Interpreting and Applying Romans 13
Many Protestants through the years, including the Protestant Reformers, America’s earliest Pilgrims and the founders of the American Revolution had an intellectually-robust theology, based on the entire Bible and not subject to proof-texting, that understands liberty, government, and our response to government as flowing from God and to God. It was their theology in part that led them to resist England and Europe, resist tyrannical leaders and governments, and some to fight a war.
America’s Founders, fueled by a decade of consistent preaching from New England pulpits that liberty came from God and not government, made one of their rallying cries, “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” Benjamin Franklin wanted that inscription to be on the official seal of the United States with a picture of Moses at the Red Sea Crossing.
Such thought is grossly lacking in the American church today. Instead, we often hear Christians saying to not get involved in political discussions for fear of hurting our gospel witness. And Romans 13 is sometimes cited as a prooftext for that line of thought.
As Kay Arthur taught for years, context rules in Bible study, interpretation, and application.
Paul wrote Romans somewhere between A.D. 56-58:
· A.D. 56 or 57 (Larry Richards’ Bible Reader’s Companion)
· A.D. 57. (Tony Evans Bible Commentary)
· the spring of A.D. 58 (MacArthur NT Commentary)
Nero reigned as Emperor from A.D. 54 to A.D. 68. The first five years of his reign, he was heavily influenced by his mother, Agrippina, and his tutor, Seneca. During those years he was relatively stable and exhibited the most rational behavior of his reign. His early administration ruled to great acclaim. A generation later those years were seen in retrospect as an exemplar of good and moderate government and described as Quinquennium Neronis by Trajan, meaning the first five years of his reign. One author writes, “The first five years (quinquennium) of Nero’s reign were characterized by good government at home and in the provinces and by the emperor’s popularity with the senate and people.”
These first five years were A.D. 54 to A.D. 59. Paul wrote the book of Romans squarely in the middle of the Quinquennium Neronis. These were the years of relative peace, when Nero governed at his best, and when the Christians experienced relative peace under Rome. These were not the crazy, hostile years that were to come in the 60s.
There was some political unrest in Rome in the late 50s, which made the Christians wonder about what their relationship to the State should be - whether as people who are newly “in Christ” and confessing him as Lord (not Caesar) should pay taxes and honour their city governmental authorities. There is a widespread understanding among the Early Church Fathers who said that there were Christian congregations in Rome who were “overly enthusiastic” about their new life in Christ and the new age inaugurated by Christ that they required rejection of everything to do with “this age” including human government and taxes. Leon Morris notes that “it is conjectured that some of them may have had ideas akin to those of the Palestinian Zealots who recognized no king but God and would pay taxes to no one but God.” (Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans (PNTC), p. 458.)
An earlier edict by Emperor Claudius in 49 AD had prohibited Jews (and Christians) from holding meetings, and there was lingering resentment against the government. It is also significant to note that in 58AD, the Roman historian - Tacitus (see Annals, 13:50-51) - reports that there was a great outcry by the people in Rome against the city’s taxation system. So, Paul responds by offering a corrective here to these sentiments and his argument in chapter 13 continues without any break from the previous.
In A.D. 59, Nero had his mother killed and from then on began a tyrannical and reign, marked by much suspicion of others. For example, in A.D. 62 he called for the first “treason trial,” had several of his rivals assassinated, and was a turning point in his relationship with the Senate, wanting to rule as a dictator instead. The craziness and lunacy of Nero began showing in these years, after A.D. 59.
The Great Fire of Rome occurred in A.D. 64,[i] which Nero blamed on the Christians. He stirred a great political fervor against them, convincing the public that the Roman gods were punishing the land because of the Christian sect, and thus began the widespread persecution of the Christians. Many Christians were arrested and brutally executed by "being thrown to the beasts, crucified, and being burned alive" (Champlain, Nero). [ii]
Historians call this the “Neronian Persecutions” and date this time as starting about A.D. 65. – seven to nine years after Paul wrote Romans. Doug Wilson writes, “Nero was the first Roman emperor to persecute the saints, and he did so from November 64 to June 68 . . . forty-two months.”[iii]
The website Theotivity explains . . .
