To Hell With Romans 13

by Brian Walsh

A reflection on Romans 13:1-7
Wine Before Breakfast
Originally Delivered February 6, 2007

Let me put my cards on the table right from the outset. I am sick and tired of hearing Christians who have something at stake in the status quo of economic, social and political systems of injustice appealing to Romans 13 to legitimate unswerving obedience to oppressive and deceitful regimes.

I speak a fair bit in the US and whenever I am addressing the question of the meaning of the gospel for our political lives someone invariably asks, “yes, but what about Romans 13?”

What about it? I reply.

“Well, how can you use language of subverting the empire when Paul says that we are to submit to the governing authorities?”

And for years I have attempted to be patient in my response. My patience has run out. In the light of Guantanamo Bay, the deceit of the administration in leading America into war in Iraq, the refusal of that state to submit to almost any significant international treaty, and the idolatrous protection of the revered “American Way of Life.”

In the face of undeniable evidence of the human impact on global warming, I’ve lost it. I’ve got no more patience for this appeal to Romans 13 to justify idolatry, deceit, violence, repression and imperialism.

To hell with the Romans 13 of the Religious Right! To hell with the Romans 13 of lackeys of imperialism! To hell with the Romans 13 of those who are comfortable in Babylon!

Indeed, to hell with the Romans 13 of those who somehow think that an American Revolution in 1776 was divinely sanctioned but no such revolution should happen in 2007 because we must submit to the governing authorities.

And while we are at it, to hell with the Romans 13 of those who say that we should not criticize the Canadian government for leading us into a military intervention in Afghanistan that had more to do with paying debts to our powerful neighbours to the South than any concern for either international terrorism or the well-being and democratization of the Afghani people.

Or to make my point more biblically clear – to hell with Romans 13 read out of context of Romans 12, the rest of Paul’s letter to the Romans, the life of Jesus, and the whole prophetic testimony of the Hebrew prophets.

Let’s limit ourselves to the text we have been living with all year at Wine Before Breakfast – the letter to the Romans. And let’s assume that Paul is not an idiot and that he doesn’t go about blatantly contradicting himself.

Here he has been writing a letter to a community at the very heart of the empire and from the get-go it has been clear that this is a counter-imperial gospel that he proclaims. It is the gospel of Christ, not the gospel of Caesar that these Christians are called to submit to.

It is the gospel of Christ, not the gospel of Caesar that is to shape their lives together as a unified community of Gentiles and Jews. And it is in Jesus Christ our Lord that we are more than conquerors when that false Lord Caesar imposes on us hardship, distress, persecution, nakedness, peril and the sword.

“For we are convinced,” the apostle writes, that “neither death…nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers…will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Let the rulers and powers throw at us what they will, we have the victory in Christ Jesus our Lord.

No, says Paul, we are not to be conformed to the imperial realities of the present age, because we live in anticipation of the age to come. Our passage today starts at Romans 12.2 – do not be conformed to this age – and really ends at 13.12 – “the night is far gone, the day is near.

Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” And the question that Paul addresses in these verses at the beginning of Romans 13 is, “how do we live wisely as children of light in the midst of an age of darkness?

If we are not conformed to this age, to the rulers and authorities that are the cause of our persecution, then how do we relate to these authorities in the present, before the full dawning of the day of our Lord’s coming?”

Again going back to Romans 12 we could say that the question is, “how does a community that is itself a transformed body-politic relate to the powerful body-politic of the empire?” If the Christian community is called to be…

  • a body-politic that is rooted in the offering of our very bodies as living sacrifices to God, instead of participating in the pagan sacrifices of the empire
  • a body-politic that is rooted in shared gifts for mutual upbuilding, not a hierarchy of imposed duty
  • a body-politic which undermines the status system of honour in the empire by deliberately associating with the lowly and exercising hospitality to the outsider
  • a body-politic that rejects the violence that is the very foundation of the imperial regime because it insists on blessing those who persecute them, feeding their enemies and refusing to overcome evil with evil

…then how does that community relate to a regime that lives out of a diametrically opposed vision of life, subject to a “Lord Caesar” who is the embodied opposite of the Lord Christ?

Obey these imperial authorities, of course. Limit the reign of Christ in your lives to personal life, and how we do things in the context of our little community, but let Caesar have his legitimate authority over pretty much everything else in your life. Right? Wrong!

Notice that Paul does three things in this passage. First, he undermines the self-appointed divine authority of Rome. It is not Rome’s virtue, nor is it Rome’s gods that allows Rome to have authority.

