Volume 47 - Issue 2

Give Honor and Vote? A Reflection on the Christian’s Voting Conscience and Romans 13:1–7

By Robert Golding


Paul’s instruction in Romans 13:1–7 can be applied to Christian voting behavior in the West. Since Paul tells the Romans to honor debauched pagans, Christians can vote for similarly debauched political candidates with clear consciences. There are clear distinctions between Paul’s teaching and the Western political context. However, the underlying continuities are clear and they are based in God’s sovereignty, not political structure. Furthermore, the ancient Roman practice of giving honor to rulers only regarded the office, not the office holder’s morality.

The majority of scholars agree (though there is a significant number of detractors) with the traditional interpretation that Paul’s interlude in Romans 13:1–7 on civil obedience is instruction to Christians to properly behave as subjects to unchristian Roman authority.1 Douglas Moo rightly said, “It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the history of the interpretation of Rom. 13:1–7 is the history of attempts to avoid what seems to be its plain meaning.”2 While I acknowledge a plethora of vying interpretations of this passage (see footnote 1), I make my exegetical arguments without stopping along the way to respond to the other available interpretations (aside from those that are pressing) to avoid turning a modest article into a book.

In the majority interpretation, Paul is laying out the way in which Christians should live before their pagan rulers. This instruction is not limited to the Christians in Rome because Paul goes out of his way to make his command universal in scope: “‘every soul’ is to submit; there is ‘no authority’ except by appointment of God.”3 Paul knows that the vast majority of governing authorities are not Christ–followers (this will be explained below), and this is therefore 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? In this article, in which I assume the aforementioned interpretation and context, I argue that Paul’s teaching in Romans 13:1–7 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.

1. Context

Romans, Paul’s most theologically rich (extant) epistle, was likely written from Corinth around AD 57 (though some scholars place it as early as 47, none typically attribute it any later than 57) during the reign of emperor Nero (AD 54–68) but before his infamous persecution of Christians began.4 Though it is debated whether the Jews in Rome actually left following the diaspora mandate of emperor Claudius (Acts 18:2)5 most scholars agree that Paul is writing to a predominantly Gentile church with Jews included as a minority.6 Our passage occurs as an integral unit (rather than, as some say, an insertion made by Paul or someone else)7 in Paul’s gospel presentation with two apocalyptic “wings” on either side of it, both of which urge Christians to be set apart from the world in their union with Christ.8 The contextual question then, is how this passage operates within a section that is calling for separation when 13:1–7 seems to be extolling the exact opposite. That is, why does Paul tell the Romans not only that they must be in subjection (ὑποτασσέσθω, 13:1; διὸ ἀνάγκη ὑποτάσσεσθαι, 13:5) but that they must give respect (φόβον) and honor (τιμήν, 13:7) to the governing authorities (ἐξουσίαις ὑπερεχούσαις, 13:1) after he tells them in the left “wing” to not be conformed to the world (μὴ συσχηματίζεσθε τῷ αἰῶνι τούτῳ, 12:2) and to overcome evil with good (ἀλλὰ νίκα ἐν τῷ ἀγαθῷ τὸ κακόν, 12:21)? The right “wing” (the material after our passage) is, in part, an unpacking of these separation imperatives in which Paul shows the Romans how they should cast off the works of darkness (ἀποβαλώμεθα οὖν τὰ ἔργα τοῦ σκότους, 13:12). How then does submission fit within this context?

