Lost Key

Most people come to Romans 13 looking for a Christian political theory. Unfortunately, they are disappointed. I come at the passage in a very different way. God gave Israel a perfect system of government when they entered the promised land. They did not need a system of government while they were slaves, but once they began to live together in a small piece of territory, they did. The perfect system that God gave Moses was his law applied by local judges. I describe it in more detail at Law and Judges. God's perfect system of government was recorded in the books of Moses, so God did not need to give it again through Jesus or Paul.

I stumbled on the key to Romans 13 when I was pondering its meaning. My father always referred to the government as "the powers that be" It took me a while to realise this was a quote from Romans 13:1. One day I was wondering about this odd expression, and the conjunction of the plural "powers" with a singular verb "be". I realised that it could be translated as "the judges that are". I then thought "Where?" and "How come they just are, and are not appointed?". It then clicked for me that Paul was referring back to two verses in Deuteronomy that I had recently read.

Then both the men, between whom the controversy is, shall stand... before the priests and the judges that shall be in those days (Deut 19:17 ASV).
Thou shalt come unto the judge that shall be in those days: and thou shalt inquire; and they shall show thee the sentence of judgment (Deut 17:9 ASV).
The modern translations refer to the judges that are in office in those days, but the word office does not exist in the Hebrew text. A literal translation would is "the judges that shall be in those days" or "the judges that are in those days". Paul would have been familiar with these texts. When he started thinking about justice and government, the Holy Spirit brought this expression to his mind.

These two verses summarise the perfect form of government that God gave through the Mosaic covenant: God's law applied by godly judges. So Paul was referring back to God's ideal government. He was not creating a new political theory in Romans 13:1, he was simply referring back to the perfect system of government that God has already given to Moses and confirming that God's will for government had not changed.

Paul affirmed the system of law and judges that God had already given, just as Jesus did (Matt 5:17-18). (That is why Jesus had nothing much to say about laws and structures of government.). Paul follows his affirmation of "God's law applied by local judges" by giving a few applications for life in the Roman empire, building on the more important behavioural stuff in Romans 12. (Law and government are always secondary for Christians.)

So if we want a Christian political theory, we cannot go to Romans 13, instead we must begin with Deuteronomy and God's law and local judges. I have not found any biblical commentary or Christian political theorist who has seen the link between Romans 13:1 and Deut 19:17 and Deut 17:9. But that does not surprise me, because most Christians who are interested in political theory hate God's law. However, they are missing an essential key, which explains why there has been so much confusion on this topic. (P.S. There is a masters thesis here for someone who is wanting a topic).

Do Not be Overcome by Evil

The traditional interpretations of Romans 13 do not make sense, because they provide a justification for evil. Yet this is clearly not Paul's purpose.

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves (Rom 13:1,2 NIV).
This type of interpretation has been used to justify almost all forms of civil government. The common argument is that Paul was writing to the church in Rome at a time when Nero was Caesar. If a terrible ruler like Nero was instituted by God, then all forms of political power are justified and Christians must submit to whatever political authority comes to power.

The main problem with this view is in the last verse of the previous chapter.

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Rom 12:21).
Why would Paul tell us not to be overcome by evil, and then in his next breath, tell us to submit to evil kings and emperors? Paul was not stupid. I believe that we have seriously misunderstood, what he was saying about submission.

King or Anarchy

Most commentators on Romans 13 say that God is an orderly God, so he gave us kings and politicians to provide order for society. Kings might be bad at times, but anarchy would be worse. Here are some examples.

Paul's assumption is that the government in power (even Rome with its erroneous religious views, etc.) is better than the evil that would result from anarchy (George Herrick).
Anarchy simply replaces the tyranny of the officially powerful with the tyranny of the unofficially powerful, the bullies and the rich (NT Wright).
The assumption that kings and parliaments are part of God's order for society is common to most commentaries on Romans. They assume that God has given us human government because life would be awful without them.

The first problem with this assumption is that it is not supported by scripture. God did not establish kings and parliaments to provide order in society. God gave his law for that purpose.

And the LORD commanded us to observe all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our good always, that He might preserve us alive, as it is this day (Deut 6:24 NKJV).
The law is God's provision for order in society. The Bible never says that kings and rulers are there to provide order. Secondly, the assumption that kings are superior to anarchy is never proved. For example, the statement by NT Wright above does not make sense. The "officially powerful" are also bullies, who enjoy telling other people what to do. The "officially powerful" always seem to become rich. The tyranny of the "officially powerful" is no better than the tyranny of the unofficially powerful.

Tyranny cannot be part of God's order, whether it is official or unofficial. If we think that Romans 13 advocates tyranny, then we have misunderstood God's word. Life without kings can be awful, but life with a king is usually awful too. The claim that God established governing authorities to produce an orderly society is wrong.

Overcome Evil with Good

Evil cannot beat evil. The only way to overcome evil is with good. However, the commentators' view is that evil rulers are useful, because they bring order to society by restraining evil. However, this is overcoming evil with evil, which is the opposite of Paul's message in this passage.

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Rom 12:21).
We must overcome evil with good. We do this at the personal level by blessing those who harm us. However Paul follows this statement, with a discussion of civil authority, so he seems to be applying this principle at this level as well. This implies that evil cannot be overcome by bad government, but only by good government. Paul is narrowing the discussion down to good government.

