Romans 13 eventually became an important text in discussions of the relationship between faith and government, but it was never Paul’s plan to offer a theory of church and state.
Why did Paul write Rom 13:1-7?
Romans 13, in which Paul directs believers to be obedient to the governing authorities, is genuinely a puzzle for interpreters. It seems to come right out of the blue, since Paul has said nothing else in this letter about rulers, and he does not give this kind of instruction elsewhere. In fact, it seems he had his own difficulties with rulers, as when he writes in 2Cor 11 that he was beaten and imprisoned on numerous occasions.
Understanding the passage within its context in the letter helps orient our reading. In this part of the letter (Rom 12:1-15:13), Paul offers ethical instruction to believers in Rome. The topics range from their use of spiritual gifts to dealing with (unspecified) enemies to quarrels about which foods and other practices are acceptable. The fact that this passage ends with very specific instructions about paying taxes may suggest that Paul knew or feared that some Romans Christians were participating in tax revolts (and there is evidence of such revolts in this period). If so, then Paul writes out of concern that believers in Rome will find themselves unnecessarily at odds with a government that had no tolerance for perceived trouble-makers and no concern for what contemporary readers would regard as due process. In other words, Paul is trying to protect believers in Rome, as any thoughtful leader would want to do.
There is a touch of subversion here also, one that is lost on most contemporary readers. By saying that the authorities are put in place by God (“those authorities that exist have been instituted by God”), Paul is in effect saying that God is their sovereign ruler. Not even the Roman emperor rules out of his own power—a claim that would likely not be sweet to the emperor’s ear.
What happened to Romans 13 in the life of the later church?
Very early in the church’s life, the difficulties with an abstract, absolute reading of this passage came to light. Already in the third century, Origen tried to soften these words by pairing them with Acts 5:29 (“We must obey God rather than humans”) and claiming that Paul is not referring to those who would harm the church. Other leaders appealed to the limitation imposed by Jesus’s saying “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Luke 20:25; Matt 22:21; Mark 12:17). Nonetheless, some oppressive regimes have appealed to Romans 13 to impose their own authority on others, such as the Third Reich and the Apartheid regime in South Africa.
Significant errors mar any reading that treats the passage as a timeless instruction on the relationship between faith and government, however benign the conclusions might be. Paul was writing for a group (probably quite small) of early Christians in the city of Rome. He was not writing for rulers themselves. His instruction, whatever prompted it, is an attempt to shape a community rather than a general theory about church and state. He wanted the Roman community to live in conformity with the good news they had received and in support of one another.