On the one hand, many Christians interpret Romans 13 as a command that Christians today are to obey the government. (See the passage below.) On the other hand, these very same Christians live in a nation that was founded by people who rebelled against the government of Britain. And beyond that, America (including these particular Christians) spends about $3Billion each year to celebrate this rebellion-won independence.
So why all the parties celebrating the Independence if opposing the British government was a sin? And why all the flag waving? And why continue to call this a “Christian nation” if you believe that the very acts that founded it were themselves anathema to the spirit and commands of scripture? Indeed, if what began in sin is now a “Christian nation”, when did the conversion happen?
If these particular Christians really believe they have the interpretation of Romans 13 on straight (See the passage below), shouldn’t they be calling for America to subject itself once again to the Crown, and begging the forgiveness of Britain and Heaven alike for the terrible sin of rebellion? Or is repentance no longer a central tenet of Christianity?
If this is not hypocritical behavior, I’d sure like someone to explain it to me.
I believe that the traditional interpretation of Romans 13 cannot be correct…..and for a number of reasons. But hardly anyone seems interested in taking a fresh look at this predetermined-but-faulty conclusion. Here’s the passage in question. I have highlighted certain words regarding the identity of those who were to be obeyed, and have listed thereafter the Greek words from which they are translated. See it for yourself at BlueLetterBible.org here.
Romans 13:1 (NKJV) Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities (exousia). For there is no authority (exousia) except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authority (exousia) resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers (archōn) are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority (exousia)? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. 4 For he is God’s minister (diakonos) to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister (diakonos), an avenger (ekdikos) to execute wrath on him who practices evil. 5 Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers (leitourgos) attending continually to this very thing. 7 Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.
If the traditional view that considers “governing authorities” to be civil governments is correct, then here are some problems in this passage that must be explained:
- Verse 3 says, “For rulers (archōn) are not a terror to good works, but to evil.” Who were these “rulers”? If it is a reference to the human political leaders of Paul’s day, how do we rectify Paul’s claim with the history we know? Many human rulers were persecuting, arresting, terrorizing, torturing, and executing Christians. Does anyone dispute this? Yet this passage promises that they would be “not a terror” to those doing good. Can this really be talking about the very human rulers who were doing such violence to the Christians?
- Verse 3 continues, “Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same.“ If this is a reference to human political leaders, it is quite interesting that such leaders seemed to be, in reality, persecuting rather than praising the Christians of the very generation in which and to which this passage was written.
- Verse 4 says, “For he is God’s minister (diakonos) to you for good.” If this is a reference to human political leaders, how is it that we witness historically that so many of the human political leaders of that day did harm, and not good, to the Christians?
Could it be, then, that the traditional interpretation of this passage is flawed? If it is not flawed, then it would tend to call into question the veracity and/or authenticity of this passage itself, for it does not otherwise jibe with the facts in evidence. Let us look then to see whether any alternative interpretation is both plausible and sustainable.
An Interesting Set of Coincidences
Interestingly, the language highlighted in the passage above is not unique in the Bible. Could it be that some clues might be found when searching for these same terms elsewhere? Let’s take a brief look. Remember, the terms we’re looking for are these:
- authorities (exousia)
- rulers (archōn)
- minister (diakonos)
- minister (leitourgos)
- avenger (ekdikos)
Where else do we find these terms? And do they ever refer to anyone who was not a human political leader? Yes, they do! Consider the following:
Ephesians 6:12 (NKJV) For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers (exousia), against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.
Paul made it clear that whomever he was talking about in this passage was not “flesh and blood”. We must acknowledge, therefore, that the “powers” here (exousia) must have been some sort of heavenly beings. And we can reason further that the particular heavenly beings referenced in this passage were evil ones, which fact I shall address later.
So there we have proof that “exousia” (powers or authorities) does not have to refer to humans.
Now, what about “rulers” (archōn)? Let’s take a look:
Ephesians 2:1 (NKJV) And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, 2 in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince (archōn) of the power (exousia) of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience,
Again, we can see that this particular “archōn” (prince or ruler) was a a “spirit” who promoted disobedience. So now we have examples of both “authorities” and “rulers” who are not human political leaders.
What about “ministers”?
Hebrews 1:7 And of the angels He says: “Who makes His angels spirits And His ministers (leitourgos) a flame of fire.”
In this passage that we are told is about angels, we see some “ministers” who were made into “a flame of fire”, however that might be explained. So here we have leitougos used of non-humans. And now what about the other word translated “minister” (diakanos) in Romans 13? Here’s an example (below) that has Satan’s collaborator angels being called diakanos, as well as a mention of “diakanos of righteousness”:
2 Corinthians 11:13 (NKJV) For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ. 14 And no wonder! For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light. 15 Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers (diakanos) also transform themselves into ministers (diakanos) of righteousness, whose end will be according to their works.
