1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. – Romans 13:1-7
We can get confused and actually frustrated with this passage. Many of us don’t like our government. We don’t like who gets elected, we don’t like the politics of our government, but we do have to approach this passage with an open mind and heart for what Paul is presenting to us. The terms “governing authorities” tend to take us right to United States government and what we relate to as politics. But let’s take a moment and pause the tape running in our mind and listen to what Paul is informing us. Let’s remember that when Paul wrote this the United States was not even thought of and our parent country England had not taken it’s role in history yet. At the time of the writing, Rome was the political juggernaut.
In the first verse, Paul sets the record straight, “there is no authority except from God”. We can deal with that part, but we don’t like the following statement: “those that exist have been instituted by God”. Does that mean that our politicians are all predestined and God approves of our government officials? We better take a deeper look at this before we jump to that conclusion.
We have to remember that there are three concepts we need to take into consideration; justification, vindication and vengeance. The justification is the theme of the book of Romans. How all are justified by what Christ has done. Vindication, which occurs when someone accused of wrong is found innocent. Then vengeance, which is punishment for injury or wrong. In most of our lives we don’t really draw any boundaries between these three concepts. But the scriptures define each one independently.
We must remember that God established His church with its redemptive mission and the government is in place for the well-being of everyone. Government can be classified as a common-grace ministry. Governments are not in place to save people. Governments are in place to prevent anarchy. It attends to the common good of the human race, not only for Christians but for all people. Both church and state are established and governed by God, which we need to understand in light of the contemporary outcry for separation of church and state. Such separation originally meant a division of labor between the institution of the church and that of human government. Today it has come to mean the separation of the state from God. Thoughts such as, “We see the government declare it’s independence from God and seeks autonomous rule apart from him.” are dangerous and wrong. When this happens, regardless of the country, it becomes demonized and exists as an agent of opposition to God himself.
There are three basic interpretations of this section.
1. Some Christians believe that the state is so corrupt that Christians should have as little to do with it as possible. They should be good citizens as long as they don’t have to compromise their beliefs.
2. Others believe that God has given the state authority in certain areas and the church in authority in others. Christians can be loyal to both and can work for either. In this thought process, church and state are totally separate spheres, they should not be dealing with the same topics of discussion.
3. Others believe that Christians have the responsibility to make the government better. They can make a difference by electing other Christians and holding politicians to high standards. They can also do this by serving as an influence for good in society.
Out of all three of these approaches, none of these views advocate rebelling against or refusing to obey the government’s laws or regulations unless those laws clearly require you to violate the moral standards revealed by God. With those basics laid out, we have to understand we must be responsible citizens and responsible Christians.
All people, not just Christians, are to be subject to the authorities. This is very difficult at times. In our sinful corruption we kick against authorities placed over us. We want to be in control. We are called to submit to authorities at every stage of life. During our youth we are under the authority of our parents. While in school we are under the authority of our teachers and principals. After obtaining a driver’s license we are under the authority of the police department as they patrol the highways. All of our lives we are under the authority of state and federal government.
The universal call to submit to authority touches the root of our corruption. Everyone is a sinner, and every sin is an act of revolt against authority. If we respected the authority of God perfectly, we would never sin. Sin is a refusal to submit to the governing authority of God himself, and God knows that about us.
Can you share a time when you realized you had to submit to someone’s authority, even though you may have more power or authority?
Do we fully understand that if we are not willing to submit to God, it is more difficult to submit to the police department, the government, and other authorities that rule over us. It is the duty of every Christian to be in subjection to the authorities.
When the government is unjust, upright people are afraid. In verses 3 and 4 Paul is referring to officials who are doing their duty. When these officials are just, people who are doing right have nothing to fear. But the people who are doing wrong are in turmoil.
