The Old Testament Context of Romans 13
“For because of this you also pay taxes…” This passage is the bane of every Christian libertarian’s existence not because of its opposition to our beliefs but because of the reflexive and unthinking usage of it by Christians to justify whatever the State does. A libertarian commentary on Romans 13 can be found in Brandon Adams’ series in the resources section at the end of this article, and this part of our series will rely heavily on his work. Before diving into the reasoning for my interpretation, let me briefly sum up the gist of Romans 13. We should not take the description of the rulers’ activities here as being prescriptive for those in governance. Of those “mighty men” of the State, it is descriptive. Paul is not trying to provide us with a systematic treatise on the proper role of the State or give moral guidelines for what government is supposed to do. He is simply trying to tell Christians how to act in light of the State’s existence. The prescriptive part is for us-the descriptive part is for the governing authorities. The whole-Bible context leads us to this conclusion. To be clear, the passage is telling us to pay our taxes. But telling us to pay our taxes is not the same as justifying the taxation. In the same way, Jesus telling someone to turn their cheek does not justify cheek-slapping. One reason for the Christian duty to pay taxes is actually given right there in the Romans 13 section. Failing to pay our taxes results in negative consequences that we should fear (such as death or jail). States don’t use the sword in vain. They tend to be effective in their intended goals. Christians can’t spread their gospel and change the world if all of them are in jail.
What you won’t find in Romans 13 are the Departments of Agriculture, Defense, Veterans Affairs, Homeland Security, Education, Urban and Housing Development, Energy, Labor, Environmental Protection Agency, Commerce, Transportation, Health and Human Services, Interior, the Post Office, or the Ocasio-Cortez Department of Healthcare. Romans 13 simply makes a general descriptive statement that governments punish the evildoer (a broad term which is not even defined for us). If it engages in mass theft, however, it becomes the evildoer. My section on Romans 13 will be the longest because the primary biblical reason the modern church supports the government’s ability to be exempt from following the moral law of God is due to their belief that the office of the State is a divinely sanctioned institution per Romans 13 (and possibly a few other places.) While it is true that governance by individuals is divinely sanctioned by God and will always be with us, the State is not. The State is an inherent evil and a judgment that does not fall under God’s preceptive will. Please note the way I am using “State” here. Understanding the distinction between the “State” and “governance” is crucial if you want to understand everything that is to follow. As I will note in part 4: “The State is a term referring to a territorial monopoly on the initiation of aggression in a given society. It has the ability to outlaw other States from rising up and competing with it by establishing its own law code. It is what we typically think of when we think of government. However, government doesn’t have to monopolize its services. When there is no State outlawing competitors in the business of law and defense, we have a private law system. Such a system is funded entirely by voluntary means.” The State is the idea that God has granted a special subsection of humans (government/the State) the ability to monopolize its administration of justice. However, the Reformed Libertarian view is that this authority is simply delegated to all of humanity via such texts like Genesis 9:6. We are not entirely alone in this. As John Frame has struggled through these issues, he appears to have come to a very similar conclusion:
“State” is not a biblical category in the sense that “family,” “people of God,” “Israel,” and “church,” are biblical categories… But in what passage did God establish the state? Some have found divine warrant for the state in Gen 9:6, where God commands Noah’s family to return bloodshed for bloodshed. But this is a command given to a family. There is no indication of any new institution being established. And in the law of Moses, the execution of murderers was carried out, not by the state as such, but by the “avenger of blood,” kin of the murder victim, Num 35:19, 21; Deut 19:12. The family, here, is the instrument of justice. We have no reason to believe, therefore, that any special institution beyond the family for the establishment of justice was created in Gen 9:6…For that reason, I consider it somewhat misleading to talk about a “divine institution of the state,” or to speak of “family, church, and state” as “God’s institutions,” on a level with one another. I shall, however, use “state” to refer to the family elder-structures beyond the nuclear and extended families.
