Romans 13 – Obey your government?

This post is a follow up to a post on voting, you might want to start with that article:

Romans 13 is theologically difficult. I would argue the great majority of the Bible seems to speak differently when interpreted by 21st century English-American. Hebrews 11:131 Peter 1:172:11, 2 Corinthians 5:20 and Philippians 3:20 (to name a few) all clearly speak to being in complete allegiance to the kingdom of the Lord and being single minded to only serve one master who is Jesus the Lord of your life.

Romans 13 has become a favorite proof text for every church narcissist who wants to Lord over and rule like a king in the name of Jesus. Does Romans 13 mean that God actually instituted every authority by God and that Christians should comply to whatever they ask?

The Bible agrees. When it seems like it doesn’t, we are tasked with the puzzle of figuring out the best interpretation. In this case, countless verses say to not be of the world, to solely and completely follow Jesus, that God is good (Tov) and not part of corruption, that we as His children are not to compromise to the ways of the world but be undivided and not tangled up in the affairs of the systems of the world.

How do we reconcile, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”

Seeking a better interpretation

The first law of Hermeneutics is context. Any Romans scholar would tell you that you have to read Romans in complete context. As believers, you are the set apart remnant, we should expect persecution, all authority belongs to and should be given solely to the Lord, live as a royal priesthood set apart in living sacrifice. Follow the example of Christ in humble submission and be devoted to the body and the Word.

Paul is chronically in trouble with the government and seen as treasonous by them, eventually He will be killed by them for His traitorous mindset. Some scholars would assert that Romans 13 is referring to church governance. I think that is a viable option, but the reference to taxes and revenue doesn’t really fit first century church as much as a description of state government. It would seem to fit a context of tithing in churches today, but that doesn’t fit the audience so personally I think that “view” shows a poor hermeneutic.

Could Paul be writing to appease the Roman government who would have been screening these letters? Well, that is certainly a consideration. We don’t have records of several letters that we know Paul wrote and they were likely confiscated. I think there is some truth to this theory and should be taken into any consideration on the best interpretation.

Let’s get a few things straight. Paul regularly taught that Jesus was king, NOT Caesar. All authority is given to Christ. In fact, there isn’t anywhere in Paul’s writings other than Romans 13 that would seem to assert ANY “authority” to Caesar. I would argue Romans 13 doesn’t either. Caesar was and should not ever be recognized as a valid authority instilled or given by God. In other words, God didn’t institute the authority of Caesar. According to Paul, Jesus is “the blessed and only Ruler” (1 Timothy 6:151:17Acts 17:6-7James 4:12). This happened all the time in the Old Testament and God clearly doesn’t honor the authority instituted by men or ask His followers to do the same. In fact, one of the reigning messages of the Old Testament is to follow God not the pagan nations. Have nothing to do with them. Yet there still seems to be a sense to this text of trying to live within what they are asking of us.

Paul often taught as a Rabbi in the same way that Jesus did using Hebrew idioms that reminded them of complete teachings by simple phrases. I teach regularly about the use of contronyms, extreme opposites that by explaining the opposite of something shape what is true on the other extreme as well. There is some of this going on in Romans 13 as well. Paul clearly thinks that Caesar is a terror to Christians in I Corinthians 2 and 2 Timothy 2. But I don’t want to major on this as I view it as a minor emphasis. Still, it should be considered in your interpretation.

I also need to touch on paying taxes. Paul doesn’t seem to go along with the Roman government in Acts 16. Neither Paul nor Jesus ever taught their followers to pay tax. Taxation was considered theft or extortion by the Jews. Paul would exclaim in verse 8 that we owe nothing but love to our neighbors. Those words are similar to Jesus. When he was asked to pay tax, it was miraculously paid from a fish which represented money of the world given back to the world. Jesus didn’t pay the tax from money from the purse that was given for ministry. That would have been giving God’s money to the world or stealing.

