Christians typically read Romans 13 as a stand-alone passage. And it reads pretty well that way—a whole political theory in a few sentences. The problem is, when read in isolation, Romans 13 doesn’t fit well with Paul’s argument in the rest of the epistle. It falls awkwardly in the middle of chapters 12-15, interrupting an otherwise connected argument. To see what is going on, we need to put chapter 13 back into relation with its companion chapters.
Throughout the epistle, Paul addresses specific problems in the Roman church. Most obviously in chapters 11 and 14, his letter appears to have been prompted by division between Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians. Perhaps Gentile Christians in Rome were giving Jewish Christians a hard time reintegrating into the church after their return from Claudius’s expulsion. In any event, Paul warns the Gentile Christians not to be “arrogant” or “conceited” toward the Jewish Christians (Ro. 11:18, 20; cf. Ro. 12:3, 12:20, 15:5, etc.). Throughout the first eleven chapters of the epistle, Paul develops the profound union between Gentile and Jewish Christians, as they are united in both plight and promise; they are united in sin as well as united in Jesus, as he fulfills the promises God made to Abraham.
Thus, the admonition in 12:2 not to be conformed to the world but to be transformed so that one can “prove” or “discern” God’s “good, acceptable and perfect will” is not a general admonition. It is a pointed admonition for the Roman Christians. They are the ones with the problems Paul is addressing. They need to stop being so arrogant (the Gentiles in particular, hassling the Jewish Christians), and they need to stop taking vengeance. They need to discern the goodness, the acceptability, and the perfectness God’s will, which Paul then lays out in Romans 12-16.
Romans 12-16, including chapter 13, is the telos of Paul’s argument in the first eleven chapters. Here’s the first half of chapter 13:
Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’s sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.
If we read chapter 13 in isolation, it looks like an abstract discussion of submission to civil authority. Commentators debate whether Paul was talking about the Roman government in particular or governments in general. They ask just how far the submission should go, particularly how much submission Christians owe to tyrants. They interrogate the passage with questions like whether a revolution can ever be justified and, if so, under what conditions. And we can still interrogate the passage in this way. But Paul’s specific argument in the passage is more narrow. It focuses on the behavior of Christians toward other Christians, in particular, and toward other people generally. This becomes apparent when we read the chapter by starting with its run-up in chapter 12.
When we read Romans 13 by starting with Romans 12, we see Paul’s argument developing. Part of the argument in Romans 13 concerns the way the magistrate temporalizes God’s wrath, described in Romans 12. More pointedly, in Romans 13 Paul intensifies his indictment of the Roman Christians. I quote here a passage that begins in Romans 12 and ends in Romans 13, abridged to highlight the repeated words “evil,” “good,” and “vengeance” (and its cognates, “avenge” and “revenge”), which connect Paul’s arguments in these two chapters:
Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.
Paul writes in Romans 12:19 that God will vindicate the Christian. Christians must wait for their vindication rather than pursuing personal revenge. The phrase “if you do what is evil” refers to the Christian’s response to evil initiated against him or her, and condemns as evil any reciprocal violence by the Christian. (Of note is that vengeance, or punishment, is distinct from defense of self or others. That is for another discussion.)
Romans 13 continues the discussion from 12, with Paul noting that one mode of this divine vindication comes through civil magistrates. These magistrates, Paul writes, hold authority from God. To take one’s own revenge, rather than wait for the magistrate, is to usurp God’s prerogative and the prerogative of those whom Paul terms God’s “ministers.” A Christian taking vengeance into his or her own hands shows distrust of God and usurps God’s authority. Vengeance-taking is not only a sin against the other person, it is an affront to God himself. It seizes a prerogative God has reserved for him and his ministers.
It is unclear whether Paul thought the problem was Christians seeking revenge against other Christians, or Christians seeking revenge against non-Christians who were persecuting them. Or both. In any event, Paul rules out any action of collective or individual revenge as inconsistent with the nature transfigured by Christ.
This prohibition may seem almost trivial today, at least for many middle-class Americans. For us, “revenge” often means little more than getting back at the jerk in the office, or cutting off the guy who just cut us off at the intersection. While Paul would prohibit those actions all the same, we shouldn’t adopt too narrow a historical view. It’s not so long ago that punishment by vigilante groups was not uncommon. Indeed, U.S. states have laws prohibiting vigilante actions. Not-so-distant history is replete with “good Christians” participating in lynchings, feuds, duels, secret attacks in the middle of the night, and more. The temptations were even greater in times without 911 numbers to summon the police. Indeed, in the Bible, the well-known case of the woman taken in adultery in John 8 is an instance in which Jesus faces and responds specifically to a vigilante mob.
Recognizing that Romans 13 speaks to the Christian’s transfigured life does not negate the many questions we can, and should, still ask about the passage: What happens when the human magistrate is unjust, rewarding evil and punishing good rather than vice versa? And if Christians are prohibited from vengeance-taking, does that mean that they cannot serve in offices that bear the sword? Does it matter that Paul refers to these magistrates as God’s ministers and describes them as doing “good”? If a person bearing the name of magistrate is doing evil rather than good, where does that leave the matter of submission?
These are important questions, albeit secondary to the immediate point Paul makes. It is fashionable these days to distinguish between what Jesus said and what Paul said, with the intimation that Paul qualifies moral imperatives, such as “do not take your own revenge,” in ways that Jesus did not. In Romans 13, however, Paul doubles down on his flat prohibition of personal revenge in Romans 12. There is no qualification at all.
James R. Rogers is associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University. He also blogs at Law & Liberty.