Frame’s theology of the state is very helpful, even if he doesn’t come to exactly the same conclusions as we would. He goes on to note that, as commented on by Brandon Adams, “a natural outgrowth leads to various ways of ordering this authority as societies grow, but that these changes (including numerous judges, a head judge, and then a king) do not introduce anything essentially different in nature than the authority given to families.” Israel’s governance, from Moses’ commissioning of the individual judges over hundreds and fifties, etc. to the period in the book of Judges seems to merely be an outgrowth and expansion of the authority granted to individuals to administer justice. I agree with Frame and Adams that even the institution of the king wasn’t in and of itself, the State. After all, God himself seems to sanction the office of the king all the way back in Deuteronomy 17:14-20. Remember, the key difference in the State and a government is whether or not it monopolizes its dispute resolution services and allows other arbiters to make rulings within its borders. A voluntarily selected kingship doesn’t have to exhibit this characteristic. For example, Hans Adam II, the current prince of Liechtenstein, is noted as saying, “The State should treat its citizens like an enterprise treats its customers. For this to work, the State also needs competition. We therefore support the right of self-determination at the municipal level, in order to end the monopoly of the State over its services.” The right to secede from a government is essential if we want to remain free.
The problem with Israel comes when they give their reasoning for wanting a king. Samuel had appointed his sons as judges over Israel, and this was the first time hereditary judges had been appointed. So, Samuel himself should probably be blamed for the problems to follow. His sons ended up ruling unrighteously and perverted justice. In response, the people demand a king “like all the nations.” It is this phrase that seems to be the key in interpreting what is happening here. The people probably saw the perversion of justice that their leaders were committing and were rightly fearful of God’s impending punishment and judgment. No doubt, they were fearful that the Phillistines and the Ammonites were to be used as a judgment against them (v. 20, 9:16, 10:5, 12:12). However, instead of demanding the removal of leadership based on heredity alone and insisting on godly leaders, they let their fear drive them to demand a king “like the other nations.” These other nations tended to rule harshly and with a iron fist, particularly with their ability enact a tax. You can see this same impulse all around us today. Countries, like the USA, do have legitimate threats of an attack by another nation. The people become fearful and grant the government powers they shouldn’t have in order to protect themselves. They trade liberty for a false sense of security. This is why the Lord said, “[B]ut they have rejected me from being king over them.” (1 Samuel 8:7) Instead of obeying the Lord’s precepts for a godly government and trusting in Him to protect them, they demanded a centralized and powerful authority over them “like the other nations.” In response, God spells out exactly how he will use the office of the king to enact judgment on them. Note the repeated references to the king’s taking of property:
So Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking for a king from him. He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day. 1 Samuel 8:10-18
The people had the option to have God as their king by obeying his precepts for godly governance, but that wasn’t enough for them. They wanted a king like the other nations, and they got exactly what they wanted. They got a government that began to exhibit clear characteristics of a State as a judgment. Although we see imperfections and abuses of power under the kingship of Saul and David, it is at the end of the reign of King Solomon that we really begin to see the judgment begin to unfold. King Solomon enslaved his enemies and forced them to work for him, which was a violation of the Mosaic Covenant. This led directly to the judgment of the kingdom of Israel when it was split in half under Solomon’s son Rehoboam. Due to Solomon’s overbearing government, the people made a formal complaint to Rehoboam (1 Kings 12). Rehoboam tells them that his yoke will be even heavier than his father’s. This led to the split of the kingdom into two and the subsequent conquest of the nation that would follow. In 2 Kings 17:3 we learn that Israel has to pay a tribute (tax) to the king of Assyria. This was a covenant judgment for Israel’s failure to follow Mosaic Law. The tribes of Judah would suffer a similar fate (2 Kings 18:14). They would later return to the land but would still be under God’s judgment, as they would still be under other nations’ rule-first through the Persian Empire, then to the Greeks, and then later to the Romans. It is this Old Covenant context that we can better understand Romans 13. I disagree in part with how Brandon Adams comes to his conclusion in the following essay on the connection between Nebuchadnezzar and Romans 13 , but it is still worth quoting from to get a sense of all this. Bear with me; I will sum up the relevance for us at the end:
A basic question of Romans 13 is whether it is referring to a ruler in his person, or a ruler in his office – and subsequently whether the powers that are “ordained by God” refer to God’s decretive will (individual rulers are providentially ordained) or to God’s preceptive will (the office of magistrate is commanded as an authority over the people)…An important question is how Nebuchadnezzar relates to Romans 13. Did Paul have Daniel’s statement about Nebuchadnezzar in mind?…God simply uses the mighty men of renown to accomplish His purpose on earth. Giving Nebuchadnezzar a kingdom does not mean lawfully appointing him to an office. It means giving him the power to sinfully crush all opposition…If that is the background Paul has in mind in Romans 13, then he is not referring to the ordination of the office of magistrate, but to the providential use of mighty men for His purpose. But if that is the case, why are we commanded to submit? Obedience is a response to God’s revealed, preceptive will, not his secret, decretive will. A clue lies in the fact that God commanded Judah to submit to the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar.