If something is Evil we are taught to NOT be a part of it, or entangled in it. We are set apart to be of the world but not in it. Don’t be conformed to the patterns of the world. Did Joseph and Mary willfully submit their baby to Herod for execution? Paul spent more time in prison for disobeying the government then he did out of Prison after his 14 years of training.

So, as I, and every other scholar I know, would agree, this section of Romans 13 seemingly being contradictory to the message of nearly the entire lens of the scripture. We have an option not to read “into it” that way. It can’t mean something to us today that it didn’t mean to its intended audience. How would they have interpreted it?

In his commentary on Romans, Colin Kruse observes that in Romans 13 “Paul is drawing upon teaching in Jewish literature about God’s sovereignty over the rise and fall of earthly rulers” (Paul’s Letter to the Romans, 493). Supporting that claim, he lists a handful of key passages from the Old Testament, the Jewish Apocrypha, and Josephus. Here’s his list.

By me kings reign and rulers issue decrees that
are just; by me princes govern, and nobles—all who rule on earth. (Prov

In the Lord’s hand the king’s heart is a stream
of water that he channels toward all who please him. (Prov 21:1)

With my great power and outstretched arm I made
the earth and its people and the animals that are on it, and I give it to
anyone I please. Now I will give all your countries into the hands of my
servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon; I will make even the wild animals subject
to him. All nations will serve him and his son and his grandson until the time
for his land comes; then many nations and great kings will subjugate him. (Jer

He changes times and seasons; he deposes kings
and raises up others. (Dan 2:21)

The Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms on
earth and gives them to anyone he wishes. (Dan 4:17, 25, 32)

For your dominion was given you from the Lord,
and your sovereignty from the Most High; he will search out your works and
inquire into your plans. (Wis 6:3)

The government of the earth is in the hand of
the Lord, and over it he will raise up the right leader for the time. (Sir

He will for ever keep faith with all men,
especially with the powers that be, since no ruler attains his office save by
the will of God. (Josephus, Jewish Wars 2.140)

Paul commands believers to willingly submit to governing authorities (Rom. 13:1, 4), he does not mean that governing authorities have absolute autonomy or unchecked authority. As Romans 13:4 says, they are “God’s servants,” hence subject to God himself. And it’s this point of reference—the relationship between governing authorities and God—that we need consider more fully.

  • Government leaders are actually a rejection of God (1 Sam 8:5-7)
    • God allows government leaders to have their power, but he is actually working against them (Col 2:15)
    • Hosea 8:4 actually says that leaders are chosen without God’s approval


The ONLY true authority was and is Jesus. Period. In fact, the rulers and authorities of the world are the enemies and will be destroyed according to I Corinthians 15:24-25 and Mark 10. It is interesting when Paul writes, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities” he uses the word ‘hypotassō,’ which means “submission involving the recognition of an ordered structure.”1 The Greek word hypakouo is the common word for complete obedience and Paul could have used that word, but instead he uses this one. This is the same word he uses in Ephesians when He asks wives to submit to their husbands. The implication is to live in peace but not to go along with something that is ungodly. That understanding is so basic to Paul’s writing that no one in the intended audience would have questioned it.

Why do we? I think because we have been compromised for 2000 years. We have changed definitions to work for us. We like our new definitions better than the Biblical definitions. We don’t think that way. Did Paul imply in any way to go along with something that is un-Godly, no way. There is not a chance His audience would have interpreted this letter in that light, or rather darkness. Any first century Christian wouldn’t think twice about this. They would understand the context to follow Jesus not someone contrary to Jesus. Today we have the big picture and should even interpret the scripture more strongly along these lines. The 7 letters to the churches of Revelation should make this message exceedingly clear to us. (Watch our X44 series on the church for our take on this.)


Depending on your translation you’re going to read the words “instituted” or “established” authority by God. This is really the main problem of Romans 13. In our western world 21st century thinking we interpret this word similar to the way a Calvinist interprets predestination. That all things were set in concrete form the beginning of time. That isn’t the Biblical definition of predestination and that wasn’t the first century meaning of the term “establish” either. Tasso meant to arrange or bring order. In the same way that God seeks to bring order to the chaos of the world He doesn’t agree or approve of them, and neither should we. He often meets us where we are and that is messed up. Authority is God’s and most of it in this world is messed up and even abused.