Some wrongly argue that because Paul wrote Romans 13 to Christians living under an evil civil government that brutally persecuted and even executed Christians, Christians should always submit in everything, even unjust edicts and laws, to the government since he commanded such submission to Rome’s tyranny. However, this argument is anachronistic. Contextually, Paul writes Romans around 58AD - before the Neronian Persecutions broke out in around 65 AD. In fact, Paul writes Romans
“during the first half of Nero’s fifteen-year reign (54–68) as Roman emperor. For it was during those early years of his reign that Nero was honored by the people of Rome for his clemency and justice—largely because he had restored “the rule of law” in the Roman Senate, had corrected many abuses and inequities among the people, and had provided a time of peace for most of the provinces within the Roman Empire.” (Richard N. Longenecker, The Epistle to the Romans: A Commentary on the Greek Text, p. 964)
I encourage the reader to read Theotivity’s entire article on the subject, which explains in detail that “Paul’s purpose here is not to present a fully developed Christian theology of government. Thus, we should not miss his overall tone and thrust to be in subjection (as previously defined) - Christians are not anarchists. Yet equally, we must therefore not treat this passage as if it is the only word God has given us regarding our relationship to earthly governments.”[iv]
Check out the podcast, What Many Christians Get Wrong About Romans 13:1-7: The Christian’s Relationship to Civil Government, or read the article, God and Government, Exegetical Considerations of Romans 13:1-7.
It is incorrect, as many do, to assume that Paul was writing his instructions in Romans 13:1-7 during the crazy years of Nero when Christian persecution was rampant. He was not writing to a group enduring insane persecution (as would happen after A.D. 65). Paul was not saying, “I know the Romans are killing your friends and family members, lighting them up at his parties. But God has put Nero in power and you need to submit to Him.”
To say that would be like telling a woman who was being physically abused by her husband that Paul wrote Ephesians 5:22 (submit to your husbands as to the Lord NLT) to tell abused wives they should suck it up and and keep living in abuse.
Or to tell someone who is struggling with pornography or stealing that they should literally gouge out their eye or literally cut off their hand, because “that’s what the Bible says” (if your hand . . . causes you to sin, cut if off and throw it away Matthew 5:30 NLT).
Or to quote Hebrews 13:17 or 1 Chronicles 16:22 to someone in a church under a narcissistic, abusive, unhealthy pastor and tell them that God expects them to blindly submit. Those two verses are often used to support toxic church systems.
Such teaching comes from a very weak hermeneutic that becomes simplistic. One of the great problems with that, as with all 3 of the above illustrations, is that it leads well-meaning hearers into bondage and legalism.
As John Piper says, “Citizens to governments, children to parents, wives to husbands, church members to elders, all of these are called to have an appropriate submissive spirit and to follow leadership. None of these is considered to be absolute. All of them have the lordship of Jesus riding over the lordship of the superior and, thus, defining the limits of the lordship of the superior.”
Bible teachers are wise to know the difference between simple and simplistic. We need to do the heavy-lifting of study and prayer, wading through the complexities and applications, so that we can take very complicated matters and, as much as possible, explain them to our people in as simple a manner as possible. Taking the meat and giving it to them where they can eat it – without dumbing it down. And doing it in such a way that is clear. (The old saying says, “If there’s a fog in the pulpit, there will be a mist in the pew!) However, we cannot be simplistic, which means “treating complex issues and problems as if they were much simpler than they really are.”
In the illustration of government, it is the very line of thinking that will lead nations into tyranny and in subjection to tyrannical rulers. Many Protestants through the years, including America’s earliest Pilgrims and the founders of the American Revolution had an intellectually-robust theology, based on the entire Bible and not subject to proof-texting, that understands liberty, government, and our response to government as flowing from God and to God. It was their theology in part that led them to resist England and Europe, resist tyrannical leaders and governments, and fight a war.[v]
As Joel McDurmon writes in the foreward of Alice Baldwin’s book/doctoral dissertation,
We have a terrible problem in our land today. The problem is that our pulpits have abandoned the fullness of what Christ commanded: to disciple nations. That Great Commission includes the call, which our forefathers ably demonstrated, to speak truth to the public realm: to call our rulers, governments, laws, abuse, and to demand liberty and justice. In all our preaching today about iniquity and sin, we neglect to address inequity and tyranny.
