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Obedience to the Authorities

November 21, 2011
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Romans 13:1-7 is the famous passage regarding obedience to government authorities.  It’s a passage I feel is frequently understood poorly.  I intend to tackle it in two ways.  First, I will lay out some of the problems with interpreting this passage in a “plain” manner.  Second, I will lay out what I think to be the better way to interpret it.

The “plain” reading of Romans 13 is that Christians should obey the government unquestioningly.  Even without getting into questions about how to do this when the people are part of the governing structure (as is true of all democratic governments) there’s an issue with this: everyone you ask will assure you that there’s an exception to this rule.  That exception is when the government asks you to deny Christ.

It would be hard to deny this exception since Paul himself was martyred by the governing authorities.  The problem with admitting this exception is that it’s not mentioned anywhere in the text.  In fact, if Romans 13:1-7 was read by someone who didn’t know where it came from and didn’t recognize it there would be room for that person to conclude that the unknown author believed that the government could not act contrary to God’s will and so if the government made religious demands God must back those demands.  Having admitted one secret exception to the plain meaning of the text why not more?

Generally, the answer is that “everyone knows” that the admitted exception is an exception.  The whole Bible points to God’s sovereignty and so of course the government cannot trump that.  However, this leaves the can of worms solidly open.  The whole Bible points to God’s sovereignty and tells us about what God wants.  If the government opposes what God wants is that not equally a challenge to God’s reign?

The standard answer to this is to invoke a division between politics and religion.  God’s sovereignty is somehow handed off to political authorities in political matters while it is retained in religious ones.  Problematically, this division is not one Paul’s audience would have recognized and Paul shows no sign of inventing such a division.

On the broad scale, the view that kings were gods or demi-gods was widespread throughout the Near East and Egypt.  The names of the Aramaic rulers Hadad and Benhadad are the name of the god Hadad and a name that means “son of Hadad”.  The kings of Egypt went perhaps even further with this, piling up divine honors until past and present Pharaohs occupied most of the major roles in the Egyptian pantheon, rotating through as new Pharaohs ascended to the throne.  These ideas were so useful and powerful that they survived the Alexandrian conquests.  While we have only hints that Alexander may have enjoyed being worshipped as a god (to the chagrin of his Greek troops) his successors in the region, the Ptolemies and the Seleucids, actively embraced the idea of divine kingship.  In Egypt this took the familiar form whereby the new Greek “Pharaohs” claimed many of the honors of the old ones.  Cleopatra, the last Ptolemaic ruler, depicted herself as the goddess Isis and her son Caesarion as the god Horus.  The Seluicid Empire rather famously persecuted Jews for failing to worship the Seleucid Emperor Antiochus IV Epiphanes (this is the event that kicks off the story of the Macabbees).

The idea of a divine king was foreign to the Roman Republic but within a generation as an empire, helped by the annexation of territories where it was standard, it had made its way into Rome.  When Julius Caesar died he was deified by the Roman Senate, something allowed for a dead man and something overseen by Julius’ adopted son Octavian (Appian, The Civil Wars 2.148).  This, too, was a proper show of respect for a Roman son to his father.  However, several of Octavian’s other steps were further outside of the Roman norm.  Even before he had fully solidified his conquests a request came from some of the eastern parts of the Empire to worship Octavian (Cassius Dio, 51.20.6-8).  Octavian allowed worship of himself directly only to non-citizens while citizens had to worship Julius and Rome.  However, citizens had to eventually call him “Augustus”, a term Cassius Dio (53.16.7-8) (who writes during a period when Emperors were routinely worshipped) claims signaled that he was more than human.  More certain is Cassius’s claim that “Augustus” became “Sebastos” in Greek, a word meaning “revered”.  From Augustus on the imperial cult only grew.  While a few Emperors seem to have thought it a bad omen to be worshipped while alive cult centers proliferated across the Empire, limited only in Rome itself.  Paul’s audience would have experienced the reigns of both Claudius (who generally refused cult honors) and Nero (who heartily embraced them).

