Romans 13 and the State

N.T. Wright recently had a Q and A session on his Facebook page, and he responded to this question:

What would Paul say to a Christian serving in the military?

Wright’s response can best be summarized by these two statements:

This is again straight Romans 13: God wants there to be human authorities, but they are answerable to him.

It is therefore appropriate in principle for a Christian to serve in such a force [the state], basically an extension of police work.

(You can read the full response here.)

In reaction to this, Kurt Willems wrote a response showing where he disagrees. Kurt, in classical Anabaptist fashion, believes that Christians should be nonviolent, but that the state still serves a purpose. There is a separation of church and state, and the state is a necessary evil. 

What we have here are the two traditional positions of the church clashing. Wright represents the majority view, which traditional Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox hold to, while Willems follows the traditional free church approach. Obviously, I favor the free church approach between the two, since I do not believe in Christian involvement in state violence. However, I still find that I disagree. Where I completely disagree with Wright’s approach, I also disagree with Willems—and also mainstream Anabaptism.

The two approaches shown here are different, but I think they both rely upon the same inaccurate reading of one particular passage of Scripture—Romans 13. For hundreds of years—ever since Christians were given responsibility for the Roman Empire—people have read Romans 13 with the assumption that Paul is talking about the state when he uses the vague term “archontes” (authorities; rulers).

It is interesting to me how everyone just assumes that Paul is referring to the state in this passage. No one ever considers the possibility that Romans 13 has nothing to do with the state. There are even many translations that add the term “governing” to the Greek’s “authorities” so that the impression that the state is what is being talked about is even more reinforced.

I disagree. I think that when we consider the context of Romans, as well as the original Greek terms, that it is clear that Romans is not talking about the state to begin with. Rather, I believe that the “authorities” referred to in Romans 13 are religious leaders rather than political ones.

1. Romans was written with a religious context in mind. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans was written with the purpose of reconciling Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome. These two camps were at odds in the early church, as we can see by the disputes between Peter and Paul. Brian McLaren describes this context in A New Kind of Christianity:

So, the more I read and reread Romans and tried to make sense of its message, the more I became convinced that Paul never intended his letter to be an exposition on the gospel. The gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John would soon fulfill that exposition role quite well. Instead, Romans aimed to address a more immediate , practical question in the early Christian movement less than twenty-five years after Jesus’s death and resurrection: How could Jews and Gentiles in all their untamed diversity come and remain together as peers in the kingdom of God without having first- and second-class Christians, on the one hand, and, on the other, without being homogenized like a McDonald’s franchise with the same menu, same pricing, same bathroom soap? (pg. 143-144)

It was the Protestant Reformation especially that caused us to read Romans (and Paul in general) as a systematic theologian interpreting the gospel. In Paul’s day, however, he was a pastor and missionary, and his letters were written to specific churches in order to deal with their crises. The epistles of Paul were not spiritual instruction for individual Christians today; rather, they were part of a dialogue with communities in the first century.

2. Archontes was a Greek Jewish term for religious leaders. When we take into account the religious context of Paul’s letter, we can then better understand the language Paul uses. Something that people overlook is that terms like “rulers” or “authorities” are actually pretty vague. There are many institutions in society, and one can be seen as an authority in any number of them. According to The Jewish Annotated New Testament (which goes into great detail concerning Romans 13), archontes was a Greek Jewish term for religious leaders. While it was also a term for politicians, when we consider the religious context of Romans, the former makes more sense. Simply put, archontes was like the modern English term “minister.” In many contexts, this term refers to political leaders (e.g. prime minister), but it also often refers to religious leaders.

Many point to the references of taxation and “the sword” in Romans 13 to show that Paul was actually referring to political archons rather than religious archons, but I think we would be jumping to conclusions to think that. Just like with the term “archontes” or “minister,” taxation also exists in multiple contexts, and in ancient Judaism, there was a temple tax. It is likely that Paul was talking about religious taxation rather than political.

The “sword” that Paul mentions in Romans 13:4 can also mean multiple things. Traditionally, it has been taken literally—to mean that the state uses swords (i.e. weapons) to administer its law and order. There is certainly a possibility that Paul was referring to Roman law enforcement, but he could easily have been referring to Jewish and Christian community leaders, and using the term “sword” in a symbolic tone. Unless of course, Ephesians 6:17 means that the Holy Spirit can literally cut me.

3. Paul was a Jewish Christian in the Roman Empire. Finally, I think the larger context of the author is perhaps the most important. Paul was both Jewish and Christian, and both of those things meant that he was troublesome to the Roman Empire. On the one hand, he was Jewish. While technically given religious freedom, Jews were still uneasy in their relationship with Rome. They existed on fringe of Rome’s territory and many resistance movements popped up during the first century that attempted to proclaim a new Israel. Some have even concluded that the early followers of Jesus were among such apocalyptic groups. First century Jews and the Roman Empire were not on good terms, to say the least.

Secondly, Paul was a Christian, and Christianity was considered an illegal cult by the Roman authorities. Roman pagan life encompassed all of society. Religion, politics, and public festivities were all deeply interconnected, and Christians rejected them. In fact, in the same Q and A that I am writing about, N. T. Wright brings this up:

It’s hard for us to imagine, but in the ancient pagan world ‘religion’ (festivals, sacrifices, inspecting auspices, etc.) was so ubiquitous, and so stitched in to the very fabric of every city and state, and even every street and home with their ‘local gods’, that anyone who suddenly stopped taking part in all these things, and instead met with a disparate group of people behind closed doors on the first day of the week, and could sometimes be heard talking about eating someone’s body and drinking blood, and about being born again, and about someone who was to be called ‘Lord’ . . .  anyone like this would be looked at with great suspicion. Such behaviour would already be perceived, massively, as ‘civil disobedience’.

