That the Bible speaks of government at all is challenging for modern Americans because we’ve grown very accustomed to the idea put forward in the Bill of Rights that forbids the government to establish a national religion. Overtime this principle of disestablishment has become what we now call the separation of Church and State, where the two are to be distanced, two spheres of influence that carry out their divinely given mandates without the other interfering in its affairs. Some have said, ‘The State bears the sword of steel and should never bear the sword of the Spirit, while the Church bears the sword of the Spirit and should never bear the sword of steel.’ This is good, we want to uphold this as well as uphold the separation of Church and State. But, I fear we modern American Christians have become so used to this separation that the whole thing usually morphs into something unbiblical. We usually end up believing not so much in the separation of Church and State, but in the separation of God and the State, and that’s an option God never gives us.
But before we even jump into Romans 13, it would do us well to remember the context in which we receive this chapter. From Romans 1:1-11:32 we find the apostle Paul, being carried along by the Holy Spirit, giving us some of the richest and deepest theology in the entire Bible. First question: do you see what all this rich and deep theology leads to? Against the popular notion in the modern Church today, that deep doctrine is impractical, note that from diving into and swimming in the deep theology of 1:1-11:32 Paul explodes into praise in 11:33-36. Second question: do you see what this explosion of praise leads to? The application of this rich theology to everyday life in chapter 12:1-15:13 where Paul speaks of how this theology transforms how we do life with one another (chpt. 12), authorities over us (chpt. 13), and weaker brothers and sisters in the Church (chpt. 14:1-15:13).
This context is important because it shows us Paul isn’t bringing up random principles as he begins chapter 13. No, we have seen that 12:1-2 is the introduction for this whole section. So giving oneself to God as a living sacrifice and being transformed by the renewing of our minds changes how we interact with our governing authorities. The principles taught in 12:1-2 are not meant to place Christians into a sea of spiritual ambiguity, but instead are to thrust us forth into daily life with a proper compass, teaching us how to rightly function with others in this life. See the bottom line right here from the start: God cares very deeply how you and I interact with the government. In fact He cares so much about it, that in the very section of the Bible where it speaks of how we are live worshipful lives before Him, one of the three things He brings up is how to rightly do life with those in authority over us. So here me loud and clear: when it comes to government under God, the ultimate reality in view is the glory of God. So how do we glorify God in our interaction and engagement with governmental authorities? Enter Romans 13, follow along as I read v1-7.
We’ll take two weeks to mine the wealth of these seven verses, this week looking into 13:1-4 and next week looking into 13:5-7. In v1-4 see the following things:
Right at the beginning in v1 we hear the main concern and command of this chapter and we find out how to glorify God in our engagement with the government. How do we do so? By submission. “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.” This word ‘subject’ in Greek indicates an honest willingness to submit to or to be brought under the influence of an authority. So when Paul tells us to be subject he is telling us to willingly place ourselves underneath our governing authorities. Every person must do this. No person, believer or unbeliever, is exempt from this command. No person is free to be a law unto themselves. No person is unique enough or has circumstances special enough to free him or her from this duty.
That Paul is writing this to the Church is important to notice, because many Christians in Rome and many Christians throughout history have believed it was their God given right to rebel from governing authorities who wickedly rejected God. Yes, we have been saved by the work of Christ but we can’t justify our disobedience to authorities with our freedom in Christ we now enjoy. It’s precisely in this freedom that God calls us not only to serve the needs of others around us, but to obey those in authority above us.
It’s also important to notice that Paul is writing this to the Church in Rome, because Rome was not a friendly place toward Christians at the time. The emperor Nero was in power at the time Paul wrote this, and it was Nero would eventually become famous for his ability to persecute Christians in gruesome ways. Even to a government as wicked as Rome God called His people to be subject. So, let me ask you: if the early Church was called to submit to the wicked Roman empire, can’t you and I obey our earthly authorities today, who are by and large far less wicked than Rome? Of course we can. “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.”
Now comes the question that ever flows out of man’s mouth in regard to being told to do something. Whether we’re being told to submit to governing authorities or clean one’s room, what do we always ask when we’re told to do something? WHY. Well, we’re given two reasons why in the end of v1, “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” Two reasons given as to why we should submit to our governing authorities. First, there is no authority except from God. The second reason expands on the first, these authorities are not only from God but they have been instituted by God. So, the state as an institution has a divine origin from God, and each specific person in an office of authority over us has a divine origin from God. This means we are to submit to our governing authorities because they get their right to rule from God.
Is that a hard truth to swallow? I think it is for many Christians because too many of us view politics with an eye toward partisan political agendas rather than a Biblical worldview. Once we recognize our political life is to glorify God and be part of our spiritual act of worship we must come to see that is the Bible, not partisan politics, that determines our political worldview. So for example: agree with him or not, one implication of Romans 13:1 is that President Obama is our current President because God put him there. You may have voted, you may have not voted, but above it all stands God who puts the President He wants in office. This is true of President Obama and we’ll be able to say the same thing about the next President as well. No one comes into a position of governmental authority apart from the sovereign ordination of God.
