Be Subject To Ruling Authorities

Toward the end of his letter to the Romans, Paul offers a series of instructions regarding appropriate Christian behavior. Christians ought not to be "conformed to this age" but "transformed," demonstrating the good (aga-thos), acceptable (euarestos), and perfect (teleios) will of God (Rom 12:2). This good behavior involved, for example, loving one another, serving the Lord, rejoicing in hope, practicing hospitality, living in harmony, and "giving place to the wrath" (dote topon te orge), probably a reference to the coming eschaton (Rom 12:10, 12, 16, 19). In this context, Paul exhorted his readers to "be subject to the governing authorities [eXouoiai], for there is no authority [exousia] except by means of God" (Rom 13:1).

Given Paul's indictment of the depravity of gentiles-without-Christ earlier in this letter, these instructions seem oddly out of place. In other letters, Paul had suggested that Christ followers should remain subordinate to those who possess authority over them, at least for now.95 Still, having repeatedly referenced the depravity of these gentiles, the view that the exousia (authority) of idolatrous rulers (archontes) is given by God is striking. Yet, Paul specifically instructed Christians to submit to archontes:

For rulers are not a fear to good work, but to bad. You do not want not to have fear of authority? Do what is good, and you will have its approval. For it is God's servant for you, for good. But if you should do wrong, be afraid, for it [authority] does not carry the sword in vain. For it is a servant of God to execute wrath against those who do wrong.

Having argued that those who do wrong are condemned to the wrath of God,96 Paul now places rulers in the position of those who, knowingly or unknowingly, carry out God's wrath against those who commit evil. Still, he prefaces these comments by noting that the beloved (i.e., the Christ followers) ought not to avenge themselves but "give place to the wrath"; in other words, God will take care of them. He further reminds his audience that "the hour" is near (Rom 12:19, 13:11). Since "the day is at hand," believers ought to conduct themselves in a presentable manner (eusche-monos), not in "reveling, drunkenness, beds [koitais, euphemistic for sexual indulgence], licentiousness [aselgeiais], quarreling and jealousy." Rather, they ought to "put on the Lord Jesus Christ" and avoid the flesh and its desires (Rom 13:13-14). The saints ought to submit to the rulers, since, as doers of good rather than doers of evil, they should have no reason to fear them. Paul characteristically defined "good" (agathos) here as rejection of desire and "bad" (kakos) as overindulgence in activities related to desire, especially sexual intercourse. Paul then recommended obedience to proper "authority" (exousia), in this case "the authorities" that collect taxes, wield a sword, demand fear, and seek honor (Rom 13:6-7). But did Paul believe that his rulers were "good"?

By stating that one ought to have nothing to fear from the rulers as long as one is doing good, Paul may have referenced the view that good rulers reward good, virtuous behavior but punish vice. In theory, good kings, good rulers, and good emperors are pious, beneficent, brave, just, moderate, and wise. Consequently, they encourage bravery, moderation, justice, piety, and wisdom among their subjects.97 Horace makes precisely this point when praising Augustus. Thanks to the Augustus, adulteries have ceased, mothers bear legitimate children, lust has been tamed, and punishment follows guilt.98 Similarly, Pliny praises Trajan's exceptional virtues and their marvelous, empirewide effects. Thanks to Trajan, all the subjects of the empire, even the poorest, raise legitimate children who will grow into adulthood. Slaves obey their masters and masters care for their slaves (Plin. Pan. 26-7, 42). Across the empire, emperors were represented as universal benefactors, saviors, sons of a god, fulfillments of divinely ordained providence, and the guarantors of peace, security, and piety.99 Even Philo linked the exceptional virtue and piety of Augustus and Tiberius with the peace and prosperity of the empire during their reigns. According to Philo, Augustus's every virtue "outshone human nature" (Philo Leg. 143).100 He brought peace to the entire empire, rid the sea of pirates, and set every city at liberty (Leg. 145-47). He was "the first and universal benefactor," and thus the whole world voted him honors equal to those of the gods (149). Similarly, Tiberius, possessing noble ancestry, wisdom and eloquence, preserved the peace across the empire throughout his reign (142). These two noble emperors were contrasted with Gaius Caligula, whom Philo represents as a deranged, impious murderer. Gaius greedily stole from every inhabitant of the empire and brought sickness to the healthy and premature death to the living, while transforming the peace his predecessors had established to uproar. Augustus and Tiberius, Philo notes, had been favorably compared with the gods; however, Gaius—profligate, greedy and mad—indulged in a previously unheard of pretension, declaring himself to be a god (74-114). Building upon traditional categories of virtue and vice, Philo sought to win favor from Emperor Claudius for the redress of the grievances of the Alexandrian Jews. To that end, he extolled the virtue of two exemplary emperors and condemned the wickedness of the previous emperor.101 The decadence, inconsistency, and greed of Gaius led to disorder, sickness, and misery of emperor, empire, and subjects. The good ruler embodied virtue; therefore, he ought to establish virtue among his subjects and grant peace in his kingdom. The good princeps, according to this theory, was firmly in control of himself and responsible for a moral climate in which the virtues flourish and vices are punished.102

Paul's argument that (good) rulers are not a terror to good behavior but to bad was therefore quite typical. What is missing, however, is the qualifier "good" (agathos), for as everyone knew, rulers could also be "bad" (kakos), a character flaw that would bring misery upon ruler and subject alike. Did Paul think that every ruler, good or bad, was a servant of God whose responsibilities included the execution of God's wrath against those who do wrong? Certainly, Paul has been interpreted in this way.103 Yet Paul's other arguments suggest that he believed that his rulers were already indicted by God's wrath, for they, like every gentile, had been handed over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity and to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves. They live according to the flesh, are idolaters, possess base minds, are slaves to lust and incapable of sound judgment, and can only continue to corrupt an already corrupt world. Where Philo, Suetonius, and Plutarch singled out particular rulers as licentious, in con trast to those good rulers who kept their desires in check, Paul implied that such a good gentile ruler could not possibly exist. How could he if the only virtuous gentile, let alone ruler, is a Christ follower?

Paul does not advocate a forceful overthrow of the current gentile regime. On the contrary, he warns the brothers and sisters in Christ to submit to the authorities, no matter how corrupt. Perhaps, by leaving out the qualifier "good," however, Paul means to suggest that the gentiles-in-Christ must submit for the time being, even to a bad ruler who behaves in a way contrary to his station, punishing the good rather than the bad and promoting vice rather than virtue. After all, "the day is at hand" and so the Christ followers in Rome ought to "live peaceably with all," if possible (Rom 12:18). God will soon take care of the bad rulers; indeed, God already has. Their corruption is revealed by their unwillingness to "put on the Lord Jesus Christ," and, in consequence, God has already abandoned them to dishonorable lust. Given Paul's representation of the corrupt world, how are we to read the injunction to "pay all of them their dues; taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due and honor to whom honor is due" (Rom 13:7)? If all the gentiles-not-in-Christ are prone to vice and enslaved to their passions, can they ever deserve honor and respect? No, but God's devastating judgment will soon be revealed. In fact, the wrath is apparent even now, so live peaceably and wait.104

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