Romans 13 – Understanding Our Obligations

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When Romans 13 is mentioned the focus is usually on the state. And so we get into discussions on capital punishment, just war, and all sorts of other things Paul probably didn’t have in mind when he penned these words. I believe Paul’s focus is on the church and how Christians are to live in the world and act toward believers and non-believers. While we can probably draw some conclusions about the state based on Romans 13, I don’t believe that was Paul’s intention. Look back at Romans 12:17-21,

“Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”says the Lord. On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

While I am still a little baffled by Paul’s motivation of “heaping burning coals on [their] heads” there is a connection with what follows in Romans 13 – that the state is able to carry out God’s justice in a very real way.

Paul leaves us with a couple of questions in the opening of Romans 13 as on the surface he seems to be saying that all governmental powers come from God and therefore they are to be obeyed and submitted to. It almost sounds like Paul is saying “no questions asked” in 13:5 but I don’t think that is what he is saying. Notice what he says before that in 13:4 – he calls governmental officials those who have the responsibility to do good to those who are in the right. We could then reason that Paul is not calling us to check our brains or common sense at the door and follow all authorities no questions asked. But as long as the authorities are seeking to do what God intended for them to do.

The Paul bridges back into our need to love others (13:8) by linking it up with our obligation to pay our taxes to those in charge (13:7). I really wonder how we would live if we took Romans 13:8 seriously,

“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law.”

People have talked all around the point Paul is making here because their hermeneutics are off base. They talk about debt, credit, and whether it is okay to have a mortgage. The conclusion usually hinges around Paul’s use of “outstanding” and end up concluding this verse says credit and debt are fine as long as you pay them off on time. But that isn’t Paul point at all. It misses his emphasis entirely. He is building up to the next verse and using the language of debt to bridge 13:7 with what he is about to say in the rest of the chapter. Our love for each other MUST be so deep and sincere that we express it as if it were an insurrmountable debt that though we work our whole lives to pay it in full, it can never be done! How would we treat others if we lived like that?

In 13:9-10 he references Leviticus 19:18 and what Jesus said in Matthew 22:34-40 about how if our intent is to love then we will have no trouble pleasing God and treating our fellowman in a godly way.

Last, he talks about living in light of the resurrection. He uses the metaphor of getting up in the morning and getting ready for the day. There are certain things that can hinder us from getting ready for what is coming (13:13). Rather than being burdened by those things we throw them off and clothe ourselves with Christ. We do this as the sun rises in the east, understanding that a knew day is certainly on the horizon.

There is nothing more motivating to actually daily living out of the Christian life than living in light of the two resurrections that bookend our lives – Christ’s and our’s.

0 Responses

  1. I’m one of those strange ones that think that the first part of Romans 13 is of limited application, speaking specifically of the powers that existed at the time of the writing.

    Leaving that to the side, I like your focus on us and our responsibilities. I think that’s spot on.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  2. Tim,

    Witherington, Wright and others point to the political situation in Rome in the mid 50s as a time of peace under the early reign of Nero. That is easy to submit too! In other places like in Thessalonians Paul is not as keen on submitting to the government. So you are probably right in the limitations of what Paul is writing as even he is “inconsistent” in his handling of this topic. The inconsistency doesn’t appear to come from Paul but from the political situations that stand as background to what he had to say about it in that particular time and place.

  3. Matt,

    In addition, to outsiders, Christianity seemed to be a branch of Judaism. The Jews were noted troublemakers regarding government, eventually being crushed by the Romans in A.D. 70. With that event looming on the horizon, it behooved the Christians to distance themselves from any appearance of rebellion.

    Part of what convinces me this was limited are Paul’s words in verse 3. If that were true in every circumstance, then Jesus would never have been crucified, nor would we have seen martyrs throughout history. I believe in obeying laws, paying taxes, etc. But I have problems with an application that makes God directly responsible for every leader that comes to power.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  4. I was just reading Metzger on Judaism in the early church and he does an excellent and brief job of outlining how that probably worked out in the early church and how there was probably tons more continuity between Judaism and Christianity than most people recognize. Great point.

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