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Direction: The Christian Community and Political Responsibility: Romans 13:1-7


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Spring 2003 · Vol. 32 No. 1 · 32-46Previous Next

Categories: Bible: New Testament, Ethics,

Peace/Justice/Nonresistance, Politics/State and Church, Theology:

Biblical and Systematic

The Christian Community and Political Responsibility: Romans 13:1-7

Jon Isaak

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for

there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that

exist have been instituted by God (Romans 13:1 NRSV).

Paul’s counsel in Romans 13:1-7 has had a significant impact on

Christian communities who are sorting out their political

responsibility (see Dick; Neufeld). Global and local crises continue

to cause much suffering and keep current the question, What is the

Christian community’s political responsibility?

The dominant western reading of Romans 12 and 13 promotes a

business-as-usual understanding of the relationship between the

government and the Christian community.

Interpretations of Romans 13:1-7 have varied through its history of

informing Christian reflection on political responsibility (Toews,

51-53). Initially the text was received as an exhortation urging

Christian communities not to resist the state’s efforts to govern,

without any endorsement of the state or its policies. However, by

the fifth century, it was read quite differently. Paul’s exhortation

originally aimed at Christians was reversed to make two rather

exalted claims about the state: (1) the state is justified in its

use of force (and even violence) to protect its interests (which are

argued to be derivative of God’s interests), and (2) the church is

responsible to lend full support to the state’s execution of justice

(which is argued to be derivative of God’s justice).

After the church’s rise to political power beginning in the fourth

{33} century, it was Augustine in response to the fall of Rome in

the year 410 that clearly set out a vision for a worldwide society

where the church played a major role. In his view the church was

part of the anticipated “Heavenly City” that used the means of the

“earthly city” in its “pilgrimage” toward “heavenly peace” (see City

of God, Book XIX, Chapter 17). Augustine’s vision for church-state

relations continues to inform contemporary western thinking.

The transformation of Romans 13:1-7 has been remarkable. A text that

initially said very little about the state was eventually read to

say much about the state and about the Christian community’s

political responsibility to align itself with the state. Many today

would argue that the contemporary western appropriation of Romans

13:1-7 with its strong endorsement of the state still resonates with

the thrust of Paul’s vision for Christian political responsibility.

Is this tenable? Perhaps the cultural and contextual factors that

led to the transformation of the interpretation of Romans 13:1-7 are

more significant than many allow.

In this essay I will again explore Paul’s much-debated exhortation

in Romans 13:1-7 in order to recover a sense of the early Christian

vision for political responsibility that drove Paul to write these

words in the first place. I will show that the contemporary western

interpretation cannot be accepted as a valid contextualization, but

must be seen as a significant reversal of the thrust of Paul’s

vision for Christian political responsibility. My aim is to clarify

Paul’s vision for Christian political responsibility by paying close

attention both to the social world from which the text emerged and

to the western social context within which this text has taken root.

The fruit of this enterprise will be to set out an alternative

reading for contemporary appropriation, one which resonates more

deeply with the vision for Christian political engagement that

characterized Paul and the early Christians. In our increasingly

post-Christian western world, I suggest that such an alliance with

early Christian communities may be increasingly more comprehensible.


Before beginning a close reading of Romans 13, it is helpful to be

reminded how Romans 12 and 13 are typically interpreted by

Christians in the western world. In the quote below, Skillen and

Pavlischek, respected Christian political analysts, articulate a

Protestant interpretation of Romans 12 and 13 (see Luther, 163-65;

Calvin, 280-81). In this view the government is understood to be

instituted by God and mandated to execute God’s judgments (note the

continuity with Augustine’s {34} Christian theology of the state).

While the paragraph is short, it gives a clear sense of what might

be called the dominant western reading of Romans 12 and 13.

To put the issues in sharp relief, I suggest that the paragraph be

read with the following three questions in mind: (1) According to

Skillen and Pavlischek, what role does Jesus now play in the church

and society? (2) How is the Christian to think about personal

justice and state-sponsored public justice? and (3) How is the

relationship between the church and the state conceptualized?

