Recognising the tension
In reading Romans 13:1-7 we should be honest that there is a significant tension between it and Christian teaching. It does not seem to fit with the Christian teaching on redress of wrongdoing, commendation, the state, submission, payment of taxes or God’s wrath. Do we harmonise Romans 13:1-7 with the Christian teaching, or do we harmonise Christian teaching with Romans 13:1-7? How is it legitimately possible to harmonise such a stark contrast and such a strong tension? Whatever we shall do with Romans 13:1-7 we mustn’t pretend that the tensions do not exist or simply ignore the passages that don’t agree with our preferred result.
Firstly, we shall note that it is Romans 13:1-7 that requires an alternative approach to make it consistent with Christian teaching. We can’t reasonably make the entire Christian teaching depend on this one passage and force numerous other passages to breaking point to conform to it.
Secondly, we must make sense of the passage as rhetoric: it must fully mesh with the context and it must be plausible and persuasive as an argument. Paul is not, I submit, simply asserting propositions on the basis of his apostolic authority, rather there is a line of argument that must be followed. The interpretation must truly make sense rather than torture the passage until it confesses what we require of it. It must make sense in its historical, cultural and political context, and Paul should have a reasonable basis to use the technique he does.
Thirdly, I submit that irony is the only rhetorical technique that can make sense of this passage. The element of tension is intentional, and Paul expects his readers to apply their knowledge of Christian teaching to recognise it, and to take it in an opposite sense.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear 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.’
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom 12:17-21)
The alternative to revenge is explained by Paul with reasonable clarity here.
Firstly the response is to do generous good to enemies, in order to promote shame and guilt in the conscience of the enemy and to promote his repentance – the reference to heaping burning coals on his head is to this. The passage Paul quotes also adds the following ending ‘and the Lord will reward you’ (Pr 25:22) – as we have already documented, the reward of our Father in heaven is not earthly judicial vindication.
Secondly, the response is to do good rather than evil to wrongdoers. This is obviously inconsistent with the concept and practice of invoking the power of the state to help us extract financial compensation by force or threat of force, or to punish him in the name of God, justice or keeping social order. This can also be seen from the way the early Church fathers understood the Sermon on the Mount, as prohibiting litigation, for example, Athenagoras, writing in around 180 A.D.:
we have learned, not only not to return blow for blow, nor to go to law with those who plunder and rob us, but to those who smite us on one side of the face to offer the other side also, and to those who take away our coat to give likewise our cloak (A plea for the Christians, Ch 1)
Likewise the early Church fathers understood that the Sermon on the Mount and other Christian teaching applied absolutely:
Hence arose, very lately, a dispute whether a servant of God should take the administration of any dignity or power, if he be able, whether by some special grace, or by adroitness, to keep himself intact from every species of idolatry; after the example that both Joseph and Daniel, clean from idolatry, administered both dignity and power in the livery and purple of the prefecture of entire Egypt or Babylonia. And so let us grant that it is possible for any one to succeed in moving, in whatsoever office, under the mere name of the office, neither sacrificing nor lending his authority to sacrifices; not farming out victims; not assigning to others the care of temples; not looking after their tributes; not giving spectacles at his own or the public charge, or presiding over the giving them; making proclamation or edict for no solemnity; not even taking oaths: moreover (what comes under the head of power), neither sitting in judgment on any one's life or character, for you might bear with his judging about money; neither condemning nor fore-condemning; binding no one, imprisoning or torturing no one--if it is credible that all this is possible. (Tertullian, on Idolatry, Ch XVII)
Regardless of whether one accepts or rejects Tertullian’s argument that idolatry and other breaches of Christian teaching are inescapable activities of offices of the state, a review of Tertullian’s argument shows that he takes for granted that the Christian teaching against idolatry, oaths, judgment etc. in the Sermon on the Mount etc. were fully applicable even under colour of state office and state law. Needless to say the same approach would be taken to the question of revenge and redress of wrongs. For example the same Church father elsewhere wrote:
Shall it be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword, when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword? And shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law? And shall he apply the chain, and the prison, and the torture, and the punishment, who is not the avenger even of his own wrongs? (The Chaplet, Ch XI)
Had Paul been referring solely to private and informal revenge, the obvious alternative to direct the wronged to use is the ‘proper’ legal process in the ‘proper’ forum of the law courts or the law enforcement department of the state. The alternative Paul actually mandates suggests that he is not solely referring to private and informal revenge but is proscribing the use of legal process as well. Needless to say, the legal process seeks to overcome evil with evil, as it dispenses asset seizures, debtor’s prison, bankruptcy, debt-slavery, jail, the death penalty and similar evils.
As noted above, the meaning of ‘It is mine to avenge, I will repay’ in its context in Deuteronomy, refers not to judicial punishment (whether directly or through an agent), but to allowing the poison of sin to corrupt and kill as its natural consequence.
