Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 63 (June 1988) 30-38


"Humble Submission to Almighty God" and its Biblical Foundation:

Contextual Exegesis of Romans 13:1-7

Jonathan A. Draper



The new South African "Constitution" begins with the resounding words, "In humble submission to Almighty God". Apart from the need to find a dramatic way of beginning the document, the words do, in fact, have a real intention behind them. They constitute an attempt to legitimate the whole.

The language of "submission" in the same semantic field as the word "God", in the context of the authority of the state, implicitly appeals to the letter of Paul to the Romans 13:1-7. The other half of the paradigm, which is not stated here, is the implied right of the state to command the unquestioning, passive obedience of the people it claims the right to govern.

This celebrated passage has a long history of use and abuse by governments, as well as a commensurately long history of exegetical controversy. The admirable work of A. Strobel and E. Käsemann[1] has made a solid advance in the demythologising of this text as a basis for a metaphysic of the State. Reference to their work will be made in due course. This article intends to follow a different route in the interpretation of this text, using the sociological model of Max Weber as a basis for a contextual exegesis of Romans 13:1-7. Weber’s model is not, of course, the only possible sociological approach. The work of the evolutionary sociologists[2] also provides useful insights, but it is hoped that Weber’s analysis will throw light both on Paul’s teaching and on the use of this passage by the white South African regime.


Social analysis of authority structures

Max Weber analyses the grounds of entitlement claimed by those in [End of page 30] authority into three categories: legal-rational, traditional and charismatic.[3]


Legal-rational authority structures are those based on the legality of normative rules and the right under rules to issue commands. A person commands deference only in his or her sphere of legal competence. This authority structure is normative, at least nominally, in most Western democracies today. Underlying it is the assumption of a "social contract" between the rulers and the ruled. Authority is conditionally conferred on the rulers for the benefit of the ruled; it may also be removed.


Traditional-sacral authority structures rest on the sanctity of immemorial traditions and the legitimacy of status figures. Weber used the title "traditional", but the modification "traditional-sacral" seems justified in view of his statement that,

"It is characteristic of patriarchal and of patrimonial authority, which represents a variety of the former, that the system of inviolable norms is considered sacred; an infraction of them would result in magical or religious evils".

This authority structure tends to vest authority in persons rather than in functions, so that there is a "realm of free arbitrariness and favour of the lord" which is fundamentally irrational.[4]


Charismatic-revolutionary authority structures arise in times of social upheaval and stress, where the personal claims and characteristics of a leader, often from outside the normal channels of authority, correspond to the felt need or purpose of the community. He is seen as having special and exceptional characteristics, "not as other men".


Basis of the claim to legitimacy by the new constitution

The authority-structure underlying parliamentary government, as inherited from English imperial government, is fundamentally legal-rational: it implies a social contract between the rulers and the ruled. The self-contradiction of an imperial government based on legal-rational authority was borne in on the English people after the two World Wars, and led directly or indirectly to the dismantling of the empire (decolonisation).

The self-contradiction of South Africa’s own white imperialism resting on a legal-rational authority structure became more and more apparent in the 1970’s and 1980’s, as the people asserted their right to control their own destiny. There has never been a "social contract" between South Africa’s white rulers and the majority of its people and, looked at from this perspective, it has never been legitimate. The new "Constitution" represents a fundamental shift away from the legal-rational basis of parliamentary government in South Africa. Despite the multiplication of "parliaments" in the new system, it is clear that the real power has now been removed from parliament altogether and vested in one person, the state president, and, under him, the vast semiautonomous "security" network. The resignation from parliament by Dr. van [End of page 31] Zyl Slabbert and Dr. Alex Boraine was a simple and appropriate recognition of this fundamental shift away from legal-rational government. Final decisions now rest on the "free arbitrariness and favour of the lord":

"South African politics is becoming a matter of presidential whim, it seems, as the country’s future is decided in a narrow circle of security advisers surrounding the state president."[5]

Policy decisions are no longer the subject of public debate, and "public security", which is another name for the preservation of the status quo, has become the overriding concern of government. The stringent security laws, and more especially, the imposition of the state of emergency on a permanent basis allows this concern to supersede any other laws, and grants the state a level of arbitrary power not compatible with legal-rational authority. Such a move requires that a new basis for legitimacy be sought.

Perhaps there might have been possibility for the emergence of charismatic leader from within the white community, to resolve this crisis of legitimacy by taking revolutionary new steps to meet the felt needs of the people. Some people, unrealistically, looked to Mr. P. W. Botha for just such leadership. However, the role of charismatic leader is revolutionary and this is fundamentally unacceptable to the ruling white elite, with their vested interests in the status quo. Conversely, any attempt to establish new authority structures is labelled as "communism".

