I recently wrote and published an article on Romans 13:-17 and 1 Peter 2:13-18, analyzing the authenticity of those passages and where it fits in with Christian free-thinking and Christian anarchist thought. Ultimately I concluded that those passages appear to either be authoritarian inserts or that Paul and Peter were wrong in their assertions by declaring subjugation to government by Christians, something that is completely inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus. In this blog page I have provided down below an excerpt from Jacques Ellul’s book called Anarchy & Christianity, where he gives his perspective on Romans 13:1-7. I do not share exactly his view, but I do admire his attempt to bring clarity from a Christian anarchist viewpoint.
Jacques Ellul On Romans 13:1-7
We finally arrive at the passages in Paul. We had first to fix the general Christian climate in order to put the verses in context. Although they are (too!) well known, I will quote them. First we have Romans 13:1–7: “Let every person be subject to the higher authorities. For there is no authority which does not come from God, and the authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore the one who resists authority resists the order that God has established, and those who resist will bring condemnation on themselves. It is not for good conduct but for bad that magistrates are to be feared. The magistrate is the servant of God for your good. But if you do evil, be afraid, for it is not in vain that he bears the sword, being the servant of God to exercise vengeance and punish those who do evil. It is necessary therefore to be subject, not only for fear of punishment but also for the sake of conscience. It is also for this reason that you pay taxes, for the magistrates are servants of God, attending entirely to this function. Pay to all of them what is their due, taxes to whom you owe taxes, tribute to whom you owe tribute, fear to whom you owe fear, honor to whom you owe honor.” We then have Titus 3:1: “Remind them to be subject to magistrates and authorities, to obey and to be ready for any good work.”
These are the only texts in the whole Bible which stress obedience and the duty of obeying the authorities. It is true that two other passages show that there was among Christians of the time a counterflow to the main current that we have demonstrated. In 2 Peter 2:10 there is condemnation of those who “despise authority,” and Jude 8 also condemns those who “carried along by their dreamings … despise authority, and revile the glorious ones.” We must emphasize, however, that these are very ambiguous texts. What is the authority that they have in view? We must never forget the constant reminder that all authority belongs to God.
Finally, we might adduce 1 Timothy 2:1–2: “Therefore I exhort that, above all things, make prayers, supplications, petitions, and thanksgivings for all humans, for kings, and for all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceable and quiet life in all reverence and honesty.”
In these Pauline texts we seem to have a trend that differs from the one we have just seen. Our next task is to pose a completely incomprehensible (or, alas! only too comprehensible) problem. From the 3rd century A.D. most theologians, simply forgetting all that we have shown, have focused solely on the statements of Paul in Romans 13 and preached total submission to authority. They have done this without taking into account (as we have done) the context of the statements. They have even fixed on one statement in particular: “AH power comes from God.” This has been the leading theme in sixteen centuries of cooperation between church and state: omnis potestas a Deo. Some bold theologians added per populum (by way of the people), but this was a mere detail as compared to the imperious duty of obeying the power that is from God as though it were itself God.
The curious thing is to see how theologians fared when often to their embarrassment they had to do with tyrants. A strange casuistry was adopted to explain that power comes from God only when it is gained in a legal, legitimate, and peaceful way and exercised in a moral and regular way. But this did not call into question the general duty. Even at the time of the Reformation Luther used this text in the Peasants’ War to charge the princes to crush the revolt. As for Calvin, he insisted that kings are legitimate except when they attack the church. So long as the authorities let Christians freely practice their religion, they cannot be faulted. As I see it, we have here an incredible betrayal of the original Christian view, and the source of this betrayal is undoubtedly the tendency toward conformity and the ease of obeying. However that may be, the only rule that has been gathered from the vast array of texts is that there is no authority except from God. We shall now try to examine the Pauline passages more closely.
As in the case of all biblical texts (and all other texts!) we must first refuse to detach one phrase from the total line of thinking. We must put that phrase in the general context. Let us, then, take Paul’s argument as a whole. In Romans 9–11 Paul has just made a detailed study of the relations between the Jewish people and Christians. A new development then begins which will cover chs. 12–14 and at the heart of which is the passage that we are now considering. This lengthy discussion begins with the words: “Do not be conformed to the present age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” Paul’s general and essential command, then, is that we should not be conformists, that we should not obey the trends and customs and currents of thought of the society in which we live, that we should not submit to the “form” of them but that we should be transformed, that we should receive a new form by the renewing of the mind, that is, by starting from a new point, namely, the will of God and love. This is obviously a strange beginning if he is later to demand obedience to political authorities! Paul then goes on to teach at length about love: love among Christians in the church (12:3–8), love for all people (12:9–13), and love for enemies (not avenging oneself, but blessing those who persecute), with a further exhortation to live peaceably with all (12:14–21). The passage on the authorities follows next. Then all the commandments are summed up in the commandment of love and of doing no wrong to others (13:8–10). In ch. 14 some details are offered as to the practice of love (hospitality, not judging others, supporting the weak, etc.).
This, then, is the general framework or movement within which the passage on authority occurs. It seems so odd, so out of joint, in this larger context that some exegetes have thought that it must be an interpolation and that Paul himself did not write it. For my part, however, I believe that it has its place here and that it does come from the apostle. We have seen that there is a progression of love from friends to strangers and then to enemies, and this is where the passage then comes. In other words, we must love enemies and therefore we must even respect the authorities, not loving them but accepting their orders. We have to remember that the authorities have attained to power through God. Yes, we recall that Saul, a mad and bad king, attained to power through God. This certainly does not mean that he was good, just, or lovable. Along the same lines one of the best commentators on the passage, Alphonse Maillot, relates it directly to the end of ch. 12: “Do not let yourself be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Let every person (therefore) be subject to the higher authorities—” In other words, Paul belongs to that Christian church which at the first is unanimously hostile to the state, to the imperial power, to the authorities, and in this text he is thus moderating that hostility. He is reminding Christians that the authorities are also people (there was no abstract concept of the state), people such as themselves, and that they must accept and respect them, too. At the same time Paul shows great restraint in this counsel. When he tells them to pay their dues — taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue, respect to whom respect, honor to whom honor — we are rightly reminded of the answer of Jesus regarding the tax. Far more boldly Jesus claims that we owe neither respect nor honor to magistrates or the authorities. The only one whom we must fear is God. The only one to whom honor is due is God. (In an appendix I will adduce two of the better commentaries on this passage.)
Three points still call for discussion. The first presents no difficulty. We have met it already. It relates to the paying of taxes. Christians must not refuse to pay them. That is all.
The second is more striking: We must pray for the authorities. We have quoted the passage in which Paul asks that prayer be made for kings — the plural shows that we cannot expound this as we did in the case of 1 Peter — namely, for those in authority, for the government. This verse confirms what I said above. Paul is saying in effect that we are to pray for all people. Included are kings and those in high office. We are to pray even for kings and magistrates. We detest them, but we are still to pray for them. No one must be excluded from our intercession, from our appeal to God’s love for them. It might seem completely crazy, but I knew some German Christians who were in the resistance movement against Hitler, even to the point of plotting his overthrow, and who still engaged in prayer for him. We cannot want the absolute death of political foes. Certainly our prayer will not be a kind of Te Deum. It will not be prayer that they remain in power, that they win victories, that they endure. It will be prayer for their conversion, that they change the way they behave and act, that they renounce violence and tyranny, that they become truthful, etc. Yet we still pray for them and not against them. In Christian faith <ve will also pray for their salvation (which is obviously not the same thing as the safety of their kingdom). This prayer must still be made even if from a human standpoint there is no hope of change. We must not forget that these passages on respect and prayer were probably written at the very moment of the first persecution under Nero, or shortly after it. We thus have to say to Christians, as Paul does in Romans 13, that even though you are revolted by persecutions, even though you are ready to rebel, instead pray for the authorities. Your only true weapon is to turn to God, for it is he alone who dispenses supreme justice.
We now come to the final point. I cannot close these reflections on this passage, which unfortunately gave a wrong turn to the church and Christianity after the 3rd century, without recalling a study of some thirty years ago. The word used in this train of thought is in Greek exousiai, which can mean the public authorities, but which has also in the New Testament another meaning, being used for abstract, spiritual, religious powers. Thus Paul tells us that we are to fight against the exousiai enthroned in heaven (cf. Eph. 6:12). It is thought, for example, that the angels are exousiai. Oscar Cullmann and Gunther Dehn thus conclude that since the same word is used there has to be some relation. In other words, the New Testament leads us to suppose that earthly political and military authorities really have their basis in an alliance with spiritual powers, which I will not call celestial, since they might equally well be evil and demonic. The existence of these spiritual exousiai would explain the universality of political powers and also the astonishing fact that people obey them as though it were self-evident. These spiritual authorities would then inspire rulers.
Now these authorities might be either good or bad, angelic or demonic. Earthly authorities reflect the powers into whose hands they have fallen. We can thus see why Paul in Romans 13 refers to the authorities that actually “exist” as being instituted by God and also why some Protestant theologians could say after 1933 that Hitler’s was a “demonized” state which had fallen into the hands of a demonic power. If I say this, it is not simply because I want to say that the attitude of the first Christian generation was not absolutely unanimous, that alongside the main line, according to which the state should be destroyed, there was a more nuanced line (though no one demanded unconditional obedience). The important point for me is that when Paul in Colossians 2:13–15 says that Jesus has conquered evil and death he also says that Christ has “stripped of their power all the dominions and authorities and made a public spectacle of them, in triumphing over them by the cross.” In Christian thinking the crucifixion of Christ is his true victory over all powers both celestial and infernal (I am not saying whether they exist but expressing the conviction of the day), for he alone has been perfectly obedient to the will of God, even accepting the scandal of his own condemnation and execution (without fully understanding it: “My God, why have you abandoned me?”). Though he has doubts about his interpretation and mission, he has no doubts about the will of God and he obeys perfectly.
I know how scandalous for non-Christians is a God who demands this death. But the real question is this: How far can love go? Who will love God so absolutely as to lose himself? This was the test (stopped in time) for Abraham. It was also the test that provoked the anger of Job. But Jesus alone obeyed to the very end (when he was fully free not to obey!). For that reason, having loved beyond human limits, he robbed the powers of their power! Demons no longer hold sway. There are not independent exousiai. All are from the very outset subject to Christ. They may revolt, of course, but they are overcome in advance. Politically this means that the exousia which exists alongside or outside political power is also vanquished. The result is that political power is not a final court. It is always relative. We can expect from it only what is relative and open to question. This is the meaning of Paul’s statement and it shows how much we need to relativize the (traditionally absolutized) formula that there is no authority except from God. Power is indeed from God, but all power is overcome in Christ!