The prohibition on private informal revenge is so obvious that it goes without saying. The standards of this world prohibit it as much as does the Gospel of God. If this was all Paul and Jesus were teaching, why make a big deal out of it? It’s not at all radical or even remarkable.
In addition, there is no suggestion that doing good to an enemy is merely a preliminary step in the process, and that should it fail to produce the desired shame and repentance, that the lawsuit or the law enforcement complaint is the next step in the process.
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities
This injunction can be accepted at face value. There is no conflict with Christian teaching on this point at all. Being subject is the refusal to resort to violence to overthrow oppressive powers, it does not imply any endorsement or acceptance of oppressive powers.
Reason for injunction
for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.
This is where things get interesting. This proposition is found nowhere else in scripture, certainly not in the sense it is used here. Although there are scriptures teaching the ultimate sovereignty of God over political kingdoms and empires, God’s permission for them to exist or his use of them for his purposes falls short of instituting them as legitimate authorities. For example:
Therefore the Lord Almighty says this: ‘Because you have not listened to my words, I will summon all the peoples of the north and my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants and against all the surrounding nations. I will completely destroy them and make them an object of horror and scorn, and an everlasting ruin. I will banish from them the sounds of joy and gladness, the voices of bride and bridegroom, the sound of millstones and the light of the lamp. This whole country will become a desolate wasteland, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon for seventy years.
‘But when the seventy years are fulfilled, I will punish the king of Babylon and his nation, the land of the Babylonians, for their guilt,’ declares the Lord, ‘and will make it desolate for ever. I will bring on that land all the things I have spoken against it, all that are written in this book and prophesied by Jeremiah against all the nations. They themselves will be enslaved by many nations and great kings; I will repay them according to their deeds and the work of their hands.’ (Jer 25:8-14, emphasis added)
It is clear from this example that notwithstanding that Nebuchadnezzar was expressly described by scripture as God’s servant, and doing God’s work, the style of power wielded was nevertheless evil.
However, Paul strays significantly beyond this in his argument.
Even today we find this claim absurd and unacceptable. Pol Pot was ordained by God? Stalin? Nero? Mere existence as a power is a low bar. The one invading, betraying, overthrowing, killing or cheating his way into power most successfully is the one ordained by God simply because he came out on top and God allowed it?
So, it is here, I submit, that the irony enters the passage (refer T. L. Carter, The Irony of Romans 13, Novum Testamentum XLVI 3, 2004, for an exposition of the basis for finding irony in this passage, albeit not specifically in this claim).
Such an approach is hardly novel in Christian teaching, for example Tertullian taught that the state power was not of God but of the devil:
Now by this time, you who argue about "Joseph" and "Daniel," know that things old and new, rude and polished, begun and developed, slavish and free, are not always comparable. For they, even by their circumstances, were slaves; but you, the slave of none, in so far as you are the slave of Christ alone, who has freed you likewise from the captivity of the world, will incur the duty of acting after your Lord's pattern. That Lord walked in humility and obscurity, with no definite home: for "the Son of man," said He, "hath not where to lay His head;" unadorned in dress, for else He had not said, "Behold, they who are clad in soft raiment are in kings' houses:" in short, inglorious in countenance and aspect, just as Isaiah withal had fore-announced. If, also, He exercised no right of power even over His own followers, to whom He discharged menial ministry; if, in short, though conscious of His own kingdom, He shrank back from being made a king, He in the fullest manner gave His own an example for turning coldly from all the pride and garb, as well of dignity as of power. … Therefore what He was unwilling to accept, He has rejected; what He rejected, He has condemned; what He condemned, He has counted as part of the devil's pomp. For He would not have condemned things, except such as were not His; but things which are not God's, can be no other's but the devil's. If you have forsworn "the devil's pomp," know that whatever there you touch is idolatry. Let even this fact help to remind you that all the powers and dignities of this world are not only alien to, but enemies of, God. (On Idolatry, Ch XVIII)
Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.
This corollary follows naturally from the reason for the injunction. However, the warning against rebellion would also apply if the state were evil and an enemy, as Paul has prohibited repaying evil for evil and required overcoming evil with good. This corollary does not provide any hint of irony in the reason for the submission, rather it acts as cover to conceal it with valid logic and an acceptable conclusion.
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 you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.
This is where the argument loses plausibility. Although the logic is flawless, the conclusions fly in the face of experience and Christian teaching. John the Baptist and Jesus both died at the hands of the rulers who supposedly held no terror to those who do right. Barabbas, the murderer, was released. Christian teaching on revenge prohibits the putting on the hat of the state or using its power to avenge wrongs. God’s wrath, in Christian teaching, is not at all represented by judicially imposed terror punishments. This part therefore, in its implausibility and clash with Christian teaching, suggests irony in the reason for submission to the governing authorities.
