This is probably every US Citizen’s least favorite passage in scripture. Our country is pretty much founded on the exact opposite of what it is teaching, thus a healthy disregard for the government is part of our culture.
As with other posts in my series on difficult passages, I am going to present the scripture itself. After that I am going to post commentary from an array of sources that I think are edifying. Then I will weigh in on my own, at the end I ask the reader to listen with an open Bible and practice good discernment.
“The apostle now, in his exhortation, shows the duties which every person owes the government, and in which the Christians will lead all others with a cheerful sense of duty. Since this is the only place in which Paul treats at greater length of the duties toward civil authorities, it is probable that circumstances made it necessary for him to include this information at this point, either to curb the spirit of the Jewish Christians or to prepare all the Christians of Rome for the treatment which they afterward received at the hands of the tyrant Nero. Paul’s statements are very general, and find their application in all ages of the world; they indicate exactly the divine right and the divine dignity of the government, but, at the same time, limit the functions of the civil authorities to matters pertaining to this world, to the physical well-being of the subjects and to the duties of citizenship.
The apostle’s words are all-inclusive: Let every soul subject itself to authorities existing above it. Every person, without exception, within a community, state, or country is spoken of and addressed in this command. He should be subject to, submit himself willingly, without the application of force or restraint, to the existing powers or authorities, to the persons that are invested with power, to the incumbents of the governmental office. The governmental powers vested in these people by virtue of God’s providence or permission gives them a position in which they excel us in dignity and authority; they are our superiors in the sense of the Fourth Commandment. This is expressly brought out: For there does not exist an authority except by God; but those that exist are ordained by God. If a government is actually in power, whether tyrannical or otherwise, its existence cannot be explained but by the assumption that it is due to God’s establishment, either by His providence or by His permission. It would be impossible for any government to keep evil in check if the almighty hand of God were not the sustaining power. “Not only is human government a divine institution, but the form in which that government exists, and the persons by whom its functions are exercised, are determined by His providence. All magistrates of whatever grade are to be regarded as acting by divine appointment; not that God designates the individuals, but that, it being His will that there should be magistrates, every person who is in point of fact clothed with authority, is to be regarded as having a claim to obedience, founded on the will of God.” (Hodge.) This being the case, therefore, whosoever, every one that, resists the power resists the institution of God. If any person refuses obedience to the government to which he is subject in any point left free by God’s express command or prohibition, he rebels, not only against the lawful authority of the government, but incidentally against God Himself, who established government. And they that resist will receive to themselves judgment, the sentence of condemnation. Not only will they make themselves liable to prosecution and punishment on the part of the government, but they will be looked upon and treated as rebels by God, who will not have the authority vested by Him disregarded. History shows that the visitations of God upon rebellious peoples have been very severe.
The apostle now brings another reason for the duty enjoined in the first verse: For the authorities, those that rule, are a terror, a cause for fear, not to the good work, but to the evil. That is the purpose for which God has established government: it is to be a matter of fear, its power is to strike terror into the hearts of the rebellious, just as its dignity is to cause reverence and respect in the minds of all subjects. It is only he that does evil who must fear the civil authorities, not he that does good. He that transgresses the laws of the country, and refuses to live in accordance with the demands of civil righteousness, must expect to be treated as his behavior merits. If, then, a person does not want to live in continual fear of the government in the rightful discharge of its duties, he should be concerned about doing good, about living up to the laws of the country, about doing his duty as a citizen. Then he will have praise from the authority, or government; he will be recognized and treated as a good, dutiful citizen. For the magistrates, the persons in authority that are actually conscious of the responsibility and power vested in them, will then act so that the government will be the servant of God to every good citizen for good. For that purpose the government is established and upheld by God, for the benefit of the citizens that are law-abiding, to protect and defend them against wrong, to seek the welfare of society in every way. But if some one will do wrong, will deliberately transgress the laws of the city, state, or country in which he lives and whose protection he enjoys, then he should fear. Far the government nowhere bears the sword, the symbol of authority, in vain; it is not for nothing that the civil authorities are invested with the right to punish, if necessary, by administering the condemnation of death upon the transgressors of the law. God’s minister the government’s power is, both in protecting and in punishing, and, in the latter case, avenging unto anger, manifesting and exercising revenge and wrath upon him that makes it a practice to do evil. Thus the government, according to God’s will, is the guardian of law and order, including external morality. And this reason is sufficient to keep the Christians peaceful and law-abiding, no matter under what form of government they are living, no matter if the persons in authority are morally corrupt. If the members of God’s kingdom can but lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty and build up the Church of Christ, they are duly thankful to God. And if a hostile government uses tyrannical measures to suppress the work of the Church, Christians will not assume a rebellious attitude, but will try to gain their object by legitimate means, by invoking the statutes and the constitution of their state or country. It is only when the government demands anything plainly at variance with the revealed will of God that the Christians quietly, but firmly refuse to obey, Acts 5, 29.” – Kretzmann Commentary
What Does it Mean?
