Which authorities in Romans 13?

21-11-2016 - Posted by Andre Piet

Several times I came in contact with the peculiar concept* that Romans 13 would not speak about civil authorities, but about the authority of the apostles in the days of the book of Acts. I listed the arguments briefly:

  1. Authorities don’t necessarily need to be civil authorities;
  2. If every civilian government would be appointed by God, then it would mean that resistance against a tyrannical government would never be justified;
  3. Paul writes that who acts good, does not need to be afraid of the authorities. If this would concern the civil authorities, it would not be right, because many governments oppress just the good people;
  4. The sword that is entrusted to the authorities, is about the mandate of the apostles to exclude, to judge and even to kill, as in the case of Ananias and Sapphira;
  5. The taxes which Paul writes about, refers to the collections the apostles did;

The first three arguments are negative. They are counter-arguments. None of the five reasons mentions one positive reason why the authorities in Romans 13 would point to the apostles. In my turn, let me mention a few reasons why Paul certainly speaks of the secular authorities.

  • Paul says that “every soul” would be subject to the superior authorities (13: 1). “Every soul”, not just the believers.
  • Romans 13 is preceded by chapter 12, where Paul argued at the end that the believers should not avenge themselves, but that they would give place to His indignation (2: 19). He then mentions that God sets an authority under Him, an avenger for indignation, wearing the sword that is an instrument to carry out the (death) sentence. Believers should not avenge themselves, which shows that the authority that God sets under Him as an avenger for indignation, is outside the scope of the faithful.
  • The secular authorities levy taxes. The word that Paul uses three times in Romans 13: 6 and 7, is used two more times in the New Testament and both times (Luke 20: 22; 23: 2) it is about tax for Caesar. Calling the voluntary (!) collection organized by the apostles ‘tax’ is weird.

And the counter-arguments (2 and 3) that Romans 13 is not about secular authorities:

  • Paul wrote his letter in the time of Emperor Nero. One of the cruelest rulers ever! Paul never calls for opposition against this authority. When a government asks us to do things that are not in line with God’s word, than we have to refuse obedience (Acts 5: 29). But even in that case the government remains our superior to which we are subject.
  • ‘Doing good’, Paul writes about (12: 2), is subordinate to the authorities. ‘Doing wrong’ is synonymous to resisting authorities (13: 2). Every government benefits from subordinate souls. Anyone who opposes the government will meet its judgement.

When Paul speaks about ‘authorities’ in Romans 13 there is no reason to think that he points to himself or his fellow apostles. That is a forced vision, without one singular internal indication. Moreover, in that case Paul would have spoken of the authorities in the first person: as ‘we’ and ‘us’. Every soul on earth is set under authorities, so Paul points unmistakably to the secular authorities. Only one attitude suits us towards them: being subject. As Paul teaches also elsewhere (Titus 3: 1; 1 Timothy 2: 1-2).


* As here (sheridanvoice)

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