The prophets condemn those who say that evil things are good (Isaiah 5:20). We must be careful not to fall into that trap. If we say that evil rulers are God's servant to do us good, we are saying that bad government is good. That cannot be right.

God's Servant

For he is God's servant for your good (Rom 13:4).
Many Christians assume that this applies to all rulers. This is nonsense. Rulers like Hitler and Stalin opposed God and slaughtered millions of innocent people. To describe them as servants of God doing good is absurd. This suggests there is something seriously twisted with the traditional understanding of this passage. This passage cannot apply to every ruler.

A simple reading of the New Testament shows that many rulers do not do good. Herod the Great killed all the boys aged less than two who lived in the vicinity of Bethlehem (Matt 2:16). Herod the Tetrarch beheaded John the Baptist to avoid embarrassment in front of his guests (Mark 6:21-28). Pontus Pilate killed Jesus, because he was afraid of the people, even though he found no basis for the charges against him (Luke 23:14). Herod Agrippa had James the brother of John put to death with the sword (Acts 12:2). These few examples prove that most rulers and kings do not do good. Therefore, Paul cannot be speaking about all rulers and kings in Romans 13:4. We are seriously confused if we think that dictators and politicians can be called God's servants.

Paul had first-hand experience of political authorities doing great harm. When he and Silas were in Philippi, they were flogged and beaten by the Roman magistrates.

The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten. After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison (Acts 16:22,23).
Paul was not speaking of these magistrates when he wrote of God's servants doing us good. He understood from his own experience that the state could be very dangerous for Christians and do them great harm.
I have been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned (1 Cor 11:23-25).
Paul knew better than most that the state can be very hostile to God's people. Given this experience, the idea that he taught that all political authorities are God's servants is nonsense. His teaching in Romans 13 is not a blanket approval for all political rulers.

Many Christian leaders have been persecuted by the state. They would not say that the political authorities are God's servants to do them good. They would understand that they are enemies of God.

Most Christians assume that we must submit to all political powers. This cannot be true. If Paul believed that all authorities are from God, he would have used the word "all", but he did not. He used the Greek word "all" (pasa) when saying that "all people should submit", but he did not use it when saying which authorities to submit to.

False Syllogism

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established (Rom 13:1b).

The traditional interpretation of these verses is that we must submit to all political authorities, because their authority is from God. This is a false syllogism. To see the twisted logic, look at the following sets of statements.

All authority is ordained by God
Hitler has authority
Therefore Hitler is ordained by God,
so we must submit to him.
This following example exaggerates the point.
All authority is ordained by God
Satan has authority
Therefore Satan is ordained by God,
so we must submit to him.
That is not true. The correct logic is as follows.
All legitimate authority is from God.
Hitler and Satan are hostile to God
Therefore, the authority of Hitler and Satan is illegitimate.
The statement that all authority is ordained by God cannot be used to legitimise any and every political authority. It should inspire us to seek out legitimate authority.

Under God, Not from God

Most translations of Romans 13:1 say,

There is no authority except from God.
The Greek word translated as "from" is "upo". This word means "under" rather than "from". This is a subtle but important difference (another example of the translators favouring the political authorities).

Saying that all authority is from God implies that he created it, but has given it to someone else. It has gone from him to the political authorities. This is a distortion of the truth.

Authority under God has not gone anywhere. Paul is saying that there is no legitimate authority except under God. True authority can only be received by those who operate "under" God. Any authority which is not under God has been stolen and is illegitimate.

A doctrine has emerged that

Jesus is Lord of the church and the spiritual world.
The state has authority in the secular realm.
This is absurd. Jesus is Lord of all. He said that all authority has been given to him. He has not handed any authority over to the secular state. (He has not even handed authority over to a Christian state paying lip service to his authority.)

Kings and parliaments do not operate in a political sphere with an independent authority. Unless they are totally submitted to God, they are operating with an authority that they have stolen from Jesus, so their authority is illegitimate. Paul was actually warning that they are rebels and usurpers. The truth is exactly opposite of the traditional interpretation.

Political Authorities and Law Making

Every society needs laws to function. There are two ways we can get the law that our society needs.

  1. We can get our law from God

  2. We can make up our own law.

Most modern nations have chosen the second option. They have a Parliament of a Congress that makes laws for the nation.

Most Christians also accept the second method. They are happy to accept laws made by the parliament or congress that exists in their nation. I find this quite puzzling.

  1. Human parliaments and congresses make human law. I can understand why heathens would want to live under human laws, but why would Christian wants to live under human laws.

  2. God has revealed his law. It is simple to read and easy to understand. Why do Christians not want to use God's law?

Human laws will always be inferior to God's law. We have the odd situation in the modern world where everyone hates God's law, but loves human law. I can understand why those who hate God would hate his law, but I cannot understand why those who love God are so ambivalent about his law.

This is a dilemma for political leaders. If they are making laws, they are rejecting God's law, so they cannot claim to be under his authority. If they are under God's authority, they will accept his law and stop making human laws.

Lawmaking is not Legal

Paul makes no reference to human law-making in Romans 13. The reason is that God has already given the law.

