NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER THIRTEEN (Lesson VIII)
Later, in the 1800’s, Frédéric Godet explains his impression about taxes. By that time, taxation was universally practiced in almost all countries and accepted by most citizens as a legitimate way of paying to the support the ministries and missions of the government from national defense to education, social services, etc. How all of this got started is obviously traced back to the recognition that government is needed to maintain peace, law, and order. While this is not specially referred to by Paul here in verse 5, it does flow from what has been said since verse 1. In that case, we can see how the practical idea of taxation and the proof of its necessity, can be understood by its universal acceptance by most citizens in their countries as a good and practical method to support the government. No doubt this is why Paul makes his advice for Christians to pay an imperative, not an option.1
Douglas Moo then gives his 20th Century understanding of what Paul meant here. He focuses on the fact that Paul begins verse 6 by saying, “This is also why you pay taxes.” (The KJV has a curious rendering that reads, “For for this cause.” In other words, because the Roman believers were aware of God’s ordaining of governing authorities, they should pay taxes. The verb form Paul uses here can also be imperative – “you should pay taxes” (New Jerusalem Bible) – but the indicative is more likely since Paul is explaining why the Roman Christians act as they do. And just in case we missed it, Paul reminds us of the key theological point one more time at the end of verse 6. We must respect governmental authorities because they are God’s servants. The point is even stronger here, because of the Greek noun leitourgos, which is used in the Septuagint Version for people who served in the temple and in the Last Covenant as ministers of the Lord.2 Paul could not more strongly have shown that civic leaders are, in fact, serving God’s purpose for being in authority.3
Verse 7: Give everyone what you owe them. If you owe them any kind of tax, then pay it. Show respect to those you should respect. And show honor to those you should honor.
Paul continues his narrative on advising Roman Christians to continue being responsible citizens. There are certain shortcomings, mistakes, and errors that we are all willing to be graceful in forgiving when a fellow believer faults are revealed. However, when they include acts contrary to the duties of a subject and patriot to their nation we cringe with embarrassment. Even though He was mistreated by the Herodians, and would ultimately be put to death by the Romans, Jesus still taught His disciples to be good Christians and compliant citizens.4 Not out of fear, but out of respect. This is what Solomon instructed his people to do: “My son, don’t get involved with revolutionaries, but fear Adonai and the king.”5 The Apostle Paul even encouraged employees to be dependable and follow the boss’ instructions.6 The Apostle Peter agreed with Paul.7
Early church scholars also have varying views on how to define taxes and contributions and the role they play for the church and believers. We must keep in mind that these represent the understanding among scholars from approximately 180 to 420 AD. One of the earliest church leaders, Tertullian, believed that so far as concerns the honors due to heads of state, we have a clear mandate to be subject in all obedience, according to the Apostle’s command, to all levels of government, but within the limits of Christian discipline, namely, so long as we keep ourselves free of idolatry.8 And shortly thereafter, Origen commented that those in authority may demand taxes on our property and revenue from our business transactions. What should we say? Jesus Christ Himself was obliged to pay taxes, not because He owed anything but so as not to cause a problem. If He who owed nothing to Caesar and who had every right to refuse to pay taxes nevertheless agreed to pay them, who are we to refuse to do so?9
Ambrosiaster makes the point that by giving honor to the powers that be in this world may have the effect that, if they see the humility of Christ’s servants, they may support rather than oppose the Gospel’s teaching.10 And for Chrysostom, Paul urges the people to give their government not only taxes but honor and fear as well. Fear in this context means very great honor, not the kind of fear which comes from a bad conscience.11 To this Pelagius added that even charitable giving can be seen as paying our dues. Income is ours to give to those who are passing by or to those who are seated by the roadside while we pass by. Fear, as well as honor, must be given to those who are your superiors but only honor to your peers.12 But some early church scholars disagree. Theodore thinks that the word taxes refers to property taxes, while revenue refers to sales taxes.13 As far as Gennadius is concerned, taxes and revenue are the same thing.14
Charles Hodge shares his thought by saying that since this is the will of God, including the charitable design of civil government, we should render to those in charge what properly belongs to them, whether a monetary contribution, reverence, or honor. The whole message seems, from the context, to have special appreciation for all those in authority, although it is not necessarily confined to those in government alone. The word “tribute” is applied properly to land and investment tax; and “custom” to the import tax levied on incoming merchandise. The words “fear,” and “honor,” are generally considered in this connection as differing only in degree. Fear expresses the reverence we have for superiors, the honor the respect we have for our peers.15
Albert Barnes, in his notes, outlines a number of principles that he finds discussed here by the Apostle Paul that are accepted as confirmed by the authority of the Bible, and are now understood: (1) That government is essential; and its necessity is recognized by God, and it is arranged by His good will for His children. God has never been the sponsor of anarchy and disorder. (2) Civil rulers are dependent on God. He has the entire control over them and can set them up or put them down when He pleases. (3) The authority of God is superior to that of civil rulers. They have no right to enact laws which interfere with His authority. (4) It is not the business of civil rulers to regulate or control religion. That is an area over which they have no jurisdiction or responsibility, except to protect it. (5) The rights of all people are to be respected. People are to be allowed to worship God according to the dictates of their own conscience and to be protected in those rights, provided they do not violate the peace and order of the community. (6) Civil rulers have no right to persecute Christians or to attempt to demand conformity to their point of view by force. The conscience cannot be compelled; and when it comes to religion, every person must be free to choose.