Jer. 21:8 “Now you shall say to this people, ‘Thus says the Lord: “Behold, I set before you the way of life and the way of death. He who remains in this city shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence; but he who goes out and defects to the Chaldeans who besiege you, he shall live, and his life shall be as a prize to him. For I have set My face against this city for adversity and not for good,” says the Lord. “It shall be given into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall burn it with fire.” ’
Why did God command them to submit? Was it simply a matter of natural law that they had to submit to a conquering tyrant? No, as Rutherford explains
Conquest, seeing it is an act of violence, and God’s revenging justice for the sins of a people, cannot give in God’s court such a just title to the throne as the people are to submit their consciences unto, except God reveal his regulating will by some immediate voice from heaven, as he commanded Judah to submit to Nebuchadnezzar as to their king by the mouth of Jeremiah…He commanded them to submit…in order to weed out the faithful remnant in Judah and spare them. Those who trusted in the LORD and believed his word concerning their judgment would be spared (it wound up being 7,000). Those who did not listen to his warning but listened to the false prophets proclaiming peace in the city would be destroyed.
In the same essay, Sam Waldron goes on to look at the prophecies of Daniel to describe why this is applicable to us today:
For it was of the Roman Empire, the fourth and iron kingdom of Daniel 2, of which Paul was speaking. The four Gentile kingdoms of Dan. 2 include ultimately all non Theocratic civil authority ruling over the people of God till the end of the age and the dawning of the Theocratic kingdom. Nebuchadnezzar’s authority becomes that of his sons, and their authority devolves to Cyrus and his successors, and thence to Greece and Rome. Rome’s authority unfolds to include all human, civil authority during this age until its eschatological consummation…All of this [discussion of Daniel 2 and 7] raises the question of the character and timing of the restoration of the Theocratic kingdom. This is all the more necessary if we are to assess the significance of all this for the church. If the Theocratic disruption continues today, the Church’s relationship to civil government [or rather “to Gentile kingdoms” since we are talking about persons, not an office] will be governed by the principles which governed Israel subsequent to the Exile…A growing number of evangelical scholars are committed to what might be called a synthesis of these views at least in regard to their view of the coming of the kingdom. These scholars recognize a tension in the N.T. regarding the coming of the kingdom: an “already” and a “not yet” in the coming of the kingdom. They believe the kingdom prophesied in the O. T. unfolds itself in two successive stages. The kingdom foretold by the prophets without self-conscious distinction between these two phases (1 Pet. 1:10, 11) comes indeed, but first in an inaugural and then in a consummate form. This is perhaps the unique feature of N. T. eschatology and pervades its thought structures (cf. for example 1 Cor. 15:20-28)…Applying this framework to the interpretation of Daniel and the restoration of the Theocratic kingdom, one obtains the result that a tension exists between the “already” and “not yet” aspects of the restoration of the Theocratic kingdom…Fairbairn perceives this relation.
“Not only so; but when the kingdom had fallen to its very foundations, and to the eye of sense lay smitten by the rod of Babylon as with an irrecoverable doom, that precisely was the time, and Babylon itself the place, chosen by God to reveal, through his servant Daniel, the certain resurrection of the kingdom, and its ultimate triumph over all rival powers and adverse influences. In contradistinction to the Chaldean and other worldly kingdoms, which were all destined to pass away, and become like the dust of the summer threshing floor, he announced the setting up of a kingdom by the God of heaven, which should never be destroyed,a kingdom which, in principle, should be the same with the Jewish theocracy and in history should form but a renewal and prolongation, in happier circumstances, of its existence; for it was to be, as of old, a kingdom of priests to God, or of the people of the saints of the Most High; and as such, an everlasting kingdom, which all the dominions were to serve and obey.”
