A big translation problem in Romans 13 is the word “authority” (exousia). It is used four times in the first two verses of the chapter, so its meaning is really important for understanding Paul’s message. By attaching the word “governing”, modern translations give exousia the strongest possible meaning. However, like the English word “authority”, the Greek word “exousia” can take a broad range of meanings, including freedom, ruler, authority and judge. Its most common use is for the authority that was given to Jesus (Matt 28:10). It is also used to describe spiritual authorities (Eph 1:21; 6:12).
In Luke 12:11, exousia is used in the context of appearance before a court, so “judge” or “magistrate” is the appropriate translation. The context in Romans 13 is similar, as Paul is thinking about crime and punishment. In most societies, the punishment of crime is handled by judges in courts of law. Therefore, translating exousia as judge makes sense in this passage.
The usual practice of translating exousia as authority does not make sense as it implies that Christians should submit every political authority including evil dictators. Paul had warned that Christians should not be “overcome by evil”. It is unlikely that he would follow this warning with a message of comfort to rulers and authorities who do not acknowledge Jesus as Lord.
In Romans 13, exousia is authority that has been given by God to those who implement his law, so it must be referring to judges. The core message of Romans 13:1 is that all people should submit to excellent judges.
Every person should submit to the more excellent judges, because there is no legitimate judicial authority except under God.
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