Rom 13:3–4 and the Prescription of Government Roles | Timothy Decker

by | Mar 26, 2024 | Systematic Theology



Either have enough theological-political debates or read enough modern, scholarly treatments on Romans 13:3–4, and you will inevitably encounter the argument that the divinely inspired text does not teach what the civil magistrate ought to do but only a description by Paul of the Roman government of Paul’s day (AD 56–58). In other words, some teach that Rom 13:3–4 is not prescriptive apostolic teaching for the civil magistrate but rather descriptive teaching of Paul’s day. Consider Robert Jewett’s words from his Romans commentary, “Romans 13:1-7 was not intended to create the foundation of a political ethic for all times and places in succeeding generations—a task for which it has proven to be singularly ill-suited. … Paul had no interest in the concerns that would later burden Christian ethics [e.g. political theology], and which continue to dominate the exegetical discussion. His goal was to appeal to the Roman audience as he conceived it, addressing their concerns in a manner that fit the occasion of his forthcoming visit.”[1]

An easy argument for this interpretation is that the language and grammar of command/imperative is not used in vv. 3–4. On the other hand, when Paul wants to give prescriptive statements toward a Christian’s duty to the civil magistrate, he uses many imperatives. Wouldn’t this suggest that vv. 3–4 is merely a description of what is, based on the indicative verbs used and not what should be?

However, the common and prevailing view, especially among the Protestant and Reformed, was the prescriptive understanding toward the civil magistrate. That is, Paul was giving apostolic teaching as to the role, purpose, and function of the civil government. He was prescribing what the civil government ought to do in human society. In this article, we will explore multiple exegetical reasons for why this is so.


1) The Titles of the Civil Magistrate Imply Prescription

Just as the titles of “pastor” or “shepherd” imply a duty in the sphere of the local church, so also does the titles Paul gives to the civil magistrate in Rom 13:3–4. In fact, there are two different titles used of the magistrate, and one of them (a very lofty title) is used twice! The first and highly honorific title for civil government is “the servant of God” (θεοῦ διάκονός; theou diakonos). This exalted term is used twice in Rom 13:4. As many are apt to point out, we get the transliterated term “deacon” from the same word translated “servant” in v. 4. And it is this term especially that we infer a prescriptive role, in that to be a “servant” or “minister” is to actively serve or administer.

Not only is he called a “servant of God,” he is also called “an avenger” or “one who punishes” (ἔκδικος; ekdikos). Just as the title of the ecclesiastical office of “overseer” implies a prescriptive role of administration in the church, so also does the word “avenger” imply a prescriptive role for the civil magistrate. The term must have prescriptive connotations if it is to have any significant meaning.


2) Context from Romans 12 and Vengeance

In the previous chapter, Paul prohibits personal vengeance by saying in 12:19, “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.’” While the chapter divisions may be a bit deceiving, there context between Rom 13:3–4 and 12:19 is only separated by four other verses! With that in mind, the language of “vengeance” (ἐκδίκησις; ekdikēsis) being God’s, or leaving it to “the wrath” (τῇ ὀργῇ; tē orgē), or “never avenge [ἐκδικοῦντες; ekdikountes] yourselves” from 12:19 is the same language used in 13:4 of God’s servant who is “an avenger [ἔκδικος; ekdikos] who carries out God’s wrath [εἰς ὀργὴν; eis orgēn].”

You don’t have to be a Greek expert to see the similar language used for vengeance and wrath. And what Paul declared in Rom 12:19 concerning God getting vengeance is fulfilled in the temporal sense by way of his “minister” or “servant” who administers that wrath upon evildoers. The close proximity of these passages would imply that they are referring to the same thing. And if Rom 12:19 is prescriptive for Christians, then we would also expect the fulfillment of God’s wrath administered by the civil magistrate as prescriptive also.


3) Paul’s Statements Match Peter’s Statements

Few times can I, as a NT teacher, demonstrate how important dates of writings are. Here, the epistle to the Romans written by Paul was likely written around AD 57 or 58. This was still well within the first five years of Nero’s reign, that has been described as a very good one. So, the argument goes, it is easy to see why Paul would tell Christians to submit to a good government in Rom 13:1–2, especially as vv. 3–4 would generally and historically describe Nero’s reign up to Paul’s present day.