In Romans 12, we would argue, Paul is indeed affirming that the

people of God must not try to preserve themselves by means of

taking out personal vengeance against their neighbors. Such

violence begets more violence. That is the very reason why God,

not for the first time in Jesus, but long ago at the foundations

of Israel, established offices for the purpose of conducting

public, impersonal judgment. Those offices of judges and courts

and kings were commissioned to enact justice precisely so that the

cycle of personal vengeance could be stopped. In Romans 13, then,

Paul is reiterating the teaching about one of God’s gracious

blessings for all people that is fully consistent with the new

administration of the world by Christ. Divinely appointed

officials (not just in Israel) have been appointed by God to enact

a measure of God’s punishment against crimes to protect Christians

as well as non-Christians so they don’t have even to think about

exercising personal vengeance to achieve justice. (Skillen and

Pavlischek, 443)

In regard to the questions posed above, Skillen and Pavlischek claim

that Jesus heads up the “new administration,” but that things

continue as they have from the “foundation of Israel.” In other

words, it is largely “business as usual,” only now there is a new

boss; the means and exercise of power are the same as before (i.e.,

exclusion, scapegoating, violence, etc.). How then is the Christian

to think about personal justice and state-sponsored public justice?

According to Skillen and Pavlischek, these are meant to be

different. A Christian is morally prevented from using personal

vengeance (as in Rom. 12), yet the state is mandated by God to

execute public or impersonal justice (as in Rom. 13). The two are

not the same. The Christian as an individual is guided by one set of

standards and the state another, almost as if there are two {35}

kingdoms operating at the same time.

So how is the relationship between church and state conceptualized?

For Skillen and Pavlischek, while the gap between the two kingdoms

exists, the Christian community retains much confidence in the

state’s potential for good, because it has God’s endorsement and

governs in God’s name. Christians are told to be grateful that the

state executes “God’s punishment,” so that they need not “have to

even think about exercising personal vengeance.” There is direct

correspondence between God, the state, and the church. Furthermore,

the church aims to transform the state gradually so that, over time,

Christian values inform the state and in the end the synthesis is

complete: God, the state, and the church are one.

This is not the only way to read this text. In fact, it is unlikely

that this is how the Roman Christians received Paul’s instructions.

An alternative reading answers the above three questions quite

differently. A close examination of the text and of our western

context will yield, I believe, an interpretation that is more

christologically rigorous, more ethically consistent, and more

politically discerning. While it may seem presumptuous to reverse

centuries of interpretation, I join a vocal minority of voices

calling for a reassessment of Christian political responsibility

(see Yoder, Toews, Hays, Johnson, Wink).


A close reading of Romans 13:1-7 begins by noting that this text is

part of, and should not be separated from, a larger section in

Paul’s letter to the Romans (12:1–13:14) where Paul describes the

transformation associated with being identified with God’s people

(Yoder, 197). Paul has just completed a lengthy eleven-chapter

argument showing that God is indeed faithful, and God has not broken

the covenant with God’s people. Now, beginning with chapter 12, Paul

turns to spelling out the implications for Jews and Gentiles of

being identified with the newly reconfigured people of God, gathered

around Jesus.

In effect, Paul explains how Jesus’ faithful life serves to

reconstitute God’s people, to fill out the understanding of God, to

expose death-dealing powers for what they are, and to enable others

to follow Jesus’ way. Paul characterizes this movement as being “in

Christ” and as effecting a real moral transformation. Something new

actually happens to the person who becomes a Christian and is joined

to this newly reconfigured people. By joining the people of God, now

gathered around Jesus, people access their true identity and find

that Jesus’ story becomes their story as well. {36}

After Paul sets out the basis for the transformation of moral

consciousness (12:1-2), he then explores how the Christian

community’s corporate existence (as one body) reshapes its own

values (12:3-8). Next, Paul turns to several practical implications

for what it means to live this righteous corporate life

(12:9–13:10). It is in this last section where Christian political

responsibility is addressed. Paul proceeds to set out three “norms”

that characterize his vision for the behavior of the “new

collective” that gives witness to God’s newly redefined people.