God is our lawgiver (Is 33:22).
God is the lawgiver and he has not given or delegated that role to anyone else. This means that all human law-makers are usurpers of God's authority. The role of parliaments and congresses is to make human laws, so their authority is illegitimate. They are in rebellion against God's law, so they cannot be under God. Paul gives no hint of a need for human legislators in Romans 13. When writing about law, he refers to the Ten Commandments. When summarising the law that is fulfilled by love, he refers to the second table of the law.
The commandments, "Do not commit adultery," "Do not murder," "Do not steal," "Do not covet," and whatever other commandments there may be (Rom 13:9).
Paul is clearly thinking about God's law and not man-made law. The expression "other commandments that may be" probably refers to the applications of these laws given in Exodus 1-23.

Since we have God's law, we do not need parliaments or legislators to decide what is right and wrong. Therefore, the authorities described by Paul cannot be parliaments, congresses and other legislative bodies. They cannot be under God, because their purpose is to produce human laws. Since they are not submitted to God, Christians do not need to recognise their authority.

We assume that because our legislators are democratically elected, they have authority to make laws. The problem is that they were elected by humans, so they only have human authority. They can only make human laws, so Christians are not required to obey human laws.

Misleading Translation

Part of the problem with Romans 13 is the way that it has been translated. Whenever a word has alternative meanings, the translators choose the sense that gives the greatest support to state power.

This is not surprising. Martin Luther, the first of the Protestants to translate the New Testament, was protected by Prince Frederick. He was hardly going to translate Romans 13 in a way that undermined his protector's political power. The translators of the King James Version were not going to translate Romans 13 in a way that denied the power of King James.

Unfortunately, modern translators of the New Testament have not escaped from the influence of their predecessors. They continue to translate the passage in a way that supports state power. This is quite odd. An important theme of Paul's letters is that Jesus is Lord, and Caesar is not. If this is true, we should not be translating his letters in a way that maximize Caesar's power. We need a translation of Romans 13 respects Jesus as Lord. (A better translation is given at the end of the article).

No Governing Authorities

A good example of the translation problem is Romans 13:1. The following is a typical translation.

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established (NIV).
This translation is quite misleading. The first problem is that the word "governing" is not in the Greek text. The word often translated as "governing" is "huperecho". It can mean "superior in rank", but it also has a strong sense of "excellence". Paul used the same word in Phil 3:8, when speaking of the "surpassing greatness" of knowing Christ. Paul is actually saying that we should only submit to those who are excellent. He is giving us a choice when submitting. We only submit to those who have demonstrated excellence.

This is an important aspect of submission. Christians are never required to offer blind submission. Our freedom means that submission is always voluntary. We should use our freedom to submit wisely. We should only submit to the best people, whether elders, judges or employers.

Every person should submit to the more excellent judges.

Excellent Judges

The other translation problem in Romans 13 is the word "authority" (exousia). It is used four times in the first two verses of the chapter, so its meaning is really important for understanding Paul's message. By attaching the word "governing", modern translations give exousia the strongest possible meaning. However, like the English word "authority", the Greek word "exousia" can take a broad range of meanings, including freedom, ruler, authority and judge. Its most common use is for the authority that was given to Jesus (Matt 28:10). It is also used to describe spiritual authorities (Eph 1:21; 6:12).

In Luke 12:11, exousia is used in the context of appearance before a court, so "judge" or "magistrate" is the appropriate translation. The context in Romans 13 is similar, as Paul is thinking about crime and punishment. In most societies, the punishment of crime is handled by judges in courts of law. Therefore, translating exousia as judge makes sense in this passage.

The usual practice of translating exousia as authority does not make sense as it implies that Christians should submit to every political authority including evil dictators. Paul had warned that Christians should not be "overcome by evil". It is unlikely that he would follow this warning with a message of comfort to rulers and authorities who do not acknowledge Jesus as Lord.

In Romans 13, exousia is authority that has been given by God to those who implement his law, so it must be referring to judges. The core message of Romans 13:1 is that all people should submit to excellent judges.

Every person should submit to the more excellent judges, because there is no legitimate judicial authority except under God.

Who are the Powers that Be

A confirmation of this interpretation is Paul's use of the expression "the authorities that exist" or the more common expression "the powers that be".

The ones that exist have been established by God (Rom 13:1b).
When explaining which authorities are from God, Paul constructs a strange sentence that uses the verb "to be" twice. Translated literally, the verse means "the authorities that are, are from God." This is odd. Paul was saying that "the authorities that are" or "the authorities that be" are from God.

As noted above, this strange expression, "the authorities that be" comes from the Old Testament and is the key to understanding this passage. Paul is referring back to where the book of Deuteronomy that refers to "the judges that are".

Then both the men, between whom the controversy is, shall stand... before the priests and the judges that shall be in those days (Deut 19:17 ASV).
Thou shalt come unto the judge that shall be in those days: and thou shalt inquire; and they shall show thee the sentence of judgment (Deut 17:9 ASV).
The modern translations refer to the judges that are in office in those days, but the word office does not exist in the Hebrew text. A literal translation is "the judges that shall be in those days" or "the judges that are in those days". Paul would have been familiar with these texts. When he started thinking about justice, the Holy Spirit brought this expression to his mind.

Exodus and Deuteronomy described a unique system of government: God's law applied by godly judges. Paul is simply referring back to that and confirming that God's will has not changed.

The judges (exousia) that have emerged in a free society are arranged by God.

Authority or Judge

In Romans 13:1, Paul uses the word "exousia" which is often translated as "authority". I have argued that he was referring to judges. Why did he not use the Greek word "krites", which can also mean judge?