However, the apostle Peter’s first epistle was written long after Nero’s reign of terror begun. In fact, the mention of “fiery trial” from 1 Pet 4:12 might be a subtle reference to the fire of Rome begun by Nero in July of 64 in which he blamed the Christians and led to their great persecution. If so, then Peter’s words concerning the civil government in 2:13–14, which nearly line up perfectly with Paul’s statements in Rom 13:3–4, came later than Paul. They would also imply that the general teaching from both apostles were prescriptive. That is, the same role for government was said during good times (Rom 13:3–4) or in tyrannical times (1 Pet 2:13–14). The implication is clear: the prescriptive teaching of Scripture for the civil magistrate is “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Pet 2:14).


4) Indicative Statements are Often Used for Prescriptive Truths

As mentioned above, one of the major objections to interpreting Rom 13:3–4 prescriptively is the grammar used, namely indicative verbs stating what is rather than imperative verbs command what ought to be. But what about occasions where prescription is inferred from the titles (point #1), implied from the context (point #2), and supported by the rest of the Bible (point #3)? Are there other parts of Scripture that use indicative statements and still teach prescriptive truths?

We might point to passages such as “the laborer is worthy of his wages” from both Luke 10:7 and 1 Tim 5:18, which is an implied indicative statement with a prescriptive title (“laborer”) and prescriptive context. In the case of 1 Tim 5:18, Paul used both the teaching from Deuteronomy and Luke to prescribe the church’s duty to pay her pastor. However, the context also used an imperative—“be counted worthy.” But then again, so does Rom 13:1–7. The sole imperative in 1 Tim 5:17 is for the elders, but it is fulfilled passively, that they might be counted worthy by their flock. The command is fulfilled by the church. But the duty of elders is to “labor in preaching and teaching” (not imperatives). To say in the indicative “the labor is worthy of his wages” is by implication a command to pay the laborer. Therefore, an indicative easily implies prescriptive truths.

Similarly, 1 Cor 9:8–14 also prescribes the church’s duty to remunerate her ministers. No imperatives were used in this passage, although appeals from the OT certainly were. And while an official title is not used, the Greek grammar does lend itself to such a use in 1 Cor 9:14 saying, “The Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel [τοῖς τὸ εὐαγγέλιον καταγγέλλουσιν; tois to euangelion katangellousin] should live from the gospel” [bold added]. The same kind of language is used in the previous verse (v. 13) of the priests as “those who are employed in the temple service,” implying an official capacity and labor.

The consensus from this one example is that the apostle Paul is more than capable to elicit prescriptive language from indicative statements, such as are found in Rom 13:3–4. Any objection to the switch from the imperative to the indicative is not a conclusive argument, for the context and lexical choices may also infer commands even if the grammar does not.


[1] Robert Jewett, Romans: A Commentary, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), 786–787.

Marcus Borg in the 1970’s made a similar argument. “When Paul wrote this passage to the Christians in Rome Judaism was on the brink of catstrophe as a result of its longstanding resistance to Roman imperialism. An emerging Christianity, founded by a Jew whom the Romans had crucified – regarded still by Rome as a Jewish sect, and inextricably implicated, by history and culture, by ideology and associational patterns, in the Jewish world – was inevitably caught up in the crisis of Jewish-Roman relations. What was the right posture to adopt toward Rome? This was a burning question for Diaspora and Palestinian communities alike, one certain to underlie any theoretical interest in the status of civil authorities. … Paul’s advice [from Rom 13] was not theoretical, nor vaguely general, and certainly not adulatory in its attitude toward Rome; that it advocated an immediate policy, based upon Paul’s understanding of the purpose for which Christ died, for negotiating a specifical political crisis.” See Marcus Bort, “A New Context for Romans xiii,” in New Testament Studies 19.2 (1973): 218.

For another recent and scholarly commentary arguing for a similar view, see Richard N. Longenecker, The Epistle to the Romans, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), 961–965.

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