The simple answer is that this passage is pretty straight forward, it means what it says. If you don’t like that because you think rebellion is awesome then this might be a piece of law you should consider praying about and submitting to. God has instituted Government for a good reason.
The obvious question though is what does this mean about evil governments? If you or I lived in Nazi Germany does that mean we would have been bound by scripture to murder the Jews? Both of the commentaries handled this aspect in detail, so I won’t repeat it. But the short answer is no. We are to obey the government except when doing so means violating the Law of God. Below is a proof-text from Acts which is commonly used as a cross reference for Romans 13. I think this balances that question out nicely.
Here is the idea, the Government is instituted by God for his overall purposes across the span of human history. Thus, in periods of a wanton evil government such as Nazi Germany, it is good for us to remember that there is a scope to their authority. When they overstep that scope and command citizens to violate the Law of God then it is no longer a sin to disobey or even form a new government and rebel against them.
What is that scope precisely? I would argue that the safest way to define that scope is the Word of God. If a command by the government is not forbidden in scripture then it is okay for the government to make whatever laws they like to promote good order and safety.
I am going to speculate a bit and draw some logical conclusions from what I have presented above. Feel free to let me have it if you believe that I am wrong. If I seem unteachable please comment anyways for others who may be reading. But due to the nature of this topic I am going to do something I rarely do with my blog, I am going to get touch on politics. I will be careful to avoid partisan politics out of respect for the subject matter though. Bear in mind my thoughts are specific to the United States where I live.
Abortion: Is it Biblically permissible for the Government to allow abortion? I don’t believe so, the scripture is very clear that this is murder, an issue I address HERE. Fortunately in America abortions are not yet being forced though so we can praise God for that. At the time of this writing you can simply not have the procedure done without incurring legal consequences. There are other countries though where this is not the case.
Loss of Free Speech: Our government is circumventing the first amendment by making it illegal, or at the very least, cost the citizen a great deal to speak out against sexual sin. If this only results in loss of tax exempt status for Churches or losing the ability to hold government employment I am not too concerned. I am certainly willing to pay more and have a little less, and I count myself lucky if that is the only persecution I see in my lifetime. But history and even scripture tells us to expect this beast to grow in time. Because of that I’m concerned how this will evolve in the coming generations.
Right to Bear Arms: I am bringing this up more to make a point. Don’t get me wrong, I fully support the Second Amendment and I am glad we have it. Furthermore, I think it is something worth fighting to keep. One caveat though, I would distinguish between Church and State when it comes to fighting for the second amendment. There is no scripture forbidding government to outlaw weapons. As Americans though we are part of the governing process and it is here that we should make our stand. Don’t claim that the right to bear arms is in the Bible, it just makes you look dumb.
The bottom line is that we as Christians are bound to obey the government. Even laws that you find tedious or taxes that you prefer not to pay, remember that the government was established by God, and we should be good citizens.
That’s all I feel a desire to comment on with this post. Romans 13 is a dynamic text though with more to it than I presented here. Maybe in the future I will dig into it again. What are your thoughts? Feel free to relate it to society today if you like. I would really like to know.