Satan, who had been created as an angel of light, but who had since chosen darkness, was served by other angels who had also chosen the darkness. Interestingly, it seems to have been their habit to pose as “ministers (diakanos) of righteousness”, which they were really not. Incidentally, this also tends to prove that there were good angels called “ministers of righteousness”, so we can deduce that diakanos, when used of angels, did not refer only to evil angels.
So far, therefore, we have found “authorities”, “rulers”, and “ministers” (of both types) who were not human political leaders, and not even humans at all.
What about our next term, “avengers” (ekdikos), therefore? When we search for ekdikos we find that it only occurs in two passages—our present one and one that describes none other than God himself as an avenger. For the record, here’s that passage:
1 Thessalonians 4:6 (NKJV) 6 that no one should take advantage of and defraud his brother in this matter, because the Lord is the avenger (ekdikos) of all such, as we also forewarned you and testified.
God, of course, is not a human, so we have shown already that this word “avenger” can apply to non-humans. Interestingly, we do not ever have this word (ekdikos) referring obviously to humans. Nor do we have it referring to angels, unless I am right about Romans 13. But are there other clues about the ekdikos to be gleaned from our Romans 13 passage? Let’s take a look:
For starters, we know that the ekdikos was also the “authority”, the “ruler”, and the “minister” (both kinds) in question. Those words, we have already shown, were elsewhere used to refer to angels on occasion. One other thing we see about the ekdikos in Romans 13 is that they had swords:
Romans 13:4 (NKJV) For he is God’s minister (diakonos) to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister (diakonos), an avenger (ekdikos) to execute wrath on him who practices evil.
So do we ever find non-humans in the Bible who had swords? How about here?:
Numbers 22:31 (NKJV) Then the LORD opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the Angel of the LORD standing in the way with His drawn sword in His hand; and he bowed his head and fell flat on his face.
1 Chronicles 21:27 (NKJV) So the LORD commanded the angel, and he returned his sword to its sheath.
Thus can we reason that the ekdikos could just as well have referred to an angel as to a human.
So now we have searched on every word used to name the “governing authorities” in Romans 13, and have shown in every case that there is nothing in these words that is inconsistent with a model in which they are used to describe certain non-humans. Are the “governing authorities” of Romans 13 non-humans, therefore?
Perhaps it will help simply to start with the fact that the Greek words here haven’t always been translated as “governing authorities”. Indeed, several translations (KJV, ASV, DRB, ERV) translate it as “higher powers“. It is significant that the words “governing authorities” might naturally be considered by many Americans to be appropriate words for speaking of governmental offices or officials. But who in America speaks of such people as “higher powers”?!
So, could Romans 13 be speaking about angels or some other sort of non-human “higher powers”? Let us not assume it could not possibly be so merely because we have never heard of this before. Indeed, there are many such passages in the Bible that we have never investigated deeply, and for which we have never explored all the possibilities. The Bible is most certainly not “complete” in the way that so many assume it is. Just because we are not explicitly told that a thing is so does not mean that it is not.
We have already established that there are some serious difficulties with interpreting Romans 13 to be about submission to human rulers, so could it be about angels? Could it have been the case that at that time in the First Century, there were angels in charge of the Christians in some way?
Here are some passages for you to consider before you say “no”.
- The seven letters sent by Jesus to the churches in Asia were each addressed in this fashion: “To the angel of the church of Ephesus write, …” (Revelation 2:1-3:14). Was each congregation overseen by an angel?
- Angels had been somehow instrumental in the establishment of the Law of Moses, which raises the question as to whether they would also be instrumental in the establishment of the church (ekklesia). Galatians 3:19 (NKJV) What purpose then does the law serve? It was added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was appointed through angels by the hand of a mediator.
A similar passage also hints of angelic involvement in the Law of Moses. Hebrews 2:2 (NKJV) For if the word spoken through angels proved steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just reward,…
- While the timing of the passage may be in question, we see that the gospel was to be preached by an angel at some point. This is surprising to most believers, who have traditionally held that evangelization of the world was to be handled solely by the apostles and other humans in the church (ekklesia). Revelation 14:6 (NKJV) Then I saw another angel flying in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach to those who dwell on the earth—to every nation, tribe, tongue, and people—
- An angel gave occupational instructions to the evangelist Phillip: Acts 8:26 (NKJV) Now an angel of the Lord spoke to Philip, saying, “Arise and go toward the south along the road which goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.”
