Apostle Paul’s Apparent Satire on Rulers, Taxes, Tributes, Fear and Respect

Romans 13 begins with what seems to be the most politician-friendly statement in the Christian bible.  The  first six verses, believed to be written by the apostle Paul in the First Century AD, are from the surviving ancient Greek texts.  They state that magistrates, rulers, potentates, ministers, dictators, and possibly even tax collectors of Paul’s day, were chosen by God to do His work on earth. In these six terse verses, Paul warned his reader to be obedient to them for “conscience sake.”  I ask, can this be anything other than a coded message to his followers… a satire on earthly politicians?

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Romans 13, 1-6: (Concordant Greek Literal New Testament) 1.Let every soul be subject to the superior authorities, for there is no authority except under God. 2.Now those which are, have been set under God, so that he who is resisting an authority has withstood God’s mandate. Now those who have withstood will be getting judgment for themselves,3. for magistrates are not a fear to the good acts, but to the evil. Now you do not want to be fearing the authority.  4.Do good and you will be having applause from it. For it is God’s servant for your good.  Now if you should be doing evil, fear, for not feigned is it wearing the sword. For it is God’s servant, an avenger for indignation to him who is committing evil. 5.Therefore it is necessary to be a subject not only because of indignation, but also because of conscience. 6. For therefore you are also settling taxes, for they are God’s ministers, perpetuated for this self same thing.

A review of the ancient Greek texts reveals some minor differences from more modern translations such as the King James Edition, but any text we have seen will do to make this point.  In this statement, Paul is indeed saying those who resist governing authority will bring God’s judgment upon themselves.  The obvious question is, if he wrote it, why did he write it?

These six verses stand in contrast, and seemingly without any direct connection to the last seven verses of chapter 13, which are a discourse on loving one’s brothers.  Further, this reader does not find this idea of the divinity of rulers anywhere else in Paul’s writing, nor in quotes from Jesus.   I ask our readers, especially pastors, to examine the very strong likelihood that Paul wrote this one story as a piercing satire.   

A useful definition of satire is found in Wikipedia.  Satire: Its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism, using wit to draw attention to both particular and wider issues in society—”in satire, irony is militant”[2]—This “militant” irony or sarcasm often professes to approve of (or at least accept as natural) the very things the satirist wishes to attack. 

The most basic logic dictates satire, for Paul’s life was one of passive resistance to both Roman and Judean authorities, and his violent death was at the hands of leaders, who Paul says in these verses were appointed by God to punish the evil doers.  In the book of Acts we find detailed accounts of Paul’s several attempts to persuade potentates, both Roman and Judean, to follow Jesus.  Among them were Roman Governor Felix, Porcius Festus and King Agrippa Herod.

Fortunately,  Paul leaves us a pointed hint that he wrote this passage as satire, meaning that the truth lies exactly the reverse of what he wrote about the relationship between political leaders and God.  He left an indelible key, or antidote, in the very next verse, 7:  Render to all their due, to whom taxes, tax, to whom tribute, tribute, to whom fear, fear, to whom honor, honor. (Concordant Literal Greek NT)

Apostle Paul’s antidote reveals the corrupting power of high government office.

It seems abundantly obvious that Paul wrote with a hidden message, perhaps not wanting to go public with the idea that authorities were corrupt, self-serving and brutal, for to do so might have resulted in an early crucifixion or beheading.  Paul did the next best thing.  He seems to have painted the political and religious leaders exactly the opposite of what he probably believed, knowing his followers would immediately recognize his satire.   When he says superior authorities are carrying out God’s work, he means exactly the opposite of this, and his readers knew it because they knew him. Paul’s one line antidote explains his satire.  His followers were not to follow authorities blindly after all, nor should we.  He warns his readers it is natural to fear government, but they should use their own discernment.  They were to respond, when facing these political wielders of raw power, not with blind obedience, but in total self-reliance on their own instincts.   Paul warns his missionary team to “fear” political leaders, yes, but not to “honor” them!

