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Does Romans 13 require Christians to obey a government that does evil?
Paul’s counsel has been abused for centuries as tool for oppression
There are few sections of the Bible that have done more to cause or at least allow organized suffering than the first seven verses of Romans 13.
The passage is that one in which Paul tells Christians in Rome that they should be subject to government authorities:
Let every soul be subject to the higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those who exist are ordained by God. Therefore the one who resists the authority resists the ordinance of God; and those who resist will receive judgment. For rulers cause terror for good conduct, but for evil. Do you desire to have no fear of the authority? Do that which is good, and you will have praise from the authority, for that authority is a servant of God to you for good. But if you do that which is evil, be afraid, for he doesn’t bear the sword in vain; for he is a servant of God, an avenger for divine wrath to him who does evil. Therefore you need to be subject, not only because of the authorities’ wrath, but also for conscience’s sake. For this reason you also pay taxes, for they are servants of God’s service, continually doing this very thing. Therefore give everyone what you owe: if you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
This passage was used for centuries to perpetuate slavery, telling Christian slaves and, later, abolitionists that governments had the authority to support slaveholders. It was used in the Third Reich by pastors who were sympathetic or who pretended to be sympathetic to Hitler. It was used by some American pastors during the Vietnam War to discourage young Christians from joining antiwar protests. It was used during the apartheid era of South Africa to support a racist caste system. And should Christian nationalists ever gain power in the United States, undoubtedly they would use it to reinforce a theocratic hold on power.
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Obviously, this raises the question: Was Paul intending that this passage be used to quell resistance to government-backed oppression? Was he saying that Christians were obligated without exception to obey civil authorities?
The meaning of this passage and a few shorter but similar ones elsewhere in the Pauline epistles have been debated for centuries. At first glance, the passage certainly seems to declare without reservation that civil authorities act with divine authority.
But not all Christians have interpreted the passage that way. Among the Christian leaders who didn’t was Beyers Naudé, a South African Calvinist theologian who was ousted by the Dutch Reformed Church after his Bible studies led him to become an anti-apartheid activist. He agreed with the common interpretation that Christians were expected to obey the government — but only as long as the government was carrying out God’s will. And when the government was going against God’s will, he concluded, it became the obligation of believers to resist the government.
In other words, Naudé found that while the emphasis in interpreting Romans 13 had focused on “be subject,” the emphasis should have been on “God’s servant.” For him, when the government was doing evil, it wasn’t God’s servant.
Other Christians have softened Romans 13 in other ways, usually ones that coincided with their political views. Many have used Acts 5:59 (“But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than men.’”) to declare that Romans 13 simply didn’t apply in situations where the government told Christians to act immorally. Others have weighed Romans 13 against Revelation 13, which has imagery often interpreted as portraying a battle against human government.
However one is inclined to interpret Paul’s words, it is important to remember the political climate in which he wrote. Paul wrote his letter to the Romans around the 56 CE, a few years before the full weight of the Roman government became violently oppressive toward Christianity. It is possible that Paul wrote this passage with an eye to the Roman authorities as a way of telling them that Christians didn’t pose a threat to the Roman order.
In is probably best to read this first section of Romans 13 in the context of Romans 12, where Paul urges believers, “if it is possible, to live at peace with everyone.” Where Christians were not facing persecution, he believed, it didn’t make sense for them to create conflicts where none needed to exist.
While we don’t know how much Paul anticipated the troubles that would lie ahead — he was later imprisoned in Rome and, according to tradition, was executed — his phrase “if it is possible” in Romans 12 seemed to anticipate a time when leaving in peace simply isn’t morally doable. And in that case, the Paul’s allusion to the words of Jesuswould apply: “Repay no one evil for evil,” he wrote, and “if your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him a drink.” In context, those words may be Paul’s explanation to Christians on how they should respond when the government is unjust to them; loving an enemy is not the same as obedience.
He never said it would be easy.
This commentary on Romans is a part of our Bible for Modern-day Saints series, published to roughly coincide with the schedule of the Come, Follow Me curriculum of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Views expressed are solely those of the author. Biblical quotations are adapted from the World English Bible, which is in the public domain.
See Matthew 5:44.