Romans 13:1-7 (NIV) Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. 6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
The first point being made is that believers should live in obedience to governing civil authorities because their authority comes from God.
This is supported by the point that anyone who rebels against their civil authorities is rebelling against the authority that is instituted by God (v. 2).
This reflects Peter’s teaching about human authority:
1st Peter 2:13-17 (CSB) Submit to every human authority because of the Lord, whether to the emperor as the supreme authority 14 or to governors as those sent out by him to punish those who do what is evil and to praise those who do what is good. 15 For it is God’s will that you silence the ignorance of foolish people by doing good. 16 Submit as free people, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but as God’s slaves. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brothers and sisters. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
We freely submit to every human authority because we know their authority comes from the Lord.
The second point being made is that God establishes civil authority to punish criminals, who are a terror to society.
This is supported by the point that God has given them the sword as agents of wrath to punish lawbreakers (v. 4).
Both the first and second points are tied together by the conclusion that it is necessary for Christians to obey their civil government, not only because of their power to punish, but also for the sake of our clean conscience towards God (v. 5). We must obey our governing civil authorities because their authority comes from God and they have the power to punish lawbreakers.
This reflects Jesus’ own teaching about taxes:
Matthew 17:25-27 (NIV) When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. “What do you think, Simon?” he asked. “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?” 26 “From others,” Peter answered. “Then the children are exempt,” Jesus said to him. 27 “But so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.”
Our obedience to governing civil authority is rooted primarily in our freedom as heirs of the Kingdom and secondarily in the knowledge that God has granted civil authorities the power to punish lawbreakers.
The question this discourse answers from the previous text is about how God executes his vengeance on earth before the day of Judgment:
Romans 12:14-21 (NIV) Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
This text excludes any notion that we are agents of wrath by calling us to bless those who persecute us, not to curse them, and to live in harmony with one another, not to seek vengeance on the wicked. Instead, we must leave room for God’s wrath. Our job is to “feed our enemy” and overcome evil with good. It is the governments job to punish criminals.
This discourse explains one of the active mechanisms of God’s wrath on earth: civil governing authorities.
The conclusion is that we obey civil governing authorities because their authority comes from God and he has granted them the power to punish lawbreakers (v. 5).
This is supported by the point that we freely pay taxes to the government and we freely show them their proper respect and honor because God has appointed them for this task.
Objections that some governments are tyrannical or corrupt do not change this doctrine because the primary point of this doctrine is not that governing rulers are righteous, but that they have been given authority by God to punish lawbreakers. Both Paul and Peter affirmed this teaching while living under the evil Roman empire.
The exponential growth of Christianity over the last two millennia means that we have had to answer difficult questions about whether or not we have a responsibility to resist malignant regimes that ordered the execution of Christians who refused to commit heinous atrocities. But as Christians wrestle with understanding the full weight of their responsibility when faced with oppressive regimes, this doctrine must not be seen as an obstacle or burden, but rather as a lamp of righteousness illuminating our way that prevents the Church from taking the wrong path.
When answering the objection about whether or not Christians should obey dangerous tyrannical governments, I think greater detail and consideration is warranted than I can give on this platform. Therefore, let me suggest the following resources:
- When a Nation Forgets God, by Erwin Lutzer
- Hitler’s Cross, by Erwin Lutzer
Regardless of how we answer questions from our contemporary challenges, it is important that we understand God’s doctrine of civil government so that we do not commit fatal errors that might poison the Church!