posted on Dec, 6 2019 @ 05:01 PM
Under the implied heading of “Living in the gospel”, Paul talks to the Romans about the way they should conduct themselves towards their brethren
and towards other people; not raising themselves up in pride, but submitting their own wills to the needs of living in harmony.
As part of this theme, he offers advice on the way to live in harmony with the authorities of this world (ch13 vv1-7).
Since this advice has become controversial, it would be good to go back to first principles.
Consider, first, the necessity of social organization.
In general, social organization has been beneficial to our species.
It has made it possible for humans to live in comparative harmony together and work together.
In the famous and possibly too famous verdict of Thomas Hobbes, human life without social organization would be “nasty, brutish, and short”.
So it has been a good thing, on the whole, that social organization exists, and it is reasonable to suppose that God would want social organization to
Now human authority is simply the visible focus of social organization.
So Paul’s comments on the subject follow on from the first principles that I’ve just outlined.
God endorses the fact that authority exists, authority as an institution, so it may be said that authorities have been established by God (vv1-2).
He points out that the authorities act against bad conduct, the kind of conduct which God himself rejects. Presumably Paul is thinking of such
behavior as murder and theft.
So if you avoid criminal action, you will be approved by God and the ruler at the same time, and if you fall into criminal action you will come under
God’s judgement and the ruler’s judgement at the same time.
That is how the ruler is “God’s servant for your good” (vv3-5), acting on God’s behalf in protecting the citizen from the criminal.
Since the authorities have this police function, there is a moral obligation to give them what they need for the purpose. We must give them respect,
we must give them obedience, and we must pay the taxes which maintain them (vv6-7).
That should have been straight-forward enough.
However, it becomes necessary nowadays to explain also what this passage is NOT doing.
In the first place, Paul is not endorsing the assumption that any individuals, dynasties, or groups have a prescriptive claim on authority.
At the most, there must be a bias against change and in favour of whatever authorities exist at the time (“the powers that be”) because forcible
change has a disruptive effect on human life (see 1789, see 1917).
In the aftermath of change, the newly established authorities would have the same claim to respect and obedience as the old authorities.
In the period following the English Civil War, the Church of England maintained that obedience was due to a ruling dynasty, which was a Biblical
principle, and drew the false conclusion that obedience was due to the Stuart dynasty as such, which was non-Biblical. When the Stuarts were
overthrown, there were nine bishops (the “Non-Jurors”) who refused allegiance to their successors. But a better understanding of Paul’s meaning
would have prompted them, in the end, to recognize the Hanoverians as the current representatives of authority.
Nor is Paul endorsing the injustices and other abuses which may be committed by people in authority.
When he says that authorities act against the wrongdoer, that is a generalized rule-of-thumb which is fundamentally true. Even the despots and the
dictators are normally active to administer justice between their subjects, when the interests of the elite are not at stake. Roman imperial
magistrates and mediaeval sheriffs and officials of the Third Reich were just as ready to arrest thieves and murderers as the magistrates of any
The statement only becomes problematic when it is read legalistically and over-literally, as an assurance that nobody in authority ever abuses their
power or acts unjustly.
The answer is not to read the passage legalistically.
Just use some common sense, that’s all.
Nor is Paul touching on the special case of authorities which set themselves directly against God.
That is, they demand an absolute allegiance superseding the ultimate allegiance belonging to God himself.
Daniel and Revelation portray regimes of this kind, in Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon and Nero’s Rome and possibly later. The implied moral is that
God’s people should withhold obedience on the disputed issue.
But Paul is not addressing that situation.
I’ve seen the question (on this site); Why was Paul demanding obedience to the Roman authorities even at the same time as they were persecuting
The short answer is that they were doing nothing of the kind.
The persecution which Paul experienced before his arrival in Rome was coming entirely from the Jewish authorities, particularly those in Jerusalem,
which had been given a degree of local jurisdiction. The empires of those days were not highly centralized affairs.
The imperial attitude was more one of “caring for none of these things”.
Even when Paul was taken to Rome in chains, he was not being charged with any crime under Roman law. The appeal to Caesar was a jurisdiction dispute;
should he or should he not be handed over to be tried by the authorities in Jerusalem? He must have won his case, by the way, because if he had lost
the case he would have been handed over, and the result would have been notorious.
So the question of disobedience to an official demand for idolatry had not yet come up.
The passage will always be problematic for people who resent authority as such.
But Paul is only giving authority its due (subordinate) place in God’s world.
Give unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and give unto God that which is God’s.