The answer to this conundrum is obvious in the book of Acts. The word "krites" was used quite frequently in the Roman Empire. Gallio was the Roman proconsul of Achaia when a group of Jews Paul before his court. Gallio said,

Settle the matter yourselves. I will not be a judge (krites) of such things (Acts 18:15).
Paul used the same word when he appeared before Felix the governor (hegemon) at Caesarea.
When the governor motioned for him to speak, Paul replied: "I know that for a number of years you have been a judge (krites) over this nation; so I gladly make my defence (Acts 24:10).
Paul could not use the word "krites" when writing his letter to the Romans, because they would have assumed that he was referring to governors and proconsuls. This was exactly the opposite of his message, so he chose to avoid the word "krites" and used the word "exousia" instead. To make his target clear, he qualified the word "exousia" with the adjective "excellent" and made the link to Deuteronomy with the expression "judges that are".

Paul was advocating government by excellent judges interpreting the law of God.

Judges under God

Moses made a strong link between God and judges when describing how property disputes should be resolved.

If a man gives his neighbor silver or goods for safekeeping and they are stolen from the neighbor's house, the thief, if he is caught, must pay back double. But if the thief is not found, the owner of the house must appear before the judges (elohim) to determine whether he has laid his hands on the other man's property. In all cases of illegal possession of an ox, a donkey, a sheep, a garment, or any other lost property about which somebody says, 'This is mine', both parties are to bring their cases before the judges. The one whom the judges (elohim) declare guilty must pay back double to his neighbor (Ex 22:7-9).
The Hebrew word translated twice as judge in this passage is Elohim, a word better known as the plural for God. However, this word was occasionally used by way of deference for judges. Moses was implying that these judges could give the judgments of God. Elohim can also be used to imply a superlative, in which case Moses would be referring to excellent judges.

When Paul spoke of excellent judges (exousia) in Romans 13, he was also referring back to Exodus 21 and 22 and this reference to the best judges (elohim).

Every person should submit to the more excellent judges, because there is no legitimate judicial authority except under God.


Paul explains that those who resist God's system of good judges will find themselves under powerful worldly rulers who will do terrible evil. He contrasts God's judges (exousia) with worldly rulers. The word that he uses for "ruler" is "arkon". This is the same word as Paul used in the letter to the Ephesians to describe "government-spirits". Arkon are rulers that are opposed to God and usually controlled by powerful government-spirits.

Throughout the letter to the Romans, Paul engages in a debate, setting out a false position and demolishing it, before stating the true position. With regard to government, he begins setting out the contrasts in Romans 12. God's people are called to radically change their thinking and do his will (12:2). They were to love one another by joining together in the body of Jesus and sharing in the gifts of the Spirit (12:3-8).

The body of Christ was a relatively safe place in an evil world, because they could support each other and provide for each other when resisting evil. Paul told them to hate evil and cling to good (12:9). They should not be conformed to the patterns of the world (12:2) by relying on political power to obtain justice (12:19). They should not repay evil with evil (12:17) or see revenge against those who harmed them (2:19)

Followers of Jesus should not participate in the arbitrary and evil of Roman power. It did not provide justice, but protected the rich and powerful. Instead of relying on political power, they should overcome evil by doing good and providing justice within the body of Jesus. This justice would be delivered by elders rising up to become good judges, as described in Romans 13:1-3.

Paul explains that people who object to the justice provided by excellent judges applying God's laws are rebelling against God.

Anyone resisting the decision of a good judge is rebelling against what God has put in place and will receive a sentence from God. Worldly rulers hold no terror for good works, but only for those choosing the evil way (Rom 13:2-3).

Those who reject God's system of justice will inevitably find themselves under worldly rulers. People who have chosen the best way within the body of Jesus are relatively safe from evil, because they can support each other to protect their community. Those who choose God's good life do not need to fear worldly rulers (arkon). Paul urges followers of Jesus to do good by sharing in his body.

If you want to be free of fear of a judge's authority (exousia), do what is good. You will praise him, because he is God's servant for your good (Rom 13:3-4).
Excellent judges applying God's law are the servants (deacons) of those who have chosen his good way. They do good for God's people. If we do not break the law by harming our neighbours, the judges will do no harm to us.

In contrast, worldly rulers (arkon) produce fear for those who reject God's way and choose to live under political power in whatever form prevails during their time.

But if you do evil, be afraid; for the ruler does not carry the sword for no purpose; for he is God's servant to avenge those who practice evil by decreeing sentence against them (Rom 13:4).
Worldly rulers carry a sword and they are not afraid to use it. Their justice is based on power and coercion. People who are forced to live under political power, or choose to live under it, should be afraid of their rulers, because they can hit them hard if they step out of line, even if they are right.

Rulers carry the sword in an attempt to overcome evil with lesser evil. They don't attempt to overcome evil with good, as God requires.

In contrast, good judges do good for people who have chosen God's way (Rom 13:4). They implement a voluntary justice based on love that always does good for those who accept it.

Government by Judges

God has not established kings or parliaments. He has established a system of government by judges applying his law. This system is described in Exodus and Deuteronomy. Unfortunately, it was never fully implemented, so its operation is not described in the Bible. The book that is called Judges actually describes a time when Israel refused fell into sin and refused to submit to good judges. Without God's protection, they were invaded by their enemies, so God had to raise up military commanders to rescue them.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul affirms this system of government by excellent judges applying God's law. He supported this system by urging all people to freely submit to excellent judges.