There is an eschatological motive behind our duty to submit. The prophecy of Daniel 7 makes it clear that during the time of the fourth kingdom (the Roman empire), the Son of Man will establish his kingdom and be granted dominion over all the kingdoms, peoples, and nations of the earth (7:12-14, 18, 22, 26-27). Yet, in verse 12 we read: “As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away, but their lives were prolonged for a season and a time.” (7:12) Here we have the “not yet” aspect of the gradual growth of the kingdom described. We submit due to this “not yet” aspect of the realization of God’s kingdom on earth. We are already citizens of the kingdom of God, but we do not yet see that reality fully manifested “on earth as it is in heaven.” All of history is moving towards this restoration of the earthly theocracy that we got a shadowy glimpse of in OT Israel. Since we are still dealing with this “not yet” aspect of the realization of God’s kingdom on earth, God is still using the State as a judgment and chastening tool on his people and throughout the world. In other words, God using other kingdoms to judge the nation of Israel in the Old Testament continues to apply to Christians and nations today. The command to submit is a positive law, that is, a command for a particular historical context. That context is any place where a Christian finds himself under the rule of a State. There might come a day when Christians successfully throw off the yoke of the State and enact a system of private governance. In that context, the command to submit would no longer be needed. This is the case because the interactions with the private governments, by definition, would be voluntary. In fact, one could argue that we have already seen a few notable examples of stateless/private law societies in history.
As to the flip-side of this eschatological coin (the “already” side), we follow the laws of Christ’s kingdom, which has received all dominion (Daniel 7:12). His kingdom is one governed in an entirely different way than the earthly kingdoms. Jesus describes the rule of the Gentiles in Matthew 20:25: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.” He contrasts their kingdom with his. His is one ruled by servant leadership and is characterized by the golden rule and “Peace on Earth.” This is why Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” (John 18:36) Aggression, force, and violence (the definition of the State) doesn’t define his kingdom. Jesus wasn’t trying to establish some sort of other-worldly dualism with this statement. He was telling us where his kingdom originates from and receives its authority. The authority of Jesus’ kingdom comes from the Father alone. All other earthly kingdoms are mere pawns in God’s grand plan of redemption throughout history. Jesus was explicit about this in his answer to Pilate: “Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.” (John 19:11)
We attempt to peacefully remove the State’s overbearing influence on our lives due to the “already” establishment of God’s kingdom on earth. We are now already under the government of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords alone (Psalm 29:10, 1 Chronicles 29:11-12). All of the earthly rulers and authorities fall under Christ’s reign and kingship (Dan. 7:13-14, 1 Cor. 15:27, Eph. 1:20-22, Col. 1:15-18, 1 Peter 3:21-22, Titus 3:1, Hebrews 2:8, Jude 25). The NT repeatedly emphasizes that He is Lord of all things (John 5:22), including all earthly authorities and powers. Jesus specifically says that “All authority on heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18). This king Jesus “has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.” (1 Peter. 3:21-22) Ephesians 1:20-23 summarizes his lordship well: “…that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things…” The Bible is even more explicit (as if it hasn’t been already) in Revelation 1:5: “…and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth.”
Brandon Adams concludes his section from above:
The distinction between person and office in Romans 13 goes back at least to Chrysostom. Most have either argued that Romans 13 refers to both or that it refers only to the office. In light of the above, I think there is strong evidence to consider Romans 13 as referring to the person and not to an office. God providentially empowers mighty men to reign as “king of the hill” during the “times of the Gentiles.” These men do not possess legitimate, legal authority on a human level.
