Ancient Perspectives on Romans 13

One chapter in the book of Romans has caused centuries of controversy that has stretched throughout the ages to this very day. Understanding it is important, indeed essential, to living in a world ruled by earthly authorities.  

As the Christian studies this chapter it is important to listen to the voices of ancient Christian theologians who have left us their perspectives on this chapter.  I offer their words to you as you read and study this important chapter.  These come from the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament Volume IV pages 312-314.  I will add dates for the writer and a link to their page on Wikipedia.

Origen (c. 184 – c. 253)

Origen (c. 184 – c. 253)

Origen (c. 184 – c. 253) "Is an authority which persecutes the children of God, which attacks the faith and which undermines our religion, from God? We shall answer this briefly. Nobody will deny that our senses — sight, sound and thought — are given to us by God. But although we get them from God, what we do with them is up to us. . . . God’s judgment against the authorities will be just, if they have used the powers they have received according to their own ungodliness and not according to the law of God"

Apollinaris of Laodicea (died 382 or 390) "Judas the Galilean revolted in the days of the census says Gamaliel in the Acts of the Apostles [Acts 5:37] and drew away some of the people after him refusing to obey the order of the Romans and register their goods, for which Quirinius had been sent to Syria... But as Judas’s decision was the cause of domestic murders and of a rebellion against the authorities which did much harm to the people, it seems to me that here the apostle is condemning any attempt to imitate him based on the illusion that it is a godly thing to disobey rulers. He has a good deal to say about this, condemning it as a mistaken way of thinking’."

Ambrosiaster (c. 366–384) "As Paul has already ordered that the law of heavenly righteousness be followed, he now commends the earthly law as well, so as not to appear to be slighting it. For if the earthly law is not kept, the heavenly law will not be kept either. The earthly law is a kind of tutor, who helps little children along so that they can tackle a stronger degree of righteousness. For mercy cannot be imputed to anyone who does not seek righteousness.

Therefore, in order to back up the authority and fear of the natural law, Paul bears witness to the fact that God is the author of both and that the ministers of the earthly law have God’s permission to act, so that no one should despise it as a merely human construction. In effect, Paul sees the divine law as being delegated to human authorities."

Chrysostom (c. 349–407) He does not speak about individual rulers but about the principle of authority itself. For that there should be rulers and ruled and that things should not just lapse into anarchy, with the people swaying like waves from one extreme to the other, is the work of God’s wisdom’

Augustine (354-430) "Most rightly, Paul warns against anyone who is puffed up with pride by the fact that he has been called by His Lord into freedom and become a Christian, and therefore thinks that he does not have to keep the status given to him in the course of this life or submit to the higher powers to whom the government of temporal things has been confided for a time. For because we are made of soul and body and as long as we are in this life we make use of temporal things as a means of living in this life, it is fitting that, as far as this life is concerned, we be subject to the authorities, i.e., to the people who with some recognition administer human affairs. But as far as the spiritual side is concerned, in which we beileve in God and are called into his kingdom, it is not right for us to be subject to any man who seeks to overturn in us the very thing which God has been pleased to grant us so that we might obtain eternal life.

So if anyone thinks that because he is a Christian he does not have to pay taxes or tribute nor show the proper respect to the authorities who take care of these things, he is in very great error. Likewise, if anyone thinks that he ought to submit to the point where he accepts that someone who is is superior in temporal affairs should have authority even over his faith, he falls into an even greater error. But the balance which the Lord himself prescribed is to be maintained: "Render unto Caesar the things which are Caeser's but unto God the things which are God's". For although we are called into that kingdom where there will be no power of this world, nevertheless, while we are on the way there and until we have reached that state where every principality and power will be destroyed, let us put up with our condition for the sake of human affairs, doing nothing falsely and in this very thing obeying God, who commands us to do it, rather than men." 

Pelagius (c. 360 – 418) "This is is an argument against those who thought that they were obliged to use their Christian freedom in such a way that they gave honor or paid taxes to nobody. Paul wants to humble such people in any way he can, so that they will not suffer reproach on account of their pride instead of on account of God."

It seems that Paul is speaking of secular authorities, not all of whom will be just, even if they received their authority from God .... Thee ruler is set up by God to judge with righteousness, so that sinners might have reason to be afraid should they sin. 

Theodoret of Cyr (c393-466) "Even priests, bishops, and monks must obey the commands of secular rulers.  Of course, they must do so insofar as obedience is consistent with godliness.  If the rulers demand something which is ungodly, then on no account are they allowed to do it.

The holy apostle teaches us that both authorities and obedience depend entirely on God’s providence, but he does not say that God has specifically appointed one person or another to exercise authority. For it is not the wickedness of individual rulers which comes from God but the establishment of the ruling power itself. . . . Since God wants sinners to be punished, he is prepared to tolerate even bad rulers’"