Posts Tagged ‘Romans 13:1-7’

The following text was delivered to a gathering at the Mennonite Church USA Convention in Orlando on July 5, 2017. A hard copy of this text may be downloaded at this link.


This presentation provides an interpretation of Romans 13:1-7 that reflects an Anabaptist perspective toward the text. In achieving this goal, the author also demonstrates that an Anabaptist reading of Romans 13:1-7 is a more than satisfactory exegetical option. Therefore, rather than being problematic for Anabaptists, as some interpreters may suppose, Romans 13:1-7 actually reinforces their convictions.

The presentation proceeds along the following path: First, following a brief recitation of Anabaptism’s origin and significance, the author explains what he means by an Anabaptist Perspective. Second, from a position within that perspective, the author comments on the meaning of the Romans text within its broader historical and literary context.


Contemporary Anabaptists trace their origin to the 16th century Reformation movement distinguished by its insistence on believer’s baptism, hence the moniker Anabaptists or re-baptizers. In addition, these reformers advocated a radical imitation of the life and teaching of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels, with special attention given to the Sermon on the Mount. They based this conclusion on the conviction that Jesus had inaugurated the promised messianic kingdom during his earthly ministry, crucifixion, resurrection, and session.

The Anabaptist insistence on a “believer’s church,” though, put its adherents in direct conflict, not only with Roman Catholics, but also with Protestants, both Lutheran and Reformed. This conflict, in turn, boiled over into opposition from these three groups’ governmental protectors, with whom, in practice, they were effectively merged.[1] When this opposition came to a head in the form of persecution, Anabaptists’ radical adherence to the teaching and example of Jesus prohibited them from active resistance, resulting in widespread deaths.[2]

This brief account of the origin of the Anabaptist movement reveals in seed-form the two most apparent ways in which the practices of its members differ from that of members of contemporary Protestant faith traditions: Anabaptists maintain that the New Testament requires of disciples a level of commitment to Christ’s Kingdom mandating (1) strict separation of church and state and (2) non-resistance or pacifism.

These contemporary Anabaptists are represented primarily by Mennonites and by most groups with the word Brethren in their name.[3] However, their influence can be seen among Baptists and most free-church groups.[4] Evidence for this influence exists not only in the widespread practice of believer’s baptism and in various expressions of the separation of church and state, but also in the adherence to Anabaptism’s teaching on the symbolic nature of the ordinances and the visible nature and autonomy of the local church.


The preceding account identified two prominent Anabaptist distinctives: separation of church and state, and pacifism. One frequently hears that a plain reading of Romans 13:1-7 contradicts these positions. Anabaptists, however, approach these verses from a perspective that finds them compatible with these convictions.

The perspective, or story, an interpreter inhabits and, therefore, from which the interpreter reads a text profoundly influences one’s interpretation.[5] Put another way, two interpreters who use the same interpretive strategies, and yet come to different conclusions, are not necessarily guilty of sloppy exegesis or some nefarious sleight-of-hand. Rather, their disagreement may be due to the fact that each one possesses different presuppositions and preunderstandings. They possess different interpretive perspectives.

What this author is calling the Anabaptist perspective consists of the preunderstandings just visited, but also significant presuppositions. Taken together, these preunderstandings and presuppositions contribute to the development of a salvation-historical story, a story that, in turn, influences the interpretation of Romans 13:1-7.

A significant presupposition among those to which Anabaptists cling concerns the relationship of the parts of the Canon to one another.[6] First, they see a wide discontinuity between the Testaments. The Old Testament, including the Law, testifies of Christ and is fulfilled by him. Second, the Gospel is the Gospels, both in event and in the proclamation they contain. As such they are discipleship manuals. The epistles, on the other hand, explain, interpret, and apply the Gospel to particular people, places, times, and situations. Therefore, the New Testament, specifically the Gospels, containing accounts of the life, teaching—summarized in the Sermon on the Mount—, and work of Jesus is the starting point for ethical instruction. Implications of these presuppositions are embodied in the following salvation-historical story, an Anabaptist account of the scriptural metanarrative. (more…)


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The following simple flow diagram and accompanying comments place Romans 13:1 – 7, a passage often used to justify Christian service in the military, within its larger context of Romans 12:9 – 13:10.

Left-click separately on each image to view a larger version.


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