Norm #1: Overcoming Evil with Good (Rom. 12:9-21)

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom.

12:21 NRSV). Paul begins by listing virtues that are standard moral

exhortations. His list of classical virtues—love, honor, hope,

patience, generosity, hospitality—would have been well-received by

first-century Romans (Johnson, 183). However, in a rather bold move,

Paul then subverts the standard moral theory by calling believers to

a life characterized by nonstandard behavior: “bless those who

persecute you,” “associate with the lowly,” and “do not repay anyone

evil for evil.” This is not typical behavior (Johnson, 183).

Instead, the norm for Christian morality is to be informed by the

life of Messiah Jesus. In contrast to the typical social code of

paying back enemies, Paul holds up the template of Jesus to counter

humanity’s natural desire for revenge (note the echoes of Jesus’

teaching from the Sermon on the Mount, Matt. 5-7).

Paul continues with reminders to “live peaceably with all” and

“never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath [of God]”

(12:17-19). For Paul, this is not passive acceptance of evil with

gleeful delight in imagining some future time when our enemies “will

really get it!” No, for Paul, the language of “wrath” is simply the

most graphic way of expressing the consequences experienced when

people deny their true identity as God’s beloved. “The consequences

of persistent rejection are horrible,” says Paul, because by

removing ourselves from God’s love, we cannot live. The potential

for such destruction cannot be minimized.

Important to note is the way Paul backs up his assertion:

vindication is God’s prerogative (12:19). What exactly does this

mean? It appears that God’s “vengeance” is different from human

vengeance. Typically people understand vengeance to be based on the

removal of previous good will. However, because God’s love for

creation does not change, God’s vengeance must have more to do with

the “public righting of wrong” (Kraus, 210).

At first glance, then, Paul’s picture of the ultimately redemptive

character of God’s vengeance would seem difficult to square with the

{37} obscure reference to doing good to enemies—in such a way that

it “will heap burning coals on their heads” (12:20). How could this

match with God’s redemptive vengeance? It sounds like a form of

psychological revenge: a manipulative technique to get the enemy to

say, “I’m sorry.”

While most commentators associate the cryptic image of “burning

coals” with punishment or shaming (in some way or other), it may

well be a reference to an ancient Egyptian reconciliation ritual

(Klassen, 343). Apparently, by giving coals of fire to the one you

have wronged, you show that you are sorry for hurting them (fire is

a valuable commodity for desert people where wood for cooking and

heating is not in abundance). Paul takes this ancient figure (Prov.

25:21-22) and modifies it for his purpose here—such life-giving

demonstrations of restored relationships are regularly to

characterize the hope the Christian community brings to all


If this is the meaning of the proverb, Paul has used it very

effectively to illustrate the shape of Christian behavior in all

human interactions. “Heaping burning coals on the head” is not

manipulative. It is a significant life-giving act to heap

fire-starting coals into the neighbor’s—and even enemy’s—pot so that

they may carry them on their heads back to their campsites to use

and enjoy. In this way, the community is not “overcome with evil,

but overcomes evil with good.” Such behavior is not passive in the

face of evil. On the contrary, the Christian community aggressively

engages in a campaign to overcome evil using the “weapons” that

Jesus himself used: acts of love and kindness (Klassen, 348).

Norm #2: Nonaligned Submission to the Governing Authorities (Rom.


“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities” (Rom.

13:1a NRSV). If the cultural allusion to “burning coals” is

difficult to imagine, these instructions in Romans 13:1-7 are even

more problematic for people living at the beginning of the

twenty-first century. Why? Quite simply, western society has quite a

different view of government. Unlike Paul, we live in a world where

democracy means governments are to submit to the will of the

people—not the other way around (people submitting to the will of

the government, as Paul seems to assert). Every politician I hear

says that this or that bill or proposition is good, not for the

government, but for the American people!