Since the new "constitution" owes its existence to a move away from a legal-rational basis for legitimacy, and charismatic-revolutionary authority is unacceptable, there remains open to it only one ground for claiming legitimacy: traditional-sacral. The right of conquest and a long period of de facto rule is the actual basis of white rule in South Africa. In the traditional-sacral model of legitimacy, it is crucial that the system be seen to be underpinned by divine sanction. Tradition is made sacred and infringement of the system is made to stand under the threat of religious sanction.

Since the majority of South Africans claim to be Christians, appeal must be made to the Bible and the hallowed tradition of Christian practice. Just such an appeal is eloquently made at the opening of the new "constitution", and it strikes just the right chords in white South Africans, who are its real target. "In humble submission to Almighty God", a claim already implied by the English version of Die Stem, draws in addition, on the biblical authority of Romans 13:1-7, and a long tradition of Christian secular religion. It was this which also "sanctified" the British Empire in its greedy scramble for wealth, territory and sovereignty.

Traditional-sacral claims to legitimacy require the acquiescence of the appropriate religious authorities. In South Africa, the Christian church has usually played ball with such a design, consciously or unconsciously. Now that the church authorities of the majority of Christians in South Africa are withdrawing their mantle, the government is impelled to the stratagem of trying to create an alternative and complaisant church. Hence its fostering of American conservative fundamentalism and pentecostalism, with its own tradition of capitalist secular religion, together with other forms of spiritualised apolitical religion among the blacks, even though such forms of religion are anathema in the church of the ruling elite. [End of page 32]

I intend to examine the validity of the implicit appeal to Romans 13:1-7 made by the new "constitution" by examining the kind of authority assumed by Paul to be legitimate for himself and for the Roman imperial government.



I shall examine the sociological models of authority underlying Paul’s teaching in his letter to the Romans, rather than extrapolating doctrine from the text. It is here that Weber’s insights become productive.

Paul’s assumptions concerning his own authority

The primary basis for the legitimacy of his authority claimed by Paul is charismatic. The opening of the Letter to the Romans, where Paul is at pains to define his authority to a community he did not found, reflects this clearly: it begins with a special call from God (kletos), which is followed by a special commission (apostolos). The repetition of the word in v. 5 as a special gift of Christ (di’ hon elabomen charin kai apostolen) shows how central it is to Paul’s self-understanding. The same phrase is used in Galatians 1:1, where the corollary is asserted: "not by men". This is re-emphasized by the word "set apart for" (aphorismenos, v. 1), which expresses Paul’s own special sense of charismatic authorisation (cf. Gal. 2:7-9). However, it should be noted that the commissioning is not absolute, but a commissioning "for the Gospel of God", which Paul then sets out in nuce in what follows. This authenticates his charismatic authority by demonstrating his function as an apostle (vv. 3-4), which is then followed by a renewed claim to authority (v. 5), more specifically over the Roman community (en hois este kai humeis, v. 6).

The form of the argumentation implies Paul’s acceptance of the need for the community to "confer authority on him", even though he claims that it has already been conferred by the risen Lord. Why else the elaborately cautious and diplomatic prelude to the claim to authority, which only finally appears in v. 6. Particularly telling, is Paul’s prefacing of his claim to authority with a statement of the primitive creed of the church, which he himself received. Romans 1:2-4 contains vocabulary and Christology not found anywhere else in Paul’s writing, and most scholars accept that Paul is using early credal material here.[6] This is an implicit claim to authority on the grounds of conformity with the norms of the community. To put it bluntly, Paul accepts the need for a "social contract" between himself and the Roman community, despite the charismatic source of his authority. His appeal contains within it elements of legal-rational appeal, as does his concern for the collegiality of apostles and mutual acceptance of mission in Galatians 1:23; 2:2-10.

Paul’s rejection of traditional-sacral authority

Much of Paul’s ministry was spent contesting the claims of the Jewish authorities, who based their legitimacy on time-honoured traditions sacralised by appropriate religious sanctions. The Fathers, circumcision, the oral tradition, the conferring of authority from Rabbi to disciples, the func[End of page 33]tioning of Sanhedrin and synagogue as legal channels, all the trappings of traditional-sacral authority, are categorised by Paul as "boasting" (kauchesis). In Romans 3:21-31, such "boasting" is now excluded for the Christian because "the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law" (v. 21). Since Christ’s death on the cross, man is saved by faith and not by works of the law or by Jewish descent. Rejection of the law is also rejection of the legitimacy of the Jewish authorities. Not sacred law and time-hallowed tradition, but grace and special revelation, are the basis of Christian authority and life. Christians who try to re-instate such traditional-sacral authority over the new community are vigorously combatted by Paul (Phil. 3:1-11; Gal. 2:11-3:29). This can only be described as the in-breaking of a new charismatic-revolutionary source of legitimacy within the Christian community.