2. Distinctions with Overlap

Dorothy Bertschmann provides a more focused version of the traditional interpretation of Romans 13:1–7 in seeing this passage as indicating an overlap between the reign of Christ and the reign of man. Paul, for Bertschmann, is first and foremost compelling the Roman Christians to live under the absolutely sovereign reign of Christ, and he is showing how the will of Christ aligns some aspects of secular rule with his own reign. Christ’s rule mandates that Christians love their neighbors (Matt 19:19; Mark 12:31), pay their taxes (Matt 22:21; Mark 12:17), and seek to live peaceably (Matt 26:52). This kingly reign—though subverted by unregenerate man in some, if not most, respects—is not wholly resisted by secular authorities. In the words of Robert Stein, “Governments, even oppressive governments, by their very nature seek to prevent the evils of indiscriminate murder, riot, thievery, as well as general instability and chaos, and good acts do at times meet with its approval and praise.”9 Bertschmann provides a helpful Venn diagram in which the reign of man and Christ are represented by two distinct circles with isolated emphases, but they also have a section that overlaps where love of neighbor, “doing nothing bad,” and “no terror to good work” are seen within both of the respective circles.10 In this way, Paul’s command to be separate from the world yet submissive to authorities can be seen to be complementary. There are areas of divergence (e.g., Christians should not be haughty like many secular rulers, 12:16) but also convergence (e.g., Christians should seek domestic peace as the secular rulers do, 12:18).11 In a word, some things the secular rulers want are the same things Christ the King wants. This is the interpretation I will operate from moving forward.

3. “Governing Authorities”

Josephus uses the term “governing authorities” (ἐξουσίαις ὑπερεχούσαις) like Paul, to refer to those who ruled in the name of Rome over the Jews in Palestine.12 As mentioned above, Nero would be the emperor when Paul was writing. Despite the later persecution of Christians, Paul wrote at a time “when there was considerable confidence abroad that his [i.e., Nero’s] administration would be just and humane.”13 The “authorities, officials, [or] government”14 to which Paul was referring were ultimately under Nero and the plural seems to indicate that Paul was primarily referring to the former, though all three were probably in view.15 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.

3.1. Servants and Ministers of God

Paul twice refers to the authorities as servants or deacons (διάκονός, 13:4) and once as ministers (λειτουργοί, 13:6). 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 the apostles (2 Cor 6:4) with wildly different locution.

Nero, at best, was neutral to the gospel at this point. This is where Bertschmann’s Venn diagram helps us. Nero was opposed to the gospel where his circle, if you will, does not overlap with Christ’s. But, on the other hand, Nero was a servant of God (θεοῦ διάκονός) when his policies (or those of his subordinates) had the effect of supporting the gospel indirectly (this is explicitly the case in our passage when the rulers carry “out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer,” 13:4). To be sure, Paul is not 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 us there is one God” (1 Cor 8:6a). But, the one God is capable of instituting secular authorities—who 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).

It has been regularly observed that Paul is not condoning or prohibiting the character of the rulers he is referring to in this passage. Tertullian, Origen, and Chrysostom all understood this passage to be mandating honor for the authority of secular rulers.16 Beverly Gaventa has shown that Paul’s reference to Pharaoh in Romans 9:17 “treats Pharaoh as an agent of God for the good … Paul pays no attention whatever to Pharaoh’s own inclinations, or to his actions. They are not important … asserting the role of the authorities ‘for the good’ need not mean either that they themselves will the good or that they will do the good.”17 Therefore, in chapter 13, “these designations [διακονία, λειτουργός] indicate not character but relationship.”18 Paul is saying that the Romans should submit to the authorities by virtue of their relationship to them, not because of their intrinsic worth or morality. This is why we need to keep the rest of Romans in mind when reading 13:1–7; Paul knows that unbelievers are prone to hellish sin (cf. 1:18–31)! Paul never entertains a middle ground between the sheep and the goats. It should be obvious, then, that 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 (more on this below) but they must be submitted to because—despite their immorality—they function as God’s harbingers of peace.