For Paul, the notion that government is the extension of the people

is completely unimaginable (Johnson, 186). Paul is describing a

worldview in which the emperor is the government. The emperor is

supreme. At the same time, in the Judeo-Christian worldview, the

emperor is somehow {38} “ordered” by God (Yoder, 203). What might

that mean?

Paul’s view of the state is rather ambivalent. Paul did not

experience Rome as an enemy (otherwise his later appeal to Caesar

for a fair hearing makes no sense), nor as a willing ally (as his

efforts to persuade Felix, Festus, and Agrippa of the truth of the

Gospel show). Instead, Paul seems to be granting things as they are

in his world. Governments have always exercised varying forms of

hierarchy, power, and authority (often domination and oppression),

and are to be respected as “ordered” by God—that is being “told

where they belong.”

Paul is simply voicing a classic Judeo-Christian worldview where

there are three basic levels in the hierarchy: God, the powers, and

humanity, in that order (Ps. 8:5; Heb. 2:7). Paul, like other early

Christians (Acts 5:29), was convinced that even though Christians

live now in qualified subordination to the powers, one day they will

join Messiah Jesus in judging/redeeming the powers (1 Cor. 6:3).

This will amount to an inversion of the hierarchy, which explains

the “heel” and “footstool” language that characterizes the final

“wrap-up” of the Messiah’s appearing (Ps. 110:1; 1 Cor. 15:25; Rom.

16:20; Heb. 10:13). At any rate, the Judeo-Christian worldview is

noticeably different from the pagan and the western worldviews.

In the pagan system, chaos rules and the gods fight among themselves

to bring order to the chaos. Humanity is obligated to one god or

another and in some way carries on the celestial conflict in a

parallel manner on earth against fellow human beings (Hiebert,


By way of contrast, the Judeo-Christian worldview begins with God,

prior to the chaos (Gen. 1:1), who creates the cosmos and orders

“the powers” to carry out God’s purpose. Essential to this view is

that humanity is invited to participate in God’s ongoing creation by

giving {39} witness of God’s way to “the powers” and by completing

this process with Messiah Jesus at the end of the age (Hiebert,


Contemporary western democracy is quite different from either of the

other two systems. Here elected officials derive their power and

authority from the people that elect them. God’s involvement (or

even that of the powers) is unnecessary for the logic of this

system. A “nonpowers” construal of the state would have been

unimaginable for Paul. To complicate matters further, not only does

contemporary western democracy say much less than Paul would about

the character of the state, but most popular Christian theology says

much more about the state than this text allows (Käsemann 1969,

205-6; 1980, 354). Paul should not be heard in Romans 13:1-7 to give

the state automatic endorsement nor to call for the church’s

automatic allegiance to the state.

For Paul, it was expedient to be on good terms with Rome. He

probably saw Rome as the means by which the gospel could be promoted

and extended into the world as it was then known (Johnson, 187). And

Paul had good reason to be optimistic. Rome was remarkably tolerant

of Christianity at first—until the beliefs of the early Christians

(e.g., refusal to give primary allegiance to the emperor) began to

threaten the authority of Rome later in the second and third


Paul never imagined a situation like ours where government is “us”

and not “them.” So, what can we say? Is Paul’s vision so foreign

that it is inaccessible at the beginning of the twenty-first

century? I do not think so. A close reading reveals a much more

nuanced interaction with the social structures than is often

understood. I believe that it is possible to develop imaginative

analogies that can place contemporary faith communities within the

theological vision articulated by Paul on the occasion of a very

particular situation in Rome. Such an exercise will go a long way

toward helping Christian communities chart a vision for political


With this in mind, four ideals along with corresponding

implications—can be drawn from these seven verses.

(1) God orders the powers. Paul situates his instructions by drawing

on the Genesis creation stories, in which God brings “order” to the

chaos. However, just because God created the natural order and

called this ordering “good” does not mean that all that happens in

nature is good (floods, earthquakes, etc.), or that it is complete.