Paul is not only reacting to a pagan world but also to a Jewish one.  Jews did not claim divinity for kings in the first century.  However, they had a long history of opposing pagan kings as part of asserting God’s Kingship.  In the second century B.C. the Macabbees had thrown off the rule of the Seluicids, prompted by religious persecution.  This appears to function as a model for later attempts to restore God’s reign in Israel.  Just before the first century A.D. Josephus mentions a revolt against the Roman census by a Jewish leader named Judas (Antiquities 18.1).  Judas called the Roman taxation the beginnings of slavery and is supposed to have started what Josephus calls the fourth branch of Jewish philosophy, the violent party of the Zealots and the Sicarii, which “say that God is to be their only Ruler and Lord”.  Notably, the Sicarii and Zealots eventually fought a losing war against Rome.  The Bar-Kochba revolt in the second century A.D. was also the result of a fusion of religion and politics – Bar-Kochba almost certainly considered himself to be the Messiah.  (In an interesting intersection of Roman and Jewish political-religious confluences Hadrian, having won the war, put a statue of himself as a god on the Temple Mount.)  Again, the divide between religion and politics seems foreign to Judaism and God’s Kingship means an end to pagan rulers.

Finally, there is Paul himself.  A question like, “How did Paul view government?” is frequently addressed by referencing a few explicit passages.  However, Paul spends at least as much time addressing government in a manner that is normally considered religious.  For instance, the title “Christ” (Messiah) is the title at least some rebel leaders would have used for themselves.  Calling Jesus the heir of David (Romans 1:2) is also a kingship claim.  Romans also includes claims that Jesus is lord of the living and the dead (14:9) and a section of Isaiah about ruling the Gentiles is quoted and applied to Jesus (15:12).  Moreover, many of the terms we consider religious were political in the Roman Empire (see N.T. Wright’s book Paul for a larger discussion of this).  Roman Emperors called themselves “Lord” (κυριος, used in the Septuagint for God).  Many could lay claim to being the son of a god and almost all would claim to be the Savior of Rome (see, for instance, Cassius Dio, 53.16.4 and the way in which Antony supports his claim that Julius was divine in Appian’s The Civil Wars 2.146).  Roman emperors used the word that we translate as “gospel” to announce their own ascension to the throne1.  At least one Roman Emperor seems to have thought that the Christian claims were claims about a political kingdom that would fight Rome.  Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History 3.20) tells us that the Emperor Domitian had Jesus’ living relatives rounded up and questioned about when Jesus’ kingdom was coming, and that when Domitian found that these men were farmers preaching about a kingdom that was not on earth he was disgusted with them and let them go.

I believe that Paul’s approach to God’s government would have been very hard for his audience to separate out from a claim to be aiming to overthrow Rome.  Saying, “I am proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord,” sounds religious to us, but it would be spoken to an audience that would have heard, “I am proclaiming the gospel of [name of emperor], our Savior and Lord.”  This provides the background for his explicit admonition to obey the authorities in Romans 13.  Just as shouting, “Obey the authorities!” at a rioting mob has a different flavor than answering, “Obey the authorities,” to a question from a law-abiding individual about how to live a good life, Paul’s background changes the tone of his answer.  I believe that Romans 13 is actually an order not to revolt accompanied by some reasons why.

