The Politics of Jesus | John Howard Yoder (Ch. 10)


Chapter 10: Let Every Soul Be Subject: Romans 13 and the Authority of the State


1972: Romans 13:1-7 has traditionally been appealed to in order to support the God-ordained role of the state to wield the sword. It follows that if the Christian is enlisted by the state, a God-ordained structure, then the Christian would be exempt from the prohibition against murder. This view was shattered by Nazism. It is the purpose of this chapter to deconstruct the traditional view in six ways.

  1. The New Testament approaches the topic of the state in many different ways. Consider the picture painted by Revelation or Satan’s claim during the temptation of Jesus. Romans 13 is not a central text in the New Testament picture.
  2. Romans 13:1-7 must be understood within the context of chapters 12-13 as a whole. This section begins by urging readers to not be conformed to the world because of the mercies of God. The topic of love then continues in 13:8ff. Whatever Paul meant in Romans 13:1-7, it must be understood within its context.
  3. Romans 13:1-7 does not affirm God’s divine institution of any particular government. God is said to order the powers, that is, to “tell them where they belong” (201).
  4. Romans 13:1-7 cannot be used to support a Christian’s role in the military since it was written to people who had no voice or position in government.
  5. The “sword” spoken of in Romans 13:4 is a symbol of authority, not license to kill. The symbol of the death penalty was a cross. The symbol of killing in the context of war was a spear.
  6. Nothing in Romans 13:1-7 suggests that Christians lose their moral freedom in the service of the state. Subordination is not the same as unthinking obedience.

1994: There is not much to add to this chapter because Romans 13:1-7 has become less central to the discussion of the Christian’s relationship to the state in the ensuing years. Any study of this text must also consider the themes we have already studied of principalities and powers (ch. 8) and subordination (ch. 9).


While I like the overall force of Yoder’s argument, there were moments where I’d want to consult with a New Testament exegete before buying in wholesale. For instance, I really want to believe Yoder’s point in (3) that God orders the government into its place instead of authorizing or ordaining it—I’m just not convinced that’s what Paul was trying to say. I was also unconvinced by a lengthy grammatical argument he undertook to demonstrate the Christian’s moral freedom. I believe the principle, but I’m not sure Romans 13:6 says that.

I really appreciated how he tied the themes of the principalities and subordination together in the discussion of the Christian’s responsibility to the state. He was speaking to the outsiders, not the power-players. We need to really consider what it means to read Paul’s words in a day (at least in North America) where Christians can be governmental power-players.

< Ch. 9: Revolutionary Subordination

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