NOTICE: This post is rated N for Nerd: contains Greek and gratuitous exegesis.
The framework of Romans 13:1-7 consists of three imperative verbs directed to the readers: ὑποτασσέσθω (‘submit’, v1), ποίει (‘do [good]’ v3), and ἀπόδοτε (‘pay’, v7). In addition, the phrase ἀνάγκη ὑποτάσσεσθαι in verse 5 acts as a fourth command (c.f. Schreiner 679). All but the last of these commands are followed by various explanatory clauses – most introduced by γάρ – giving reasons for them. All of these explanatory clauses are descriptive, and all but one are predicate structures using a cognate of εἰμί. The subject that they are describing is identified variously by ἐξουσίαις ὑπερεχούσαις (v1), ἐξουσία (vv1, 2, 3) and ἄρχοντες. The structure of the passage clearly shows that these terms all refer to the same subject. Though Paul’s use of ἐξουσία is frequently referencing spiritual powers, the parallel use of ἄρχοντες clearly indicates that he is only talking about earthly ones (Dunn 760, Moo 795-8, Cranfield 656-8). The adjectival participle ὑπερεχούσαις (‘to rise above, have power over’ – BDAG) implies the higher levels of authority, which clearly refers to government (Dunn 760).
The repeated structure of imperative followed by explanatory indicative verbs indicates that the imperatives are the primary clauses, and the indicatives are supplying supporting material. Thus, to understand how Paul is describing government, we first must understand the imperatives. Twice, the readers are commanded to submit (ὑποτάσσω) to the government (vv 1, 5). They are also commanded to do good, in order to gain its approval (v3) and to pay all their obligations, including taxes (v7, c.f. v6). The priority of these imperatives is a difficult issue. Dunn (766) sees verses 6-7 as the climax of the passage, suggesting that the primary reason for Paul’s whole discourse is to deal with a question of taxes (c.f. Mark 12:17). Moo (804), however, considers v6 to be an example of the Roman Christians’ submission already in action, and hence a sub-concept of the primary command to submit. Either way, the paying of taxes is presented in this passage as a key form of submission to the authorities.
The verb ὑποτάσσω is used some thirty times in the NT, and describes relationships with church leaders, husbands and slave masters (1 Cor 16:16; Col 3:18; 1 Pet 2:18). Significantly, Paul uses it to describe a relationship of mutual-submission in Ephesians 5:21. Many commentators draw a distinction between submission and obedience, and note that there are other appropriate Greek words for obedience (…). Moo defines ὑποτάσσω as ‘to recognize one’s subordinate place in a hierarchy , to acknowledge as a general rule that certain people or institutions have “authority” over us.’ (Moo 797) Witherington describes it as ‘a proper ordering of oneself under the order God has established.’ (Witherington 312) In the passive voice, ὑποτασσέσθω means to ‘subject oneself’ or ‘be subjected’ (Dunn 761, BDAG). Witherington argues that this usage emphasises the ‘voluntary or self-impelled nature of the submission.’ (Witherington 312). When contrasted with the ancient expectations of total obedience to the Empire, this language is notable in its moderation. This is most notable when the considering the possibility of the authorities’ commands conflicting with the commands of God. Submission to authorities ‘is limited to respecting them, obeying them so far as such obedience does not conflict with God’s laws, and seriously and responsibly disobeying them when it does’ (Cranfield 662). This, of course, is modelled to us in the examples of Jesus and the disciples.