Yesterday, The Attorney General of the United States Jeff Sessions referenced Romans 13 to justify the separation of children from people illegally entering into the country. While many have rightly spoken against this as a misappropriation of Scripture, the main emphasis has been on how Romans 13 doesn’t justify such unnecessary actions as separating children from their parents. However, what has gone less under the radar is the actual meaning of Romans 13 in context of the rest of the letter and the larger socio-political context.
Most of Paul’s letter to Romans is addressed towards Jews, not Gentiles, who were familiar with the Torah of the Old Testament. This is significant because the historian Suetonius records an expulsion of the Jews from the city of Rome by the emperor Claudius; Acts 18:2 probably refers to the same event. Why? Suetonius records it is because of a conflict surrounding a person named “Chrestus,” which may be a mispronunciation of the title of Christ/”Christos”/χριστος. If this is the case, then Jews were forced to leave their homes in Rome because of religious conflict that happened over the person of Jesus Christ. Regardless of whether that is actually what had happened or not, such an expulsion would have stoked a lot of feelings of antagonism towards the Rome Empire amongst Jews, many of whom would feel a great unease in a society that worshipped many gods and had a very different set of ethical practices.
At some point, many of the Jews returned back to Rome, but the memory of such an injustice would not have been forgotten. As a result, there would have most assuredly been a growing militaristic zeal, wishing to overthrow the Roman Empire, which we know did become fully realized in 66 AD in a rebellion. The story of Maccabees as part of Israel’s history would have been a source of inspiration, where they overthrew the oppressive rule of Antiochus Epiphanes and the Seleucid Empire. The last words of Mattathias in 1 Maccabees 2:49-68 are particularly important as a speech recounting Israel’s history from Abraham down throughout the history of Israel to motivate vengeance against the Seleucids. The Apostle Paul shows familiarity with this speech throughout his epistle to the Romans. For instance, in Romans 4:1 he is alluding to way Mattathias references the story of Abraham in 1 Maccabees 2:52, but suggesting the idea has a mistaken premise. Then, in the context of Romans 13, he uses similar language of vengeance (ἐκδίκησις) and repayment (ἀποδίδωμι) as 1 Maccabees 2:67-68 (ἐκδίκησις; ἀνταποδίδωμι), but in a different way. Paul encourages his audience to let God get vengeance in Romans 12:19 rather than taking vengeance for oneself as Mattathias encourages; Paul tells people to not repay evil in Romans 12:17 but to give to the government what is due in Romans 13:7, rather than imitate the reciprocation of evil that Mattathias dreams of.
Thus, Romans 13 is a statement to a people who feel oppressed. But, it isn’t a statement of “you need to submit to the oppressive rule of the Romans.” Rather, Paul’s statement is much more subtle. Paul tells the Roman Christians to submit to ἐξουσίαις ὑπερεχούσαις, which is commonly translated along the lines of “surpassing authority.” ὑπερεχούσαις can be interpreted to mean two things in this context. It can be taken to be a reference to the person who is highest in the political hierarchy, that is the Roman Emperor Caesar. If a Roman official were to find this letter, he might read Paul’s statement as an unqualified statement of accommodation to the political powers. However, the alternative interpretation could be a statement about moral exemplary authorities. In that context, Paul would be saying submit to those rulers who judging in a righteous manner, which by implication would mean do not submit and obey injustice. To an audience that is grieved by the injustice of the Roman rule, they could have heard this moral qualification.
This moral exemplary interpretation then sets the context for what Paul immediately writes after that: οὐ γὰρ ἔστιν ἐξουσία εἰ μὴ ὑπὸ θεοῦ (literally, “authority is not except from God.”) While one could read this to mean all authority comes from God, an alternative interpretation would suggest that Paul is speaking elliptically, intentionally not ὑπερεχούσαις (“surpassing”) in this clause; the attentive reader would have to fill that in. If that is the case, Paul is saying that authority by nature is not morally exemplary, except when God makes it so. Far from actually given a blank check of political authority to political powers, Paul is subtly speaking of a very qualified, limited legitimation of political powers. Political powers are by nature offensive to God’s justice except when God makes them just. For these Jewish Christians then, Paul is encouraging them to allow for the righteous usage of political power, while by no means simply telling them to submit to any and all political decisions, no matter how unjust.
Thus, Paul’s view of political power is stated in a subtle manner so as to evade suspicion from avid supporters and officials of the Roman Empire. Christians were to not seek to take vengeance against them, but instead trust that God will take vengeance for any injustice. Instead, Christians should seek to obey the righteous power that the Roman Empire does wield, even as much of it may be unjust, and to pay the taxes, customs, fear, and honor that should be reciprocated for when political power does serve God’s justice. Why? Because the way to be victorious over the world as Christians is to suffer with Christ,1 not by seeking a military and political victory over the world.
While many people today might not agree with this stance of addressing unjust political regimes, my point is not to offer an apologetic here for this non-aggressive resistance of political injustice. Rather, my main point is to point out that Romans 13 is not a blank check for governmental power to enforce their laws. It was a carefully worded statement to an oppressed people, giving them instructions on how to respond to the grievous suffering and oppression they saw and felt: do not take vengeance for evil done, but seek good and let God arrange for vengeance. Submit to the righteous usage of authority, and support it as far as it serves God’s purposes. But what Paul did not intend is the legitimation of any and all political and legal power for whatever purpose they think it should be used for, but it can be read that why who seek to justify their power as immune from criticism, and their interpretions reveals the actual leadings of their heart.