The majority of scholars agree with the traditional interpretation that Paul’s interlude in Romans 13:1–7 on civil obedience is an instruction to Christians to properly behave as subjects to unchristian Roman authority. Paul knows that the vast majority of governing authorities are not Christ-followers, and this is the impetus for his remarks. Since the rulers are not part of God’s family, what should the dynamic be between God’s children and the children of Adam?
I argue that Paul’s teaching frees the conscience of Christians to vote for political candidates that display radically unchristian behavior. This is because Paul is taking for granted that the rulers in Rome are depraved pagans, yet he instructs the Roman church to engage in a symbiotic relationship with them. Since Paul tells the Romans to give honor to depraved pagans, Christians today can vote for similarly depraved pagans with clear consciences.
Paul’s Governing Authorities
Paul’s teaching frees the conscience of Christians to vote for political candidates that display radically unchristian behavior.
Josephus, like Paul, uses the term “governing authorities” (ἐξουσίαις ὑπερεχούσαις) to refer to those who ruled in the name of Rome over the Jews in Palestine. Nero was the emperor when Paul was writing. Despite the later persecution of Christians, Paul wrote at a time “when there was considerable confidence abroad that [Nero’s] administration would be just and humane.” The “authorities, officials, [or] government” to which Paul was referring were ultimately under Nero.
So, Paul is referring here to rulers under Nero who were not (yet) persecuting the church. This will be important to keep in mind as we move forward.
Divinely Ordained Office
Paul twice refers to the authorities as servants or deacons (διάκονός, Rom. 13:4) and once as ministers (λειτουργοί, v. 6). The amicable relationship that Paul and the Roman Christians were enjoying with their secular overlords by no means indicated that all was well in the world. The rulers were by and large pagan, and they were prone to all the sins that Paul lambasts in his epistle (cf. Rom. 1:18–31). The terms that Paul uses to refer to them, therefore, were not spiritual in a narrow sense. That is, Paul was not referring to Nero, for example, as a deacon of Christ. The term διάκονος can be applied to Nero or his subordinates as well as to the apostles (2 Cor. 6:4) with wildly different locution.
To be sure, Paul isn’t saying that the Roman authorities are sitting behind their legislative desks pondering how they might further the agenda of God. They serve many gods (θεοὶ πολλοί), “yet for [Christians] there is one God” (1 Cor. 8:6a). But the one God is capable of instituting secular authorities that seek to serve other gods who nevertheless serve his purposes. In this way, Paul is simply reiterating a common biblical theme: all human rulers are put in place by God, and they ultimately serve his purposes (Isa. 45:1; Jer. 25:9; 27:6, 43:10; Dan. 2:21, 4:17; 5:18–21, 26; John 19:11; 1 Pet. 2:13–14).
Paul is saying that the Romans should submit to the authorities by virtue of their relationship to them, not because of the authorities’ intrinsic worth or morality. Paul’s command to submit is on the basis of the divinely ordained office. Everyone knows the Roman authorities are not exemplars of moral virtue, but they must be submitted to because—despite their immorality—they function as God’s harbingers of peace.
Honor the Honorable
What about Paul’s qualifier, “To those who are owed” (τὰς ὀφειλάς, Rom. 13:7)? It’s reasonable to conclude that the instruction to render both honor and respect are negated in the case of Nero or Nero-like subordinates due to their dishonorable and shameful conduct. Paul doesn’t say, “Give honor and respect to all authorities.” Rather, he says, in effect, “Give honor and respect to all authorities to whom you owe honor and respect.”
Roman authorities are not exemplars of moral virtue, but they must be submitted to because—despite their immorality—they function as God’s harbingers of peace.
The question, then, is this: How does Paul determine whether a secular authority deserves respect? Robert Jewett cites multiple examples of both primary and secondary sources that indicate honor (τιμή) was due to both the emperor and his subordinates in ancient Rome on the basis of the service they provided. Personal character and morality weren’t part of the equation. Honor was bestowed in a pragmatic sense—the emperor was due honor on the basis of his work for the people, and the people gave honor as a means of getting from the emperor what they wanted. Therefore, Jewett writes, “Paul was willing to accept the system that demanded honor for the emperor and his officials whether they deserved it or not.”
In this connection, καλός (beautiful, good) and ἀγαθός (good) are not moral qualities but characterize good political conduct. Therefore, honor is to be seen as something that’s due to those political officials who operate as they should in terms of providing order and peace. If a debauched sinner creates an orderly and peaceful society, in Paul’s mind, he should be honored.
In fact, we see Paul employ this logic in Acts 22:30–23:5. When the high priest orders Paul to be struck, he responds, “God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting to judge me according to the law, and yet contrary to the law you order me to be struck?” (23:3). However, once Paul realizes that the high priest—who had been instituted by God—made the order, he responds, “I did not know, brothers, that he was the high priest, for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people’” (23:5).
Paul is here exemplifying the teaching of Romans 13:1–7 only a short time after he wrote it. Though the officeholder’s actions were sinful in Paul’s estimation, the office deserved to be honored nonetheless. What’s more, the ruler to whom Paul is rendering honor (by not speaking evil of him) is actually abusing his office. Paul renders appropriate honor regardless. Of course, the high priest is a religious ruler, and Romans 13:1–7 is referring to secular authorities, but the underlying logic is the same—submit to those who are above you because God put them there.
My observations here don’t indicate that Christians should wholly endorse whatever secular government they’re under. Paul and the apostles clearly instruct and enact opposition to bad leadership (cf. Acts 5:29). However, these insights do indicate that Paul had a category for honoring leaders without considering their morality. Paul and the Romans were capable of giving honor to debauched sinners because they were providing a good service, they were enacting (in that limited sense) the will of God, and they were instituted by God.
Therefore, Christians today should simultaneously rebuke the sins of their political leaders while rendering them due honor for the God-ordained services they provide.
Implications for Voting as a Christian
Christians today should simultaneously rebuke the sins of their political leaders while rendering them due honor for the God-ordained services they provide.
Christians in modern America seem to move in the opposite direction. It’s common to hear Christians say that they’re refraining from voting for a political candidate because both candidates are morally reprehensible. In America, voting for a person is seen as not only as an endorsement of political services (i.e., what the candidate seeks to do for society politically) but also as an endorsement of the candidate’s character.
To be sure, voting and democracy would be completely foreign concepts to Paul and the church in Rome. However, their capacity to give honor while simultaneously rejecting sin (or character flaws) should free the American Christian’s conscience to vote for a political candidate that displays unchristian actions, even sinful ones. There’s nothing inherently contradictory with desiring a certain political candidate to take office even though his actions are far from exemplary.
For citizens, the Bible offers a nuanced way. We should honor the good things bad politicians do. This is not a new concept. Indeed, it dates back at least as far as the first century when Paul wrote Romans.