Romans 13:1-7 and Christian Civil Obedience

church_and_state-1024x617Romans 13:1-7, which insists that the rulers are to be obeyed by their [Christian] subjects, has been used and abused by many different countries over a long period of time. The early colonies used the passage to support slavery and oppression. South Africa used the passage to support Apartheid.  America, in the wake of September 11, used this passage to provoke support of military action against other countries. The so-called “Just War” theory likewise uses this passage as its main weapon (pun intended).

However, if Paul had desired to create, in seven little verses, a Christian theology of Church and State, how would he have responded to the exceptions to such belief? Suppose the Egyptian midwives had not ignored Pharaoh’s edict to kill Israelite males, which allowed Moses to live (Exod. 1:17-21)? They clearly ignored the laws of the land, and God blessed them for it!

Or how about the three Jewish boys who were commanded to worship Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image in Daniel 3? They refused to obey that edict, and God vindicated them because of their fidelity (Dan. 3:18).

The Book of Acts often has the early Apostles refusing to quiet down their personal evangelistic efforts, choosing rather to obey God rather than humans (Acts 4:19; 5:29; 16:21).

The Apocalypse of John envisages the faithful martyrs, who refused to take upon themselves the mark of the beast, vindicated with resurrection and given positions of rulership with Christ (Rev. 20:4).

As we can see, if Rom. 13:1-7 is used to force unquestionable obedience to the governing bodies, then how come so many within the people of God acted contrary to such a theology?

When we look closer at Rom. 13:1-7 we see that Paul has other things in mind than a Christian theology of Church and State. Three things stand out to me which are worthy of comment. First of all, Paul states that the emperor Nero was in authority because of God (13:1). Nero, who thought he was God and who was regularly praised with such divine titles, was, according to Paul, working for the true God. Romans 13:6 even says that the Roman authorities (including Nero) are servants of God. I doubt Nero would have agreed. People served Nero. Paul argues that Nero serves the true God. We can see that Paul is undercutting the claims of the Roman empire by saying that the true God is really in power, despite the exaggerated claims of the Pax Romana.

The second point which comes out in Paul’s theology is his continuation of the typical Jewish understanding that pagan governments are used by the one true God for the furtherance of his divine purposes. This is true of the Assyrians (Isa. 10:5-11), of Cyrus the Persian (Isa. 44:28-45:3), of king Nebuchadnezzar (Jer. 27:6-7; Dan. 1:2, 2:21, 37-38), and others. The returning Jewish exiles were to even pray on behalf of pagan kings and their families (Ezra 6:10). God uses pagan empires to bring order and stability to the territories.

Thirdly, the Christians in Rome, to whom Paul was writing, were certainly aware that the former emperor Claudius had expelled the Jews from Rome for riots, likely involving Christ (cf. Acts 18:1-2; Suetonius, Claudius 25:4). Upon the ascension of Nero to the throne, the edict of Claudius was cancelled, allowing the Jews (including Jewish Christians) to return to their respected places of residence and work. The citizens of Rome were upset at the number of additional taxes which they were forced to pay. Tacitus (Annals 13.50-51) remarks that the Roman citizens responded unfavorably to this additional burden of taxation, moving Nero to consider abolishing them. The Senate, however, convinced Nero otherwise. Add in the fact that Jews were exempted from paying some of these taxes and you have a social situation in the Roman churches which could potentially be explosive and divisive (if it wasn’t already). Paul writes that the believers residing therein should keep their heads down, show respect (13:7), pay their taxes (13:6), refuse to revolt (12:19), bless those who curse them (12:14), and let God take vengeance upon their oppressors (12:19).