Now, Brandon is an amillenialist and sees this “times of the Gentiles” in a more static way than a postmillennialist, like myself, would. For our purposes here, the precise eschatology doesn’t matter, though, because there is an “already/not yet” aspect even under postmillennialism. The State could potentially operate in certain areas of the world all the way up to the end of history even under a postmillennial system. It is important to note why Brandon labored to make the distinction between person and office. If Romans 13 is referring to the people God providentially places in office and not to the office itself, then it follows that this chapter is not giving divine approval to the State. Also, remember what we established in part one. The key to libertarian theory is the consistent application of the moral law of God to all individuals in society. If we note that government is merely a collection of individuals, we should expect those in governance to follow his moral law as well. And we have just established that Romans 13 is not giving divine sanction to an office of the State. The fact that Romans 13 is not referring to the office is furthered by the way we used to interpret “authorities” in Romans 13:1. The word used to be translated “powers” before the turn of the twentieth century. This is significant, as Brandon Adams notes:
Switching the language used by Paul to refer to political officials from “powers” to “authorities” fits better with the idea that such “authority” might be either legitimate or illegitimate. Power, by contrast, either is or is not.
This being the case, we can better understand what Paul’s pastoral intention behind the command to submit is. The members (especially Jewish) of the NT church knew their Roman rulers were a judgment on them, and Paul needed to quell any violent, revolutionary intent. Remember the mentions of the Jewish zealots in the gospels, such as Barabbas? Violent conflict was an established reality between the Jews and the Roman government. The Jewish leaders themselves rejected the idea that the Romans had any right to rule them (John 8:33). We also read of Theudas in Acts 5:36 who led 400 men in an unsuccessful revolt. It was likely similar to the tax revolt led by the well-known zealot named Judas that we read about one verse later. As far as the church goes, we read that the Romans largely left them alone in much of the book of Acts, but there came a point when things began to change. For example, we read about the famous “Edict of Claudius” in Acts 18:2 where he expelled all the Jews from Rome due to rioting that had broke out. This included Jewish converts in the church. The Gentile members of the church were likely (and rightfully) concerned that the attention would soon turn onto them. The tension was beginning to mount. In other words, the purpose of Romans 13 is much more limited than Christians imagine. The section is directed to us (the church), not the State. It is not trying to describe the ideal state or legitimize the State as a divinely appointed authority. It is merely a positive law command to not attempt to overthrow the State by violent means. Christians are, however, supposed to peacefully work to rid themselves of the State’s power over their lives, while simultaneously submitting to it and paying its taxes. We do this through preaching the gospel to all and seeing regeneration, teaching the world the truth about “all things” (Matthew 28:20), and through involvement in the political process.
In light of all of this, Brandon Adams has offered the following paraphrase of Romans 13:
Let every soul be subject to the powers over them. For there is no power but from God and the powers that exist have been providentially placed there by God. Therefore whoever rebels against those powers is rebelling against what God has appointed, and those who rebel will bring judgment on themselves. (For rulers cause no fear for good conduct but for bad). Do you want to be free from fear of the one who has power? Then don’t resist him and you will receive his approval. For a powerful ruler is God’s instrument for your good [Rom. 8:28]. But if you disobey God and rebel, be afraid, for God has not empowered him with the strength of the sword in vain. He is God’s instrument to administer retribution on those who disobey (such as Jerusalem). Therefore you must not rebel, not only because of the wrath of the powers but also because of your conscience (because you know that God has providentially given them power for your good). For this reason you should also pay taxes, for they are God’s servants [slaves/pawns] attending continually upon this very thing. Pay everyone what is due: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.
In short, the State and its rulers are part of God’s will in one sense (decretive), but so are all the other evils throughout history. A lot of Christians will object to the idea that the State is an evil and that Romans 13’s description of government is not prescriptive. They put special focus on Romans 13:4: “for he is God’s servant for your good.” In light of everything that has been offered above, I think it is best to view this as descriptive of the fact that evil Sates are, in fact, used by God for our good. This is the positivistic interpretation of Romans 13 which says that it describes what the State actually does instead of what the State ought to do. The State can simultaneously be evil and still be used by God for our good. A strong view of God’s sovereignty is key to understanding this chapter. Remember the message of Romans 8:28: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” It is an acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty over all things, including all the evil in this world. God has plans and purposes for placing his people under the yoke of States throughout history, and he uses those circumstances to perfect and chasten his people just like he does with all the other trials and evils we face. Likewise, the institution of the State can be evil in and of itself, but it can also perform good deeds. When a State rightfully executes a murderer, it has done a good thing, even if we object to the way it has funded its activities (theft). In the midst of all of the injustice that is carried out by the State, they do legitimately manage to righteously execute justice at times. When it does, we should acknowledge it.
