“Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. 4. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.” Romans 13
For centuries Christian leaders have used the above Scripture to direct Christians to patronize their governments. But national patriotism is not the message here. Rather, as is often the case, this Scripture is misunderstood when people target a few select verses and ignore others. It is also important to understand what was happening during the time this was written which was approximately 58 A.D. During that time the Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire was heating up and many Jews were being executed for sedition (rebellion). In fact, Jesus was arrested for sedition. Thus, verses 3 and 4 pose a problem for those who would cite this Scripture to promote national patriotism. Do rulers truly “hold no terror for those who do right”? Should only “wrongdoer” fear them? How could Paul say such things when Jesus was just crucified by this very government? Moreover, Paul himself would soon be executed by them. Were Jesus and Paul “wrongdoers”?
Paul’s words here certainly do seem odd, and many have tried to explain them. One popular explanation claims that Paul used these flattering words toward the Roman government in order to get his letter through to the Church in Rome without it being confiscated as seditious. But would the Apostle Paul really use such a deceptive measure? The answer is most certainly no! The fact is that Paul was telling the complete truth here…but a very difficult truth!
The main message here was the importance for the Christian to “submit” themselves to the governing authorities as Paul repeats this twice (v 1 and 5). Again, during this time the Jewish revolt against the Roman occupation was heating up and many Jews were being executed for sedition. Now while the Jews were certainly seditious against the occupying government, the Christians were not. The Christians had no desire to regain Judea from the Romans because Jesus had told them His Kingdom (Israel) would no longer be found on a physical land; rather it would now only be found within their hearts. But because the Romans considered the Christians a Jewish sect—the Christians were persecuted as Jews. Moreover, the Jewish Zealots were urging the Christians to join them in their mounting rebellion against Rome. Thus, as the Roman persecutions intensified, the Christians were being tempted to join in the Jewish rebellion. It was for these reasons that Paul had to reaffirm that God was in control of all things—even seemingly wicked governments. Paul explained that because all governments are set in place by God, the Christian must not rebel, but rather submit to them.
Now this was not a new principle. Paul was actually just reiterating what the earlier Prophets have relayed before; that even governments which may seem to be doing evil are actually God’s servants for good—but a good from God’s perspective. Indeed God called Nebuchadnezzar (the King of Babylon) his “servant” and used him as His “agent of wrath” to execute judgment against Jerusalem. Then, it was the Prophets who warned the Jews to submit to a seemingly wicked government. Those who submitted were spared; but those who rebelled were killed. Consequently, along with the unfaithful Jews who suffered the exile to Babylon were the faithful like the Prophet Daniel. Now, it was the Roman Empire being used as God’s “agent of wrath” against Jerusalem. And just as the prophets had once warned the Jews to submit, the Apostle Paul now warned the Christians.
Now while this was a difficult truth for the Jews, it was more so for the Christians. For while it is understandable how God would execute judgment on those who had just rejected the Messiah; many innocent Christians suffered and died at the hands of the Romans as well. Moreover, this judgment against the Jews established the conditions for the extremely brutal and longstanding (300 year) Roman persecution of the Christians. So again, were Jesus, Paul and now the early Christian martyrs “wrongdoers”? The answer is actually yes. They were indeed wrongdoers—in the eyes of the Romans. For in the eyes of the Romans, Jesus and Paul were insurrectionist, and the early Christians were the terrorist who burned Rome. Of course we now know that those charges were not true. But none the less, because the Romans believed they were true, the Romans were just doing was what governments do—punishing wrongdoers. But even this was God’s plan for good. Indeed, this cruel government which was inflicting such a great persecution against the Christians was still to be considered God’s servant for good—but again a good from God’s perspective. For just as much as it was God’s will that Jerusalem be judged and destroyed by Rome; it was also God’s will that Jesus be crucified and the Christians be persecuted by Rome. Indeed, the Prophets foretold that these persecutions would produce a “good” beyond human reasoning as they would strengthen and refine the Christian flock:
“Awake, O sword, against my shepherd (Jesus), against the man who is close to me!” declares the LORD Almighty. “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered, and I will turn my hand against the little ones. In the whole land,” declares the LORD, “two-thirds will be struck down and perish (the Jews); yet one-third will be left in it (the early Jewish Christian “the remnant”). This third I will bring into the fire; I will refine them like silver and test them like gold. They will call on my name and I will answer them; I will say, ‘They are my people,’ and they will say, ‘The LORD is our God.’” Zec 13:8
The difficult truth here is that the great martyrdom was actually God’s will. Indeed it produced a truly spiritual crop of faithful believers that has flourished throughout the entire world—and will continue to flourish until the end. “…for unless a seed fall into the ground and die it can not bear fruit”. Moreover, the unjust persecutions displayed the depths of wickedness that false suspicions and accusations can result in; thus the importance of the need for the patient, non-judgmental Love that Jesus commanded. Indeed, the persecutions shined an indelible light onto the path of the Kingdom of Love. Therefore, even today believers must remember that God is still in control of all things…even their seemingly wicked governments. Truly they have been put into placed by God for good! Moreover, we are told that yet another great martyrdom will come upon the Christians in the very last days—which will take great patience and perseverance to endure. Therefore, the Christian must be resolved beforehand and be ready to submit to it. For those who do so their reward will be great. Indeed these will rule and reign with King Jesus! (Rev 20:4-6)
Finally, as stated before, many have claimed these verses prompt Christians to support their nation’s political causes and even their military. But that could not have been Paul’s intentions here as anyone involved in the Roman military would most likely have been ordered to persecute Christians. In fact, it was Roman soldiers who nailed Jesus to the cross. Rather, the instructions Paul gave the Christians in the preceding verses clearly contradict the actions required of someone enlisted in military service.
“…Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse….If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Romans 12:14
Indeed, someone serving in combat would certainly not be able to give their “enemy something to eat or drink” as that would be seen as consorting with the enemy. In fact, history has recorded that Roman soldiers who had become Christians were executed for not following combat orders (1). Truly Jesus’ Command to “Love others as He loved” has proven quite difficult for those who have paid for obeying it with their lives. But again, this is truly a difficult Truth—and not many will be willing to accept it. Rather, only those who can truly “hear” will be able to:
“But I SAY TO YOU WHO CAN HEAR: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you. To him who strikes you on the one cheek, offer the other also. And from him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who asks of you. And from him who takes away your goods do not ask them back. And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise. “But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. Luke 6:27
(1) Acta Martyrum, Acta Marcelli, Arma Proiciunt