3.2. Worthless Fellows

Was it common knowledge in Paul’s context that the Roman authorities were often dodgy people? Perhaps Paul and the Romans naively thought that they were generally upstanding and exemplary. Nero is commonly thought of as one of the most debauched Roman emperors. As was mentioned above, his true evil was not fully unveiled until later in life when his voracious persecution of the church began. However, scholars have shown that his debauchery was evident from an early age: “The young Nero developed sexual characteristics so numerous and so conflicting that it is astonishing to find them all in one and the same person…. Nero was a good husband, who nevertheless had strongly homosexual tendencies; in addition, he had many extra-marital relations with women; his character also contained sadistic elements.”19 In his biography of Nero, Tacitus recounts Nero’s entrance into Rome from Campania in AD 59 (two years after most scholars think Paul wrote Romans) as follows: “exulting over his people’s slavery, he proceeded to the Capitol, performed the thanksgiving, and then plunged into all the excesses, which, though ill-restrained, some sort of respect for his mother had for a while delayed.”20 In order to bolster his image, Nero “actually invited all the people of Rome”21 to the amphitheater for some “juvenile sports” which, according to Tacitus led to “a rank growth of abominations and of all infamy. Never did a more filthy rabble add a worse licentiousness to our long corrupted morals.”22

Tacitus is not the only ancient historian to note Nero’s licentious morality. Rebecca Langlands aptly summarizes Suetonius’s biography of Nero: “On this firm foundation [i.e., young men and married women] Nero will build his edifice of depravity, going on to desecrate a religious figure and throw the very institution of marriage into confusion with the behaviour that Suetonius goes on to describe: forcing a Vestal Virgin to have sex, trying to marry a freedwoman through deception, marrying then a castrated boy as his wife, and provoking rumours that he lusted after his own mother and even consummated this lust.”23 Nero was a notorious and incestuous homosexual, pedophile, adulterer, and murderer. Of course, Nero’s depravity is nothing new. But, it is instructive to note that it was, in all likelihood, conspicuously apparent in the historical context of Paul’s words to the Romans in the first seven verses of chapter 13 as Nero’s debauchery did not spring into existence after the letter to the Romans was sent.

Though it is difficult to say with absolute certainty that Paul knew about Nero’s debauchery, it was infamous nonetheless and it would be almost inconceivable to deny that at least a portion of his Roman audience were aware, especially due to their geographical proximity to his various escapades (they and he were principally in Rome). It is hard to imagine Paul and the Romans not thinking of Nero when he wrote, “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves” (Rom 1:24). Indeed, the litany of sins that Paul catalogues which begins after his description of “men committing shameless acts with men” (1:27) could easily fit within one of the ancient biographies of Nero if one simply switched the nominative plural to the singular: “[He is] filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. [He is] full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. [He is like the] gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though [he] know[s] God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, [he] not only do[es] them but give[s] approval to those who practice them” (Rom 1:29–32). Arguably not a single description in these verses would not apply to Nero. Some claim that Paul is here and in other places adopting “sexual virtue and vice as his anti-imperial code language,”24 which was a common technique in ancient political confrontation.25 This would have Nero and his ilk squarely in mind as Paul wrote.

As was mentioned above, Nero was not the only person potentially in mind when Paul referred to the authorities. It would be hard to imagine Nero becoming who he was if the society in which he was brought up was not similarly debauched. This is precisely what we find. In her book The Politics of Immorality in Ancient Rome, Catharine Edwards shows that the “commonplace” theme of lust and licentiousness that so many scholars have noted as a “frequent occurrence” is “a preoccupation of countless Roman texts which we must surely see as reflecting the anxieties of those who wrote them.”26 Of course, this is the famous apologetic of 5th century Augustine who, appealing to the likes of Cicero, attributed the downfall of Rome to its vices.27 Ubiquitous sin was not only indicative of Nero. One could attempt to make the argument that the subordinate civil leaders were not given to serious sin like those inveighed by the “countless Roman texts,” but this would require evidence (of which I have seen none, other than the aforementioned lower level civil leaders who were upstanding members in the Roman church).28 That is to say, all signs indicate that this Nero-like licentiousness was indicative of many, if not most, Roman authorities. One is hard pressed to find non-Christian exemplars of virtue during this period. Ernst Käsemann insists that “the apostle is in fact writing under a dictatorship with largely corrupt and capricious representatives, not to speak of the petty despotism of departments and officials.”29

