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Manny wrote:

Hi, guys —

I have been wondering about the book of Romans 13, verse 1, for a while now.

  • Could you explain what this passage means?
  • Does it mean that we have to follow all the laws of government, even the speed limit?
  • On a separate note, if someone has parents that argue with each other a lot,
    are you dishonoring them if you try to stay away from them?

Manny

  { Can you explain Romans 13:1 for me and am I dishonoring my parents by doing this? }

Mike replied:

Hi, Manny —

Thanks for the question.

The passage you gave in context reads:

1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be subject, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.

Romans 13:1-7

This is what my Catholic Commentary had to say on these verses:

1954 Catholic Commentary on Holy Scriptures.

The Apostle passes on to summarize the Christian's duties towards the State. He first insists on the duty of submission and obedience to the ruling government as a divine law. Leaving all questions of the natural law aside, he proves this divine law from the fact that no government could obtain or retain power without God's will. Every citizen therefore is bound to render submission and obedience to the de facto government because disobeying would be disobeying a divinely appointed authority, a sin which would not be left unpunished, verses 1-2. In verses 3-4 the Apostle gives a brief description of the government as it should be, its main function being to support all good and suppress all evil. After this, the way is clear for the conclusion which follows in verse 5. The submission and obedience due to such a government is a matter of conscience, I.e. the Christian is to obey for God's sake, and not for fear of being found out and punished. The laws of such a government are not merely penal laws but moral laws. The law of taxation, verse 6, serves as an example.

Finally, in verse 7, the Apostle concludes with a summary which is reminiscent of the words of our Lord in Matthew 22:21 "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's.". Some of the questions and objections to which St. Paul's statements in verses 1-7 have given rise, may here be reviewed, but they must be regarded as belonging more to the history of the exegesis of the paragraph than to its literal interpretation. Most of them are read in to the text.

  1. Can a Christian honestly regard and respect, as divinely appointed, every de facto government even when it is resented as usurping, illegitimate, enforced, foreign, tyrannical, pagan, anti-religious, or anti-Christian, 1-2?

    Yes, in view of God's justice and providence; cf.
    • Exodus 9:16;
    • Romans 9:I7 (Pharaoh)
    • Jeremiah 21:7; 29:4-14; 51:24 (Babylonian captivity)
    • Matthew 22:15-22; John 19:11 (Roman rule in Palestine)
    • See also, Origen-Rufinus, on Romans 13:1
    • Augustine, De civ. Dei 5, 21
    • St. Thomas, Summa Theologica I, question 19 answer 9
    • Reference from sub-apostolic literature are collected by SH 37If.

    For a different answer see St. John Chrysostom and St. Thomas ad loc.

  2. Can verse 2 be quoted to show that a Christian must acquiesce in such a state of affairs as described under nr 1 and regard such a government as established forever?

  3. No, to wait for and cooperate with God's opportunities by using all legitimate means to bring about improvements in such a government or even to replace it by a better, would seem to be every citizen's right by natural law. At all events every one, by natural law, has the right to resist injustice, even when this injustice is done in the name of a government. In either case, however, the means employed must be in accordance with the moral law; and here, in many cases, conscience will have to be the final arbiter for the individual; cf. Boylan, on 13:2; SH 372 (on passive obedience); Lehmkuhl, Theol. Moralis I (1898) 472; Genicot, Theol. Moralis, I (1922) 287f.

  4. Can verse 2 be quoted to show that a Christian is bound to obey government orders also when they are against the divine law?

    No, the Scriptural guidance in such a situation, however, must be taken from such passages as Matthew 22:21; Acts 5:29, etc., not from our passage which presupposes normal conditions, cf. 3-4.

  5. Can verse 2 be used in favor of the State when in conflict with the Church?

    No, according to the same principle as under nr 3. See DV (1582) note on 13:4; Gore II I24.

  6. Can verses 1-2 be used to prove that monarchy, the actual form of government at the time, in Rome is the one form of government approved of by St Paul against any other?

    No, the terms here used are general. The contrast intended (if any) is not monarchy, as against democracy, or any other form of government, but government, law and order on the one side, against anarchy, the ruin of every state, on the other.

