A Commentary by John Stott
Romans 13:1-3 1). The authority of the state.
Paul begins with a clear command of universal application: *Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities* (1a). He then goes on to give the reason for this requirement. It is that the state’s authority is derived from God, and this he affirms three times. 1). *There is no authority except that which God has established* (1b). 2). *The authorities that exist have been established by God* (1c). 3). *Consequently he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted* (2a).
Thus the state is a divine institution with divine authority. Christians are not anarchists or subversives.
We need to be cautious, however, in our interpretation of Paul’s statements. He cannot be taken to mean that all the Caligulas, Herods, Neros and Domitians of New Testament times, and all the Hitlers, Stalins, Amins and Saddams of our times, were personally appointed by God, that God is responsible for their behaviour, or that their authority is in no circumstances to be resisted. Paul means rather that all human authority is derived from God’s authority, so that we can say to rulers what Jesus said to Pilate, ‘You would have no power [*exousia*, authority] over me if it were not given to you from above.’ (Jn. 19:11). Pilate misused his authority to condemn Jesus; nevertheless, the authority he used to do this had been delegated to him by God.
Having called for submission, Paul now warns against rebellion, since rebels are not only setting themselves *against what God has instituted* (2a), but in addition *will bring judgment on themselves* (2b). In consequence, it is both right and wise to submit. Paul elaborates the wisdom of it. *For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you* (3). The statement that rulers commend *those who do right* and punish *those who do wrong* is not of course invariably true, as Paul knew perfectly well. Although he had himself experienced from procurators and centurions the benefits of Roman justice, he also knew about the miscarriage of justice in the condemnation of Jesus. And if all provincial courts were just, he would not have needed to appeal to Caesar (Acts 25:11). So, in depicting rulers in such a good light, as commending the right and opposing the wrong, he is stating the divine ideal, not the human reality.
Yet the requirement of submission and the warning of rebellion are couched in universal terms. For this reason they have constantly been misapplied by oppressive right-wing regimes, as if Scripture gave rulers *carte blanche* to develop a tyranny and to demand unconditional obedience. Commenting on verse 2 (*he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted*), Oscar Cullmann has written: ‘Few sayings in the New Testament have suffered as much misuse as this one. As soon as Christians, out of loyalty to the gospel of Jesus, offer resistance to a state’s totalitarian claim, the representatives of that State, or their collaborationists theological advisers, are accustomed to appeal to this saying of Paul, as if Christians are here commanded to endorse and thus to abet all the crimes of a totalitarian State.’ But, as the context shows, ‘there can be no question here of an unconditional and uncritical subjection to any and every demand of the State’.
As an example of the misuse of Romans 13 I refer to an experience of Michael Cassidy, founder of African Enterprise. On 8 October 1985 he was granted an interview with President P.W.Botha in Pretoria. It was the time of the National Initiative for Reconciliation, and Michael had hoped for signs of repentance and for the assurance that apartheid would be dismantled. He was to be bitterly disappointed. This is his account of what happened: ‘I was immediately aware on entry to the room that this was not to be the sort of encounter for which I had prayed. The President began by standing to read me part of Romans 13!’ He evidently imagined that this passage was enough to justify unequivocal support of the Nationalist Government’s apartheid policy.
Tomorrow: Romans 13:1-3. 1). The authority of the state (continued).
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Romans: Christ the Controversialist. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.