Yet, while Paul affirms the charismatic basis of authority within the Christian community in Romans 12:3-8, he shows a counter-balancing restriction of authority to function (praxis, v. 4) rather than person. A person has authority only in the area of his/her gift (charisma), and each member of the community is held to have his/her own special gift. This guarantees the democratic principle within the community, and is characteristic of legal-rational authority. Once again, then, Paul’s view of legitimate authority in the Christian community implicitly combines the charismatic with the rational principle.

Paul’s teaching on authority in Romans 13:1-7


Let everyone be subject to the ruling authorities. For there is no authority which does not derive from God, and those which do exist have been put there by God. So he who opposes such authority has opposed what God has ordained, and those who have opposed it will receive condemnation for themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good work but to evil and, if you do not wish to fear authority, do good and you will have its praise. For it is a servant of God to you for good, but if you do what is evil, be afraid, for it does not bear the sword without a purpose. For it is a servant of God, an executer of wrath on the one who does evil. Therefore it is necessary to be subject, not only on account of wrath, but also on account of conscience. Indeed for this reason also you pay taxes, for they are ministers of God engaged in this very thing. Pay to all what is their due: tax to whom tax is due; tribute to whom tribute is due; fear to whom fear is due; honour to whom honour is due.

Literary Context

The focus shifts in Romans 13:1-7 from authority within the community of faith, to authority outside that community, authority which Christians were, at that stage, powerless to affect:

"If Paul limits his scope to the requirement of obedience, this corresponds with reality; there was normally no other means of political expression for the stratum of society out of which Christianity arose".[7]

This means that [End of page 34] Paul’s instructions are, of necessity, addressed only to the ruled and not at all to the rulers. Käsemann has rightly seen that Paul’s parenesis is largely occasional and "contains no ‘ethic’ in our sense, i.e. no logically articulated system designed to be normative for Christian behaviour".[8] Thus Romans 13:1-7 is not a blueprint for government, nor does it confer mystical sacral status to the state. Moreover, it must be unlikely, in principle, that Paul would provide a traditional-sacral model for the state which he rejects for the Christian community.

It cannot be an accident that this teaching on secular authority is given by Paul in his letter to Christians in the capital city of the Empire.[9] There had been civil disturbances in Rome, it seems, in which Christians had been involved (Suetonius, De Vita Caesarum, Claudius, XXV 4.).[10] Paul’s concern is to ensure the welfare of the church, rather than to give a theology of the state as such. The immediate literary context confirms that Paul’s focus is on the church rather than on the state.

Firstly, Romans 13:1-7 fits under the general heading of 12:1-2, "Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship". Paul is concerned to counter the idea that the Christian life is purely "spiritual", by insisting that true worship of God is a life of service in the real world. In our terms, one might say that he opposes the privatisation of religion, by which religion and politics should be kept separate. It is the whole life of the Christian, in all its facets, which constitutes acceptable worship.[11]

Secondly, Romans 13:1-7 is located within Paul’s teaching on love as the mark of the Christian life and the fulfilment of the law (12:3-21; 13:8-14). The teaching probably was originally a block of independent material, but it is not an "alien body" as Käsemann argues.[12] The command to the Christian to love ones enemy is what has occasioned its insertion here by Paul. The state was already being experienced as a problem by the Christians in Rome, and dreams of eschatological revenge were, no doubt, current among them.[13] Paul cautions love for the enemy and civil responsibility towards the authorities.

Exegetical analysis

Terminology of civil administration

A. Strobel[14] has demonstrated, against the theory of O. Cullmann[15] that exousiai has a double reference to angelic beings as well as nations, that the terminology used by Paul was the normal language of secular government. The terms imperia et potestates/magistrates are used of the usual civic officials of the state apparatus, especially at the local level at which Christians were affected by the authorities.[16] Strobel has found a similar secular background for all the terms of Romans 13:1-7: "praise" is the usual description of the relation of underlings to authority; "good works" are the mark of good citizenship; "minister" (leitourgos) refers to junior authorised officials in the state service; an [End of page 35] "executor" (ekdikos) is the minor official handling business between city and citizens on behalf of a Roman governor. The words Paul uses for "tax and tribute" were the two categories of direct and indirect taxes in the Roman empire. Finally, "the sword", originally used only of capital punishment, reserved to Caesar, was increasingly a power handed over to local officials. Strobel’s evidence argues against the supposition that Paul is writing definitive theology of the state as such: instead, he is simply locating his ethical injunctions in the context of a particular, existing secular reality.

