Romans 13:3

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,
Romans 13:3

This verse drips with irony. Can you feel it? This is the verse that causes a lot of people to insert Nero into their interpretation. It’s not entirely unwarranted, but at the same time caution is advised lest it be taken too far or we get the cart before the horse. We must be sure to draw out of the text what it plainly says first and then, where it is up to us to extrapolate interpretation and application, we can test our resulting interpretation and application by whether we are consistent concerning Nero, Hitler, Stalin, and the like.

First. What does this verse very clearly state? The following:

  • Rulers exist to “terrorize” those who do wrong.
  • Rulers do not terrorize good conduct.
  • If you are someone who does what is right, you should not have to fear the government, but instead, you should receive his approval.

This verse always makes me laugh when a statist tries to tell me that Romans 13 doesn’t give any instructions to the governing authorities. “It’s only instructions to Christians,” they say. Um…. Have you read verse 3? (and 4, but we’ll get to that later).

This verse gives a clear statement of what the government ought to be. They ought to “terrorize” those who do wrong, and not terrorize those who do good.

We have several questions that begin to open up room for interpretation. What does “terror/terrorize” mean? What do “good conduct” and “bad” mean? What does approval mean?

Good/Bad Conduct. ἀγαθῷ and κακά are boolean polar opposites. Notice, however, that Paul uses κακά for evil and not αμαρτία, which is the word for sin. For this reason, I reject theonomy. The magistrate does not have the authority to enforce the full scope of God’s law. Nevertheless, I am theonomic in my approach here in the sense that I believe it *is* God’s standard that the governing authority is to enforce. So what is God’s standard good and evil in the context of civil law? Genesis 9:6 gives us the founding principle. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” This, extrapolated out to cover lesser offenses as well (Lex Talionis – Exodus 21-22), shows us that civil government is concerned with those evil acts which harm a victim. We will see more about this in verse 4. κακά refers to criminal acts and manner of life that harm victims. ἀγαθῷ would, therefore, be criminal acts and manner of life that live peacefully with victims. This is the non-aggression principle. Anyone who violates his neighbor’s life, liberty or property, is committing κακά. Anyone who refrains from this, living peacefully with his neighbor instead, commits ἀγαθῷ.

Terror/Approval. These are also presented as boolean polar opposites. Terror is fleshed out in the second half of the verse. Paul asks, “Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority?” Are you afraid of your government? The way good people can live without fear of government is to do ἀγαθῷ. Approval, then, is living in the absence of terror. Anytime the government reviews your behavior, you won’t have to be afraid because you have done right. If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear, right?

At least that’s the way it’s supposed to be, which brings us to our next question. Why do people always bring up Nero?

Because things in real life don’t seem to line up, right? Nero wasn’t quite the tyrant he would later be at the time Paul wrote Romans, but he was coming! How was the Roman church to interpret a statement like “Rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad”

REALLY? Rulers never terrorize good conduct? Rulers always terrorize bad conduct? REALLY?

When Nero burned Christians in the colosseum, was he terrorizing good conduct or bad?

When Hitler gassed Jews and put people like Corrie ten Boom in concentration camps for protecting them, was he terrorizing good conduct or bad?

Was Paul mistaken? Did the Bible get something wrong??????

No, of course not. The Bible is the inspired Word of God who knows all things, always speaks the truth, is not the author of confusion, and is not a man that he should change or err.

So what are we to make of this? Irony. There’s an is/ought tension here. Paul is describing what the governing authority is supposed to be. This does not mean that rulers will never, in their sin, deviate from this standard. Our understanding of the fallen nature of man – of total depravity – should lead us to realize that they are likely to do so in some way or another.

The timing of this is no mistake. You can bet the Holy Spirit knew what was coming down the line, and he had Paul write this to the Christians for a purpose. This was meant to encourage them in their faithfulness even as they were to be subject to Nero. The clear implication is that Nero doesn’t measure up. How are Christians to respond in such a situation? They should do what is good and remember Romans 12:14:21

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Remember Romans 12. It’s not just a coincidence that it serves as the immediate context for Romans 13. Keeping it in mind will be critical as we proceed through the text.