3.3. Honor to the Honorable

What about Paul’s qualifier “to those who are owed” (τὰς ὀφειλάς, 13:7)? It is 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 does not 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.” The question, then, is this: How does Paul determine whether a secular authority deserves respect?30

Robert Jewett cites multiple examples of both primary and secondary sources which show that 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 was not 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, “Paul was willing to accept the system that demanded honor for the emperor and his officials whether they deserved it or not.”31 Käsemann recognizes that not only were the authorities to whom Paul was referring not limited to the emperor (as mentioned above) but that assessments of their relative goodness were purely political and not moral:

The phrase ἐξουσίαι τεταγμέναι [“appointed rulers,” citing a variant reading] describes prominent Roman officials [not just Nero].… Correlative to the power of the sword, which at least in part was transferred to Caesar’s deputies is the practice of commending and honoring worthy citizens and communities in official correspondence. In this connection καλός [“beautiful, good”] and ἀγαθός [“good”] are not moral qualities but characterize political good conduct.32

Therefore, honor is to be seen as something that is 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.33

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 with, “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 office-holder’s actions were sinful in Paul’s estimation, the office deserved to be honored nonetheless. What is 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.34 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.

Paul is not saying the Romans should ignore the sin of their rulers, whitewash it, or see their “honorable” service as atoning for their sins. The overlap of the reign of Christ and that of man is not complete. There are large swaths of human leadership that need to be brought under the Christian ethic, as mentioned above. N. T. Wright aptly summarizes this tension:

Paul was always ready to honor the office even while criticizing the present holder.… Being able to say “the existing powers are ordained by God” while living under a system that, as he makes clear elsewhere, was bristling with potential or actual blasphemy and injustice, is part of Christian maturity—a part he urges his Roman readers to make their own.35

The next section examines how we might do just that.

4. Application: Clear Conscience Christians

Lest we contextualize Paul and the Romans to the point of relegating all application to history, we do well to remember that, although Romans 13:1–7 has a clear historical, literary, and theological setting that prohibits using it as a tool for foisting various political agendas, “Paul’s discussion of the relation of Christians to civil authorities, nevertheless, remains on the level of general principles.”36 These general principles can be used to help guide political interaction today. The findings of this study do not indicate that Christians should wholly endorse whatever secular government they find themselves under. Paul and the apostles clearly instruct and enact opposition to bad leadership (cf. Acts 5:29). However, the insights above do indicate that Paul had a category for honoring leaders that did not include morality within its consideration. 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.

Christians in modern America seem to move in the opposite direction. It is common to hear Christians say that they are 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, a fortiori, character flaws) should free the American Christian’s conscience to vote for a political candidate that displays non-Christian actions, even sinful ones. There is nothing inherently contradictory with desiring a certain political candidate to take office, even though his scruples are far from exemplary. Surely, Paul, the Romans, and every Christian alive during the egregious later reign of Nero were all pining for the days of Claudius who brought relative peace to the land, despite his being a sinful pagan. This biblical category (as mentioned above, it is not limited to Rom 13:1–7) of honoring those who are sinful unbinds the conscience of those Christians who seek to vote for various political candidates in order to promote social order and gospel proclamation by means of religious liberty.37