We also need to consider the immediately preceding context in Romans 12:
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. Romans 12:14-21
Christians typically speak of Romans 13 and its instructions about government as if it came out of nowhere in the text, but it fits perfectly with what came before it. Paul had just laid out instructions on how to deal with our enemies. He tells us to patiently endure their mistreatment and love them even if they don’t deserve it. This complies with Jesus’ instructions in the gospels on how to treat our enemies and those who mistreat us. Paul’s instruction in Romans 12 then leads right into an example of where he thinks this lesson needs to be applied: in dealing with the evil actions of the State and its rulers. The State is our enemy. He is telling the reader to patiently endure the mistreatment by the State because God uses it for our good. One of the greatest testimonies a Christian can give to the watching world is to pay the State’s taxes and submit to its yoke. This witness is all the more compelling coming from a libertarian Christian who believes the State’s actions are inherently evil. If, as most modern Christians believe, the State is a divinely sanctioned good for humanity, then what use is it to try and point to their payment of taxes as evidence of their Christian faith? We might respond with Jesus, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (Mathew 5:46-47) In other words, if you think that taxes and the State are so great, what use is it to try and point to your “submission” to it as evidence of your Christianity? The Christian libertarian has the advantage of showing his Spirit-empowered ability to love his enemies by paying their taxes in spite of the fact that he believes it is theft. This is a real and meaningful example of turning the other cheek.
What is also clear is that we cannot construct an entire political theology based off of isolating Romans 13, but that is exactly what many Christians seem to have done. We need to let Scripture interpret Scripture. This includes the subject of the State. After compiling all of the biblical evidence, we learn that God’s use of the State to judge His people is in no way an endorsement of that State’s actions. We submit to the State on biblically commanded pragmatic grounds (we will be in jail or dead if we don’t). We also submit to the State because we know that, as with OT Israel and her enemies, God is providentially using States throughout history to chasten his people and the world at large.
This is the Old Testament context of which Brandon Adams writes about in his other important article where he notes the word “tax” in Romans 13:6 is more properly rendered as “tribute” (as to a conquering ruler). This tribute simply continues the long line of taxes imposed on Israel that were used as a judgment against them:
The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia says that in the OT “tribute,” really meant “forced laborers,” “labor gang” (1Ki 4:6; 9:15, 21); also “forced service,” “serfdom”; possibly “forced payment” is meant in Esther 10:1…I believe this is the appropriate context of Romans 13. I don’t think Paul is simply addressing the institution of civil government and the annoying need to pay their wages for benefits we receive from them. Rather, I believe Paul is addressing the fact that a pagan foreign ruler who claims to be a god is oppressively demanding that Christians, citizens of the kingdom of heaven, worship him by paying tribute as his loyal subjects. And this is precisely why Paul answers in the way he does. These kings who dominate you and demand tribute are not god. They are not supreme. They are God’s vassals! He rules them and they serve Him. They do His bidding whether they know it or not…God providentially reigns from heaven over your pagan rulers.
If everything I have laid out in this section is true, what are we to make of OT “taxation”? First, I need to note that this is not an illegitimate question. Too often this question is dismissed by libertarians as being so clearly answered by “God can do what he wants.” Clearly, this is not enough. In light of the Reformed Libertarian’s claim about our unique application of the moral law to those in governance, we really need to have an actual answer to this. Either the OT “tax” was a positive law distinctive to a particular time and place (which we need to explain), or it wasn’t a tax. As it turns out, it is the latter. As Joel McDurmon demonstrates here, none of the “poor laws,” “tithes,” and offerings to the Levites were enforced with a punishment by the civil magistrate. It was simply a moral command by God, much the same way NT Christians are commanded to give to our churches. There would be a punishment for failing to give, but this would be a punishment dealt out by God alone. It was not a matter the civil magistrate was to involve itself in. OT “tithes” were simply commanded, voluntary payments. No aggression and force was required.