This part also contains an allusion to Nero’s propaganda of his idle sword – instead of saying rulers ‘bear the sword for a reason’, Paul uses a double-negative to refer to the idle sword. Nero claimed to be so merciful and benign that his sword was idle, so civilised was his rule. Paul appears to ask his readers to see through the propaganda and see the brutal reality of state power – something that would not have been difficult for them to do.
In the Christian tradition, the claim that the authorities actually punish those who do wrong and commend those who do good is not accepted uncritically, for example, Tertullian:
Let even this fact help to remind you that all the powers and dignities of this world are not only alien to, but enemies of, God; that through them punishments have been determined against God's servants; through them, too, penalties prepared for the impious are ignored. (On Idolatry, Ch XVIII)
Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
Often the conscience does conflict with the ‘laws’ and actions of rulers, and this shows that the source of the corollary is false. We should do what is right even if we are punished for it – in fact Jesus told us to expect punishment from the authorities for obeying his commands. This is another sign of irony in the reason for the submission.
This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing.
Of course the reality is precisely the opposite: we pay taxes because they are levied on us, and we wish to avoid the consequences of being caught failing to pay them, not because we assess them as fair in relation to the ‘services’ they procure.
The phrase translated in the NIV ‘give their full time to governing’ is literally ‘are devoted to this thing’ and refers back to the commending of the good and punishing of evildoers. The authorities spend a great deal of public money doing other things (wars, bread, circuses, canals etc.), and many they punish are innocent and many they commend are well-connected rather than good.
As a moral argument for payment of taxes in full, it does not work: at best it requires us to pay a modest proportion of the taxes levied on us.
The reference to tax collectors as God’s servants is highly provocative. How can Jesus say to treat those who spurn discipline of the assembly as you would a tax collector (Mat 18:17) if tax collectors are in fact to be honoured as God’s servants?
Give to everyone what you owe them: if you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honour, then honour.
This does sound like an injunction to pay taxes as they are morally owed, but ultimately it is merely a tautology. This is very much like Mat 22:21: although it sounds like an endorsement of taxation, in context to the enlightened it means the opposite. If we each were to calculate how much we owe based on our moral assessment of the activities of the state we are very unlikely to agree we owe the full amount levied, if any at all.
Contrast with the Law of Christ
Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law.
Although it appears to be a topical break, it is actually a paradigm contrast, the same contrast Jesus made:
Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant’ (Mat 20:25-26)
Paul’s exposition of the law of Christ is instructive: debts of money and of money’s worth should be paid, and payment discharges the debt. However, the obligation to love is never discharged, and it has no exceptions. Even if your debtor’s debt to you is due and payable, and he refuses to pay, your obligation to love him remains. You may not do or threaten to do any harm to your debtor to make him pay. You may not threaten to sue, you may not sue, you may not swear an oath to give testimony against him, you may not sit as a judge and award a judgement against such a man, and you may not use a court judgement against a man as the basis for taking his life, liberty or property by force. The ‘do no harm to a neighbour’ rule is absolute, notwithstanding the validity of unpaid debts, the formality of the ‘legal’ procedures and the presence of safeguards.
The contrast is also a contrast about the kind of moral and social obligations: under the law of the state, for the ‘services’ of the state taxes are levied and purport to be moral and social obligations. But there are no taxes to pay under the law of Christ, instead the light burden (Mat 11:28-30) of ‘do no harm to a neighbour.’ This one obligation fulfils the entire law, makes us children of our Father in heaven (Mat 5:44-45) and exempts us from taxation (Mat 17:26).
After an adventure into political fantasy land, a teaching on the real law of Christ concerning debts and social order, Paul addresses political reality in Rome under cover of pastoral advice:
And do this, understanding the present time: the hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.
There is no pastoral reason for this material in this place. The deeds of darkness do, however, match Nero’s night time adventures around Rome quite well, and the references to ‘the present time’ and ‘waking up’ suggest Paul could be referring to the sensitive political reality in Rome. The armour language also suggests spiritual warfare against the state (compare Eph 6:10-20).
The sensitive topic of power negotiation does justify the cover of irony in this case. Provided the readers are familiar with Christian teaching on revenge, litigation, commendation, the state, submission, payment of taxes, and God’s wrath, and have reasonable political and social and legal awareness, the sub-text is reasonably clear. Even today we know that the words ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help’ are, as Ronald Regan famously said, the nine most frightening words in the English language. Isn’t Paul meaning the same thing when he says ‘the one in authority is God’s servant for your good’?
Paul’s argument is a logical and persuasive reductio ad absurdum of the proposition that the governing authorities are ‘of God.’ Paul works through a chain of implications to show its absurdity in light of Christian teaching on redress of wrongdoing and God’s character and law. He also covertly refers to several aspects of the operation of state power that we can observe and experience that undermine the proposition. The result is that Paul affirms and upholds Christian teaching rather than legitimising the powers of this dark world. The boldness and tension are fully explained in favour of Christian teaching.