Of course, one could argue that voting for a candidate in a democratic system is de facto an endorsement of the individual’s behavior. The purpose of this paper is to show that such an argument—from a biblical perspective—is, at best, an uphill battle. Paul clearly operated from a paradigm that had categories for honoring those who were morally debauched. This paradigm is analogous to the system of democratic voting. For Paul, one is able to acknowledge political good in a spiritually depraved individual. For a citizen of a democracy, one is (or, at least, should be) capable of acknowledging potential political value while simultaneously rejecting spiritual and moral sinfulness. To a lesser extent, this is apparent in all sectors of theology. Theologians regularly acknowledge and reject moral failures of their forbearers who they nevertheless appropriate at a theological level. One thinks of Barthians rejecting Barth’s adultery, or Edwardsians rejecting Edwards’s slaveholding. Indeed, embracing anything anyone does as a Christian requires some level of moral rejection since “No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18 // Luke 18:19). Therefore, it seems clear that desiring a certain person to obtain a certain political office should not require the wholesale endorsement of the individual (recall the concept of Bertschmann’s Venn diagram). To be sure, wholesale endorsement seems to be the case in American politics. This indicates political idolatry, not biblical pagan-Christian relations. The Bible offers a better, more nuanced, way. We should honor the good things bad politicians do. Obtuse, black-and-white thinking is not Pauline, reformed, or Christian. As reformed thinkers in whatever sphere, we must distinguish.38 This is not a difficult or new concept. Indeed, it dates back at least as far as the 1st century when Paul wrote Romans.

[1] The Empire in Paul school sees Romans 13:1–7 as spiritual subversion to the emperor cult. They see Paul denigrating civil authorities in this passage (and others) because those authorities increasingly saw themselves as divine. However, this school still seems to understand Paul to be instructing civil obedience. Though Paul is denigrating their status as divine, he is recognizing their natural status as harbingers of order on a natural level. In the latter way, they should be submitted to. N. T. Wright gave an address in which he said, “Reminding the emperor’s subjects that the emperor is responsible to the true God is a diminution of, not a subjection to, imperial arrogance. But if this is so, then the Christian owes to the emperor, not indeed the worship Caesar claimed, but appropriate civil obedience. The subversive gospel is not designed to produce civil anarchy” (“Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire,” Reflections 2 [1998]:, italics mine). In the revised version of this address, Wright reproduces the first sentence above verbatim but omits the italicized portion (“Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire,” in Paul and Politics: Ekklesia, Israel, Imperium, Interpretation: Essays in Honor of Krister Stendahl, ed. Richard A. Horsley [Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2000], 172). If this omission indicates a change of mind, Wright would probably not agree with my thesis. If he still believes what is written in italics, it seems he would. This paper is about exegeting Paul, not Wright (both are difficult tasks). At any rate, some schools would disagree and some would agree. Cf. N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God 4 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013), 2:1302–4. T. L. Carter argues similarly that Paul is using irony to denigrate Roman authorities in “The Irony of Romans 13,” NovT 46 (2004): 209–28. Contra Wright’s view see, Dorothea H. Bertschmann, Bowing before ChristNodding to the State? Reading Paul Politically with Oliver O’Donovan and John Howard Yoder, LNTS 502 (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014); Seyoon Kim, Christ and Caesar: The Gospel and the Roman Empire in the Writings of Paul and Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008). Others say that Paul is only referring to Christian Roman authorities (like those mentioned in chapter 16). Against this view see, Paul David Feinberg, “The Christian and Civil Authorities,” Master’s Seminary Journal 10.1 (1999): 90–92. Though there are other interpretations that do not cohere with my thesis, I have tried to note the significant ones and references to viable rebuttals. I cannot discuss all competing views due to length restrictions.

[2] Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 2nd ed., NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), 823. For a helpful review of various recent readings that also notes the influence of the Cold War on the Empire school see, Bernard C. Lategan, “Romans 13:1–7: A Review of Post-1989 Readings,” Scriptura 110 (2012): 259–72. Cf. Jan Botha, Subject to Whose Authority? Multiple Readings of Romans 13, Emory Studies in Early Christianity 4 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1994).

[3] Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 824.

[4] D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 394.

[5] Cf. Suetonius, Divus Claudius 25.4.

[6] For a summary of various contextual theories see Craig Keener, Romans, New Covenant Commentary (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2009), 11–16.

[7] James D. G. Dunn, Romans 9–16, WBC 38B (Dallas: Word, 1988), 758.