Let’s step through Romans 13:1-7 using this rubric.  Verses 1 and 2 lay out the claim to obedience and a claim about the origin of authority (God).  This claim is generally seen as a strong claim to obey even tyrants.  However, I think it is actually a counter to this other claim hanging around in the background that human authorities are all usurpers of God’s position.  In reality, Paul seems to think that there is a role for government which he lays out in verses 3 and 4: government exists to keep social order and restrain violent evil.  While a given government may overstep its role (as when Rome claims worship that is God’s) government is a rebellious servant of God not a hostile invader who never had a place in God’s design.  Verse 5 explains that obedience is not only a matter of fear but also of conscience.  When God’s wrath appears it’s worth pointing out that the Old Testament frequently depicts God’s wrath coming through intermediaries like the Babylonian armies and that at least some early Christians appear to have thought that the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. was God’s wrath against those who had rejected his Messiah.  However, the matter of conscience is also interesting: a failure to obey the government seems to be seen as an encouragement of lawlessness.  Verse 6 makes a statement about the place of government: government exists to serve God by keeping order and preventing evil people from harming others.  Notably, government is God’s servant and could therefore step outside its given mandate and become disobedient.  Verse 7 reiterates the point and gives us what may be a window into the controversy that Paul is addressing: pay your taxes as something owed.  Given that the issue of paying Roman taxes is a hot-button issue for the rebel Judas and also some of the Pharisees questioning Jesus (see, for instance, Matthew 22:15-21) it may be that Paul writes this section of Romans to address what might be a common Jewish concern – is paying taxes to Caesar treason against God?  We can’t know, but the reiteration of “pay your taxes” may mean something.

So where does this leave us?  Paul has, I think, sketched out a role of government in God’s plan for the world.  Paul feels free to both use his Roman citizenship to his advantage (he uses it to deal with meddlesome authorities) and to disobey Rome (he is martyred for such).  I believe that this is because Paul’s view of government gives it power through God and not of its own accord.  When government is acting as God’s servant Paul obeys.  When it ceases to do so, he ceases to obey.  However, perhaps even more importantly, I do not think that Paul sees government as something critically important to Christians specifically.  Instead, government is a necessary part of the civilized world, much like trade or farming, and becoming entangled with it by pointless disobedience is a waste of time that could otherwise be used to further God’s agenda.


[1] It turns out that while it’s fairly easy to find this claim being made on the internet, it’s much, much harder to track down the sources.  So, in the interests of making this claim easier to check, here are some actual instances of ευαγγελιον, which we translate as “gospel” when it appears in the New Testament, being used of Roman emperors.  Of course, it was also used for other things that were good news (see Ben’s discussion of the term and list of uses for uses in the Septuagint) such as victory in war and more ordinary events like marriage.  However, it is also the correct term by which to proclaim a new emperor and it’s hard to separate “the gospel of the emperor [Lord] Jesus Christ” from any other political claim on the basis of those words alone.

The Priene Calendar Inscription discusses the ascension of Augustus to the throne.  The inscription refers to him as a savior, a god, and speaks of the good tidings (ευαγγελιον) of his ascension.  “Since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings for the world that came by reason of him”.

Josephus also uses the word ευαγγελιον to discuss the news that Vespasian had declared himself to be emperor and that other had accepted this declaration in The Jewish War sections 4.618 and 4.656.  As best I can determine these correspond to Book 4, Chapter 10, verse 6 and Book 4, Chapter 11, verse 5 in English.  The translation I have linked to translates ευαγγελιον as “good news”.

Finally, there is a papyrus that seems to read “Since I have become aware of the good news/gospel about the proclamation as Caesar….” in reference to the little-known emperor Gaius Julius Verus Maximus Augustus (also known as Maximus Thrax or Maximus I, third century AD).  However, this papyrus appears to be available only in the German manuscript Koptisches Sammelbuch (the first volume, papyrus 421.2 if I understand the numbering correctly) and in this short fragment in several books.

My thanks to David for providing me with the Roman uses of ευαγγελιον.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. dmwilliams83 permalink
    November 21, 2011 4:59 pm

    Nice post. Your discussion gives us a good place to begin thinking about Paul’s theological politics. I am somewhat curious about why you ended up where you did, saying, “I do not think that Paul sees government as something critically important to Christians specifically. Instead, government is a necessary part of the civilized world, much like trade or farming, and becoming entangled with it by pointless disobedience is a waste of time that could otherwise be used to further God’s agenda.”

