Paul instructs the Christians in Rome to respect the ruling authorities
A large portion of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome is concerned with his teachings on the Jewish law and the salvific status of Israel, but towards the end of the epistle, Paul turns to give some practical advice to Christians on how they should live. In this passage Paul advises Christians not to resist those in government, and to duly pay their taxes without making a fuss. In Paul’s view, those in positions of authority would not be there unless God had made it so, and, therefore, to oppose those in government is equal to directly opposing the will of God. Paul’s hierarchy sees God at the top, with earthly rulers acting on his behalf in order to punish the wicked and reward the good. The Roman Christians are encouraged to see the benefit of Roman governance, rather than harbouring anarchistic feeling.
Bruce Winter argues that Paul deals with two aspects of πολιτεία (in this context, this is the activities associated with one’s duties and rights as a citizen). Firstly, the judicial aspects of Roman government which operated courts and adjudicated legal cases (verses 3-4), and secondly, the obligation to appropriately honour benefactors (verses 6-7). Winter asks what Paul actually means when he commands that his audience “do good,” and insists that the authorities will reward those that do. Winter sensibly suggests that moral good is not the issue here, as this would not be something that was understood to be overseen by the ruling authorities. Rather, Paul addresses here those in the Roman Christian community of significant wealth and influence, who were in a position to undertake benefactions – he names some of these in Romans 16. City officials were required to formally honour or praise those who gave civic benefactions to the people, and for Winter, the fact that Paul distinguishes between the roles of governing authorities to administer justice and to reward the good, suggests that this is what he is discussing here (see Roman Law and Society, p. 81-82). 1 Peter 2:14-15 deals with this same issue, also teaching that it is the Christian’s responsibility to undertake acts of public service. Paul therefore endorses here the established custom of receiving praise and honour publically for civic benefactions. For a detailed discussion of this issue, see chapter 2 of Bruce Winter, Seek the Welfare of the City, and for benefaction inscriptions in Rome, IGRR volume 1(online at: https://archive.org/details/inscriptionesgra01cagnuoft).
Paul discusses both “tributes” (φόρος) and “taxes” (τέλος). The former was a levy on people and land, while the latter levied income, goods, and services (see Strabo, Geography 2.5.8). Apart from Roman citizens and from those living in colonies under the ius Italicum, everyone living in the empire, even those in Rome who were not citizens, had to pay the tribute. Paul’s insistence that his audience pay their tributes may be in relation to the previous eviction of the Jews from Rome in 49 CE. Perhaps Paul was worried that returning Jewish-Christian residents would draw negative attention to themselves by not paying their dues (see Johannes Friedrich, Wolfgang Pöhlmann, and Peter Stuhlmacher, “Zur historischen Situation und Intention von Röm 13:1-7”). Alternatively, Paul may be worried because of Nero’s increasing of taxes towards the end of his reign (see Suetonius, Nero 44), which required all social classes in Rome to pay an income tax, and punished evasion with criminal charges. If there were privileged Roman Christians in Paul’s audience who were no longer exempt from such taxes, then perhaps he wanted to ensure that they did not subject themselves to prosecution (see Winter, Roman Law and Society, p. 85). In addition to ensuring that they paid the correct tributes and taxes, the Christian community ought to show the appropriate reverence/respect (φόβος) and honour (τιμή) to those in ruling positions. Essentially, the Christian community is not to keep a low profile out of fear that they will be seen as anti-establishment, but instead should fully embrace their responsibilities as residents under Roman rule. They need to understand that Rome acts for God, and so its requirements need to be honoured and upheld. This way, Christians fulfil both their obligations to the state (thereby avoiding criminal charges and enabling the effective running of the society in which they live), and ultimately to God.
The line of argument that Paul adopts can be compared on one level with Jesus’s teachings about Jews paying taxes to Caesar (see Mark 12:13-17; Matthew 22:15-22; Luke 20:20-26), where Jesus refuses to make an issue of the disparity that his Pharisaic opponents see between remaining faithful to God’s law and doing what the Roman authorities require. Jesus’s response simply implies that paying taxes to Caesar remains relatively harmless as long as it is understood within the context of God’s purposes - Caesar must be relativized to God, as he would not be in power unless God has allowed it to be so. Paul’s argument is slightly more positive than that of Jesus, however, as Paul chooses also to emphasise the beneficial aspects of Roman rule – protection of the good (including honouring benefactors who perform services for the community) and punishment of the bad. For both Jesus and Paul, the Roman state as God’s earthly tool has legitimate rights to some things, and this need not conflict with living a Godly life (see Proverbs 8:15; Daniel 2:21, 37-38; 1 Peter 2:13-17).
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