A Subversive Interpretation of Romans 13

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned Romans 13, the quintessential “Submit to the government” passage. Last spring, I actually preached on this challenging passage (Romans 13:1-8) in my preaching class. I wanted to share a few insights that my study yielded and it provided me with new eyes through which to read the passage.

Most typically, this passage has been interpreted as a pro-government stance that the church should take. The Belgic Confession itself follows suit from such an interpretation (Article 36), while also acknowledging that the civil rulers are still subject to God’s law. But through my study, I found a more subversive way to read the passage that may not be apparent the first time you read it. As one studies the passage more closely however, I think Paul is emphasizing something that often gets lost.

V. 1 “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.”

V. 2 “Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed . . .”

V. 4 “For [the government] is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.”

V. 6 “For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing.”

Reading this against the backdrop of the Roman Empire holds huge implications for what Paul is saying. In all of these verses I have highlighted above, Paul makes sure that the church at Rome knows that the government is only a servant of God, not God itself. Jesus Christ is Lord; Caesar is not. No authority except from God. Authorities have been instituted by God. The authorities are God’s servant. What astounded me while studying this passage was how I had missed all these subversive whispers (Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not; God alone is God, the Roman Empire is not). So while Paul is saying to submit to the government, he is all the while almost mocking the Roman Empire because it holds power that is not its own. It is a mere servant to the all-powerful God that Paul had come to worship. At the end of the day, God has the final word and Caesar does not.

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