Those who collected taxes for the Roman government were no mystery.  They came around and demanded the money, to which they added on a bribe or “tribute”, and those who did not pay went to jail. The word for the hated tribute extractors, which came from the Greek (Tel on’ es), is literally rendered “FINISHER”.  Paul advises not to resist the tax, nor the bribe taker, but not because these collectors are “God’s ministers”.  The implication is clear…pay it out of fear because you have to. 

Why does Paul associate “fear” with political leaders?  Fear comes from the Greek (phob e’o), which has the same root as terror.  So fear leaders who can hurt you. Paul’s 18 word antidote says, pay them, fear them, but do not honor them.  I ask, if  magistrates were really God’s agent for good, would he have had to fear them?  Paul’s antidote leaves it up to each follower to decide, whereas the first six satirical verses allow for no decisions, because public servants are “appointed by God to reward those who do good”.  One must obey them because, as Paul wrote, they “bear the sword”.  But honoring them is another matter!

Note that Paul then returns to his constant theme in verses 8 & 9, explaining how Jesus’ mission is to be accomplished; “Owe not one anything except to love one another, for he who is loving one another has fulfilled the Law”.

Paul was the constant, never swerving servant of the Lord Jesus Christ. He was also the inveterate, bold, but practical salesman, who used every scheme and device of persuasion to convince all he met to follow Jesus, even the Judean king and his Roman torturer and jailers.  His use of satire may be rare, but we should not be surprised he would use it.  Maybe he considered the political leaders of his day so ungodly as to make description difficult…that only sarcasm would suffice.  Consider our own pending US Presidential race, could anything describe it better than a biting satire on Donald and Hillary?

Perhaps, Paul needed to fool the authorities who kept him in jail or watched him constantly.  Paul painted them to be as godly as they were, in fact, godless. Did not Nero proved this to be so.  In this way, Paul got the word out to those who listened to him.  But now we have corrupted his words by wrongly taking them as though he wrote them to be taken at face value.

Please,  Pastors and Christian Leaders, stop compromising with Political America.  Would  Apostle Paul cater to the Bush family, Obama, the Clinton’s and Trump?  I doubt it.  How about Stalin and Hitler?…What about Pontius Pilate, King Agrippa Herod, the Chief Priest, and Pharisee leaders, and most Israelite Kings throughout history?  Could Paul possibly mean it when he says these leaders are God’s agents to reward the good and punish evil doers?  Satire is a great way to expose those who do evil beyond description.

Most Christ Followers read the words in Romans 13 “literally”.  But no idea could be more damaging than that our appointed and elected politicians are God anointed, and that we should honor them, as they drag us from one war to another.  I would not be surprised if Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton have it written in their play book, for It offers the justification for every past and future act, including war.  And, if we accept that God “appointed” President Obama, how can we complain about his employing drones, which hit presumed terrorists and innocents alike?

Please, reserve your “honor” (respect) for Jesus and those who follow Jesus, the “peacemaker.” This writer thinks Paul did.

ED Charles E Carlson, comments are welcome chuck@whtt.org.

The Concordant Greek New Testament  is published by the Concordant Publishing Concern, in two books and is an invaluable guide to original scripture.

Audio feature on this topic:  Romans 13 Neo-Christians Sorry Excuse for War

2011 feature story by this author:  Romans 13, The Neo-Christians Sorry Excuse for War 

       

1 comment so far

Leslie Fort
July 28th, 2016

Interesting how we take Paul’s comments. Why wouldn’t the Apostle Paul have a sense a humor? Jesus did! One of my favorite books is The Humor of Christ, by Elton Trueblood. He noted that we’ve taken Christ’s words point blank without realizing the humor in some of his parables and comments. Maybe we should consider, or reconsider, the use of levity by Jesus and Paul, seriously!