All authority is rooted in the God of Jesus Christ – the very God that Rome rejects in its persecution of Jews and Christians alike. This is not providing divine sanction for Rome’s rule, it is a relativization of Rome’s rule.

Second, he makes it clear in his very description of this state that it is diametrically different from both the body-politic of the Christian community and from its own self-perception.

You see, it is one thing for Paul to contrast a political regime of fear, wrath, violence and bloodshed with a community of love, blessing, care and non-violence rooted in Jesus Christ.

But you also need to know that Nero took pride in the fact that he had not won his empire by the sword, and that under his rule the golden age of Augustus had been renewed and that his was a time of unprecedented peace.

Paul, the Jews of Rome, and the Christian community know differently. The imperial sword is not idle, it continues to pierce the bodies of those who will not submit to Nero’s body-politic.

And third, Paul’s rhetoric here is certainly less than enthusiastic in his call for submission to the state. Live in fear, and be afraid, he says. And well we should live in fear of a regime that bears the sword.

And yes, give taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due. Why? Because you are also wise to give fear to whom fear is due and “honour” to whom “honour is due.” My hunch is that he says that we should have our eyes wide open and be fearful of the state that wields such violent authority.

And when he says “honour” I think that that word should be in quotation marks. Give imperial “honour” to those demand such honour, while you are diligent in associating with the lowly – with those who have no honour in this regime.

If I were to summarize what I think Paul is up to here, I would say that he is calling us to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. The slave says, “yes Master, no Master, whatever you say Master,” obeying his Master in everything, bringing no attention to himself, as he quietly plans the escape of his fellow slaves along the underground railroad.

And that slave then sings about how his God is “a-going to trouble the water” and the Master has no idea that that troubled water is the water of liberation. And then 20th century African Americans sing “precious Lord take my hand” and the authorities are happy that these people love Jesus, but they have no idea that this is a Jesus who will take oppressed people to freedom.

Don’t be naïve about the violence of the state, Paul tells these Christians. Handle the state with care, he counsels. Some authorities really should be feared. But don’t allow such fear to be the last word on the way you comport yourself in this world.

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”

And sometimes, such love – even of the enemy, even of the persecutor – will require disobedience, because you are subject to the very same God that the authorities are subject to.

And when they inhibit your freedom to obey this God of liberation, then you are subjects of the kingdom of this God, not slaves of any regime – duly authorized or not.

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian, a retired CRC campus minister, the founder of the Wine Before Breakfast community, and farms with Sylvia Keesmaat at Russet House Farm.He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is cowritten with Sylvia Keesmaat and entitled Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.

25 Responses to “To Hell With Romans 13”

  1. Mike Todd

    Outstanding. Linking to this post.

  2. lisa

    I crashed into Romans 13 by accident right after MLK day, so right after a time of reflection on social action and passive resistance, and hit the same confusion that I’ve had since I started asking questions of my conservative Christian upbringing (sidenote: the elderly Germans in my hometown like to cite this one in reference to the Nazi era, I think — except for my “insane” grandfather who knew better). So I thought to myself, “Dang, I wish I hadn’t been half asleep that cold cold morning last year when Brian ranted about Romans 13.”

    so glad you wrote it down!

  3. Carl Holmes

    Damn that is good!

    People who throw Romans 13 around and do not read it for context and for what is around it aught to go back to the bible and shut up for a few minutes. I know breaking up the bible into chapters and verses helps memorization and is convenient, but we are now such a generation that thinks in the one context and not one has shown particularly adept at putting the scripture together with others for the WHOLE picture.

    thanks for this!

  4. andrew

    Carl – I think that this is such an important point. In some ways it’s difficult to hold the grand sweep of scripture in tension and to act faithfully in the spirit of who God is calling us to be here, today, in 2008.

    And yet, as communities of Christ-followers, we must seek after God’s understanding of the world, and our role as image bearers in it. If we are to approach the whole picture, we must necessarily begin with God, and not, say, economic interests (whether capitalist or marxist or whatever).

    If we begin by seeking to understand more about God and God’s kingdom, perhaps then we will be better equipped to answer life’s big questions than if we only have a few well-worn proof texts to prop up our own agendas.

  5. Adam G.


  6. M.joshua

    Excellent comments, Brian. I’m confident that many have only seen two ways of looking at this scripture in the past: To use it to complacently allow domination or to just ignore it outright and actively and militantly oppose the government (refuse to pay taxes, etc.). It’s been good to see how our Messiah has dominion over all in a way that allows us to point to him and maybe write Caesar “love notes” on the taxes we pay saying “Jesus is Lord” just so he knows who the real boss is.

