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What Philemon Taught Me About Romans 13

Romans 13:1–7

Everyone must submit to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist are instituted by God. So then, the one who resists the authority is opposing God’s command, and those who oppose it will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.

Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have its approval. For government is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, because it does not carry the sword for no reason. For government is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong.

Therefore, you must submit, not only because of wrath, but also because of your conscience. And for this reason you pay taxes, since the authorities are God’s public servants, continually attending to these tasks. Pay your obligations to everyone: taxes to those you owe taxes, tolls to those you owe tolls, respect to those you owe respect, and honor to those you owe honor.

It’s hard for me to avoid cynicism whenever Romans 13 comes up. Christians vary widely on how we use the passage depending on our own political preferences. The same preacher can teach contradictory things from the passage informed by nothing more than whether or not they side with the current administration.

What we often ignore is the Romans 13 exists in a context. It exists in the context of Romans 12 which tells us to never repay evil for evil, to care for those we consider our enemies, and to overcome evil with good. It is a message that Christians should live in peace. It also exists in the context of Romans 14, which says we answer solely to the divine law of liberty and that we should be careful of violating fellow Christians’ consciences over secular matters.

Beyond these, Romans 13 exists in the context of the author’s life.

Paul and Romans 13

Paul was a Roman citizen, but he would have been subject to Roman rule regardless of his citizenship. The entire region where he lived was under Roman control — and not because anyone had invited them. Rome had forced themselves upon the region, as they had many before, in conquest. They overwhelmed local military and offered the benefits of Roman rule in return for taxes and obedience. Many Jews did not see the emperor or his people as legitimate rulers.

Yet Paul said to submit. And we see this time and again in Paul’s life. When he appeals to Caesar in Acts 25:1–12, he goes on to submit to everything that entails — standing trial, being shipped to Rome, living under house arrest and eventual imprisonment. Paul never complains of injustices visited upon him. Paul never retaliates. Paul never calls on Christians to take up arms and free him. He submits to the government, even though it will mean his death.

Paul and Disobedience to the Government

The letter to Philemon may contain the only time we see Paul overtly break what we would call a federal law. Yes, he disobeyed Jewish leaders and local officials who would tell him to quit preaching Christ, even stoning or imprisoning him in some cases, but he had never broken a Roman law. In the case of Onesimus, he does.

Remember that in the eyes of the Roman government and most Roman citizens, slaves were property — not people. A Roman slave owner had complete power over a slave’s body, and the slave had few to no rights of their own. An escaped slave was a fugitive — an “illegal,” if you will. And it was also illegal to aid or shelter an escaped slave in any way. If you encountered an illegally emancipated slave in Roman culture, your responsibility would have been to report the slave immediately.

Yet Paul spared Onesimus. Paul decided his obligation to Onesimus’s soul was greater than his obligation to Rome. Look what he writes in Philemon 8–12:

For this reason, although I have great boldness in Christ to command you to do what is right, I appeal to you, instead, on the basis of love. I, Paul, as an elderly man and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus, appeal to you for my son, Onesimus. I fathered him while I was in chains. Once he was useless to you, but now he is useful both to you and to me. I am sending him back to you as a part of myself.

Paul’s writing indicates that he loves Onesimus’s as a son, a bond that supersedes any legal standings. Yes, Paul writes in Romans 13 that we should be submissive to the government under which we live, but his example shows us that we should not submit to the government at the expense of souls.

Our Application

So what does all of this mean to us? Again, we can be very inconsistent with how we apply Romans 13, based on how much you or I like a particular administration. But Paul shows us the way. Paul submitted to Rome, even when it disadvantaged himself to do so. This does not mean he gave allegiance to Rome; submission and allegiance are two different things. We, like Paul, can live peaceably as citizens of a worldly government without being attached to that government. For our real citizenship is in Heaven.

Above all, our allegiance to God is more important than our obligations to any worldly power. Souls are more important than worldly laws. For me, that’s the line in the proverbial sand between obedience and disobedience — not whether I feel offended, not how I feel about my civil liberties, not how fair I feel the law is, not how much I like the person or party behind it. But this: does my adherence to a law put souls in jeopardy? If not, I’m not likely to resist. But I have no tolerance for laws and policies that endanger or devalue souls made in God’s image.

In all of this, you will seldom find me publicly advocating for any law, policy, or campaign promise. My hope is in Christ alone, not in the promises of any politician or official. My hope is not in border walls, military might, court rulings, or my civil liberties. My mission is to preserve none of these things. My calling is to save and preserve souls. And the things we all choose to submit to should reflect our hope in Christ and our love for souls. That is the lesson the book of Philemon teaches us about Romans 13.

Further reading:

For a few additional and excellent commentaries on Romans 13, see these posts by Wes McAdams and Brian Zahnd: