Romans 13 in the USA: Questions for thought and discussion

This passage from Paul’s Letter to the earliest Christians at Rome comes up from time to time when American Christians today talk about how their attitudes toward government. What better way to spend an hour this Sunday afternoon than offering up a few questions for thought or for group discussion on how we apply this text?

Here’s the passage, from the ESV:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.

The following questions are high-tech: you can convert them from questions for individual meditation to questions for group discussion by changing “I” to “we.” (You could also convert them to questions for fighting by changing “I” to “you,” or even to “you hypocrites,” if you want, but, being the most irenic of souls, I’m not recommending that. 🙂 )

These questions are of different sorts. I don’t think they will all be easy to answer, but I think they’re all worth thinking about or discussing.

  1. When I read this passage, what is my reflexive response? Do I welcome it and open myself to it? Do I tense up a bit and feel a bit resistant toward it?
  2. Does my response change through the course of the passage?
  3. To break things down: How do I respond to the general exhortation to be subject to the government?
  4. How do I respond to the specific reminder that I should look out because God gives governments the power to use coercive force, up to and including the death penalty (“the sword”)?
  5. How do I feel about the direct command to pay my taxes while maintaining a respectful attitude to the government I’m paying them to?
  6. How does what I know about the circumstances under which Paul and his addressees were living affect how I hear this passage from this letter that he wrote to them?
  7. What do I know about the nature of Paul’s own encounters with “governing authorities”?
  8. How much of this experience precedes his writing of this letter? How much of it is later than the writing of this letter? Do I think that if Paul had known the whole future course of his life (and death) he would have said anything differently here?
  9. What do I know about the Christians at Rome to whom he was writing? What was their ethnicity? How were people of their ethnicity regarded by the governing authorities at Rome? Did they have any connections or influence with the governing authorities at Rome? What difference would it make to my understanding of this passage if they did, or if they didn’t?
  10. Did Paul and his readers see themselves as full participants in or even owners of the Roman government, or did they see themselves as outsiders? Was government “us” or “them” for early Christians?
  11. How does my own relationship to “governing authorities” affect my reading of this passage?
  12. What is my own status in the United States? Am I a citizen and the descendant of citizens? Am I a naturalized citizen? Am I not a citizen but a legal resident? Am I an undocumented/illegal resident? Am I here on a limited-time visa?
  13. Do I imagine that I would hear Romans 13 differently here in the contemporary USA if my own status were different?
  14. Can I imagine how others whose status is different from mine might hear Romans 13 differently?
  15. Looking back to questions 1, 2, 13, and 14, do I think that some reflexive responses to this passage are right and others wrong?
  16. For US citizens: How does my status of US citizen compare to the status of an early Christian at Rome?
  17. If I am a citizen of the US, do I see “the governing authorities” as “us” or as “them”? Do I see myself as a full participant in and even owner of the government?
  18. Do I transfer Paul’s exhortation to the Romans as scripture and transfer it to myself? I.e., do I experience this passage as a word from God instructing me to honor the government, fear its authority, and pay taxes along with respect and honor to those who require the payment of taxes? If so, why? If not, why not?
  19. When I read this passage as commanding not only first-century believers at Rome but also me to be subject to, respect, and honor the “governing authorities,” whom do I reflexively put in the role of “governing authorities”?
  20. Here’s some information that is relevant to some of the following questions. Under the American system of federal government: “separation of powers” refers to the division of authority between executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government; “divided government” refers to a situation in which one political party controls the executive branch while another controls all or part of the legislative branch; “popular sovereignty” refers to the idea that the power of government derives from the consent of the governed and is subject to their will. Also, under the American constitution, powers that are not granted to the federal government are reserved to the states. Government under the Roman empire did not share any of these principles.
  21. Do I think that the differences just noted between American government and Roman government should make any difference in whether and how I apply Romans 13 to myself? Why or why not?
  22. For example, given the separation of powers, is the governing authority to which I am to subject myself the executive branch, the legislative, branch, or the judicial branch? Or is it all three?
  23. If it is the executive branch, am I to subject myself specifically to the president? Or equally to every agency of the executive branch? If to the legislative branch, is it the Senate or the House of Representatives? If to the judiciary, specifically to the Supreme Court, or to every federal court? If to all: what does Paul want me to do if they conflict?
  24. With regard to divided government, or more generally to the alternation of administrations and legislatures of different political parties: if Romans 13 instructs me to be subject to the governing authorities, am I allowed to be subject to and respectful of a government of one party, but then not to a government of another party?
  25. Under the US Constitution, the Supreme Court may overthrow a law passed by Congress or an order given by the president as unconstitutional, or may hand down an authoritative interpretation of a law. In such a case, there is no ambiguity under the Constitution: the Supreme Court, not the Congress or the president, is the voice of the US government. Does that mean that in order to obey Romans 13, I must respect and support the finding of the Supreme Court over the preference of the Congress or the president? If not, why not? Is that what I do? Why or why not?
  26. Referring back to Rome in the time of Paul still had a senate, but it was a holdover from the days of the Roman Republic and no longer had the same power. In effect, the emperor (or augustus, or caesar) held the power and called the shots. There was no more republic. It was an empire, an autocracy. When I apply Paul’s teaching to the American setting, do I either unconsciously or deliberately read Romans as saying that the American government either is or should be an empire or autocracy, with the president playing the role of the emperor? Should I? (If you have read the Declaration or Independence, Federalist Papers, or other primary sources for the intentions of the founders regarding executive power under the US Constitution, how does your understanding of those documents affect your answer?)
  27. Romans 13 does not envision the possibility that the Christians to whom Paul is writing might work to change laws or to replace people in government with other people. Do I unconsciously assume that American Christians should not try to change laws or replace people in government with other people? Or if I assume that Americans should do those things, do I believe that I owe subjection and respect to laws and people in government with whom I agree, but not to people and laws with whom I disagree?
  28. Do I think that Romans 13 leaves any room for an American Christian to participate in organized protests against the government? What about acts of civil disobedience?
  29. When I am thinking of whether and how to apply Romans 13 to the situation of a Christian in the contemporary United States, do I think I should try to bring this passage into dialogue with other passages of scripture?
  30. For example, read Revelation 13 and compare its representation of the Roman governing authorities with that of Romans 13. (The blaspheming beast of Revelation 13 represents the Roman government.) How can I honor both Romans 13 and Revelation 13 in elaborating my understanding of the proper attitude of an American Christian to government?
  31. What other passages of scripture come to mind when you think about attitudes toward “governing authorities”? Look them up and consider them in tandem with Romans 13.
  32. Having seen this list of questions, am I more or less likely to cite Romans 13 in the context of a conversation about contemporary American politics in which the person who wrote these questions is a participant? Why?

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