Excellent Judges are not Appointed

We are required to submit to the judges that God has established.

The judges that have emerged are arranged by God (Rom 13:1b).
Paul seems to imply that these judges just exist. They are not elected or appointed, they just are. This is quite odd, but really important.

If judges are appointed, the person who has the power to appoint them has the power to distort justice. Judges who are appointed by kings or politicians lose their independence, because those who appoint them can also remove them. The people also lose their freedom to choose the best judges.

The Bible describes a better system. Judges emerge as people start taking cases to people who demonstrate wisdom. If a person gets a reputation for making wise decisions, more and more people will submit their cases to them. Paul said that we should submit to excellent judges, because that is how excellent judges emerge. They are not appointed. Ordinary wise people become judges, as people choose to submit cases to them.

Excellent judges are not appointed, but emerge as free people submit cases to them. They get recognised as more and more people submit their cases to the better judges. Poorer judges will get fewer and fewer cases, as people hear about their mistakes. When a judge goes sour, people will stop submitting to her/him altogether and take their cases to better judges. Paul is saying that the judges that have emerged in a free society are the ones that are established by God. By submitting to excellent judges, we allow God to bring into being the judges that he has chosen.

Moses, like many leaders, believed that he could do the job better job of judging than anyone else, but exhaustion proved him wrong. When he set up a system of judges, he thought he needed to appoint them, but he was acting on the advice of Jethro his father-in-law, and not on a word from God.

All Moses really had to do was tell the people to take their cases to the people in their tribes and communities that they already trusted (Exodus 18). He actually found that God already had judges in place. The people knew who they were, but Moses had not acknowledged them. The new system worked, because God has put the judges in place. They proved to be effective judges when they were allowed to do the task.

They served as judges for the people at all times. The difficult cases they brought to Moses, but the simple ones they decided themselves (Ex 18:26).
There is no legitimate judicial authority except from God, so the people that come to be "the judges that are" are God's order for justice. The judges that exist, (because people trust them) are those placed (tassa) by God. Only those judges that come into existence through voluntary submission have a legitimate authority. Their task is to apply the law of God. All other political powers are usurpers of God's authority.

Paul describes judges that only do good.

For he is God's servant for your good (Rom 13:4).
This only makes sense under a voluntary system. Good judges will do good, because if they stop doing good, people can stop submitting to them and they will no longer be judges. We only submit to excellent judges, because only really good ones will be able to avoid slipping into evil. No other option makes sense, as no other system of government will always do people good.

No Monopoly

The word "judge" (exousia) is plural. Paul is not talking about a single leader/judge. He is suggesting that we should submit to judges (plural). Romans 13 is not a message about kings or parliaments, but a confirmation of the Old Testament teaching of the role of judges. There will be many judges and authorities and we must submit to the excellent ones.

Every person should submit to the more excellent judges.
The benefit of having many judges is that people have a choice. They can choose the ones that are best. In most modern countries, the state claims a monopoly on judging. Litigants have no choice, but have to use the judges provides by the state. Monopoly in any market tends to increase the price and reduce the quality of services. In some commercial disputes, companies are going to private arbitration in order to secure quicker and better judgments.

The Old Testament always speaks of multiple judges (Ex 22:8,9; Deut 19:17,18; 25:1). People will tend to get better justice when a number of judges are competing to provide a better service.

Radical Principle

Before launching into his teaching on civil government, Paul states a powerful principle.

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Rom 12:21).
Although this principle restates Jesus command to turn the other cheek, it's wider implications are not well understood. Paul is saying that we must not use evil to overcome evil, even when dealing with the problem of order in society. Most political authority involves forcing people to do things against their will. However, God gave us freedom, so forcing people to do things they do not wish to do is evil, even if it is done for maintaining order in society.

God does not force people to obey him. He prefers that people do his will, because they love him. Forcing people to be good has no place in the Kingdom of God.

Modern government is based on the use of force.

The use of force is justified by the claim that if people are not restrained by the power of the state, then society will become disorderly. The supporters of political power agree that the use of force is evil, but they claim that if there was no government, even worse evil would result. This is essentially an argument for using a lesser evil to overcome a greater evil.

Paul seems to be ruling this option out. If we are only allowed to overcome evil with good, then overcoming evil with a lesser evil is not acceptable.

Romans 12:29 is a radical principle that undermines the basis of all modern governments. If Paul's words are true, the idea that governments can force people to do things for the good of society is flawed. All systems that force people to do things against their will are illegitimate. This is the reason that governments have perpetrated so much evil. They are based on a principle that it is morally correct to use a lesser evil to overcome a greater evil. The problem is that evil always begets evil.

Democracy is no solution. Under democracy, minorities are forced to do what the majority decides. Voting does not make this coercion right.

Jesus was adamant that his Kingdom would not be established by force (Matt 26:53,54; John 18:36). Christians should not support any government system that is based on force. Jesus was clear about the limitations of force.

But Jesus said to him, "Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword (Matt 26:52).
Jesus was not just saying that force will fail; he was warning that it will eventually destroy all those who use it.

Christians have not understood this. We believe in salvation by grace, but once we are saved, we rush straight back to using law to change the world; not God's law, but human law. Throughout the Western world, Christians are trying to persuade their politicians and parliaments to pass laws prohibiting a wide variety of sins, including prostitution and abortion.