What are we to make of all this? Rulers should be warned. Their authority is a trust from God which they ought to wield according to his standards. If they deviate, they will face judgment. “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way” – Psalm 2:12 “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord”.

Roman Christians could rest assured that even if Nero was a tyrant, he would not forever escape judgment. Indeed, God moved in AD 68 to remove Nero from power and life. Nero will stand before the judgment seat to receive his just reward.

Consider this verse in our context. We live in an era of democracy where people participate in their government. Consider that if, as in the USA, the government is “of by and for the people,”, that we – in a sense – act as the governing authority. This isn’t the Marxist idea that “we are the government,” but rather a recognition that the votes we cast and the politicians we elect have consequences. Laws come forth from our political action. Do our laws terrorize good conduct or bad? Consider this before you step into the ballot box.


7 thoughts on “Romans 13:3

  1. The resort to irony here to interpret Paul seems almost irresistible. I took that approach for a while too. Yet, a better understanding of the context and message removes the irony and the need to resort to it.

    The good and the evil in the context is primarily the good of the Christians in refraining from making trouble and responding to taxation with tax protesting and government with rebellion, and the evil of the Israelites who responded to Christians with persecution and who responded to Roman rule and taxes with tax protesting and rebellion. Paul’s instructions are to be faithful in avoiding violence and repaying evil with evil, so that they are correctly seen by the Roman government as not trouble makers and so that they are correctly seen by those who persecute them (the Jews) as lights shining in the darkness, and that they might bring some to repentance.

    Rome’s response to the situation would be to destroy Israel and her rebel kingdom, as God’s agent of wrath, with its military sword, in fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy, and of the Lord’s words and parables. The Roman persecution of Christians in 64 A.D. doesn’t seem to be a big deal for Christianity even when it happened, as it was not empire-wide and was also the first time the Romans has persecuted Christians and only recurred sporadically. The emphasis placed on Roman persecution of Christianity seems to be exaggerated and misplaced, although after Israel was destroyed, it was no longer the persecuting power. The dragon (Israel) was thrown into the lake of fire, where it suffered the Second Death (the first death being the exile).

    Your post resorts to Gen. 9:6 and Ex. 21-22 as an attempt to identify the scope of activity and the principle that governments should apply and be held accountable to, as the application of Rom. 13:1-4. This is problematic and inappropriate on a number of levels.

    Gen. 9:6 is in the context of the mass-judgement of the flood, and it predicts the Second Flood, not of water but of men. To apply it to capital punishment, following due process of law is not contextual. The context is the problem of ‘the beasts.’ ‘The beasts’ had just been judged by a mass judgement of the flood, and now the covenant of Noah was made with the beasts (Gen. 9:8-11). The monogynous beasts had also been saved in the ark, while the flood destroyed the rest of mankind and the beasts, other than monogynous Noah and his wife and his three monogynous sons and their wives. The beasts that were destroyed in the flood included the polygynous ‘Sons of God’ who took women as wives, as many as they choose, the ones who had filled the land with violence and had corrupted man’s way on the land. These polygynous Sons of God were human kings and their kingdoms and empires, which had filled the world with violence, as they killed men to take their wives, and as they went to war against each other for territory, treasure and tyranny. So the background for the flood is the problem of these beasts, these states and empires, and political murder and violence. Instituting the state and empowering it to shed human blood, after due process of law, for murder, is not what the passage is about. The state is the problem, not the solution, in Gen. 6-9.