  7. Can the political conditions under which St. Paul wrote Romans be regarded as normal, 3-4?

    Opinions differ. For a favorable description of the Roman government at that time, see SH XIII-XVIII. The evidence to the contrary comes mostly from the administration of the provinces, cf. CAH XII 712f. In any case, Paul is here not discussing the grievances of Roman subjects, but stating every citizen's duty of obedience to the state in general. What kind of government, however, he has in mind can be seen from verses 3-4.

  8. What does St. Paul teach in verses 3-4 about the duties of a Christian government?

    Nothing directly. He is concerned with the duties of subjects to their government but from verses 3-4 one may rightly conclude that if the pagan government is to be 'power on the side of good', how much more must a Christian government live up to this first of all its duties.

  9. Did St. Paul, himself, and the early Church uphold the same principle of obedience to the government even during and after persecution in the Roman empire?

    Yes, Paul had suffered injustice at the hands of government authorities before he wrote verses 1-7; cf. Acts 16:37; 2 Corinthians 11:25, 32. That his attitude remained the same later can be seen from 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Titus 3:1. The early Church remained true to the same principle also during the time of persecution, cf. 1 Peter 2:13-17 and the numerous references from the sub-apostolic literature collected by SH 371f. The government of Rome is judged from a different point of view in Apocalypse 17:6; 18:24; cf. 2:13; 6:9 f., but this does not contradict St. Paul's principles in verses-7·

  10. Can verse 5 be quoted to prove that all state laws bind a Christian in conscience?

    No, Paul is concerned with obedience to state law in general, not with the questions whether this or that state law might be unjust and therefore not binding in conscience, cf. nr 3·

  11. Can verse 6 be used to prove that not paying all the taxes imposed by the Government is necessarily sinful?

    No, Paul is again speaking of taxes in general, not of this or that tax in particular which can quite well be unjust. cf. Catechism of the Council of Trent, Part 3, Chapter 8, Quote 10; Genicot, Theol. Moralis I (1922) 497-501; H. Davis, Moral Theol. II (1935) 308f.

  12. Is the exhortation to the Christians of Rome in verses 1-7 nothing but the prudent advice of an opportunist, arguing that resistance to the Roman government would only do harm, cf. John 11:48?

    No, the duty of obedience to the government is clearly stated to be a duty imposed by God, 1, 2, 5, and as such is a precept of the moral law, whilst opportunism is ruled by circumstances and selfishness; against Renan, cf. Gifford 211.

You said:

  • Does it mean that we have to follow all the laws of government, even the speed limit?

I think the first few lines of that commentary answer your question:

He first insists on the duty of submission and obedience to the ruling government as a divine law. Leaving all questions of the natural law aside, he proves this divine law from the fact that no government could obtain or retain power without God's will. Every citizen therefore is bound to render submission and obedience to the de facto government because disobeying would be disobeying a divinely appointed authority, a sin which would not be left unpunished.

So, yes, we do have to follow the laws of the government, including the speed limit, unless, as number 3 states, the government orders go against the divine law.

You said:

  • On a separate note, if someone has parents that argue with each other a lot,
    are you dishonoring them if you try to stay away from them?

I'd be interested in what my colleagues think on this question; being single, I'd say No, but I would also take that time:

  • as an opportunity to pray for the reconciliation of what your parents are arguing over, and
  • let your parents know how you feel on this topic.

Hope this helps,

Mike

Eric replied:

Manny —

You said:

  • On a separate note, if someone has parents that argue with each other a lot,
    are you dishonoring them if you try to stay away from them?

If you mean staying away from them while they are arguing, I'd say definitely not.

If you mean perpetually keeping your distance from them, that would depend on whether you may be motivated, deep down inside, to avoid your obligations to the family or rendering obedience to your parents. If you do this — and I'm not sure I understand why you'd need to avoid your parents when they aren't arguing or approaching an argument — then you need to take the initiative to carry out your family obligations (chores and so forth) on your own, and you need to be responsive and obedient when your parents address you.

Eric

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