A critical factor for biblical interpretation is context, context, context. Nowhere is this point truer than Romans 13:1-7.
As Robert Parham’s recent editorial, “Romans 13 Is Weak Proof-Text for Anti-Immigration Church Members,” illustrates, Romans 13 is often the go-to proof-text for urging compliance with and allegiance to government authority.
But here is the rub: Romans 13 has absolutely nothing to do with one’s relationship to the government, whether the Roman Empire in the first century or any government today.
That’s right: We have misunderstood, misapplied and missed the point of these verses all because we have divorced them from the original context.
The original Judean context, specifically believers worshipping in the Roman synagogues, makes all the difference in the world how verses 1-7 are understood.
Let me illustrate this neglected context. First, rarely does a reader consider it odd that these few verses suddenly appear out of nowhere related to the Roman Empire and taxes.
Paul has spent chapter after chapter focused on internal community issues related to Judeans and Gentile believers. Why does Paul change direction from dealing with these issues and digress to a totally off-the-wall subject about Roman rule?
He doesn’t. We have wrenched these verses out of their Judean context and made them service a de-Judaized interpretation – a thing they were never meant to do.
Mark Nanos, author of “The Mystery of Romans: The Jewish Context of Paul’s Letters,” has pointed out this disservice to the text with brilliance, clarity and impeccable research.
What I am suggesting below is indebted to his research, and fuller detail is found in his chapter, “Romans 13:1-7: Christian Obedience to Synagogue Authority.”
In Romans 13:1-7, Paul is writing to Gentile believers in Rome to obey, not Roman secular/pagan authority, but to obey the God-ordained authority of the synagogue rulers in Rome.
This presupposes that the early Jesus believers were continuing to meet with Judean non-believers within the synagogues.
We too quickly have early believers divorcing themselves from the synagogue, discarding Judaism, and establishing something totally new.
Instead, they (Judean believers and Gentile believers) continued to meet and worship in the synagogues.
These believers would also gather for special times in homes to eat, sing and read correspondence, but they did not abandon worshipping with their brothers and sisters who were Judeans – at least not yet.
The possibility of believers leaving the synagogue was Paul’s greatest concern in Romans.
It cut at the heart of theological understanding of what had happened in Jesus Christ. It defied his belief that the new age had dawned in Jesus, a very Judean Messiah.
In Rome, however, Gentile believer arrogance had raised its head. Some believers wanted to cut themselves off from their Judean roots and do their own thing.
Paul would have none of it and gives very clear instructions about how they were to relate to the leaders of the synagogue.
This Judean context makes perfect sense of verses 1-7 as one reads Romans. For example, Paul speaks of authority that exists from God (v.1) and is appointed by God (v. 2). This hardly sounds like a description of Caesar and his predatory legions.
It does, however, ring true about Judean synagogue rulers who can also be called “God’s servants” (v. 4) and “ministers of God” (v.6).
When Paul tells the Gentile believers to pay taxes and revenue (v. 6), he is telling his readers to pay the two-drachma Temple tax. Even the Roman historian Tacitus mentions Gentile converts sending contributions to the Temple.
Paul is dealing with a group that hesitated to send contributions, and he urges them to contribute because it shows that through Christ equality has come upon both Judeans and Gentiles.
Some might question, however, the one image that sounds like it originated in a Roman Empire context: “for the authority does not bear the sword in vain!” (13:4b).
As Nanos points out, this word for sword can also be used for the knife in circumcision (Joshua 5:2), or it could be used metaphorically as a symbol of the authority of the synagogue rulers to inflict punishment.
Paul himself has submitted to such punishment according to his account to the Corinthians: “Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one” (2 Corinthians 11:24).
Or perhaps this reference is a metaphor for Scripture as the “Word of God.” At least one New Testament writer is familiar with this image by noting that the Word of God is “sharper than a two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12).
In this sense, the synagogue rulers are the interpreters of the Torah, and Paul encourages Gentile believers to give them their due respect.
No doubt many will not be convinced that the original context is a Judean one. They have been too mesmerized by only one perspective.
They will continue to drink deeply from this passage to support giving allegiance to this program or that agenda of a secular government – but it is a dry hole.
To see government authority as the focal point in this passage is an interpretative mirage.
Context, context, context causes the mirage to fade into the clear vision of Paul’s very real concern about Judean nonbelievers’ and Gentile believers’ relationship.
David M. May is Landreneau Guillory Chair of Biblical Studies at Central Seminary in Shawnee, Kansas.