  7. re:mixing our approach « Matt Freer’s blog

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  8. Jason Barr

    Brian, thank you for this. I’m going to link to this as a precursor to posting my own comments on Romans 13 on my blog.

    The small church I pastor is in the middle of a series on discipleship, fleshing out the distinctions between “believing about Jesus”, “believing in Jesus”, “believing Jesus”, and “believing what Jesus believed” over the Gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary these couple of weeks (Matthew 16:9-20 today and 21-28 next week). The discussion has centered around moving from pietistic, individualized conceptions of Jesus that are separate from public life to an understanding of social and political life as rooted in an understanding of being “in Christ” as a part of the people of God, anticipating in our lives the coming kingdom. Next week I plan to talk a little about “believing what Jesus believed” centered around imitation, and then, instead of talking a lot, having people simply go around the room reading passages from the sermon on the mount and others of his subversive discourses. Then the following week we’re going to celebrate the Transfiguration – a month late according to the liturgical calendar, but it is next as far as the actual text of Matthew, and I intend to tie together the glory of Christ revealed in the T with the glory revealed on the cross. Then we’re going to do the “Jesus for President” litany.

    So now not only are you a part of my journey, beginning with the seminar at Cornerstone a few years ago, but also of the (very small) church here in Evansville, Indiana. The way things are shaping up, it’s looking like part of our process for membership is going to include a discussion of Colossians that will incorporate many of the themes from Colossians Remixed.

    Thank you for everything, and keep it up.


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  11. childofprussia

    Thank you for this post!! It’s something I’ve had on my mind and heart for a long time now, but haven’t put in words nearly as well as this!

  12. dlw

    I’d say Paul was also warning that Christians shd avoid trying to rival the state in the use of violence. He does not reject the use of violence or its threat to reduce other bads, its just not how one truly advances the kingship of God.

    I’ve described it as the Post-Babylonian State having a divine role in providing cover-fire for the Church to do its calling to overcome evil with self-sacrificial love without hypocripsy. The issue then is whether members of the Church can do this, along with participating in the administration and reform of how the state wield’s its monopoly on the legit use of violence. I think Christians can, but only with risk that we’ll start wanting power for its own sake, rather than to influence ongoing reforms of the rules that govern us, as a critical but not central part of how we love our neighbors.

    dlw(don’t forget a new kind of third party blog, third parties who submit to two-party dominance of our system as a way to influence its ongoing changes in laws/regulations/customs is a way to resolve the dilemma poised in Romans 13. One can submit to an existing order while working in nonviolent ways to witness to God’s kingship by altering the existing order so more of humanity may enjoy God’s blessings and God-given respites from the suffering that we naturally must endure in this fallen world.


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  15. M. Dillon

    Hmmmm, idolatry, deceit, violence, repression and imperialism. Sounds pretty much like the Roman empire of the Paul’s time–the context for the Apostles instruction in Romans 13. If Christians of the first century could be asked to be respectful of Rome, I don’t think it’s too much for us to do the same today.

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  19. Mick Pope

    Hi Brian, was good to discover this after chatting on Facebook with someone who wanted to insist that Rm 13 was a discussion of power in the abstract (not the specifics of Rome) and that it taught the kind of subservience we are both sick of!

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  21. Thomas Bunnell

    I’ve never known anyone who allowed the Bible to get in the way of their beliefs.

  22. Endar Malkovich

    Why are people so stupid? Romans 13 is not talking about Rome or civil authorities. The entire context is how gentile converts were dissenting from Judaism and causing havoc in the synagogues. The rulers were the Jews who knew the Torah. The gentiles were fighting against their Jewish teachers of the OT. That’s the context, not pagan ruling powers.

    • Brian Walsh

      Thanks for the comment on this rather ancient post. Isn’t this the position of Mark Nanos? My take (with Sylvia Keesmaat) on Romans 13 gets further expansion in the soon to be released Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice (Brazos). We don’t adopt the synagogue approach to the text, however. That the text is addressed to Christians in Rome, and is counter-imperial in nature, suggests that the context is the pagan ruling powers, even if so much of the history of interpretation of this text reads it as a rather simplistic call to civil obedience.

  23. Mary J. Sjogren

    Gratefulness for truly being insightful and furthermore for settling on certain brilliant aides a great many people truly need to know about..


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