- An angel rescued Peter from harm at the hands of an evil political leader, and an angel later killed this same leader: Acts 12:11 (NKJV) And when Peter had come to himself, he said, “Now I know for certain that the Lord has sent His angel, and has delivered me from the hand of Herod and from all the expectation of the Jewish people…..Then immediately an angel of the Lord struck him, because he did not give glory to God. And he was eaten by worms and died.”
- Even the religious enemies of the Christians recognized that God might have been directing them through spirits or angels: Acts 23:9 (NKJV) Then there arose a loud outcry. And the scribes of the Pharisees’ party arose and protested, saying, “We find no evil in this man; but if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him, let us not fight against God.”
- Angels (bad ones) may have been teaching false versions of the gospel message: Galatians 1:8 (NKJV) But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed.
- Angels (bad ones) may have been trying to separate Christians from God: Romans 8:37 (NKJV) I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, 39 nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
- The women were instructed to keep their heads covered for some reason (which we are not told) related to angels: 1 Corinthians 11:10 (NKJV) For this reason the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.
- Puffed up people were worshiping angels: Colossians 2:18 (NKJV) Let no one cheat you of your reward, taking delight in false humility and worship of angels, intruding into those things which he has not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind,
- The world at that time was apparently in “subjection to angels” and was distinguished from how it was to be afterward: Hebrews 2:5 (NKJV) For He has not put the world to come, of which we speak, in subjection to angels.
- Angels were mingling amongst the believers: Hebrews 13:2 (NKJV) Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some have unwittingly entertained angels.
Here we can see that the angels appear to have been quite active on both sides of the spiritual battle in the First Century. So is it really that far a stretch to entertain a model by which God was deliberately leading and fortifying the church (ekklesia) through angelic rulers?
There are likely two primary reasons that this might be hard for believers to swallow today:
- What we read about in the First Century simply does not seem to be happening in the same way today.
- No passage in the Bible comes right out and says, “The church (ekklesia) was under the governance of angels.”
But do either of these things prove that it was not so? No, neither does.
Now, I freely admit that what I have shown here does not prove that angels governed the church (ekklesia), either. So where do we go from here? Do we continue with the traditional view of Romans 13—the one with human political leaders in mind, and the one that we can disprove from the very passage itself? Or do we step back and decide to be willing to explore the idea that maybe, just maybe, there was more going on then than meets the casual eye today?
There is a third option, of course, but that one is completely unacceptable to most Christians as it would constitute an unsolvable crisis of faith. That option is that the passage in Romans 13 is simply incorrect under any translation, and is thus, not authentic scripture. As scary as that option would be for so many, I’d suggest that we take a good hard look at the angels first. It is important, however, that we honestly admit that some consistent means must be found by which to explain this passage, and that an inconsistent method is simply a dishonest one.
If the angels model is adopted, it also opens up a whole new (and scary for many) can of worms regarding God’s planned differences between life for believers then and life for believers today. Many Christians, however, plainly exhibit that they simply are not willing to consider such differences. Indeed, with this very passage that they believe mandates all Christians to be subject to civil (human) governments, they never give credence to the question of whether the inspired apostles would have written the same instructions today to citizen members of a constitutional republic such as the United States of America.
This is particularly important and harkens back to our discussion of whether “governing authorities” should rather have been translated “higher powers”. If it should have been, we dare not fail to notice that the U.S. Constitution is, in its own words, “the supreme law of the land“. If it is “supreme”, nothing can be above it. And if nothing is above it, that means that not even the Congress and the White House have the power to supersede, preempt, or ignore it. So in this case, if the Christian refuses, say, to buy the health insurance that is mandated by an unconstitutional act of Congress, is he really disobeying the “higher power”? Or is he just disobeying some bully lawmakers who are disobedient themselves?
Proving the Impossibility
Here’s a simple exercise that proves the impossibility of the traditional interpretation of this passage—that it regards submission to human governments.
- Billy is a firm believer that this passage is a directive for Christians today to submit themselves to the human governments.
- Billy is convinced that the latest war entered into by the United States is an illegal and unjust war that is being waged for selfish commercial interests, and not truly in defense of our nation.
- Billy is drafted by the United States Government to take up arms in this war.
- Billy is terribly conflicted. On the one hand, he has deep convictions about passages such as “do not murder” (Exodus 20:13) and “have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness” (Hebrews 5:11). On the other hand, he is adamant that Romans 13 commands him to submit to the very government who is enlisting his help to do these vile things.
What, then, should Billy do? Shall he compromise on obedience to (his preferred interpretation of) one passage in order to facilitate his obedience to another? If this were so, it would prove that the Bible texts were not all cut from the same cloth, so to speak—that they can be rightly played against each other, and that they are not in natural harmony with each other.
