Paul writes in Romans 13:

For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. (Romans 13:3a ESV)

If we interpret it as referring to all rulers at all times this statement does not seem to agree with reality. Many examples can be found of rulers terrorizing those who do good works.

Paul must have known this, too. Although he may have pre-dated the worst of the Roman emperors' persecution of Christians, he probably knew of Pilate's treatment of Jesus.

How does one reconcile this? Is "good rulers" implied? Is "not generally a terror" implied?

Can you give an overview of how scholars and theologians have interpreted this?

  • I edited it to be an "overview" question, but I suppose I don't know for certain that's what you'd like. Is there a particular denomination/viewpoint you'd like an answer from? Apr 8 '15 at 3:58
  • @Mr. Bultitude: any viewpoint is fine, but if it helps narrow the scope I prefer Protestant answers.
    – lars
    Apr 8 '15 at 5:11
  • He also knew of his own mistreatment of Christians when he was an unbeliever, sanctioned by the Jewish rulers.
    – user32
    Jun 15 '15 at 16:45

I think most commentators have understood "terror to good conduct" a little differently than you are understanding it. The phrase is φόβος τῷ ἀγαθῷ ἔργῳ (phobos tō agathō ergō) — literally, "fear [to] the good work". This is nonsensical English, so the ESV has used "terror", which works. I think the idea they intend convey, though, is made more explicit in the NASB (bold mine):

For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil.

The fear/terror is the emotion experienced rather than the objective historical fact of what is being done. Douglas Moo’s (widely regarded) commentary supports this view and further points out that "good behavior" and "evil" are likely personifications. We could expand the translation: rulers are not a cause of fear for those who do good works.

This still requires a bit of a leap: rulers do sometimes do things that are apt to cause virtuous people to fear. James Denney’s (older, but still highly regarded) commentary on Romans solves this problem with the little phrase about the term translated fear: "φόβος, as in Isa. viii, 13". Quoting the ESV:

But the LORD of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread.

Understood in this context, "not a cause of fear" in Rom. 13 assumes a realization of this exhortation. Those who do good are also those who submit to this view of reality. For them, fear of other authority is irrelevant.

This "idealization" view seems to have been taken by both Origen and Augustine who went on to assert that the praise promised in the latter part of the verse is praise from God (see Moo, p. 800, fn. 50). Moo explicitly disagrees with that view, pointing out the parallel with fear aroused by the secular ruler in the first part of the verse. His position is that Paul was thinking of a specific situation in ancient Rome. Paul is drawing out an axiom that is useful insofar as it is generally true, but it need not apply in every situation.

Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (NICNT. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 800.

J.D. Denney, The expositor’s Greek Testament. (Hodder & Stoughton, 1897) vol. 2, 696.

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