This is quite odd. We all understand that only the Holy Spirit can change hearts, but we still want to use force and human law to deal with sin.

Authority from God

Jesus explained how to distinguish between authority that is from God and that which has been stolen from him.

The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves (Luke 22:25-26).
Jesus condemned rulers who lord it over their people and use force to get them to do what they want. The rulers of the Gentiles call themselves benefactors, but they "lord it" over them. They use coercion and control.

Kingdom authority should be totally different. Those who exercise authority in the kingdom must be servants of those they lead. A servant cannot force the person they are serving to do things they do not want to do. A servant cannot control the one they are serving.

The difference is easy to see. Authority from God is always voluntary and produces freedom. There is no coercion or control. Where an authority uses coercion and control, it is not from God. Most modern political authority is based on coercion and control, so it cannot be authority from God.

Do not Conform

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world (Rom 12:2).
The pattern of the world is submission to the powers of the state in return for the salvation provided by the state. People who want the state to provide "cradle to grave" security are quite happy to submit to political powers. That is the pattern of the world.

Christians trust God for their salvation. The salvation that he provided through Jesus is far better than the salvation provided by the state. In response to that salvation, we submit to Jesus as our Lord. Christians should stop conforming to the pattern of the world by submitting to the state in the false hope of receiving the measly salvation it provides.

Voluntary Government

We need a system of civil government that is voluntary; that does not involve forcing people to do things against their will. Paul's solution is for all people to freely choose to "submit to excellent judges" (Rom 13:1).

  • Everyone remains free.

  • Judges are given authority.

  • Evil is not overcome by evil (even if it is a lesser evil).

Submission is a powerful vehicle for bringing order to society without using coercion. When people submit freely, they can remain free, because they can withdraw their submission, if the authority deteriorates.

Authority can be obtained in two ways:

  • Imposing control from the top.

  • Voluntary submission from below.

We have become confused about these two concepts. We prefer rulers who will force people to do the right thing. Unfortunately, they have no place in the kingdom of God.


Love has not replaced the law. Paul says that the consequences of fulfilling the law and living in love are the same. This is an amazing statement. The law is not the opposite of love, but is consistent with it.

Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law (Rom 13:10).
Love does no harm to another person, so good law cannot allow harm to anyone. A system of government that forces people to do things against their will would be inconsistent with love.

For our Good

When describing the purpose of judges, Paul explains that excellent judges do the people good.

A judge is God's servant for your good (Rom 13:4).
This links back to Moses' statement about the purpose of the Law. He explained that the law was given for the good of the people.
And Jehovah commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear Jehovah our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as at this day (Deut 6:24 ASV).
The law was given for the good of the wider community and to preserve their lives from violence and theft.

Most modern translations use the word "prosper", but this is a bit misleading as it implies growing wealth. A more accurate translation is the expression "for your good". God gave the law for our good, so that we might live in harmony with other people, even if they do not fear God. The purpose of the law is to protect our lives and property from harm by punishing thieves and murderers.

Judges do us good by applying Gods law. This is the best way to achieve a harmonious society.

Avenging Crime

We must not repay those who do us harm, but must leave revenge to God.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath (Rom 12:17,19).
We are not to repay evil for evil or to seek to avenge those who harm us. This raises an interesting question. If we are not to take revenge ourselves, but leave it to God, is there no recompense here on earth? Is there a risk that crime will get out of control?

In Romans 13, Paul explains how a system of godly judges deals with those who do evil. This is God's solution to the problem of crime.

A judge is God's servant, to avenge those who practice evil by decreeing sentence against them (Rev 13:4).
Christians must not seek revenge, but they are permitted to submit their cases to good judges. Judges will try to ensure that criminals make restitution. God uses judges to declare his verdict against criminals.

Live in Peace

Paul says that we are to live in harmony with all men.

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone (Rom 12:18).
A few verses back, he had said that Christians should live in harmony with each other (Rom 12:16). That is relatively easy, if they love each other. However, living at peace with "all people" is a much tougher call. How can we live at peace with wicked people? Paul explains how this can happen in Romans 13:1. The key to living at peace with "all people" is for "all people" to submit to excellent judges. Then they will be able to convict those committing crimes that hurt other people, such as violence, theft and lying, and demand restitution. This will restrain evil, making it possible for everyone to live in harmony.

This links with the purpose of the law.

Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law (Rom 13:10).
This verse implies that if people are not harmed, then the law has been fulfilled. This is a key to understanding the law and the role of judges in applying it. The purpose of the law is to prevent people from harming their neighbours. Judges apply the law for the same reason. If everyone lived in love, judges and law would not be necessary. In the absence of love, law acts as a restraint on actions that would harm other people. The law and judges will never get rid of all harm, but they will minimise it.

Voluntary Justice

If a person has something stolen the judge would proceed as follows. He would undertake an investigation to discover the thief. He might employ an expert to assist with the investigation. In a free society, many private investigators would be available. Some would operate on the basis of only receiving payment if the thief is brought to justice. This might cost more, but the victim would be able to pay the investigator out of the restitution received.

When the thief has been identified, the victim will confront him. If he confesses and returns what has been stolen, that would probably be the end of the matter. If the thief refuses to confess, the victim will take the case to a judge.