Because of this there are dreadful consequences to rebelling against these authorities. v2 shows us the consequence of resistance, or as some commentators call it ‘the punishment of revolt.’ “Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” Whatever type of government is in place: democracy or monarchy, socialism or communism, the calling and duty of Christians towards the state is submission, not revolt. The argument v2 is making is this: just as obedience to civil authority implies obedience to God’s authority, resistance to civil authority implies resistance to God’s authority. And those who resist God’s authority incur judgment. What does that judgment look like? God tells us Himself in v3-4, where it says, “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, 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.”
A lot is held within v3-4. We see the governing authorities are called God’s servant (‘deacon’ in Greek) who bear a sword, approving and encouraging those who do good and disapproving and punishing those who do bad. It’s a two-sided ministry they have from God here in which they’re to serve us. On one hand they’re to promote and maintain a good order for their citizens, and on the other hand they’re to be the avenger who carries out God’s wrath on those who disrupt this good order. Let’s take these one at a time: first the good our rulers are to promote, then the judgment our rulers are to carry out.
About the good our rulers are to create we could ask, ‘What good are they to promote?’ We could say that just as God provides sun and rain on the earth to support and sustain life, He provides governing authorities to protect and preserve us from unrestrained sin. They are therefore a mercy of God to us, in that their very presence discourages us from breaking the law and disrupting the good of society. One can only imagine the horrors of a society where there were no rulers or authorities. Sin and wickedness of all kinds would run rampant. Praise God He gives us authorities to prohibit that kind of society among us. Of the good our rulers are to promote we could also go to 1 Tim. 2:2 where Paul instructs Timothy (and us) to pray for our rulers and all who are in authority for one reason, “…that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” So the good our governing authorities are to promote, maintain, uphold, and defend is precisely the kind of society which allows its citizens to pursue peaceful, quiet, holy, and godly living. So Church, see what you’re called to in prayer: were to pray for President Obama and ask God to give him and the other rulers over us the grace needed to uphold and promote a society where we can live a 1 Tim. 2:2 kind of life. Have any of you ever prayed for that? No better time than now to begin doing so.
Now let’s turn to the judgment our rulers are to carry out. Many of you have heard it said that government is a necessary evil. Let’s use those same words and turn the phrase on its head: government isn’t really a necessary evil, rather it’s necessary because of evil. Because when anyone disrupts this good order God calls the government to punish them, and what they receive through the State’s judicial system, v4 says is God’s wrath. In context this judgment isn’t an unjust use of governing authority, but the proper and just use of it. These punishments include prison, probation, and severe punishments such as the death penalty.
In v3 we see that authorities really do bring a kind of twofold ‘terror’ to its citizens. On the one side they cause a terror in us which prohibits us from doing wrong, and on the other side they cause a terror in us that frightens us of the penalty when we’ve done wrong. This twofold terror is a bit ironic because in it we see that fear holds a place in a healthy governmental system. And it’s also ironic because this fear prohibits us from doing wrong, which ultimately leads to having no fear of the State but feeling safe as a citizen. Of course this should not surprise Christians because God also rules with a twofold fear: to fear Him is the beginning of wisdom, and from fearing Him men depart from sin. So just as fear holds a true place within the Kingdom of God, fear holds a true place in kingdom of man. We could even say that the judgments executed by the State against wrongdoers in history anticipates the vastly greater judgments executed by God at the end of history to all those who do not repent.
We get a glimpse here that earthly governments, when seeking to promote, maintain, uphold, and defend a good society, reveal much of the nature and character of God to us. So when the governing authorities work to promote a good order, and when they punish those who disrupt that good order they are acting as God’s servant on earth.
To end I want to point out five reminders:
a) Be reminded: in all of life is to be lived Coram Deo, before the face of God. This is why Romans 13 is in the section beginning with the all-encompassing vision of the Christian life found in Romans 12:1-2.
b) Be reminded: I don’t care what political party you affiliate with, our view of government shouldn’t be informed by politics but by Scripture.
c) Be reminded: in Scripture we are brought face to face with the One God who is Lord of the State just as much as He is Lord of the Church.
d) Be reminded: when the government stops doing what God ordained it to do (promoting good and punishing those who disrupt that good) it is the Church who is to be the one who calls the government back to what it should be. In doing this we’re not going against the separation of Church and State, we’re merely calling the government to function in the manner God intends them to.
e) Be reminded: the gospel is more political than we realize. It declares that Jesus is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, that He sits in the ultimate seat of authority. He subdues us to Himself. He rules and defends us. He restrains and conquers all His and our enemies. During His humiliation we see His Kingly authority in His ministry, and right now in His exaltation, He still carries out His Kingly authority by being Lord over all things.
Therefore all governing authorities, though they may be over many, are still under King Jesus, and will one day give an account to Him for how they exercised their rule, and Christians, 99% of the time, God calls to submit to them.