Let me start by saying that my purpose here is not to promote civil disobedience, nor is it to promote anything other than an accurate knowledge of Romans 13. This record, however, has been erroneously used to proclaim that all disobedience of one’s government is categorically immoral, contrary to God’s Word, the Bible. Many Bible versions even translate the early verses of this chapter in a manner that clearly conveys this message. The New International Version (NIV) is a case in point.
Romans 13:1 (NIV) Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.
2 Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.
3 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 he will commend you.
4 For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.
5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.
6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing
Obviously, they are taking “governing authorities” as the established government in whatever city and country where you live, even stating why you pay taxes. Some versions go so far as to translate “rulers” above (verse 3) as “policemen.” Somebody’s got to be kidding! All governments of the world throughout all history were established by God? Any rebellion against any government is rebellion against what God has established? Rulers of all governments hold no terror for those who do what is right, but only for those who do what is wrong? They are all God’s servants for good. That’s why we pay taxes, so these servants of God in political office can give their full-time efforts to governing. Talk about naive! Even if we interpret this as addressed only to the Roman believers of that day, it would be an obviously erroneous group of statements. But there are many Christians today who do not so limit their view of Romans 13. They think it is a statement about all governments (or at least their government without considering others). It is no wonder that some unbelievers, eagerly critical of Christians, think we are brain dead. Apparently, some of us are.
Can you imagine speaking to a Jew living in Hitler’s Germany and asking him to accept Jesus Christ and believe the Bible? “And oh by the way, here is one of the things in the Bible: all governments have been established by God, so you need to submit to yours. I know it seems a little unfair that they are massacring millions of your people, but the Bible says they are ministers of God to do you good so go ahead and get on that train and cooperate.” Preposterous!
If the ancient Greek texts of Romans 13:1-6 actually said what the New International Version and many other versions present them as saying then we would have a major Biblical dilemma, but they don’t. Let’s take another look at these verses, this time from the King James Version and the pertinent related Greek words. (Sorry about the going into Greek words thing. I’ll be as light about this as I can, but we cannot investigate what translation may or may not be legitimate without looking at the Greek words from which they are translated.)
Romans 13:1 Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.
2 Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation [krima, judgment].
The word translated “higher” (“governing” in the NIV), is huperecho which is derived from “echo,” meaning “to have, hold, or possess,” and huper, which when used as a prefix means “over, beyond, or more than.” There is nothing about this word that indicates government. The word, “power” is translated from exousia. There are several Greek words which essentially mean “power” with nuances of differences in meaning as to what kind of power. Exousia generally refers to power in the sense of authority. Let every soul be subject to those who hold higher authority. What authority is this talking about? There is nothing about these words that indicate the kind of authority referenced. That information can be gained ONLY from the context. So let’s look at the context. The latter portion of Romans 12 gives a list of imperatives (do’s and don’ts). Most of these have to do with relations among believers.
Romans 12:9 Let love be without dissimulation. Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good.
10 Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honour preferring one another;
11 Not slothful in business; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord;
12 Rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation; continuing instant in prayer;
13 Distributing to the necessity of saints; given to hospitality.
14 Bless them which persecute you: bless, and curse not.
15 Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.
16 Be of the same mind one toward another. Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate. Be not wise in your own conceits.
17 Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men.
There is no reason from the context to think that the narrative in chapter 13 suddenly switches from relations among believers to relations with your government. It is still talking about relations with people in the church, but now with those in authority in the church rather than just with one another in general. These are the “powers” (authorities) that are ordained of God, not any and all governments.
Romans 13:3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil.Â Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same:
4 For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger [ekdikos, avenger, exacting penalty] to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.
A few versions have actually rendered the word for “rulers” as “policemen.” The Greek word is, “archon,” meaning: 1) a ruler, commander, chief, leader. Yes, it can refer to a governmental ruler, but not necessarily. It is a general word for “ruler.” There is nothing about the word which would on its own invoke the idea of a government authority. What kind of ruler depends entirely on the context. God sent Moses to be a ruler and deliverer.
Acts 7:5 This Moses whom they refused, saying, Who made thee a ruler and a judge? the same did God send to be a ruler [archon] and a deliverer by the hand of the angel which appeared to him in the bush.
There were rulers of the Pharisees.
John 7:48 Have any of the rulers of the Pharisees believed on him?
There were rulers of the synagogue.
Luke 8:41 And, behold, there came a man named Jairus, and he was a ruler of the synagogue: and he fell down at Jesus’ feet, and besought him that he would come into his house:
And there were rulers in the church, among the believers. Peter was certainly an example as was Paul, who also established other leaders among the believers.
Acts 14:23 And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed.
1 Timothy 5:17 Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine.
There is no reason to suppose that the rulers of Romans 13:3 are policemen or any other representative of civil government. This is a reference to leaders among the believers, not in the synagogue, or the government, or whatever else.
The phrase, “beareth not the sword in vain,” in verse 4 above, is idiomatic, referring to one’s authority to carry out judgment, not literally cut someone in pieces.
Romans 13:5 Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.
6 For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.
7 Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.
The Greek word translated, “tribute,” means payment. The word implies that the payment is a symbol of submission or dependence. This would fit the concept of taxes, and the word has been used in this context. It has also been used of such a payment being made by one nation to another. Here in Romans 13, it is used of payments by believers to rulers in the church, recognizing their authority to receive and use the money. The nature of the “submit” kind of relationship between the payer and the payee is not part of the definition of the word. There is nothing about the definition of this word that demands the understanding of taxes and government. The precise nature of the relationship between the payer and the payee can be gathered ONLY from the context.
So speaking of context, remember that the latter part of Romans 12 deals primarily with commands relating to relations among believers in general. I have asserted here that Romans 13 deals with relations among believers particularly as they relate to the higher authorities in the church. If these assertions are true, what would you expect Romans 14 to be about? No, really. Think about it before reading on. We’ve read about relations among believers in general and relations among believers particularly dealing with those in higher authority. What’s left? If these assertions are true, wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect that the next section would be about relations with believers who are LESS mature?
Romans 14:1 Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations.
The rest of the chapter continues to deal with how to handle relations with believers who are less mature.
Romans 13 is not a command to all believers to obey whatever government they find themselves in. It is an admonishment to believers to listen to and follow those who have been established among them as leaders.
By the way, if this is your first time on our site (and probably for a number of you it is), may I suggest that you check out our home page to see a little more of where we are coming from and then peruse the section on the GIFT if righteousness? This site is all about God’s love and grace and about attaining an accurate understanding of the Scriptures. (Yes, that is actually possible. It isn’t just a matter of one person or another’s opinion.) If a believer (and that’s the first requirement) can lay aside tradition, his church’s doctrine, and whatever other preconceived ideas he might have, and can read and reason, the truth can be known, absolutely known. Well, maybe not all of it. We all have our limitations in our abilities to reason. But the fundamentals and a whole lot more than just the fundamentals should be apparent enough that those of us who want to go by the Scriptures and only the Scriptures can be in agreement. Give us a try. Let’s learn together.