Now the question comes about our civil obedience. Christians are called to be extraordinary models of civil obedience. We are called to bend over backwards to be submissive to authorities. There are great examples of this right in the bible. Some of the most obvious are Mary and Joseph. They were in Nazareth, but Caesar Augustus decreed that all of the world should register. All people were required to register, so that they could be taxed by a conquering emperor, one who had no regard for the cost to the people of doing so. The census required that everybody had to go back to their birthplace to register. Can you imagine being told you had to go back to your birthplace to register to pay taxes? Mary and Joseph made the journey and risked their lives and that of their unborn child in obedience to the civil magistrate. That great example of godliness resulted in the fulfillment of prophesy. Jesus and the apostles never disobeyed the government for personal reasons, when they disobeyed, it was in order to follow their higher power.
Can you share a time when you elected to obey authority, even when you thought it was unfair or not meaningful?
So does this mean we are to obey the government all the time? We have another example we can look at. In Acts chapter 5, the Sanhedrin told the apostles to not preach anymore in the name of Jesus. But Peter replied: “We must obey God rather than men”. A conflict arises when the civil authority commands or forbids something that conflicts with the commandments of God. When this happens, not only may we disobey, but we must disobey!
We are always and everywhere to obey the authorities over us – our boss, the police, governor, whatever authority may be, unless that authority commands us to do something that God forbids, or forbids us form doing something that God commands. Yes, you heard that correctly, sometimes we are to disobey. If the civil government calls us to sin, we must say no.
This whole situation is difficult. We are not free, however, to disobey the civil government when we disagree with it or when authorities make us suffer or experience inconvenience. Every Christian is slandered from time to time, yet we are called to patiently wait our vindication from the court of heaven. If we are compelled to disobey, we must be ready to accept the consequences.
13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. – 1 Peter 2:13-14 RSV
How is our submission to the police department, the state government, our bosses honoring to God? The questions then arise: is Jesus honored by our submission even to corrupt authorities? The universe is not structured as a democracy, but a theocracy. The government of the universe is God and he has appointed his only begotten Son as the King of kings and Lord of lords. The Father has given to the Son all authority on heaven and earth. At the end of his life, the president will have to stand before Jesus and be held accountable for how he held office. All politicians, bosses and those in authoritative positions will be answerable to the King of kings as to how they executed justice in their labors. That includes ourselves.
When we disobey lesser authorities, we are disobeying those whose authority rests on Christ and has come from him and through him. Every king in the history of the world rules and has ruled only by the providential will of God. God casts the final ballot in every election. Every person elected has been allowed to be elected.
Paul writes this letter to Rome from the city of Corinth. He had been punished and tortured for his beliefs multiple times. No one could say, “but Paul, you don’t understand”. Paul was subjective to the authorities of Rome and the rule of Nero. Right up to his execution when the government chopped his head off. Can you see where right down to the last breath, Paul knew that Nero’s authority to execute him came ultimately from God, and he died willingly. He also would have had the peace of knowing that God was going to deal with vengeance, not his Christian brothers.
Will not God set the scales of justice right? When we are victimized by unjust, demonic governments that do everything but work for the glory and honor of Christ, God notices. Our Lord will vindicate his people who seek to be faithful to him despite the injustice that comes their way from earthly authorities.
We must remember that civil government is to restrain evil, by force if necessary. If a government had no right to exercise force is a government that can make only suggestions, not laws.
The essence of government is its power and authority to force conformity. We do not get a letter from the IRS every year requesting that we pay our taxes. If we do not pay our taxes, we face a penalty under the law, and every weapon in the United States arsenal can be used to bring us into conformity.
In a wonderful passage in Matthew 22, the challenge of paying taxes is brought to Jesus. Let us close with Jesus great response…
17 Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”
18 But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19 Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, 20 and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
21 “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” – Matthew 22:17-21 NIV
Just like this passage illustrates, too many times we barter with our lives. We want to do our own justification. If I am not fully appreciated, then you don’t get any of me. Treat me right and I will be a good person. Entitlement. Do you seen in the passage where Jesus cuts right to the point and the question lies on us:
Are you holding back what is God’s, you, because of some other issue going on with you and this world?
Do not limit your relationship with God because of your circumstances in this world.