In a similar way, while governments operate under God’s order, what

they do may in fact be against God! Furthermore, God cannot be held

responsible for rebellious powers or for what they do, even though

ultimately God will “bring them into line.” {40}

For Paul, the powers include the civil authorities and the spiritual

powers they represent. These powers are not “ordained” (KJV),

“established” (NIV), or “instituted” (NRSV) by God. All three

English renderings suggest God’s endorsement and are too strong a

translation of the Greek word tasso. Instead, the powers are

“ordered” by God (Yoder, 203). The state can only claim qualified

endorsement by God. As “ordered” by God who is good, these powers

(governments) have a responsibility to do good—whether they do or

not is another question (they are faithful or rebellious to varying

degrees). Nevertheless, the church labors with God’s spirit to bear

witness respectfully to the rebellious powers, inviting them to

abandon their death-dealing policies and to resume alignment with

the life-giving purposes of God. This task is one that occupies the

church for the duration of these last days and is rightly

characterized as “revolutionary subordination,” or the “politics of

Jesus” (Yoder, 190-91). Voluntary subordination is a truly

subversive approach to the powers because it is a whole new way of

living within the current political system, whatever it happens to

be. It is also profoundly missional and is understood as witness to

the world (1 Cor. 7:12-16). Such is the political responsibility of

the Christian community—a community that will not be complete until

the eschaton when it joins the returning Messiah to bring all things

in line with God’s purpose (1 Thess. 4:17).

The particular occasion that generated Paul’s counsel for restraint

here in Romans 13:1-7 appears to be rooted in an attempt by some

Christians to join with their Jewish friends in an anti-Roman tax

revolt (Borg, 205-18). However, Paul reminds the Roman Christians

that they should not be insubordinate to the state, because it is a

temporary institution serving God’s purpose (how well it performs

remains to be seen and is subject to assessment). Paul likely saw

the payment of taxes as a way of showing love to the tax collectors.

A peaceful situation would need to exist between the Roman

government and the church if Paul was to use Rome as a base for his

westward mission to Spain (Rom. 15:28-29). However, this does not

mean all resistance (even tax resistance) is ruled out; it would be

hard to imagine Paul endorsing or participating in government

policies that went expressly against the foundational principle of

loving enemy that he just set out. Nor can Paul be held responsible

for the way later so-called “Christian states” twisted his words

into mandating patriotic duty.

Implication: Christians are to be self-critical citizens of the

state while subordinating themselves to its rule, thus giving

witness to God’s ongoing mission to order all creation according to

God’s purpose. {41}

(2) Christians should give government what it is due. Paul’s focus

is on the Christian community’s responsibility to exercise good

judgment. How are the various appeals that come from “the

authorities” to be sorted out? Again Paul draws on the Jesus

tradition. Jesus said, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s

and to God that which belongs to God” (Mark 12:17). Paul’s words,

“pay to all what is due” (13:7) are probably an early commentary on

that saying of Jesus (Toews, 52).

In this way, Paul reminds the Romans that while the coins stamped

with Caesar’s image belong to him, Christians are to give God that

which is stamped with the image of God: their very lives (12:1-2).

Christians are to test and discern the ethical value of political

policies. By what criteria? The claims of the state are to be

measured by the claims of love. Does the policy promote wholeness

and life? This is what love does.

Implication: The claims of the state are subject to evaluation; they

are not absolute, but must be measured by the claims of love.

(3) Christians are to stand under the government. Paul does not use

the most common word for obedience (hypakouo) in 13:1 and 13:5

(Yoder, 212). Instead he uses a more general word, meaning “to

submit” or “to stand under” (hypotasso). There is a difference

between societal obedience (that which is automatic and

unreflective) and internal consent (that which is offered only after

reflection and assessment). Such reflection and assessment is the

“middle step” that must be inserted in all church-state relations.

The middle step is necessary because conscience (or internal

alignment) is precisely that which is to be given to no one but the

Lord Jesus Christ (12:1-2).