    The beast and the beasts in Gen. 1-4 are not limited to political kingdoms, they are the forces and impulses in man, the animalistic impulses man, male and female (that’s life-long monogamy), is to rule and suppress, rather than to be ruled by. In Gen. 1, God makes the beasts, including the chaos monsters in the sea (i.e. the dragons), and calls them good. But man must master, dominate and rule them, through monogamy. The image of God (political status and power) is with man as male-female pairs, not as man as one-male-many-females ruling over many other human beings. In Gen. 2. the woman is the man’s ‘helper’ (military allay), and the animals are not man’s allay, instead, he must, with the help of the woman, his one wife in lifelong union, master the animals and bring order to the world and keep pushing the chaos and disorder back, as he works as God’s agent in creation. But in Gen. 3. the beast masters the man and the woman, and through sophistry and cleverness, makes the man and the woman choose to make himself the centre of order, and to take the fruit of power. Man takes the judicial power of ‘the knowledge of good and evil’ as Solomon does in 1 Kings 3, ‘to judge your people.’ The knowledge of good and evil, is the knowledge to rule and to determine men’s disputes. To know the facts of the case and to rule justice according to those facts. In Gen. 4, the beast is identified as sin, the temptation and impulses in man to kill his brother, instead of keeping him. The beast progresses from inside man in Cain, to the first polygynist Lamech, who becomes a king or a proto-king, powerful, and using power with impunity. Yet, for all this, men as individuals were marked with the image of God, and so even Cain, the murderer, may not be avenged by shedding his blood. The bible prohibits the death penalty, not endorses it. Lamech correctly claims this legal precedent in Gen. 4.

    So, this is the context for Gen. 9, and it is not instituting the state and the death penalty to control human violence. Instead, it promises a Second Flood, of men, to destroy the murderers. The Sons of God, the Mighty Men, also arose after the flood, as stated in Gen. 6:4. They would again shed human blood. God promises a day of reckoning, another judgement, to be meted out to the beasts (or ‘the beast’), in the future. This repayment of the murderers, by man, is picked up on in Deut. 32, when God promises to judge the murderers of Last Days Israel, to atone for his land and his people. God’s wrath would be built up in a vault, and it would be released and repaid upon Israel, at her end. This would be by means of the sword of war, i.e. at the hand of man. Isaiah picks up on this in chapter 28, with the overwhelming flood, upon Israel, who made a covenant with death. Daniel picked up on this in chapter 9, with the end that comes with a flood of men of war, destroying Israel, Jerusalem and the Second Temple. The Lord picked up on this and applied it to his generation, who rejected his message, and whose ‘house’ would be destroyed by the flood in Mat. 7:24-27. The judgement upon Israel and her temple would be ‘as in the days of Noah’ when the flood swept them away (Mat. 24:37-39). The flood would come from the mouth of the dragon (Israel under the Zealots) and instead of destroying the woman (true Israel) it would be absorbed by the land of Israel (Rev. 12).

    The repayment of the murderers is something that happens at a specific time, in the Lord’s generation, at the fall of the Second Temple, as the Lord taught in Mat. 23:29-39. The murderers would not repent (Rev. 9:21), and would be left outside (Rev. 21:8; 22:15). The murderers would be destroyed thus: The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. (Mat. 22:7).

    The New Covenant of Israel’s rebirth and remarriage is made with the beasts also, Hos. 2:18-20. The beasts would still exist, but would become vegetarian, Is. 11. Although ‘the beast’ (Second Temple Israel) would be killed (Dan. 7; Rev. 19), the other beasts would be permitted to continue (Dan. 7:12). Man’s duty to keep the beasts down continues in the new creation and in the kingdom of God, under the New Covenant. The beast is in us and is us. It is our animalistic impulses to rule and oppress others, to treat them as prey. It comes out when we fail to master it, and when we allow it to grow up like weeds, and to rise as political power. Through the gospel, we can master the beasts, and keep them down. We can live in the New Jerusalem, and have sanctuary from the disorder and disease outside the city, and we can bring the water of life and the leaves of the tree of life for the healing of the nations, and to expand the city’s population and peace in the world.

