Romans 13:5 Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of the wrath of the authorities but also because of your conscience. 6 For this reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants devoted to governing. 7 Pay everyone what is owed: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.
Exhortation to Love Neighbors
8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. 9 For the commandments, “Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not covet,” (and if there is any other commandment) are summed up in this, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law. (NET Bible)
Romans 13:5 Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of the wrath of the authorities but also because of your conscience. 6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants. 7Remembering all this, give everyone what is due them. If taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. 8 Even though you owe them nothing but mutual love, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law. (RSV plus Finger’s variations*)
(verses highlighted to clarify discussion below)
Romans 13 has been in the news recently. In much of the attention, verses 1-7 are treated as a separate section from the rest of the chapter. Most translations put a section break after verse seven. I began writing this reflection late 2017, but it had its roots in the years before The Message came out. I found the contemporary phrasing and language of The Message appealing. I had been thinking about Romans 13, so decided to turn to The Message. But, I found it too, had a section separator between the verses seven and eight in the traditional way. I was disappointed. I felt that verses 1-7 were treated as a separate unit from their context of chapter 12 and chapter 13, verses 8 to the end. I had read that there is no punctuation in the Greek. Especially important, the punctuation and section break that The Message and others insert in Romans 13 are not in the Greek. This information is available from several sources, but I found it in the Rita Haldeman Finger work cited below.
Where is the key to this passage? First, note that in the Greek the words translated “owe” and “due” in verses 7 & 8 are the same*. “Nothing is due anyone except the debt of love.”—would be appropriate for the NET version. The second translation smooths the transition to the focus of this section of Paul’s thought. How does one justify translating the words differently in 7 and 8? How do verses 1-7 connect to verses 8-10? How does one’s view of government influence punctuation and paragraph division?
Paul was writing to Christians in the capital city of an oppressive government. Any writing clearly seen as encouraging allegiance another Lord/Caesar or to another kingdom would bring retribution. Is “ordained of God” at odds with “nothing is due except the debt of love” . . .” and Love does no harm to a neighbor? Dealing with the word “ordained” requires more attention than I want to give it. Careful analysis of this term can be found in Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder, pages **. Yoder says Paul is telling us that God has an order everywhere, whether a robber band or a supposedly democratic/republican form of government. Followers of God are to recognize that order.
However, “what is due” is tempered by what “does no harm to a neighbor”. The academic dean at the college where I worked talked of his flights on a bomber crew in WWII. He said did not feel hate towards the Germans as he was dropping bombs on them. He was following the commands of his government to punish evil people. The standard Paul took from Jesus did not come up on his radar. (I didn’t then pursue the discussion partly because I was surprised by his statement and partly because he was the academic dean and I was a beginning librarian.) But he clearly elevated “punish evil-doers” above “doing harm to a neighbor”.
If nothing is due “but the debt of love” what kind of response to government oppression of others is warranted by Christians? What should be our expectation of persons in government who claim to uphold Christian values? Is it possible that Paul was allowing for civil disobedience in the tradition of Shiphrah and Puah or following Daniel and his Hebrew brethren? If “doing no harm to a neighbor” is primary, what is the response of those disadvantaged by our economic and political systems and the people who control and are controlled by those systems? If obeying the command to love one’s neighbor is the more important, then is Paul encouraging disobeying a government that commands its citizens to do “harm to one’s neighbor”? In his time? In ours?
My understanding is that the controlling thought of this part of Paul’s writing is verse 10: Love does no harm to a neighbor. The chapter builds to verse 10 (and, of course, to the thought of the soon return of the Lord). The broader context of the chapter connects it to 12:1-2 and Paul’s image of a “living sacrifice” (I prefer the expression “continuing gift”). Paul, in Romans 13, while not on the same level as I Cor. 13, lifts up love as the key factor in our relationship to others. (Paul here sets love in the context of response to corrupt and violent authorities). How does love control our response to authorities today?
*Based on the discussion in Reta Halteman Finger, Paul and the Roman House Churches. Herald Press, 1993. Page 140.
**Yoder, John Howard, Politics of Jesus. Eerdmans, 1972. Pp193ff.