Romans 13:7—The obligations of good citizenship.
Paul in this verse is still writing about Christians’ obligations to the state and its officials. Here he summarizes the first six verses of this chapter, and with his word choice he makes a vital point.
The verb pay in the Greek literally means to give back. When the Pharisees thought they found a way to put Jesus on the spot, they asked him, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” The word they used for pay literally means to give. Jesus chose a different word for his memorable reply, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” The word Jesus used (render) is a compound form of give and literally means to give back—the same word Paul uses here. Both Lord and apostle make the point that payment of taxes is a way of recognizing one’s obligation to give back to or compensate government for value received. Taxes are a debt we owe the state for its services.
“Taxes” and “revenue” refer to the two types of taxation (direct and indirect) the Roman government required of its citizens, as I described in the previous message. In addition to taxes and other fees that fund government services, we also owe respect and honor to the rulers themselves. As Paul wrote here and Peter wrote in his first epistle, we must “honor the emperor” (2:17).
Closing thoughts on government
Submission to God involves submission to all other authorities. We demonstrate our submission to the state and its rulers by paying our taxes and by honoring them for their service. At the same time, we know the state can inflict harm on its citizens, including Christians. Paul was not naïve about the state’s potential for evil, a truth to which the crucifixion of Christ and the many scars on Paul’s own body bore witness. But even when the state behaves badly, we must heed these verses. Douglas Moo says, “It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the history of the interpretation of Rom. 13:1–7 is the history of attempts to avoid what seems to be its plain meaning.”
When our government turns against us, we must respond with the wisdom in these verses. Let us not become cranky Christians who write hate letters to government officials. Only as a last resort should we confront evil with civil disobedience or use of force. And perhaps, by being good and appreciative citizens, we can encourage governments to more faithfully fulfill their divine purpose of doing good and restraining evil. Charles Swindoll, making this point with eloquence, says Paul commanded believers not merely
Appendix: Tax policy and the Roman “head” tax
Taxes have always been a controversial political issue. In ancient Rome, all people paid the same amount, unlike our practice of a progressive income tax. In the United States today, the vast majority of tax revenue comes from higher income earners. For example, the top 1 percent of people on the income scale pay nearly 40 percent of all federal income tax revenue, whereas about half of wage earners pay no federal income tax at all, taking into account credits and rebates. Here RC Sproul comments on the Roman “head” tax and the biblical tithe—similar to a flat tax advocated by some people today.
The principle of the head tax in the ancient world was that every human being pays the same amount. The rationale behind this was that every individual has an equal responsibility to pay taxes to support the public service of government. Everybody benefits from the promotion of safety and the promotion of justice in a society.
Today there are political and economic rationales in using a head tax in certain nations. The idea is that if every human being is required to pay the same amount of taxes, then that is a tremendous restraint against governments growing to such an enormous size that they can become oppressive to the people.…
In the Old Testament concept of the tithe, wealthy people put more money into the work of the church, and so on, but not a greater percentage of their income. So there was an equality of taxation, percentage-wise, though not an equality in terms of volume.