With this, then, we have proven that either the Bible is itself flawed on the grand scale, or that Billy’s interpretation of at least one of these passages is flawed. I know that nobody wants his own apple cart to be upset, but in this case, it’s going to get upset one way or the other. So which unsettling possibility would we rather entertain: that the Bible is unreliable, or that the traditional interpretation of Romans 13 is flawed?
But What About The Taxes?
Some point out that because Romans 13 also mentions taxes, it proves that the “governing authorities” are indeed human governors. As we shall we, this is not true.
After Paul had warned them to obey the “higher powers”, he mentioned two reasons for this obedience. One was “wrath” and the other was “conscience”. See it here:
5 Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake.
We must not miss this as we read, else we miss the key to understanding what comes afterward. Paul continued:
6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers (leitourgos) attending continually to this very thing. 7 Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.
“Because of this,” he says. And “because of what” is what we must ask. The antecedent of “because of this” would most naturally be assumed to be either “not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake” or the narrow version, “…for conscience’ sake”. We need not settle that question here, for either possibility will do to give us insight into what is commanded thereafter.
The taxes were to be paid “because of this”, whichever that “this” referred to. I believe that Paul was including an afterthought here when he mentioned taxes. It was not the primary point of this passage, but a related issue that was a basic of Christian teaching. Indeed, Jesus himself had taught thus:
Mark 12:13 (NKJV) Then they sent to Him some of the Pharisees and the Herodians, to catch Him in His words. 14 When they had come, they said to Him, “Teacher, we know that You are true, and care about no one; for You do not regard the person of men, but teach the way of God in truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? 15 Shall we pay, or shall we not pay?” But He, knowing their hypocrisy, said to them, “Why do you test Me? Bring Me a denarius that I may see it.” 16 So they brought it. And He said to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?” They said to Him, “Caesar’s.” 17 And Jesus answered and said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at Him.
Did Jesus ever command that anything beyond taxes was due to “Caesar”? Were the people to worship Caesar’s gods upon his decree that they should do so? If so, why were Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego praised rather than punished for their defiance to such an order from King Nebuchadnezzar? (Daniel 3) Why were they rescued by God rather than abandoned by him for a sinful act, if indeed it was a sinful act?
The fact of the matter is that the payment of taxes is as far as any Bible record shows God having commanded Christians to go. It just so happens that Rome was generally in the habit of assimilating various cultures into its political collective without demanding that they embrace Roman religion. Thus should we not be surprised to find in the New Testament (as we do in the Old) that believers were being coerced to bow the knee to foreign gods. Rome would tolerate a great deal as long as the taxes were paid.
Having no further data on the commands of Jesus and the apostles regarding such submission, therefore, we are irresponsible to insist on an assumption that exceeds what we are told. Indeed, how could we know?
We must limit our demands on this passage (Romans 13:5-7), therefore, to taxes, for in no place is there even a hint that the believers were to follow the government into sin, immorality, unethical behavior, idolatry, or any other such abomination. Never were they commanded to bow the knee to pagan god nor to man. And as to behavior, is not the whole of the New Testament (as well as the Old) not practically a primer in behaving righteously in an unrighteous world? How then, shall we take Jesus and his apostles as having suddenly turned all of the history of God’s people upside down by declaring that they were now supposed to surrender their righteousness at the demand of evil governments?
Going back to the Garden of Eden, it was God who was to be obeyed, and anyone else giving orders was an imposter. On many occasions in the history that would unfold thereafter, God allowed his people to be subjected to ill treatment at the hands of pagan nations, but even so, they were neither to bow the knee to pagan gods or to behave as did the pagans. The advent of Rome, however, was not just another chapter in a long saga of pagan governments. No, it occurred at the culmination of a set of very special events. It marked a time at the end of one age and at the beginning of another, after which the world would no longer be “in subjection to angels”. It was a time of angels and demons, of miracles and wars and persecutions and tribulations—all such as are no seen today. Clearly, there is a big difference between the events about which we read then and the events we witness today.
All we can be certain of from the texts regarding taxes, is that, in God’s wisdom, the believers were supposed to pay them then. No mention is made of what would be appropriate for believers thereafter. Even though it was obvious that the age was changing over in their own generation, there is simply no mention of us to be found:
1 Corinthians 10:11 Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.
Paul says of his own generation (and not ours, mind you) that what had been written was for the admonition of Paul’s present company. It was upon that generation that “the ends of the ages” had come. That is, the final end of the age in which they were living and the beginning end of the age that was to follow. Clearly, many things have changed from that time.
Summing It Up
If I’m right, and if this passage was about obeying angels who, once upon a time, had rule over the church (ekklesia)….
And if those angels are no longer here…
Then where in this passage is there a command for us to be obeying or subjecting ourselves to anything?
This is a lot to think about, so let the thinking commence!