And worse: should one dare to mention that broader social and political scope of the Great Commission today they are likely to be harangued not only by humanists and leftists, but by the vast majority of Christians and clergy. The response will be almost in perfect chorus: “Christians should not preach politics! We should preach the ‘Gospel’ only!”
Baldwin’s book explains the critical role the New England pulpits played in theologically and practically preparing the colonists to defend their liberty and resist tyranny in the decade leading up to the American Revolution: the preachers “had been working constantly in teaching and training their flocks, and the broader public, in the biblical message of freedom and political liberty. It was through steady and purposeful labor over time that their influence pervaded the populace and laid the foundations for resilience in the midst of crisis.”[vi]
As our nation moves closer to tyranny and the abuse of power, how pastors and Bible teachers present Bible passages like Romans 13:1-7 to our flocks will set the course for how the church responds to governmental tyranny. Will we willingly submit, like most of the German church did to the Nazi regime? Or will we take a different course, as did our American forefathers and people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer?
The first course takes a very simplistic, elementary approach, in part grounded in fear and compliance, to applying the Bible to such social, moral, and spiritual challenges. The second comes from a long line of deep, intellectual thought. And through church history, many early Protestants were thoroughly biblically literate, steeped in the Scriptures, which led them to embrace resistance theories in opposition to tyrannical governments.
As our nation goes down this path, Romans 13 will be a passage the church must know, interpret, and apply correctly. It will be used by many as a means to try and control the church and move her into submission.
The same Bible that contains Romans 13:5 also affirms David for not submitting to the law when he was an outlaw, the Jewish midwives resisting Pharaoh’s direct order by sparing the Hebrew babies, Daniel from disobeying Babylonian law, the early apostles refusing to obey the magistrates who ordered them to stop speaking about Jesus, and others.
We can, like many of our Protestant and American forefathers, embrace an intellectually-robust theology, based on the entire Bible and not subject to proof-texting, that understands liberty, government, and our response to government as flowing from God and to God.
See the following resources:
[i] (Historian Tacitus describes Nero extensively torturing and executing Christians after the fire of 64 AD.)
[ii] Persecution of Christians. Since such public calamities were generally attributed to the wrath of the gods, everything was done to appease the offended deity. Tacitus recounted Nero’s scheme to avert suspicion from himself. “He put forward as guilty [subdidit reos], and afflicted with the most exquisite punishments, those who were hated for their abominations [flagitia] and called ‘Christians’ by the populace. Christus, from whom the name was derived, was punished by the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius. The noxious form of religion [exitiabilis superstitio], checked for a time, broke out again not only in Judea its original home, but also throughout the city [Rome], where all the abominations meet and find devotees. Therefore first of all those who confessed [i.e., to being Christians] were arrested, and then as a result of their information a large number were implicated [reading coniuncti, not convicti], not so much on the charge of incendiarism as for hatred of the human race. They died by methods of mockery; some were covered with the skins of wild beasts and then torn by dogs, some were crucified, some were burned as torches to light at night … . Whence [after scenes of extreme cruelty] commiseration was stirred for them, although guilty of deserving the worse penalties, for men felt that their destruction was not on account of the public welfare but to gratify the cruelty of one [Nero]” (Ann. xv. 44).
Such is the earliest account of the first gentile persecution (as well as the first gentile record of the crucifixion of Jesus). Tacitus clearly implied that the Christians were innocent (subdidit reos) and that Nero used them simply as scapegoats. Some regard the conclusion of the paragraph as a contradiction of this — “though guilty and deserving the severest punishment” (adversus sontes et novissima exempla meritos). But Tacitus meant by sontes that the Christians were “guilty” from the point of view of the populace and that from his own standpoint, too, they merited extreme punishment, but not for arson. Fatebantur does not mean that they confessed to incendiarism, but to being Christians; qui fatebantur means that some boldly confessed, but others tried to conceal or perhaps even denied their faith. https://www2.gracenotes.info/topics/nero.html
[v] See The New England Pulpit and the American Revolution: When American Pastors Preached Politics, Resisted Tyranny, and Founded a Nation on the Bible by Alice Baldwin.
[vi] Ibid, xvii
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