The broader context of Romans thus indicates that Paul’s admonition to submit to authorities rests on several critical assumptions that recast submission not as base compliance, but as a glorious partnership. Romans 13 could be reframed thusly: God’s moral law has authority over civil authorities. God institutes civil authority (including the power to tax) for the common good. What is good can be known and acted on. Government has a duty to do and defend this good (that’s the only way its use of the sword is legitimate). We have a duty to work towards, encourage and fulfill that good in as, and in cooperation with, civil authorities. All of these ideas are presented as being assumed to be true in Romans 13, meaning Paul either outlined them earlier in Romans and/or is referencing other Scripture.
A homeschooling parent emailed me this past summer asking for recommendations on Christian resources to work into her student’s government curriculum. She specifically asked about applying Romans 13 to thinking about government and politics. After replying to the email with some book recommendations, I found myself stuck on that perception of Romans 13. Why do we keep going back to this passage as the seminal biblical passage on the relationship of Christians to the state? In some cases, it may be the only passage that gets cited in discussions on Christian participation in the political space. However, the more I thought about Romans 13 as the starting point for a political theology the less I liked the idea and the more I realized why: it’s too easy a proof-text.
At best, it creates contradictory applications (see progressive calls to submit to COVID-19 restrictions while opposing enforcement of border security), and at worst promotes a view of blind compliance with the state (see former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s comments to pastors) that is totally at odds with Paul and indeed the whole of Scripture. I acknowledge this mostly as a corrective to myself, because I know I’ve often started discussions with students on thinking Christianly about politics with Romans 13. However, I’ve now come to the conclusion that this passage is not the place to start a discussion on Christians and politics. An overemphasis on Romans 13 as the linchpin of our political theology obscures the broader context of Romans and Paul’s life, draws the wrong parallels between Paul’s time and our, and creates a false model of citizenship for Christians in liberal democracies.
Paul and the Limits of Compliance
The political theology of Paul does not start in Romans 13, but in Romans 1. Paul’s treatment of the depth of man’s sinfulness in Romans 1 indicates that associations of humans were part of God’s created order, but were subsequently corrupted by the Fall. For example, Paul’s references to collective man in Romans 1:18-23 demonstrate that the fall from grace was a collective action. As Paul develops his argument about God’s salvific plan (Romans 4-8), though, he doesn’t do away with human associations as beyond redemption, indeed, in Christ it is redeemed. Paul doesn’t talk of an atomistic individual in Romans 8 as being “more than conquerors,” he refers to a community. In other words, human society and presumably the governing entities that organize them are not necessary evils to restrain a corrupt humanity, but integral to humanity realizing its cultural mandate to “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1: 26-28). The broader context of Romans thus indicates that Paul’s admonition to submit to authorities rests on several critical assumptions that recast submission not as base compliance, but as a glorious partnership. Romans 13 could be reframed thusly:
- God’s moral law has authority over civil authorities.