Paul says the Christian community is to stand under government

because of conscience (13:5). In other words, Christians stand under

government because it is right for God’s children to be supportive

of good government—not simply because they are told by their

governments to do so. Notice the emphasis is on “good” or that which

aligns with God’s good purpose. When Paul asks, “Do you wish to have

no fear of authority?” (13:3), he does not answer his own question

by saying, “Then do what the authority says.” Instead, Paul says,

“Do what is good.” The middle step of discerning whether the action

of the government is good or not must be inserted into Christian

political responsibility. This middle step, which was obvious to

Paul because of his worldview, is one that must be consciously

reinserted because the western worldview masks “the powers” and

their influence on institutions like government. Westerners are

easily fooled into thinking that democracy by definition operates in

the interests of the people (i.e., government of the people, for the

people, by the people), when in fact it is often part of {42} a

larger system of domination that uses violence to maintain itself

(Wink, 39).

Unfortunately, there are many examples of church-state relations

where middle step discernment has not been activated. Too often

Paul’s words have been abused by so-called “Christian governments”

to silence any opposition to policies that are patently

“unchristian” (e.g., unjust economic and human relations). The

silencing of Christian opposition to systematic genocide and ethnic

cleansing in Nazi Germany, South Africa, Rwanda, and elsewhere

illustrates what happens when the middle step of discernment is not

consciously embraced. While “the powers” are not often able to

“hear” critique, because they are guided by self-interest and

self-preservation, this does not release the church from its

hope-filled and lifelong mandate to “unmask” the powers and invite

them to restoration.

Implication: There may be times when internal alignment

(conscience), which now belongs to God, requires serious and

responsible disobedience, such as when obedience to government would

mean disobeying God’s good purpose for the world.

(4) The government uses the dagger. The sword (machaira) in 13:4

refers to the small dagger used by the police to ensure compliance

(Yoder, 206). There is nothing said here about the state’s right or

duty to exercise capital punishment. Until the fifth century, this

text was understood as a call to peacemaking in relation to the

government; only after the rise of imperial Christianity was the

text reversed and used as the basis for a Christian theology of the

state and as a warrant for the state’s use of lethal force in

executing justice.

Contrary to that interpretation, Paul’s aim appears to be more about

calling Christians to a nonconformist (12:1-2) and a nonviolent

(13:1-7) stance in the world, including their stance toward

government. Just because God orders the powers does not mean that

rulers will always do God’s will. Yet, the Christian community is

called to faithfully give witness to God’s ongoing mission to order

all creation according to God’s purposes. Whether the authorities

pay attention is a different question (Toews, 53).

Implication: Paul’s reference to the dagger concerns the policing

function of the state. It does not legitimize execution or the use

of violence in defense of justice. Paul is saying Christians should

not take up arms for or against the government. {43}

Norm #3: Love Which Fulfills the Torah (Rom. 13:8-10)

“Love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:10b NRSV). Speaking

about the obligations of citizenry, Paul says Christians are to owe

nothing (taxes, honor, respect). Then Paul moves in a different

direction. He circles back to Torah, Israel’s living guide. While

the social norms of respect, honor, and taxes are to be met by the

Christian community, there is one debt that remains. The Christian

community remains obliged to show love continually in an ongoing

manner. In so doing, the Torah is fulfilled.

So the whole reason for the community’s existence is grounded in

love. What does Paul mean by love? He claims that the whole law is

summed up by the command to “love your neighbor as [you] yourself

[would like to be treated]” (13:9; also Gal. 5:14; cf. Matt. 7:12;

Mark 12:31; John 13:34). While he does not say it here explicitly,

Paul considers the love of God to be embodied (demonstrated) most

concretely in Jesus. Paul is clearly in the mainstream of early

Christianity which saw in Jesus the self-revelation of God’s love:

“We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we

ought to lay down our lives for one another” (1 John 3:16 NRSV; cf.

Eph. 5:2, 25).