[8] Bertschmann, Bowing before Christ—Nodding to the State?, 132–33.

[9] Robert H. Stein, “The Argument of Romans 13:1–7,” NovT 31 (1989): 334.

[10] Dorothea H Bertschmann, “The Good, the Bad and the State: Rom 13.1–7 and the Dynamics of Love,” NTS 60 (2014): 245.

[11] Another helpful distinction is seen in that “Taxes were used to finance roads and run the government but also to support Roman armies and temples devoted to the worship of the emperor.” Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 450.

[12] Josephus, Jewish War 2.350. One competing view not mentioned in note 1 is traced back to Oscar Cullman which states that Paul is referring here to spiritual powers (like demons). Oscar Cullmann, Christ and Time: The Primitive Christian Conception of Time and History (London: SCM, 1951), 191–210. For an interpretation against Cullman’s view see Bertschmann, Bowing before Christ—Nodding to the State?, 133–35. According to Käsemann, most exegetes have rejected this view. Ernst Käsemann, Commentary on Romans, trans. Geoffrey Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 353. It should be mentioned here, in passing, that Paul would also have in his mind people like Erastus who was both the city treasurer and an upstanding member of the church (Rom 16:23; 2 Tim 4:20; Cf. Phil 4:22) but it would be outlandish to assume that Paul has only people like him in mind when he makes these sweeping statements.

[13] Victor Paul Furnish, The Moral Teaching of Paul: Selected Issues (Nashville: Abingdon, 2009), 122.

[14] BDAG 353.

[15] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Romans: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, ΑΒ 33 (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 666.

[16] Moo wrongly claims (without providing a reference) that Tertullian and Origen saw this passage as indicating respect and honor only to God. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 822 n. 346. Though Origen does say “we ought to refer ‘fear and honor’ more to him [God]” (which does not exclude fearing and honoring man to a lesser degree) he also indicates—in line with Jewett’s findings below—that Christians should honor rulers so that they will not be oppressed. Origen, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans. Books 6–10, trans. Thomas P. Scheck, FC 104 (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2002), 228 (9.30). See also Tertullian, On Idolatry 15; John Chrysostom, Homilies on Romans 23.

[17] Beverly Roberts Gaventa, “Reading Romans 13 with Simone Weil: Toward a More Generous Hermeneutic,” JBL 136 (2017): 16.

[18] Gaventa, “Reading Romans 13 with Simone Weil,” 17.

[19] Otto Kiefer, Sexual Life in Ancient Rome (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2003), 509. The appellation “good husband” affixed here to man who “had many extra-marital relations” is indicative of the fact that even modern secular scholars who do not share a Christian sex ethic are able to see Nero’s depravity.

[20] Tacitus, Annals, in Complete Works of Tacitus, ed. Moses Hadas, trans. Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb, reprint ed. (New York: Modern Library, 2008), 14.13.

[21] Tacitus, Annals 14.14.

[22] Tacitus, Annals 14.15.

[23] Rebecca Langlands, Sexual Morality in Ancient Rome (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 365.

[24] Richard A. Horsley, ed., Paul and the Roman Imperial Order (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2004), 157.

[25] Langlands, Sexual Morality in Ancient Rome, 1–36.

[26] Catharine Edwards, Politics of Immorality in Ancient Rome (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 176.

[27] Augustine, The City of God 2.21.

[28] See the last sentence in note 12 above.

[29] Käsemann, Commentary on Romans, 356.

[30] Cranfield argued that the authorities in view here were not physical. This interpretation does not have much support today. See C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, ICC (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1975), 1:267–72.

[31] Robert Jewett, Romans: A Commentary, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007), 803.

[32] Käsemann, Commentary on Romans, 353.

[33] Fitzmyer takes this further by saying that rank, not performance, demands respect (Romans, 670).

[34] Thanks to Guy Waters for providing this entire insight to me. He does not necessarily endorse my position.