In short, it seems best to regard Rom. 13:1-7 as a passage directly applicable to the pan-ethnic congregations in Rome in the middle of the first century CE. Paul needed to write to their situation and give them advice on how to live at peace with a thoroughly pagan regime while they await the return of Jesus to consummate the eschatological empire of God. It is therefore unlikely that Paul intended every government for the last two thousand years to take the message given to the Roman churches and to apply it to their own situations (which have entirely different social, political, and religious factors involved). Paul told the Philippian congregation that their true citizenship resided in heaven, from which the true lord and savior was to return to subject creation unto himself (Phil. 3:20-21).

Our citizenship is in Heaven…but we aren’t going there (Phil. 3:20-21)

Philippians 3:20 For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.


It is often argued that, if our citizenship is in heaven, then we are going to go there, presumably at the moment of our death. Is this really what Paul is teaching? Let’s take a closer look…

  1. One has to first put yourself in the shoes of the original readers of Philippians. They were Gentiles living in Philippi, which was a Roman colony. A colony like Philippi was established because of the over-crowded problem of Rome. Therefore, ‘colony status’ was given to these major satellite cities, so that their residents could maintain all the privileges that they had in Rome.  One of those privileges was the assurance of safety by the Roman military. Living on Caesar’s doorstep was a peaceful assurance for many of Rome’s citizens. But the promise was made for those who were relocated to a colony like Philippi that “if things ever got out of hand in your city, the Emperor will come out from Rome with his legions in order that the situation would be dealt with.”
  2. Now, consider the parody that Paul is making. He is now saying that the Philippians’ citizenship is not in Rome, but rather in heaven. If things got bad, it is the true savior and lord, Jesus, who would come and rescue them from their dire times of distress.  These titles (“savior” and “lord”) were regularly used of the reigning Roman emperors.
  3. Since the Philippians were never thinking of ‘returning’ to Rome as their place of citizenship, Christians should not read this passage to think that Paul is promising a home in heaven. Rather, their citizenship is in heaven, but the kingdom of God will come down and be consummated on this earth. The point of the verse is that it is a parody of the protection promised by Rome for those living in Philippi.
  4. Readers must note that ‘heaven’ is the location “out of which we eagerly await” the return of Jesus. Heaven is not the destination, but rather the starting point from which Jesus comes from.

Jesus vs. Caesar (Phil. 2:11)

Philippians 2:11- “and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (καὶ πᾶσα γλῶσσα ἐξομολογήσηται ὅτι κύριος Ἰησοῦς Χριστὸς εἰς δόξαν θεοῦ πατρός)


Every tongue will profess that Jesus Christ is the kurios. This draws together two important images. First of all, any talk concerning “being exalted by God” paired with the title of “lord” strongly suggests an allusion to Psa. 110:1, where God exalts the human lord to his right hand. Secondly, in the Roman colony of Philippi the current reigning kurios was the emperor Nero. This fact suggests that Paul is deliberately and subversively giving titles and claims to Jesus which most of his audience would have assumed belonged to Caesar. Consider the following data:

1.  Phil. 2:6-11 offers Christ the universal authority given by God. This was a direct challenge to the emperor. A local inscription in Greece states, “Nero, the Lord of all the world.” Therefore, the suggestion that every knee will bow to Jesus would certainly include the knee of Nero, a quite dangerous thing to say in the imperial world.

2.  The authority of Jesus was granted to him by God. The emperors of Rome did not possess authority in themselves. They claimed that the previous emperor, now deceased, had bestowed the authority and power unto the current ruler (i.e. Nero).

3.  The claim that glory is given to God the Father was also controversial for Paul’s audience. Augustus was named Pater Patriae (“father of the fatherland”). The Apostle Paul argues otherwise.

4.  If Jesus is kurios, then Caesar is not. This title was commonly ascribed to various emperors in the first century CE, especially Nero. There is a deliberately subversive effort on the part of Paul.

As a footnote to our study, I should indicate that the worship and attention given to the exalted Jesus ultimately brings glory to the person of God the Father. This implies that the Father continually ranks as superior to Christ (cf. also 1 Cor. 3:23; 11:3; 1 Tim. 2:5).