  2. As Christians, we have a special perspective on the death penalty in the death penalty of its founder. Peter picks up on this in 1 Pet. 2:13-25, where he mentions that Emperor Tiberius sent governor Pilate to ‘punish those who do evil and praise those who do good’ but instead Pilate released the murderer and revolutionary Jesus Barabbas and condemned to death the righteous and innocent Jesus of Nazareth. Instead of being praised by Pilate, he was commended by God. Peter’s perspective is that this is paradigmatic of the use of (coercive, non-gentile) power in society and in government, rather than exceptional.

    Jesus Christ abolished death 2 Tim. 1:10 and bought a new way for mankind, through the gospel. He bought the way of love, not fear, because fear has to do with punishment. Fear compliance is anti-Christian (1 John 4:18). The fear of death brings slavery, and Christ came to destroy that slavery by suffering death and destroying the accuser (Heb. 2:14-15).

    The political super-structure of the state is a terror, and it works by the power of death and the power of punishment. The Christian response to that institution is not to take up arms to overthrow it, but to build a parallel political structure, starting with the individual heart and then the monogynous nuclear family structure, and through Christian solidarity, expressed locally in the form of Christian assemblies. And peaceful and lawful dispute resolution not through the state but through Christian arbitration, where each side of a dispute chooses one and together they choose a third if necessary (Mat. 18:15-20). As Christians, we believe in nuclear families, lifelong monogamy, local bodies, local assemblies, and local democracy, as the means to keep the beasts in check. That is how we control our animalistic instincts, and Christ elevates us to rule from heaven with Christ, in resurrection life.

    The hope of salvation was and is the Hope of Israel, that she would be raised to new life in a new body, consisting of all 12 tribes (Ez. 37; Acts. 24:14-15; 26:4-8; 28:20). This is Paul’s and the Christian ‘one hope’ of Eph 4:4-6. This is the Hope of Israel of Is. 65-66, that she would be raised to new life by being born again as a new people with a new name, as the new creation.

    We can see this is fulfilled in the New Israel, where the gentiles are resurrected with Israel, and made fellow citizens, and are exalted to heaven itself to rule with Christ in Eph. 2. In Christ we are now seated in heavenly places, i.e. we are now in heaven, ruling with Christ. We are now resurrected, and in heaven, according to Paul in Eph. 2 and Heb. 12:22-24. We are now in the city of God, the heavenly Jerusalem, in Zion, with the angels, and under the new covenant that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. Abel’s blood cried out for vengeance, to kill the murderer Cain. But God marked Cain with his image, that prevented anyone from being authorised to kill Cain to avenge Abel’s blood. Mercy triumphs over judgement, James 2:13. But blood shed on the land cannot be atoned for except by shedding the blood of the murderers, Num. 35. The blood of Abel was to be, and was avenged, through the tragedy of war and destruction of those who rejected peace (Luke 19:41-44), and brought upon themselves the vengeance of all the blood shed on the land from Abel onwards (Mat. 23:29-39). The murderers who destroyed the land of Israel were themselves destroyed (Rev. 11:17-18). Those who took up the sword, perished by the sword (Mat. 26:52).

    Our political questions and our political hope is not that the state might be restrained to the correct role or scale of operations. We have a different kind and category of hope, of a society where the power of death is abolished, and where killing men for their sins or for their disobedience or defiance or disrespectful speech (cf. Mat. 5:21-26) is supplanted by a new ethic of gentleness and good social order that arises from the control of animalistic instincts at the micro-scale, in man’s heart, in man’s nuclear family, and in the local Christian community and assembly, and in ad-hoc dispute resolution and arbitration. These micro-scale institutions cohere in the communion of the saints, where, by doing these things Christ is with us (Mat. 18:15-20), and we are in communion with the saints, living and dead, in the city of God, the New Jerusalem (Heb. 12:22-24), with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom (Mat. 8:10-12). We are raised in one body, the body of Christ: ‘with what kind of body [singular] do they [plural] come? … a spiritual body’ (1 Cor. 15:35,44)

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