Open Romans 13:1-7.
Does Romans 13 decree the divine right of kings? It has been used that way for centuries. Even today, the royal coat of arms of the UK rests on such a claim: Dieu et mon droit, literally God and my right!
Does Romans 13 authorize war? Many interpreters have claimed that it does, so we’ll address this question in our next post.
Good exegesis starts with Paul’s context, not ours. The power claims in Romans 13 do not originate with Paul. He knew that Roman emperors laid claim to divine right to rule. This tradition dates way back to previous pagan empires, and is found all over the world.
But Paul was a Jew, writing from a Hebrew worldview. In that framework, Paul’s words in Romans 13 are not strange at all. In Romans 9:17, he quotes the Hebrew claim that God raised up even the Pharaoh of the exodus for his purposes.
In fact, a case can be made that Romans is a new Exodus story — a story of God liberating the earth from its oppressive rulers:
- The whole world is enslaved under evil (Rom 1–3).
- Faithfully fulfilling his promise to Abraham (Rom 4), God’s new Man has freed all of humanity from our slavery to sin and death (Rom 5).
- Completing Israel’s journey, God’s people pass through the Sea, out of slavery (Rom 6), to Sinai where God gave the Law (Rom 7), with the Spirit leading his sons onward to the ultimate goal: restored creation (Rom 8).
- Those from Israel and the nations who recognize the Messiah must therefore live together as the expression of life under our faithful sovereign (Rom 9 – 11).
- Consequently, we’re called to do what Israel had to do the time of the exile: to offer our bodies as living sacrifices for the transformation of the world (12:1-2), not being overcome by evil but overcoming evil with good (12:21).
- That’s why we must live in submission to authorities (Rom 13) and to each other (Rom 14), for that’s how the nations will come under Messiah’s kingship (Rom 15 – 16).
The entire epistle to the Romans is framed within the good news of the nations coming into obedience to God’s appointed ruler — bookended by 1:1-5 and 16:25-27.
So Paul’s goal was not to affirm the validity of Roman emperors’ rule, and he was certainly not authorizing them to conduct wars. Twisting the text for that purpose constitutes ignorance of the gospel.
Paul wants his hearers to see the current powers as merely servants of the true sovereign. A greater hand is shepherding history towards his goal. The present problematic powers are not an enemy that must be resisted; they are a God-ordained stop-gap measure to help restrict violence until the earth is back under divine rule.
This is the same attitude Daniel expressed towards Nebuchadnezzar, the beastly Babylonian king who terminated the Davidic kingship and wrecked God’s dwelling place. But Daniel did not treat Nebuchadnezzar as the enemy. Daniel helped him to see himself as the servant of the hand that guides history: “Your Majesty, you are the king of kings. The God of heaven has given you dominion and power and might and glory” (Daniel 2:37).
Like Nebuchadnezzar, the Roman Caesars destroyed Jerusalem. They executed Paul, and Peter, just as their consul had killed Jesus. But for all their dangerous power, the Caesars of this world do not write history. They’re just servants of the higher power, the one that is the true source of every form of power found on earth.
We acknowledge the resurrected Messiah as God’s appointed ruler (Romans 10:9), but that doesn’t mean viewing our existing rulers as threats to be removed. Rather, we view them as an interim measure, authorized by God to restrain evil in the short term, until our true ruler appears and all nations give him allegiance.
In our next post, we’ll address the question of whether this text authorizes the state to conduct war.