Brandon Adams’ comments conclude our section nicely. Just to be clear, he is using “civil authorities” as a synonym for the State:
Long story short, it is not the case that our experience or Scripture teaches that man depends upon something called “civil authorities” for protection. God did not institute “civil government” to protect us from sinful men. God “instituted” the 6th commandment alongside the law of retribution (see also) to protect us from sinful men, whether they be our rulers or common criminals.
The Overarching Narrative
The “already/not yet” narrative is essential to establish in understanding our current attitude towards States, but it still leaves many holes in our understanding. After all, every eschatological scheme embraces some sort of “already/not yet” aspect. I want to conclude our explanation of Romans 13 and briefly lay out a sort of biblical theology which will hopefully help us fill in those gaps. Much ink has been spilled (one kingdom vs. two kingdoms, amillenialism vs. postmillenialism, the future of Israel) over this issue, but let me briefly give my current understanding.
Israel and even the disciples (Matthew 24) were under the impression that the “times of the Gentiles” would come to an end at the coming of the Messiah. They believed it would be accomplished through political and military conquest of the nations. Jesus comes and corrects their misunderstanding. Jerusalem will actually be crushed by the Gentiles in AD 70. The victory over the Gentile nations would be accomplished through their conversion and their grafting in to the Olive Tree (Romans 11:11-31). Keith Mathison notes,
He wants them to understand a mystery [Romans 11:25]. In this context, “mystery” refers to a previously un-revealed end-time event. The mystery involves the reversal of Jewish expectations of end-time events. Rather than Israel being restored first followed by the salvation of the Gentiles, the Gentiles are being brought in while Israel is presently hardened. The mystery is that the restoration of Israel follows the salvation of the Gentiles.”
The time in history of God using Israel as a shadowy type of his future kingdom has come to a close. The “times of the Gentiles” has come and Jerusalem will be trampled on until these times have come to an end (Luke 21:24). The eschatological kingdom of Christ has arrived where the “government will be upon his shoulders” and “of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish and sustain it with justice and righteousness from that time and forevermore.” (Isaiah 9:6-7) The kingdom of Christ was prophesied to defeat all the earthly kingdoms all throughout the Old Testament, and this fact is re-affirmed throughout the New Testament. In light of this fact, we do attempt to influence the government by non-violent means: “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here…and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.” (Acts 17:6-7) I cannot imagine a clearer summary of our response to the State in light of Christ’s kingship than that. There are other references too, such as the well-known “We must obey God rather than men” line by Peter and John 19:11b which further establishes our King Jesus’ authority over all earthly kings. The Great Commission makes this same point. Jesus said “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” The response? His disciples are to go to all nations and teach them everything the Lord had taught them. This message not only taught the power of the gospel over the sin and guilt in certain individual hearts, but it also applied to earthly kings and rulers who must now bow to the King of Kings (Psalm 2). The Jews had expected this conquest to be accomplished militarily, but Jesus turned this on his head by preaching that it is to be accomplished through the preaching of his truth (Matthew 28:18-20). The weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh. We use the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God (Ephesians 6:17). Our weapons now are “destroying arguments” and these arguments have “divine power to destroy strongholds.” (2 Corinthians 10:4-5). The method of conquest of Gentile kings and governments would now (in the NT era) be their conversion to the gospel and applying everything Jesus has taught us (Matthew 28:18-20). We see that they made significant headway even before the NT canon had come to a close: “All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household.” (Philippians 4:22)
How are we to accomplish such a momentous task? How are we to crush the kingdoms of this world without military conquest and with “only” the power of His Word? Jesus tells his disciples that He will send the Helper to empower them for his task. No longer will the Spirit be limited to regenerating his saints and only coming upon his people in their relation to their proximity to the OT temple. He will now permanently indwell each and every one of his saints, and they will be the Temple of God.* Not only this, but Satan has been bound (Rev. 20:2). He can no longer deceive the nations and prevent them from knowing the truth about God to the degree that he did in the times of the Old Testament. Douglas Kelly of Reformed Theological Seminary notes,
But according to what Christ says in the Gospels, Satan lost that privileged access to the heavenly courts as a result of the incarnation and work of Christ. In Luke 10:18–19, the seventy disciples return with great joy from their successful mission in preaching the gospel, healing the sick, and casting out demons. Christ then explains how they were able to accomplish these wonders: “He said to them, ‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven’” (v. 18). Jesus explains Satan’s fall in terms of Christian ministry: “Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you” (v. 19). It is significant that the first beings to recognize the incarnate Christ, according to the gospel of Mark, were demons. Mark 1:24 and Luke 4:34 are among the passages that show the demons crying out in terror that the Holy One of God has come to torment them. Jesus explained that when He cast out demons by the Spirit of God (Matt. 12:28–29), it meant that the kingdom of God had come. In His work, He was binding the strong man (that is, the devil), who formerly had been keeping people in the dark and painful prison of unbelief, sin, and certain judgment.