The norm of love that Paul is talking about is one of adherence to

Jesus who binds the church’s destiny to his and makes the story of

the church his story. Authentic love calls people to repentance, to

transformation, and to life—all of which are seen most clearly in

the way of Jesus, which led to the cross and the resurrection. This

is God’s way of reaching out, and it becomes the way for all as well

(Phil. 2:5-11). In this way, the Torah is fulfilled. Not only does

Jesus fulfill the purpose of the law (Rom. 10:4), but he is also the

climactic expression of everything that the Torah pointed to all


Assessing the Three Norms

So, how does this alternative reading stand up to the scrutiny of

the three questions I posed to Skillen and Pavlischek? What is the

fruit of this alternative reading?

The three norms drawn from Paul’s occasional instruction to the

Roman Christian community give expression to a vision for Christian

political responsibility that is rigorous, consistent, and

discerning. First, the alternative interpretation is more

christologically rigorous. Jesus, as the self-expression of God,

sets out not only God’s way of reaching out, but also the way for

all humanity as well. Second, the alternative reading is more

ethically consistent. The Christian community’s ethic of personal

judgment does not differ from its sense of what constitutes {44}

state-sponsored public justice because both are shaped by the way of

Jesus. Third, the alternative rendering is more discerning of

political responsibility. The church’s mandate as “sign” of the

kingdom is to give witness to all, including the state, by engaging

and inviting all creation to realignment according to the way of God

as demonstrated by Jesus.



If in fact the alternative reading of Romans 12 and 13 given above

is at all representative of its earliest reception, what guidelines

might be set out for contemporary appropriation of these two

chapters? I suggest three guidelines for embodying the witness of

Romans 12:9–13:10 today.

First, the moral conversion to which all are invited to participate

goes deeper than traditional moral instruction. Certainly the

standard virtues of society (love, respect, and excellence) are

promoted, but more fundamentally, Paul is speaking about a moral

vision that drives virtues that are not traditionally valued. Paul

calls for a revaluation or reassessment of values empowered by the

transformation of the moral conscience (12:1-2) in order to be

aligned with God’s kind of love shown concretely in the life of

Jesus. Such revaluation should also give shape to the contemporary

negotiation of values. This will likely mean, as it did then, that

down becomes up, foolishness becomes wisdom, humility leads to

glory, and evil is overcome with good.

Each subsequent Christian community, as a “living sacrifice,” must

discern just how it should express (embody) the moral vision shaped

by Jesus and what this vision means in the face of global crises.

Essential to such a revaluation is coming to terms with humanity’s

identity as God’s beloved, which makes itself evident in

loving/living the way God does. In the middle of the many calls to

join state-sanctioned vengeance and retribution, the biblical

metaphors like “exiles” and “aliens” call the church to a different

way: one that resists Augustine’s call to employ the means of

“earthly city” to promote the “Heavenly City.” The church functions,

not as the Kingdom of God, but as a “sign” of the Kingdom of God,

continuing to invite all creation to the possibility of

reconciliation, healing, and life in Christ (Kraus, 173).

Second, a great deal of imagination is needed in order to

appropriate texts like Romans 12 and 13. The cultural gap between

Paul’s symbolic world and our own is significant. We may as well get

used to the fact that what Paul viewed as self-evident (e.g.,

burning coals as sign of restoration, state as representative of

cosmic powers, etc.), may not be {45} obvious for us. Bridging the

gap is difficult, but not impossible. The Christian community

confesses that these culture-bound expressions give witness to God’s

living Word, and that God’s spirit is sufficient to work with this


The promise that accompanies such a “problem” is that through

creative and imaginative discernment, people can be drawn into the

drama of God’s ongoing creation work. Christian communities in every

context are invited to develop metaphorical bridges that connect

Scripture’s prophetic/apostolic witness with their contemporary

contexts. Through community discernment, ways can be found to

appropriate the vision that drives the text and to reexpress it for

faith communities in different times and cultures. In this way, very

different cultural norms can still be transformed and shaped by the

deep structure of Scripture.