    For my part, I think a Paul’s political theology actually disallows disentanglement. Consider his admonition to the Christians in Philippi (a Roman colony, largely populated by Roman army veterans) and to us to “only discharge your civic duties (politeuesthe) worthily of the gospel of Christ” (1:27). Politeuesthe is a hard word for us. It means something like “be a citizen.” We don’t have a verb that matches it. We tend to think of citizenship in passive terms, as a status rather than as an activity. In any case, for the Romans citizenship entailed all sorts of responsibilities and activities that were to further the purposes of capitol city. Paul, however, urges that our political activity be driven by the good news of Jesus’ resurrection and all embracing rule, and reminds us that we have a new capitol: “our citizenship” or “political identity” (politeuma) is in heaven (3:20). Whereas in our world we associate citizenship with immigration, the ancients associated citizenship with colonization–a point which would not have been lost on the occupants of Philippi–and it seems that Paul is setting before the Philippians and us a chancy alternative political agenda–a point accentuated by the fact that Paul writes this letter from the confines of a Roman jail (a la, MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”).

    At any rate, what he says to the Romans he says to a community that is at risk of being persecuted and it is no accident that 13:1-7 comes right on the heels of his admonitions for Christians to eschew revenge and to “if possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” My sense is that Paul the “resistance” that Paul has in mind is violent resistance, not necessarily nonviolent civil disobedience. Paul would have expected as much of any Christian who was asked to offer sacrifices to Caesar. It should also be noted, that until the time of Constantine Christians generally refused to serve in the Roman military (though the reasons for this were complex).

    All that’s to say, the rulers of this age don’t get the gospel–which is why they crucified Jesus in the first place (1 Cor 2:8)–and if we were to really enact our heavenly citizenship, discharging the civic duties implied by the good news that Jesus of Nazareth is the King of kings, that His words are the ultimate law of the land, then we will find political disentanglement rather difficult. Just my two cents.

    • dmwilliams83 permalink
      November 21, 2011 5:04 pm

      Oy vey…please excuse the typos….

  2. Eric permalink
    November 21, 2011 10:46 pm

    Perhaps I should have been clearer. When I say, “Instead, government is a necessary part of the civilized world, much like trade or farming,” I think Paul has pointed ideas about how to trade and farm, too.

    However, these ideas do not come about because Paul is saying, “Firstly, believe in Jesus. Secondly, vote Tiberius…” Instead, Paul is saying, “Jesus,” which rips a great bleeding hole in our careless, irresponsible way of doing things. We get to politics, or farming or trade, through the transformative work of Jesus which is not focused on replacing the rulers of the world with slightly better ones, as if those who lead are more important than the rest of us to the Kingdom of God, but on changing all of us into people who love God and one another. This change, which is front and center, will start blowing out the seams in the old wineskins of business as usual and will eventually bring us around to politics (and farming, trade, the building of ships, the making of clocks, and the eating of dinner) again.

  3. November 23, 2011 12:53 pm

    Great, as always! Was having a discussion about “the law” w/Christians and non-Christians recently. It’s funny to hear sometimes a blatant disregard of what is oft put in place for good reason. There was a perspective from the nonreligious that legality basically plays no part in making a sound? decision. Happy thanksgiving break, hope you get some time to spend with the family :)

  4. November 23, 2011 11:11 pm

    I certainly don’t think legality, per se, is a great indicator of whether something is a sound decision since this depends widely on the wisdom and moral character of the legislator. A tyrant may make all sorts of laws it really isn’t a great idea to follow. However, we seem to live in a world where many people react against the idea that they need any help in making decisions. Since I firmly believe that one should benefit from the expertise and hard work of people who devote the time to make rules, especially ones dealing with narrow areas I have not considered, I can’t endorse ignoring the rules either.

    Of course, this second part comes all the more into play with rules made by Christians who have gone before me. While there are plenty of wacky ones I have found that many more sane traditions hold a real treasure-trove of guidance in their rules that has steered me correctly often for years before I matured enough to understand what benefit I was gaining from that guidance.

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