There is also a Deuteronomy 32 worldview tied into this idea but that is a longer conversation that you can watch in our videos on that subject. Revelation is clear that God “hates” the empires of the world (that are contrary to Him) and that they will be overcome and reconciled to Him in the end.

What does the rest of Romans say? Obviously, a verse in Romans can’t be interpreted to mean exactly the opposite to the rest of the book right? Romans 12 (the chapter in context establishing the foundation for the statements of Chapter 13 and in the ancient manuscripts their isn’t a break or chapter difference here) tells us not to conform or be tempted by the world and their systems. We are to bless and love our enemies and even those who persecute us.

NT Wright is likely the best expert on Paul the world has ever known. Personally, I agree with NT Wright’s take on Romans 13, Wright argues that, Romans 13 is in fact a general statement about ruling authorities (as I have alluded the statements about taxes are hard not to apply to government and why I lean this way as well). In essence, in this time between the times where God’s new world is on its way but not quite here, government is something God has put in place to preserve some measure of justice and order and to prevent the world from falling into complete anarchy and chaos. To disagree with this general sentiment is to endorse actual anarchy, which, on the whole, is far worse than government, even though government can certainly go horribly wrong.

As I alluded to in the previous article, no one wants the wild west. But I also make an argument that maybe in a better state of trust in Christ we should. Maybe we are supposed to have the faith to completely trust the justice of the Lord and be able to turn the other cheek in the greatest of adversity. 

In other words, it isn’t a blank check to follow evil as if we are just zombies that can’t think for ourselves. We are called to far greater places and that is expressed in the rest of the book and GREATLY assumed in Paul’s written audience. The apostles clearly defy their rulers when their rulers ask them to do something that violates faithfulness to Christ (Acts 4:23-31). Paul harshly condemns the high priest (Acts 23:1-5). Wright’s proposal is that all of this could have led many Christians into a sort of over-realized eschatological anarchy in which Christians try to overthrow government in the name of Christ. He points to the riots under Claudius and Jewish revolutionaries as examples of actions the early Christians might be tempted to emulate. That, claims Wright, is why Paul is saying this particular thing to these particular people: “Romans 13:1-7 issues commands that are so obvious that they only make sense if there might be some reason in the air not to obey the civic authorities.”[2]

Inasmuch as the authorities are themselves meant to submit to God, calling them back to their purpose is indeed a form of faithfulness to the will of God. That is our calling as those set apart. To bring God’s order to the world’s chaos. Essentially, we should be seeking to call the authorities back to their God-ordained purpose. Martin Luther King Jr. suggested that such a person is “in reality expressing the highest respect for law.”[3]

Simply put, the law does not dictate our ethics or authority, God does.

Peter and Paul knew that if we break an unjust law to highlight and protest its injustice, we should be willing to submit to the punishment for breaking such laws, so that we demonstrate our respect for the role of government in general. We do not follow a God of chaos, each doing whatever we want. But a God of order and respect for one another and the governing authorities.

Romans 13 does not undermine that posture – it informs it.


Matt and I did a video on the overlap in content between 1 Peter 2:13-17 and Romans 13:1-7. Matt is alos writing his Th.D dissertation on the subject. Many see some contradictions in these texts as well (who to fear in 1 Peter vs Romans). The traditional approach to Romans 13 has been that all governments are ordained by God.

As I have pointed out above, as in Romans, 1 Peter submit does not mean obey, In Peter honor is due to all things and all Peter not just institutions. In this way we honor all people but keep the brotherhood and live as a witness to the authority of light in Jesus that you represent. You can watch the video below.


[1] William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 1042.

[2] Wright, NIB, Romans, 722.

[3] Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail,”


Watch our episode on 1 Peter 2 and Romans 13:

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