One practical way to “bridge this gap” is to insert the

“middle-step” of reflection and assessment back into Christian

political engagement. The step that was obvious (and unstated) for

Paul is not obvious today. Government policies that promote

domination, oppression, or enslavement will quickly become

self-evident when tested against the way of God as demonstrated by


Third, Romans 13:1-7 must be read with considerable care and

caution. It has a very negative history-of-effect. It has been

misread to promote the notion of a “Christian state,” to demand

unquestioning allegiance, and to justify the extermination of others

deemed as threats (Johnson, 189). So, while Paul is expressing a

predemocracy worldview, no longer valued by most westerners, the

hermeneutical gap can still be bridged by exercising imaginative


The moral vision that Paul tapped into calls Christians to choose

voluntarily to comply with and to engage the basic political/social

structures of the society within which they live without giving up

their primary allegiance, which is reserved for God’s rule/reign. In

this way, the Christian political responsibility involves subverting

the political system from within and inviting all creation to join

in God’s ongoing mission to bring life and wholeness to all. Given

this mission, it is conceivable that there would be situations where

civil disobedience (and not compliance) or where “running for

elected office” (and not detachment) would in fact resonate with the

deep structure of Romans 13:1-7, yet in ways that Paul could not

have imagined. {46}


Augustine. 1998. The city of God against the pagans. Translated by

R. W. Dyson. Orig. ed. 462. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Borg, Marcus. 1973. A new context for Romans XIII. New Testament

Studies 19: 205-18.

Calvin, John. 1960. Calvin’s commentaries: Romans. Translated by

R. Mackenzie. Orig. ed. 1540. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Dick, Harold J. 1985. The Christian and authorities: Romans

13:1-7. Direction 14 (spring): 44-50.

Hays, Richard B. 1996. Violence in defense of justice. In The

moral vision of the New Testament: Community, cross, new creation:

A contemporary introduction to New Testament ethics, 317-46. New

York: HarperCollins.

Hiebert, Paul G. 2000. Spiritual warfare and worldviews. Direction

29 (fall): 114-24.

Johnson, Luke Timothy. 1997. Reading Romans: A literary and

theological commentary. New York: Crossroad.

Käsemann, Ernst. 1969. Principles of interpretation of Romans 13.

In New Testament questions today, 196-216. London: SCM.

______. 1980. Commentary on Romans. Translated by G. W. Bromiley.

Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Klassen, William. 1963. Coals of fire: Sign of repentance or

revenge? (Rom. 12:20; Prov. 25:22). New Testament Studies 9:


Kraus, C. Norman. 1991. God our savior: Theology in a

christological mode. Scottdale, PA: Herald.

Luther, Martin. 1954. Commentary on the epistle to the Romans.

Translated by J. T. Mueller. Orig. ed. 1515-1516. Grand Rapids,

MI: Eerdmans.

Neufeld, Matthew G. 1994. Submission to governing authorities: A

study of Romans 13:1-7. Direction 23 (fall): 90-97.

Skillen, James W., and Keith J. Pavlischek. 2001. Political

responsibility and the use of force: A critique of Richard Hays.

Philosophia Christi 3: 421-45.

Toews, John E. 1986. Peacemakers from the start: The Jesus way in

the early church. In The power of the lamb. Edited by J. E. Toews

and G. Nickel, 45-55. Winnipeg, MB: Kindred.

Wink, Walter. 1998. The powers that be: Theology for a new

millennium. New York: Doubleday.

Yoder, John Howard. 1972. Let every soul be subject: Romans 13 and

the authority of the state. In The politics of Jesus, 193-214.

Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Jon Isaak is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Mennonite

Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California.

The author wishes to express appreciation to Mark Baker, Larry Dunn,

Karin Enns, Kristin Fast, Bruce Guenther, and Jim Holm, who read

earlier drafts of this essay and offered helpful suggestions.

© 2003 Direction (Winnipeg, MB)

This article may be printed or downloaded for personal use only. No

articles may be additionally reprinted in any form without

permission of the Managing Editor,

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