Barnes then goes on to point out that the doctrines respecting the rights of civic leaders, and the line which is to be drawn between their powers and the rights of conscience, has been slow to be understood. The struggle has been long; thousands of persecutions have shown attempts by the government to rule the conscience and to control religion. In secular countries, it has been conceded that the civil ruler had a right to control the religion of the people because the church and state were one organization. The same thing was attempted under Christianity. But Christianity has resisted this claim and asserted the independent and original rights of conscience. In some cases, a conflict ensued, of course, and the government resorted to persecutions. This brought on years of fiery and bloody persecutions of the primitive church. The blood of the early Christians flowed in Rome like water; thousands and tens of thousands went to the stake until Christianity triumphed, and the right of religion to a free exercise was acknowledged throughout the empire.
Then Barnes concludes that we should all be thankful that this subject is now settled, and the principle is now understood. In his own land (America) there existed the happy and bright illustration of the true principle on this great subject. The rights of conscience are regarded, and the Laws peacefully obeyed. The civil ruler understands his province; Christians yield a cheerful and cordial obedience to the Laws. The church and state move on in their own spheres, united only in the purpose to make citizens happy and good. They are divided only as they relate to different missions. The one, the rights of civil society, the other, the interests of eternity. In America, every person worships God according to their own views of duty; and at the same time, here is rendered the most cordial and peaceful obedience to the Laws of the land. Thanks should be rendered without ceasing to the God of our fathers for the wondrous sequence of events that led this country to settle this issue to everyone’s satisfaction. It allows for a clear and full understanding which we now pertaining to church and the state.16
John Stott adds his thoughts. For him, Paul is saying that the responsibility of the government not only includes tax-collecting but the service of God in public life. Political parties of the Right and the Left differ over the desirable size of the state’s role in the nation’s life, and whether it should increase or decrease taxation. All agree, however, that there are some services which the state must provide, that these have to be paid for, and that this makes taxes necessary. So Christians should accept their tax liability with good grace, paying their dues in full, both national and local, direct and indirect, and also giving proper esteem to the officials who collect and apply them.17
Current Bible scholar Douglas Moo presents his findings based on context. He agrees that few passages of scripture have been studied and analyzed over the years more than Romans 13:1–7. This history of interpretation has largely been the history of attempts to avoid what the passage at first glance seems to be saying. Some take Paul’s words to mean that every person should always obey whatever any governmental authority tells that person to do, for God has appointed every authority that exists; to obey God, we must obey his appointed representatives. Yet believers in every generation have been reluctant to agree with the idea that they should obey the orders that come from evil, even demonic, rulers – German tyrant Adolf Hitler of Germany and Dictator Joseph Stalin of Russia of course, are classic modern examples.
1 Frédéric Louis Godet: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
2 Romans 15:16; Philippians 2:25; Hebrews 1:7; 8:2; 10:11
3 Douglas J. Moo: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
4 Luke 20:25
5 Proverbs 23:21 – Complete Jewish Bible
6 Ephesians 6:5
7 1 Peter 2:18
8 Tertullian: On Idolatry 15
9 Origen: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
10 Ambrosiaster; On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
11 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 23
12 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
13 Theodore of Mopsuestia: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
14 Gennadius of Constantinople: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
15 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 634-635
16 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit. If Dr. Barnes were alive today he would be crushed that this mutual respect between church and state is no longer there.
17 John Stott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.