How Should We Interpret Romans 13?
There has been much discussion about Romans 13 since it was used recently by the United States Attorney General in the context of a discussion on the current immigration issue. I will save political commentary on this subject to the experts and simply address the scripture that was referenced. I hope to bring clarity to the context of this scripture and how it applies to Christians today.
To begin, it must be understood that the primary interpretive principle in scripture is that we must first look at the context in which the scripture was written. Context is the key when interpreting scripture. I like how one scholar put it, "It cannot mean for us today what it did not mean for them." Let's take a look at the context of the scripture. In the context, Paul is writing to a local Roman church. Scholars believe that the church was most likely a mix of Jewish and Gentile Christians. Based on some of the content found in Romans, I would argue that the congregation probably had a large percentage of Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians. If we back up to chapter 12 we see that in this section Paul is writing to describe the behavior that should accompany the new life that is found in Christ. Among other things, Paul urges the believers to offer their bodies as living sacrifices (12:1), he encourages them to walk in humility (12:3), he encourages them to use their spiritual gifts (12:6-8), and to love and show honor to one another (12:10). As we approach chapter 13, the context of Paul’s writing does not change – he is still describing behavior that accompanies new life in Christ. In Romans 13:1-7 Paul gives instruction to the church as to how they should respond to the governing authorities (the Roman Empire). He emphasizes that the role of authority and authority structure is given by God (13:1), he tells the believers to be submissive to the authorities and to not rebel against their authority (13:1-4).
Now that we know the basic context of the scripture, the second part of the interpretive process is to discover the overarching spiritual principle. What is this? It has to do with a Christians life and orientation to authority in light of the Gospel.
From Paul's words we learn that part of living out the Gospel is respecting and submitting to authority and living by the laws of the land. In other words, part of living out my Christian faith involves me orienting my life in such a way as to be submissive to authority - this includes the authorities in the governmental system. In a spiritual sense, this honors God who designates authority (13:1-2) and in a practical sense submission to authority leads to a more peaceful life.
While this might seem fairly straightforward, there is certainly some questions that arise in light of this principle. What happens if the governing authorities are using their authority in a way that is morally negligent? How should a Christian respond if they disagree with the decisions of the governing authorities? Should a Christian ever speak up against the governing authorities? Would doing any of these things violate Romans 13?
These are great questions and I would like to offer some thoughts on these below: One solution to this complexity is the reality that Romans 13 cannot be read apart from the rest of Scripture. It is very clear throughout the entirety of Scripture that as Christians it is never appropriate to go along with something that is morally reprehensible, it is never right to turn a blind eye to blatant injustice, and we cannot participate in anything that would violate our conscience as Christians. If anyone, including a governing authority, were to demand something of us that would violate our Christian conscience, it would be appropriate to resist.
While Paul is urging the believers to submit to the governing authorities he is certainly not implying that this submission is mindless nor that a Christian should agree with or support everything that a governing authority would do (more on this later). A second solution comes with the concept of the “righteous appeal.” Submitting to the governing authorities does not mean that we are obligated to agree with everything that the government does. Certainly, there are decisions that are made that we disagree with. Considering Romans 13, it seems appropriate that righteously appealing to the authorities through proper means and channels and in the right spirit fulfills the duty to respect the governing authorities while also not violating our conscience as Christians.
I think that the final thing that must be considered in all of this is the reality of imperfect government. Human government systems were never supposed to be perfect and we can clearly see that they are not. This only confirms our need to entrust our lives and our souls not to a government system but to a God who will bring about complete righteousness and justice.
In the end, my hope cannot rest in the government, my hope must rest in God.