A Commentary by John Stott
When the state punishes evildoers, it is functioning as ‘the servant of God to execute his wrath’ upon them (4, RSV). This expression is surely a deliberate allusion to the command in the previous chapter that we should not take revenge but ‘leave room for God’s wrath’ (12:19), since justice belongs to him and he will punish evil. Now Paul explains one of the main ways in which he does so. God’s wrath, which one day will fall on the impenitent (2:5), and is now seen in the breakdown of the social order (1:18ff.), also operates through the process of the law enforcement and the administration of justice. It is important to hold Romans 12:19 and 13:4 together. We human beings as private individuals are not authorized to take the law into our own hands and punish offenders. The punishment of evil is God’s prerogative, and during the present age he exercises it through the lawcourts.
In this distinction between the role of the state and that of the individual, we may perhaps say that individuals are to live according to love rather than justice, whereas the state operates according to justice rather than love. This is by no means a wholly satisfactory formula, however, since it sets love and justice over against each other as if they are opposites and alternatives, whereas they do not exclude each other. Even in loving and serving our enemies, we should still be concerned for justice (1 Pet.2:23), and also remember that love seeks justice for the oppressed. And even in pronouncing sentence, judges should allow justice to be tempered by love, that is, mercy. For evil is not only to be punished; it is to be overcome (12:21).
The role of the state is not only to punish evil, however; it is also to promote and reward goodness. This was certainly the case in Paul’s day. Dr. Bruce Winter has shown that from the fifth century BC to the second century AD there was a ‘long-established tradition’, well evidenced from both inscriptions and literally sources, ‘which guaranteed that benefactors would be publicly praised’ and appropriately rewarded. He also shows that Paul’s very words about ‘doing good’ in verses 3-4 occur in inscriptions relating to a public benefaction.
Yet this positive function of the state is much neglected today. The state tends to be better at punishing than at rewarding, better at enforcing the law than at fostering virtue and service. At the same time, although this is a controversial area, most governments acknowledge that they have a responsibility to preserve their society’s values (not least through their educational system) and to encourage citizens to share in their welfare programme by voluntary service. Most countries also have some arrangement for recognizing those of their citizens who have made a conspicuous contribution to the public good. They give them a citation or a certificate, a title, a decoration or some other token of appreciation. But they could probably improve and extend their reward system, so that only outstanding merit is rewarded, and their honours become increasingly prized and coveted, like the international Nobel and Templeton awards. Perhaps citizens should be given stronger encouragement to recommend people from their community for public recognition.
Paul concludes his section on the state with a reference to the raising and paying of taxes. Taxation was widespread and varied in the ancient world, including a poll tax, land taxes, royalties on farm produce, and duty on imports and exports. Paul regarded the topic as coming under the rubric of the ministry of the state. *This is also why you pay taxes:* it is because *the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing* (6), literally ‘to this very thing’, which in the context seems to mean not just tax-collecting but the service of God in public life. Political parties of the Right and the Left differ over the desirable size of the state’s role in the nation’s life, and whether it should increase or decrease taxation. All agree, however, that there are some services which the state must provide, that these have to be paid for, and that this makes taxes necessary. So Christians should accept their tax liability with good grace, paying their dues in full, both national and local, direct and indirect, and also giving proper esteem to the officials who collect and apply them. *Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honour, then honour* (7).
Paul gives us in these verses a very positive concept of the state. In consequence Christians, who recognize that the state’s authority and ministry come from God, will do more than tolerate it as if it were a necessary evil. Conscientious Christian citizens will submit to its authority, honour its representatives, pay its taxes and pray for its welfare (See Je.29:7; 1 Tim.2:1ff.). They will also encourage the state to fulfil its God-given role and, in so far as they have opportunity, actively participate in its work.