Romans 13 & Human Government

Paul Dean
Paul Dean
2020 2 Mar

One of the most misunderstood texts in Scripture is Romans 13 and what it says about human government. The popular view is that God has ordained the government/State for the good of society. It’s purpose, they say, is to restrain evil and promote good – good in the sense of God’s righteousness and the resulting good things that flow to the citizens.

Historical Context

Such an interpretation ignores the context of Romans. First, it ignores the historical context. The Roman Christians are being persecuted by Nero. He’s the one who set them on fire to light his dinner parties. He’s the one who wrapped them in bloody animal skins and let loose wild dogs on them to tear them to pieces for his entertainment. He’s the one who falsely blamed them for the nine-day fire that burned two-thirds of Rome. Nero couldn’t possibly be God’s minister/servant to bring God’s righteousness and good things to the citizens of Rome, particularly the Christians.

Immediate Context

Second, the common interpretation ignores the immediate context. In Chapter 12, Paul tells the church to bless those who persecute them (14), repay no one evil for evil (17), if possible, as much as depends on them, to live peaceably with all men (18), and to not avenge themselves (19). He closes out the chapter with these words, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (20-21). He immediately says in the next verse, “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities” (13:1), that is, Nero, among others. There were no chapters and verses in Paul’s original letter. They were added later for easy reference. Paul had a singular thought in mind: he was telling the Roman Christians how to live under the evil government of Nero and the Roman Empire.

Pastoral Context

Third, the pop misconception ignores the pastoral context. Again, Paul wrote to the Roman Christians for a specific purpose. He spent eleven chapters on the grace of God in salvation, and then he gave some practical application of that grace and salvation for Christian living. He began that application, in Chapter 12, by saying, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (1-2). He goes on for that entire chapter, and there is more application for their conduct and some personal notes in Romans 13:8 to the end of the letter. Does it even make sense that Paul would step aside in the first seven verses of Chapter 13 to give us a theology of government? Does he exalt Nero? Does he say this is how government ought to be? The answer to each of those questions is an emphatic no. Paul is saying to them this is how government is – and this is how you ought to behave in light of that. Do what Nero says so he won’t kill you. That’s his message.

Larger Context

Fourth, the surface interpretation ignores a larger context. Does Paul say that government is ordained by God? Yes, and so is Satan. What about what he says about judgment if one disobeys government? He’s talking about judgment from the government. If you don’t pay your taxes, you go to prison. Again, Paul says do what Nero says, and it will go better for you. It’s similar to what he says in 1 Tim. 2:1-2. What about what he says about the State being God’s servant for your good? God calls evil king Cyrus His Messiah (Isa. 45:1). Everyone and everything are God’s servants including Satan. And as for our good? Paul has already told us what he means by that in 8:28-29: “. . . all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son . . .” God ordains all things for our good – our sanctification – including evil despots like Nero. And remember what else Paul said in Chapter 8: even the sword won’t separate us from the love of Christ (35). That’s a huge comfort in light of the fact that Nero bears the sword. Of course, when Paul says Nero doesn’t bear the sword in vain, he’s not saying that Nero has the right to kill, but he does have the power (authority) to do such. So, keep your head down or it might get chopped off. His onerous demands are for your good (sanctification), and even if he does chop your head off, he can’t separate you from Christ.

And then there’s Revelation 13. Nero is referred to as the beast (1). Whether one sees Nero specifically as the beast, or the Roman Empire as the beast, or human government in general as the beast, scholars from differing eschatological views affirm that human government in one form or another is in view in that chapter, and is in fact the beast. Moreover, the beast is given its power by the dragon, who all agree is Satan (2).

So, Romans 13 is not about the role of modern government or what pagan governments across the world should be. Romans 13 is about what the State is – a beast – to be respected, and even feared at times, just like a literal beast. Paul is not giving a prescription of what the State ought to be but a description of what the State is. Keep your head down.

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