St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans, in Chapter 13, is the proof text and wellspring for those who press for dutiful submission to the state. The meat of it is found in verses 1 through 7:
“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. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer.
“Therefore one must be subject, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.”
St. Paul writes that the ruler is “God’s servant for your good” and he counsels his reader: “do what is good, and you will receive his approval.” There is ample reason, however, to question the goodness of the state. Consider the government in the time of Jesus and St Paul. These are the folks who brought us:
- the massacre of the Holy Innocents in a failed attempt to murder the infant Jesus
- the arrest and murder of John the Baptist (for being critical of the King)
- the arrest and torture of Jesus, followed by his acquittal, but then executed anyway because the public disliked the verdict
- the later scourging of the apostles for preaching about Jesus
- the torture of St. Paul: his five times receiving forty lashes and three times being beaten with rods
- the murder by the emperor Nero of many Christians including the apostles Peter and Paul
Romans 13 does not overtly distinguish between the good rulers and bad. Paul’s readers were stuck with the emperor Nero. Feel free to go back to the text above and substitute the name of Nero or King Herod each time the authority is mentioned. Or try some others like Stalin, Hitler, or the current U.S president. It almost laughable to imagine lines like:
- he who resists Hitler resists what God has appointed
- do what is good, and you will receive Stalin’s approval, for Stalin is God’s servant for your good.
Keep in mind that the Apostle Paul was writing the word of God, so—as absurd as these examples may sound—there must be a way to understand Romans 13 that harmonizes with the rest of the scriptures. Until that is sorted out, we might reasonably be left scratching our heads trying to determine how far the duty to Caesar goes.
Romans 13: an easy way out?
Many interpretations of these verses have been offered and taught. Some Christians have reasoned that the “authorities” (or “powers”) in Romans 13 refer only to church leaders and not the government at all. They assert that the governing authorities (or “Higher powers”) refers to God and his ministers and ordinances only, not worldly rulers. E.g. here.
They note that the “authorities” of Romans 13 and other verses can apply to societal leaders of any kind, including religious leaders. They reason that when St. Paul refers to leaders whom “God has appointed,” it would be ridiculous to believe that the emperor Nero is the authority (appointed by God) to whom St. Paul refers. See James Redford, “Jesus Is an Anarchist“
The difficulties with Romans 13 diminish if the reader can substitute “apostles” for each mention of “authorities.” One must admit that such a reading avoids some conclusions that seem irreconcilable with the experience of the Apostles and the early Christians themselves.
Such an interpretation also harmonizes with Jesus’ “Render to Caesar” teaching, which—as we have seen—had one meaning for Jesus’ enemies and another meaning for his intended audience. In the time of the emperor Nero, the Roman state might have been satisfied with St. Paul’s words, but the early Christians would not see it as an endorsement of the emperor.
While this understanding could provide a quick and novel way through the Romans 13 difficulty, the most common understanding is that the term “authorities” refers to those who wield power in any manner. This would include governmental authority, an interpretation strongly suggested by the text itself. The path, therefore, between rendering to Caesar and rendering to God may ultimately prove more nuanced than a blanket rejection of state authority.
Why the state cannot rest easily on Romans 13
When Paul writes that no authority exists but that instituted by God, it does not mean that God has ordained evil, even though many states and rulers are profoundly evil. Instead, we understand that God—as the Creator— made all that exists. Satan himself was divinely instituted, and every angel, every man, and every government that has existed are part of God’s creation and his plans, from which good will ultimately emerge. See CCC ¶ 311-312. We need to be mindful of this idea as we begin to see Romans 13 through a different lens.
When we read “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad,” it may at first seem impossible to apply this verse to the same rulers who tortured and murdered Jesus and his apostles. On the other hand, the verse is true when viewed from the rulers’ perspective.
The rulers give orders and call it “good.” They expect and approve obedience. If disobeyed, they call it “bad” and they punish the wrongdoer. For example, the Jewish and Roman rulers forbade preaching the gospel. To disobey was “bad” conduct—not from God’s point of view—but from the rulers’ viewpoint. Yet the apostles were not wrong in resisting the Roman Empire, despite knowing that it was God who permitted that government and the evils that it committed. This is clear from both the scripture and the constant teaching of the Church. Acts 5:29; CCC ¶ 2242.
In the next post, we look to the writings of two great saints on the issue of rendering obedience, honor and duty to the state.