After the Lord’s crucifixion and resurrection, and immediately before His ascension back to the Father, He commissioned the church to “go … and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (28:19). They would be able to do this because of Christ’s victory over Satan, who had long blinded the nations, for Jesus said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me’ (v. 18). Satan’s illegitimate power over the nations has been wrested from him, and placed into the hands of the legitimate Lord and Savior of the world. Now the Christian church can do its work; it can engage in successful mission all over the world, bringing the good news of freedom from captivity to those who had long been in chains because of sin and unbelief. Colossians 2:14–15 makes it clear what happened to the powers of evil through Christ’s ministry, especially what He accomplished on the cross: “[He] cancel[ed] the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” This indicates that wicked powers were defeated in principle at the cross of Christ. When Jesus purged all of our sins on Calvary, something happened to Satan. [Heb. 2:14] The evil one lost his authority to keep people back from God. He was bound by what Jesus did.
You are going to have a hard time embracing libertarian ideas about the inherent evil of the State if you do not embrace the radical and all-encompassing nature of this warfare between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world. This kingdom of heaven is coming violently and the violent take it by force (Matthew 11:12). As Jesus made clear to Pilate (John 18:36), this is not a reference to actual, physical violence. It is a reference to the great amount of effort and striving (Matthew 7:13-14) that the kingdom of God exerts in its battle against the kingdom of Satan. In “The World is Christ’s” Willem Ouweneel comments on Matthew 11:12, “One possible rendering is that God’s kingdom “forcefully advances” in the entire world.” God’s kingdom has come, and the battle has begun. When will this battle end, and when will Jesus return? When all his enemies are under his feet (Hebrews 10:12-13, 1 Cor. 15:24-27, Psalm 110:1). This is primarily not a unilateral action by Christ at the end of history but is actually accomplished by his church in history through the power of the Holy Spirit. “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). Psalm 110:5-7 goes on to note: The Lord is at your right hand; he will shatter kings on the day of his wrath. He will execute judgment among the nations, filling them with corpses; he will shatter chiefs over the wide earth. He will drink from the brook by the way; therefore he will lift up his head.”
Jesus told us to pray that his kingdom would come on earth as it is in heaven. Of this theme, Jordan Wilson notes:
We are representatives of heaven, and we will inherit the earth. That is the nature of the Kingdom. One where we pray and act towards having what is done in heaven be done on earth. In the power of the Holy Spirit, we are to heavenize the earth to a redeemed Eden. The kingdom which has rightful claim to the earth is already here on earth (we are heavenly citizens on the earth and heaven is coming here to be united with earth). But we await its consummation – so there is an already/not yet and progressive aspect. The great commission calls us to disciple the nations, to teach them Christ’s commands. It is more than just personal evangelism [although never less!]. This world is already legally owned by Christ but we do not yet see his rule obeyed in every nation. We have already come to the heavenly Jerusalem of Mt. Zion (Heb. 12), but we have not yet arrived at the consummation. All has already been subjected to Christ but we do not yet see all in subjection. The church isn’t exiled in Babylon. I think the closer analogy is that we’re Joshua in Canaan. The kingdom isn’t about defending a few outposts around the world. It’s an invading army looting and destroying the defunct kingdom of Satan with the Gospel of the person, work and kingdom of the Messiah Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.
“Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession” (Ps. 2:8).
In our last part, we will apply everything we have learned towards modern governments.
*For a defense of this point, I recommend James Hamilton’s “God’s Indwelling Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Old and New Testaments”
For Further Reading
Brandon Adams’ series on Romans 13:
Private Law in the Bible: