s against God’s law (e.g. forced abortion, forbidden of evangelism).
Conclusion: Let’s do according to what God has already told us in the bible – submit to the authorities under the sovereignty of God.