The accused has two options. He could agree to take the case to a judge. In this case, the victim and the thief would need to agree on the judge and they would agree to accept his decision. Both parties would want a judge who had a reputation for honesty and wisdom.

The other option for the accused would be to refuse to go to accept any judge. If he does not submit to the judge, he will come under suspicion and people will stop trusting him. Life would get very difficult as people in the community would be reluctant to buy things from him. Refusing to submit to a judge would probably more expensive than making restitution.

If the accused refused to submit to a judge, the victim could still take his case to a judge. He would want to avoid any suggestion of bias, so he would choose a judge who had a reputation for being fair to thieves. He would avoid his friends or anyone who might be accused of favour him.

The accused would present his case to the judge. To preserve his reputation for fairness the judge would check the evidence very carefully. Even if the accused refused to appear before him, the judge would look for all evidence or alibis that might favour the accused. He would bend over backwards to be fair, as this would be the best way to maintain his reputation. A good reputation is essential for a judge who wants to continue in the business.

If the judge decides that the accused is guilty, he would specify the amount of restitution that must be paid. This would usually be for times the amount that was stolen. If the thief had submitted to the judge, he would effectively have contracted to pay the amount specified by the judge. When the restitution is complete, the judge will advise the community that the thief has paid his debt.

If the thief was dishonest, he might refuse to pay what he owed, even if he had submitted to the judge. The solution is the same, whether the accused had submitted to the judge or not. The judge would announce to the community that the thief had been convicted, but refused to pay.

The people of the community where the criminal lived should support the judge by refusing to trade with the thief until he has paid the specified restitution. His employer might take a percentage out of his wages to go towards the restitution. Other employers could refuse to employ him. If everyone refused to buy from him or supply him with goods, he would eventually have to have pay restitution just to survive.

Submission to Judges

What is submission?

  • Submission does not mean total disobedience.

  • Submission does not mean paying taxes.

  • Submission does not mean allowing others to make laws that we must obey.

Submitting to judges means four things:
  • Taking cases to good judges.

  • Accepting verdicts of good judges.

  • Appeals from new judges to better judges.

  • Helping judges to enforce their decisions.

Submission means taking cases of injustice to judges and allowing them to apply the penalties prescribed in God's law. Nothing more, nothing less.

Supporting Good Judges

Submission works best when everyone acknowledges the best judges.

Anyone resisting the decision of a good judge is rebelling against what God has put in place and will receive a sentence from God (Rom 13:2).
The reference to judges in Romans 13:1 has no definite article, so the statement is about judges in general, not particular judges. In this verse, there is a definite article, so Paul is speaking of an actual judge. He is warning that if we refuse to accept the verdict of a good judge after submitting to them, we are rebelling against God's order. Those who rebel in this way will bring judgement on themselves.

This is a principle from the law. When a person gives false evidence to incriminate another person, the judges are to investigate and if the witness proves to be a liar, they are to be given the sentence that the person falsely accused would have received (Deut 19:16-19). A person who attempts to pervert justice will receive the penalty they tried to inflict on the innocent person. If we refuse to submit to the decision of a judge, God will inflict judgment on us. Good judges have the backing of God. Societies that reject his law and the judges he is bringing forth will experience judgment.

The only way a guilty thief could avoid making restitution would be to escape to another country. Even that might not work, because his reputation would follow him. In most situations, it would be cheaper and easier to pay the restitution, and then get on with life.

If everyone submits to good judges, thieves can be punished without the use of force and coercion. Trade is voluntary, so people are not obliged to trade with a convicted thief. The thief would generally choose to make restitution, so he can continue to engage in trade.

Unfavourable Verdicts

Submission means accepting the verdict of the judge, even if it goes against us. In most cases, only one party can win, so when two parties to a dispute submit to a judge, they must agree that they will be bound by the judge's decision. They might agree to the options of appeal before submitting to the judge. For example, they might agree that to accept an appeal to a group of judges on issues of law rather than fact. If there are no grounds for appeal, submission means accepting the decision of a judge, even if it goes in favour of the other party.


Submission to excellent judges means less skilled judges admitting their mistakes and correcting them when a more skilled judge points out an error in a decision. As the system of judges develops, some of the better judges will specialise in hearing appeals. Often several judges may hear the appeal together.

Supporting Judges Decisions

The biblical system only works, if the entire society supports the judge's decision. Submission means supporting the decisions of good judges. We can strengthen the authority of excellent judges helping them to implement decisions. For example, a good judge will sentence a convicted thief to pay restitution, but he will not be able to use physical force to obtain the restitution payment.

However, if the rest of society refuses to deal with the thief until his restitution is complete, he would have no choice but to comply with the judge's decision. Good judges will get their decision supported, because other members of society help implement them. This also works to keep the judges honest. If they start making unjust decisions, people will withdraw their support and they will lose their reputation.

Negative Law

Judges have no authority until a crime happens if laws are phrased negatively.

You shall not steal.
This negative wording is very important. This law has no implication for the behaviour of anyone who does not steal. This law has a penalty, but it only applies to those who steal. Judges can only apply this law to those who steal. People who do not steal are free to do what they like with their money. This gives us great freedom. We can avoid the authority of judges, by not stealing. A negative law has no relevance for those who do not break it.

A positively stated law gives judges much greater power and greatly reduces freedom. Consider a positively stated law.