[35] N. T. Wright, “Romans,” in Acts–First Corinthians, ed. Leander E. Keck, NIB 10 (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 721–22.

[36] Fitzmyer, Romans, 664.

[37] A careful caveat must be put in place here. Integral to Paul’s argument in Romans 13:1–7 is 12:1–2. The honor that the Romans were to give to their pagan rulers was to be conditioned by a mind (and life) transformed by Christ. Paul put it this way: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (12:2). Paul is regularly hesitant, if not unwilling, to instruct his hearers with the law. Key to his understanding of the reign of Christ was the nullification of any notion of works-righteousness. It is by the law of Christ that Christians operate (1 Cor 9:21; Gal 6:2). Therefore, Paul rarely draws a line in the sand in determining what his hearers should and should not do in regards to actions that fall outside the clear ordinance of Scripture. For example, he does not tell Christians to eat or not eat meat sacrificed to idols (1 Cor 8). Rather, he tells the Corinthians, “But take care [βλέπετε] that this right of yours does not somehow [πώς] become a stumbling block to the weak” (1 Cor 8:9). Literally he tells them to “watch out” (βλέπετε). The indefinite word “somehow” (πώς) indicates that the Corinthians are to exercise judgment. They are to pay attention, pray, and think in order to determine if something they are doing (e.g., eating meat) might be detrimental to another believer’s faith. Paul does not give them the answer; they must determine what the “somehow” might be. The Christian is free in cases where his or her conscience is not bound by the Scriptures to exercise prayerful wisdom. Therefore, this paper does not give Christians the “liberty” to mandate various voting procedures, whatever they may be. The Christian is free to vote, but he is not constrained. He should pay attention, think, pray, and seek to determine how he might best fulfill the law of Christ. It might be by voting for an upstanding candidate, a debauched one, or not voting at all. One thing Christians must not do is legalistically proscribe or prescribe specific political actions that are not expressly condemned or commanded in Scripture. Voting for morally dubious candidates is, as we have seen, not only not expressly condemned, it is biblically warranted.

[38] I allude here to Turretin, who beautifully demonstrates a frequent propensity to distinguish between wholesale endorsement or rejection of various theological ideas, all the while maintaining impeccable orthodoxy. For example, Turretin engages the age-old question of whether “the will of God is the primary rule of justice.” In other words, is right and wrong based on God’s freewill or his intrinsic being (this is akin to the Euthyphro dilemma)? Rather than simply choosing one option or the other, Turretin distinguishes between the two by saying, “the will [of God] … is the first rule of justice extrinsically and in reference to us, but not intrinsically and in reference to God.” Turretin says right and wrong is based on God’s will for us humans when it comes to things like OT ceremonies (these were commanded by God as per his good pleasure, but he could have been pleased to command something else or nothing instead). On the other hand, right and wrong is not based on his will when it comes to something like loving God, which is necessarily right due to God’s intrinsic goodness. This demonstrates, in my opinion, a high-water mark in Christian thinking, to which we would do well to return. Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. James T. Dennison, trans. George Giger (Philippsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1997), 232–34.

Robert Golding

Robert Golding is the lead pastor of First Christian Reformed Church of Artesia, California.

Other Articles in this Issue

This article examines Christopher Nolan’s three most recent films, Interstellar (2014), Dunkirk (2017), and Tenet (2020), through the lens of Christianity’s preeminent theological virtues: love, hope, and faith, respectively...

Syncretism—the blending of two or more religious paradigms—threatens Christian witness around the world...

Mark 2:26 has presented itself as a difficult textual and historical problem for interpreters...

This article is a response to Robert Golding’s recent essay, “Making Sense of Hell,” in which he contends for the logic of eternal punishment on the basis of a progressive and asymptotic conception of sin and sinners in hell...

There is a widespread belief that Paul understood his Gentile mission as the brief final chapter of salvation-history, preceding—or even triggering—the imminent return of Jesus...