His concern is not with the nature of these authorities, but with their function,[17] and his purpose in including these instructions was to insist that the Christian live out his faith in the real world: his parenesis consists of "emergency aids to call the Christian to take his stand before the true God, the Lord of the earth, and thus to call him to the possibility of genuine service in everyday life".[18]

The nature of Christian parenesis

These observations of Strobel are supported by the way Paul uses the parenetical material at his disposal. The word hupotassesthai (‘to place under’) is not derived from the Old Testament, where it does not consistently translate any one Hebrew word, but from the Hellenistic environment.[19] The central meaning of the word is subordination, rather than obedience, although obedience is a sign of subordination.[20]

This block of material on submission to authority derives from the Christian Haustafel, a list of ethical rules to guide everyday conduct (cf. Col. 3:18-4:1; Eph. 5:21-6:9; 1 Pet. 2:13-3:7). These were derived from the Diaspora synagogue, which in turn derived them from the Stoic kathekon.[21] W. Schrage[22] argues that the early Christian church transformed the qualification "in Haustafel by placing it under the the Lord". Thus all Paul’s teaching is placed under the reservation of the grace of God in Christ Jesus.

While Schrage is right in this provisional nature of Paul’s ethic, the Christian tradition has modified the Haustafel in another fundamental way. There is no evidence that the Greek or Jewish use of the tradition at any point envisages a reciprocal relationship. The Christian use of the tradition, on the other hand, is characterised by such reciprocity.[23] Authority over another is always accompanied by responsibility towards him/her: if the wife must submit, the husband is required to special love; if the servant is to submit to the master, then the master is bound to fair treatment; if the child is to obey parents, then they are not to provoke him/her to anger. This implies a system of mutual benefits, which is, in a sense, a matter of subordination of the authority to the interests of the person in subordination. This is typified by the preface to the Ephesians 5:21: "Be subject to one another out of Haustafel in reverence for Christ". [End of page 36]

In Romans 13:1-7, Paul takes up and amplifies the teaching of the Christian Haustafel concerning the civic authorities (cf. 1 Pet. 2:13-17). The Christian element of reciprocity is not specifically stated in the passage, but it is inferred to the extent that a mutuality of benefits is implied. The Christian is to give obedience to civil authority on the one hand, but on the other is to receive approval and protection, "for he is God’s servant for your good". The concept of mutual benefits fits best with the idea of a "social contract" conception of government, and hence with the legal-rational model of legitimation.[24] Paul says nothing concerning a government which does not provide such reciprocity, but acts unjustly and tyrannically.

Here Paul has de-sacralised the state, setting it in the realm of everyday Christian service in the world. He envisages a reciprocity of conduct between the citizen and the state and a mutuality of benefits. The Christian is not in a position to affect the exercise of government in Paul’s time, but Paul nevertheless urges the Christians from their side to make the equivalent of a "social contract" with authority, for their own good. They pay taxes, keep the law and pray for the government, while the government rewards virtue and punishes vice. Clearly the state is not itself allowed by Paul to be the arbiter of what is good and evil. If the concept of "social contract" is what really underlies Paul’s legitimation of the state in Romans 13, then a state which ceases to reward virtue and punish vice, which ceases to protect its citizens but preys upon them, would also cease to receive legitimation.



Paul’s idea of legitimacy within the church reflects both the charismatic and the legal-rational models suggested by Weber. He specifically rejects the traditional-sacral model for the church. For the civil authorities he affirms what is essentially the "social contract" language of the legal-rational model. It is inconceivable that he could have asserted the traditional-sacral model of legitimation for secular government, when he had rejected it for the church.

