A Commentary by John Stott
In Romans 12 Paul has developed our four basic Christian relationships, namely to God (1-2), to ourselves (3-8), to one another (9-16) and to our enemies (17-21). In Romans 13 he develops three more – to the state (conscientious citizenship, 1-7), to the law (neighbour-love as its fulfilment, 8-10), and to the day of the Lord’s return (living in the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet’, (11-14).
Before we go any further, however, we need to consider a debate which has divided theologians throughout this century. It concerns the identity of the *authorities (exousiai)* of verse 1. It has been argued by some (beginning, it seems, with Martin Dibelius in 1909) that there is in *exousiai* a double reference, namely to the civil powers on the one hand and to cosmic forces on the other, which stand behind them and work through them. The chief protagonist for this view has been Oscar Cullmann, whose case may be summarized as follows. First, Paul undoubtedly believed in, and frequently referred to, superhuman intelligences whom he names ‘principalities ‘, ‘powers’, rulers’ and ‘authorities’. So these are the ‘authorities’ of Romans 13;1. Having been conquered and tamed by Christ, they have now ‘lost their evil character’, and they ‘stand under and within the lordship of Christ’. Secondly, it is ‘certain’, Cullmann writes that in 1 Corinthians 2:8 ‘the rulers of this age’, who if they had known God’s wisdom ‘would not have crucified the Lord of Glory’, were both ‘these invisible forces and powers’ and at the same time their ‘effective agents, namely, the earthly rulers, the Roman administrators of Palestine’. Thirdly, if we come without prejudice to Romans 13, ‘it is by far the most natural thing to give the plural *exousiai* no other sense than that which it always has for Paul, that is, the meaning of “angelic powers”’, although he was also plainly writing of the state ‘as the executive agent of angelic powers’. Indeed, these expressions (‘authorities’ and ‘powers’) were deliberately chosen, Cullmann believed, in order to make clear ‘the combined meaning’.
The majority of scholars have not been persuaded by these arguments, however. Three main obstacles stand in the way. First, although Paul clearly believed in cosmic principalities and powers, and although he wrote of their overthrow at the cross, he also wrote of their continuing opposition to God and his people (Eph. 6:11f.; cf. Rom.8:37ff.). The New Testament ‘affords no evidence in support of the contention that hostile spiritual powers were re-commissioned, after being subdued, to a positive service of Christ’. Secondly, 1 Corinthians 2:8 cannot bear the weight Cullmann puts on it. ‘Nowhere else does the New Testament attribute the *crucfixion* to angelic beings’; it is always attributed to human rulers. Thirdly, the meaning of *exousiai* in Romans 13 must be determined in the end by its context, and not by its very different use elsewhere. Here we are required to submit to these ‘authorities’. But nowhere else are Christian believers said to be under the principalities and powers. On the contrary, they are now under us because we are in Christ and they are under him (Eph.1:20ff.; 2:4ff.; 1 Pet.3:22). We conclude, therefore, that the phrase ‘the governing authorities’ in Romans 13:1 refers to the state, together with its official representatives.
Relations between church and state have been notoriously controversial throughout the Christian centuries. To oversimplify, four main models have been tried – Erastianism (the state controls the church). theocracy (the church controls the state), Constantinianism (the compromise in which the state favours the church and the church accommodates to the state in order to retain its favour), and partnership (church and state recognize and encourage each other’s distinct God-given responsibilities in a spirit of constructive collaboration). The fourth seems to accord best with Paul’s teaching in Romans 13.
That church and state have different roles, and that Christians have duties to both God and the state was clearly implied in Jesus’ enigmatic epigram, ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.’ (Mk.12:17). Now Paul enlarges on the State’s God-appointed role and on the role of Christian people in relation to it, although his emphasis is on personal citizenship rather than on any particular theory of church-state relations. What he writes is especially remarkable when we recall that at that time there were no Christian authorities (global, regional or local). On the contrary, they were Roman or Jewish, and were therefore largely unfriendly and even hostile to the church. Yet Paul regarded them as having been established by God, who required Christians to submit to them and cooperate with them. He had inherited a long-standing tradition from the Old Testament that Yahweh is sovereign over human kingdoms ‘and gives them to anyone he wishes’ (Dn.4:17, 25, 32), and that by his wisdom ‘kings reign…and princes govern (Pr.8:15f.).
It is conceivable that Paul was responding to those ‘constant disturbances’, as a result of which the Emperor Claudius had ‘ordered all Jews to leave Rome’ (Acts 18:2), and which Suetonius said in his *life of Claudius* has happened ‘at the instigation of Chrestus’. We lack information about the causes of this unrest. Did some Roman Christians regard submission to Rome as incompatible with the Lordship of Christ or their freedom in Christ? It seems idle to speculate.