You must give all your spare money to the poor.
This law would give judges the right to monitor and challenge every financial transaction. Judges would have authority to check on every person who spends money. This would be an extremely dangerous power and we would lose much freedom. Paul explained this in Romans 13:3.

Good judges hold no terror for those who do right, but only for those who do wrong.

This statement is only true if laws are expressed negatively. Positively expressed laws make judges a terror to everyone.

Biblical law does not give judges responsibility for forcing people to lead virtuous lives. The law cannot change human nature, so it cannot eliminate sin. The only solution to sin is being born again by the Holy Spirit in response to the gospel of Jesus. Under biblical law, judges can only restrain sin by punishing crimes; they must not attempt to make people good.

On the other hand, those who intend to do evil should fear good judges, because God has given them authority to make those who rob and assault pay restitution to those they harmed.

But if you do evil, be afraid; for a judge does have the power to punish for nothing; for he is God's servant to avenge those who practice evil by decreeing sentence against them (Rom 13:4).

When laws are framed negatively, evil people do need to fear the authority of the judge. The law is targeted directly at them.

Abhorrence of Crime

Paul says that we should submit to judges for good the sake of conscience. Those who take things into their own hands might end up doing the wrong thing. If we submit our situations to good judges, we can accept their decisions with a clear conscience.

Consequently you must submit, not only because of abhorrence of crime, but also for conscience sake (Rom 13:5).
The word wrath often translated as wrath also takes the meaning "abhorrence". We are to submit to judges because we have an abhorrence of all crime. Christians should not just want justice in the situations where they have been mistreated; they hate injustice so much that they want justice for everyone.

Paying Judges

God's people want everyone to have access to good judges. To ensure this happens, we should provide financial support to the best judges, so that they can handle more cases. Paul encourages this giving in Roman 13:6, but his meaning is lost due to the way the passage is translated. Most modern translations insert the word government, which is not in the Greek text. Here is a more literal translation:

This is why we pay a contribution to good judges. They are God's servants devoting all their time to administering justice (Rom 13:6).
This passage is not a justification of general taxation by governing authorities. Payment should only be made to God's servants. In this context, God's servants are the judges who are busy hearing many cases and especially those dealing with many appeals. They are the excellent judges who are working continually on the thing that Paul is talking about in this passage: applying God's law to disputes between people.

We want them to be available for this task, so that sin is restrained and society remains peaceful and harmonious. For this reason, we should make voluntary payments to these judges so that they can work full time at their work. A "tribute" is a payment made by one person to another, or one nation to another, for protection. Paul is saying that those who do not need a judge in their current situation can submit to an excellent judge by voluntarily contributing to a retainer for them.

Pay What You Owe

Our responsibility to good judges is expanded in the next verse.

Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe a contribution, pay a contribution; if a toll is owed, then pay a toll. Respect those judges worthy of respect. Only, honour those worthy of honour (Rom 13:7).
The basic principle is that we should make payment to everyone whom we owe something. When judges do their work well, the whole of society benefits, not just the people who get their cases heard. If judges deal with crime effectively, society will be peaceful and the economy can grow. We all benefit from their work. We all owe something to the judges who make good decisions.

Using the word "taxes" for the translation of this verse is a little misleading as it implies a compulsory payment that is decided by the government receiving. A tax must be paid, regardless of whether anything has been received in return. Paul is talking about a voluntary payment, not a compulsory levy. He is telling Christians that they should decide what they owe to the judges in their community and make sure they pay something towards their upkeep.

The Greek word translated revenue can mean toll. Tolls are legitimate because they are a payment for a service. For example, if I use a road, I owe something towards the cost of maintenance of the road. A toll is a payment for a service.

The thrust of this verse is that we must decide what we owe to whom. We only honour those who are worthy of honour. We only respect those who are worthy of respect. We are not required to respect the governing authorities, because they are usurpers of God's authority. We do not need to honour politicians, who make human laws, because they are in rebellion against God. We should honour and respect good judges, who apply God's law wisely.These words a followed up by a command to stay out of debt.

Let no debt remain outstanding (Rom 13:8).
I am in debt when someone lends me money. I also owe a debt to someone who provides me with goods or services and before I have paid for them. A tax liability is not a debt, because I have not received goods or services. On the other hand, good judges have helped maintain a peaceful society, so I owe a debt until I have made a contribution to them.

Better Translation

The following is a better translation of Romans 12:17-13:7.

Do not repay evil with evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God to deal with evil.

Do not be overcome by evil, but conquer evil with good. Every person should submit to the more excellent judges (exousia), because there is no legitimate judicial authority (exousia), except under God. The judges (exousia) that have emerged in a free society are arranged by God.

Anyone resisting the decision of a good judge (exousia) is rebelling against what God has put in place and will receive a sentence from God. Worldly rulers (archon) hold no terror for good works, but only for those choosing the evil way.

If you want to be free of fear of judge’s authority (exousia), do what is good. You will praise him, because he is God's servant for your good.

But if you do evil, be afraid; for the ruler does not carry the sword for no purpose; for he is God's servant to avenge those who practice evil by decreeing sentence against them.

Consequently you must submit, not only because of abhorrence of crime, but also for conscience sake.

This is why we pay a contribution to good judges. They are God's servants devoting all their time to administering justice. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe a contribution, pay a contribution; if a toll is owed, then pay a toll. Respect those judges worthy of respect. Only, honour those worthy of honour (Rom 12:17-13:7).

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