Thus the implicit appeal to Romans 13 by the "new constitution" of S.A. is without foundation. It seeks to justify a perversion by reference to the passage. S. Budd writes that,

"The privileged require a religion which legitimates their life-pattern and enhances their being; the underprivileged seek a religion which promises that one day they will become something."[25]

The "new constitution" of S.A. seeks to legitimate the domination of the black majority by the white minority by co-opting Christianity. There is no evidence that Paul would have supported this claim. Inasmuch as the state claims to be a Christian state, his teaching would require a mutual accountability which benefits both rulers and ruled. Such mutual accountability of government and governed is missing in S.A. today. In the aftermath of the Nazi debacle, Käsemann defines the limits of a Christian’s obedience to the state in terms of the possibility of continued service, "when the suggestion is made that he should deny his existence as a Christian and abandon his particular Christian task".[26] In answer to the question as to whether there is "such a thing as participation [End of page 37] in revolution as an authentication of the service of God in the world", Käsemann states that:

My own personal answer would be, that such a possibility could only exist when the possessors of political power are threatening and destroying in a radical way those ties which hold together a political community as a whole in bonds of mutual service.[27]

South Africans should ask themselves whether the enshrinement of apartheid in the "new constitution" might not place them in just such a dilemma.



Barth, K. Church and State, (London, 1939).

Bendix, R. Max Weber—an Intellectual Portrait, (New York: Doubleday, 1959).

Foerster, W. "EXOUSIA", in G. Kittel & G. Friedrich (eds), Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964) 562-575.



[1] A. Strobel, "Zum Verständnis von Römer 13:7", Zeitschrift für neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 47 (1964) 58-62; G. Delling, "HYPOTASSO", in G. Kittel and G. Friedrich (ed), Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, VIII (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972) 27-48; E. Käsemann, "Principles of the Interpretation of Romans 13", in New Testament Questions of Today (London: SCM, 1969) 196-216. [Back to text]

[2] Summarised in T. B. Bottomore, Sociology: A Guide to Problems and Literature (London: Allen & Unwin, 1971) 152-5. [Back to text]

[3] M. Weber, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, H. Gerth & C. Wright Mills (trans. and ed) (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1948) 294-300; and Economy & Society l, G. Roth & C. Wittich (ed.) (Berkley: University of California Press, 1978) 212-245. [Back to text]

[4] Weber, Essays in Sociology, 206. [Back to text]

[5] G. Shaw, "The Whims of the President", The Natal Witness (March 28, 1988) 10. [Back to text]

[6] Cf. O. Cullmann, The State in the New-Testament (London, 1956) 55-7; R. Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, 2 vols (London, SCM, 1952) 49; K. Wengst, Christologische Fomeln und Lieder des Urchristentums, SNT 7 (1972) 112-6; C. E. B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans, 2 Vols., ICC, (Edinburgh: T &T Clark, 1975) 57 and E. Käsemann, Commentary on Romans (London: SCM, 1980) 10-14. [Back to text]

[7] Käsemann, "Principles of Interpretation", 205. [Back to text]

[8] Käsemann, "Principles of Interpretation", 196. [Back to text]

[9] Käsemann, Commentary, 350. [Back to text]

[10] cf. C. K. Barrett, The Epistle to the Romans, 3rd ed. (London: Black, 1971) 244. [Back to text]

[11] Käsemann, "Principles of Interpretation", 211f.; H. Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of his Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975) 324. [Back to text]

[12] Käsemann, Commentary, 352. [Back to text]

[13] Cf. C. H. Dodd, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1932) 209. [Back to text]

[14] A. Strobel, "Verständnis van Römer’’, 67-93. [Back to text]

[15] O. Cullman, The State, 95-114. [Back to text]

[16] A. Strobel, "Verständnis van Römer’’, 79. [Back to text]

[17] Käsemann, "Principles of Ipterpretation", 201. [Back to text]

[18] Käsemann, "Principles of Ipterpretation", 212. [Back to text]

[19] Delling, "HYPOTASSO", 39-41. [Back to text]

[20] Delling, "HYPOTASSO", 41. [Back to text]

[21] J. E. Crouch, The Origins and Intention of the Colossian Haustafel (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1972) esp. 148. [Back to text]

[22] W. Schrage, "Zur Ethik der neutestamentlichen Haustafeln", New Testament Studies 21 (1974) 1-20. [Back to text]

[23] J. Draper, "A Commentary on the Didache in the Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Related Documents", unpublished Doctoral Thesis at the University of Cambridge, 1983, 101-109. [Back to text]

[24] C.f. K. Nürnberger, "Theses on Romans 13", Scriptura 22 (1987) 40-47. [Back to text]

[25] S. Budd, Sociologists and Religion (London: Collier-Macmillan, 1973) 64. [Back to text]

[26] Käsemann, "Principles of Interpretation", 214. [Back to text]

[27] Käsemann, "Principles of Interpretation", 216. [Back to text]


Jonathan A. Draper ( is Professor for New Testament Studies at the School of Theology, University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg (South Africa).