Paul has been describing “reasonable worship” (12:1) in the context of the church (12:3-13) and society (12:14-21). He now turns to a particularly problematic dimension of that society: the state. (Does “overcome evil with good” [12:21] provide an obvious segue to this topic? I’m not certain that Paul would be displeased by the idea.)
Laub: “The Paul who speaks in Rom 13:1-7 is not the ‘apostle of Jesus Christ’ but the diaspora Jew.” Re the affirmation, recall Daniel 4:17b and Wisdom 6:
“in order that all who live may know
that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdom of mortals;
he gives it to whom he will
and sets over it the lowliest of human beings” (Dan. 4:17b).
“Listen therefore, O kings, and understand;
learn, O judges of the ends of the earth.
Give ear, you that rule over multitudes,
and boast of many nations.
For your dominion was given you from the Lord,
and your sovereignty from the Most High;
he will search out your works and inquire into your plans.
Because as servants of his kingdom you did not rule rightly,
or keep the law,
or walk according to the purpose of God,
he will come upon you terribly and swiftly,
because severe judgment falls on those in high places.
For the lowliest may be pardoned in mercy,
but the mighty will be mightily tested.
For the Lord of all will not stand in awe of anyone,
or show deference to greatness;
because he himself made both small and great,
and he takes thought for all alike.
But a strict inquiry is in store for the mighty.
To you then, O monarchs, my words are directed,
so that you may learn wisdom and not transgress.
For they will be made holy who observe holy things in holiness,
and those who have been taught them will find a defense.
Therefore set your desire on my words;
long for them, and you will be instructed” (Wis. 6:1-11).
Re Laub’s denial, the text is probably a warning not to think that the politically charged language Paul uses throughout the letter (Jesus is Lord) authorizes disregarding the current authorities.
And, of course, the same diaspora tradition out of which Paul writes (e.g., Dan 3:16-18; 6:10) as well as apostolic example (e.g., Acts 4:19-20; 23:1-5) show that this being subject (13:1) has limits. “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mk 12:17).
Paul’s words assume a specific political context. In a different context some transposition is necessary. The saints can model exemplary transpositions. So, with gratitude, this post concludes with the collect for the feast of Martin Luther King, Jr. (April 4):
“Almighty God, by the hand of Moses your servant you led your people out of slavery, and made them free at last: Grant that your Church, following the example of your prophet Martin Luther King, may resist oppression in the name of your love, and may secure for all your children the blessed liberty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.”