The Christian religion, for the first few centuries, was essentially criminal, and it was this reason that various pockets of persecution occurred. Even Paul was reportedly arrested and imprisoned numerous times for his missionary work. For a first century Jew or Christian (and especially a Jewish Christian) to advocate for allegiance to the Roman Empire would be ridiculous, in my honest opinion.

Based upon Paul’s writing in Romans 12-13, I think we can make the case that Paul was for nonviolence, and then of course, you have texts like the Sermon on the Mount, which are even more reinforcing of nonviolence. I definitely think Wright was wrong when he stated that Christians could take part in violent institutions. Of course, we must remember Wright’s Anglican (state church) heritage, which certainly shaped his understanding. In addition to that, I think the traditional Anabaptist view of Romans 13 is also wrong, since it starts with the assumption that the “authorities” in question are state leaders.

Cross-posted from Koinonia Revolution.

Comments (6)

  1. Tim B

    This site would do well to have more of this type of exposition.

    I’m not sure I agree with the Kevin but I appreciate the thoughts. I re-read Romans 13 (and 12 and 14) without verse numbers or headers to see if verses 1-7 blended into the surrounding verses in a way I had not noticed before. Alas, I remain at a loss.

    Two thoughts come to mind:

    1) As far as I am aware Paul almost always speaks about the church, not those outside it. Paul wrote 13 letters (maybe 14 if you include Hebrews) and as far as I can remember he spends very little time talking about anything other than inter-church interaction. I think, Kevin, this is a key point that you missed that could be used to further strengthen your interpretation. Paul is very single minded and it would make sense that Paul is writing about church unity, not the State. Speaking of which…

    2) Paul almost exclusively writes about keeping a peaceful balance within the church. A lot of Christians (especially liberal Christians) think of Paul as some sort of authoritarian. In actuality, Paul was Tony Campolo of his day. Most of his letters are about keeping the peace between the Jews and Gentiles in the early church (Galations). All of them, universally, are single minded attempts to spread the Gospel. In fact, I’d argue that Paul never wrote anything in the New Testament that was not with the intent of making the Gospel more palatable.

    So your thoughts here are both unique and reasonable. Is it reasonable that Paul would be talking about church authorities? Absolutely. Is it likely? Very much so.

    I still remain in the camp that Romans 13 is all about trying not to tick off the state in order to preach the Gospel. I believe that Paul realized that a church that was seen a trouble makers could not spread the Gospel.

    In either case, Romans 13 does not suggest that a Christian can serve in the military. It merely makes mention that we should obey them (for the sole purpose of spreading the Gospel).

    I believe it was Oswald Chambers who once said something like: “I’m always happy to find a Soldier a Christian and saddened when I find a Christian a Soldier.”

  2. Lucas Dawn

    Rom. 12-13 follow Paul’s extended treatment in 9-11 about a mostly unbelieving Israel. Paul still loves his fellow Jews, and affirms their special “election,” but also knows their strong resistance to the gospel (“as regards the gospel they are enemies of God” in 11:38). Indeed, “Judaizers” have been Paul’s worst persecutors. His common mission practice was going to the synagogues, receiving a hearing, and then being persecuted and driven out. Thus in 12:14 when he echoes Jesus about blessing those who persecute you, the literary context and mission context both point in the direction of Jewish authorities, who ruled in the synagogues.

    So yes, archontes is used to describe these Jewish authorities elsewhere, but at this point (in Romans), they are the enemies/persecutors (not part of the solution found in Rom. 13). The main problem Paul addresses in 12:14-13:10 is how to respond to that persecution. Paul says not to repay evil for evil; if possible, live peaceably with “everyone” (even persecutors). Don’t seek revenge; leave that to the wrath of God; as for you, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; overcome evil with good.

    Then 13:1-4 says nothing about giving allegiance to the Roman authorities but does say to let “everyone” (who does evil, especially persecutors, as in 12:18) be subject to the punishment of the authorities, who might be instruments of the wrath of God “for your good” (when they stop the persecutors, while the Christians still overcome evil with good). If however Christians get revenge (and use evil against evil), they too then need to fear punishment from the authorities. While Paul was unjustly punished by Roman authorities sometimes, he was mostly persecuted by Jewish authorities, after which sometimes Roman authorities stopped the persecution. Paul thus summarizes this section by saying “owe no one anything” (any revenge) except to love one another; love does no wrong (evil) to a neighbor (13:8-10).

    In Rom. 14 Paul does begin to deal with peace among Jewish and Gentile Christians, but this is about minor issues like food and drink, and not really a major focus of his letter as a whole. In 15:14 he says he himself is satisfied about them, that they are full of goodness, all knowledge, and able to instruct one another. While Romans is indeed not about a systematic (abstract) theology for individuals, it often deals with how Christians should understand and interact with non-Christian Gentiles and especially non-Christian Jews (and their law). Whether using “Reformed” theology or Paul’s mission praxis (the latter of course being better), both approaches to interpreting Romans are “religious,” just as Jewish authorities were political as well as religious, and Roman authorities were religious as well as political, and less of a problem at this stage.

  3. Isaiah

    This is Mark Nanos’ interpretation in “The Mystery of Romans”. I am surprised Anabaptists have yet to fully engage his understanding.

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