I think it is important to begin this morning with some overall guiding principles. These principles are true of any text, but this is especially needed when we come to passages like this one, given the times we live in. On the one hand, we don’t want to treat this text as if it is all the Bible has to say about the relationship that the Christian has to the state. If you do that, you are going to end up denying or suppressing other things in Scripture. This passage, taken absolutely, would lead to a church that panders to the state, even when it is commanding things that are in direct opposition to God’s word. But we know there are times when the follower of Christ must say, “We must obey God rather than men.”
But we must also be careful to avoid the opposite mistake. Some people are so careful to balance this text with other texts in Scripture, that they end up nuancing the meaning right out of the text. They add so many qualifications to Romans 13 that Romans 13 ends up having nothing really to say about the relationship of the Christian to the state. Sometimes, when I hear someone say, “Well, you can’t just wave Romans 13 at everything,” I get the distinct impression that they don’t want to listen to what the apostle has to say here. But if we believe this is as much God’s word as any other part of the Bible (and I hope that you do), we must listen carefully and obediently to Paul’s words in these verses.
Keeping hold of these two principles, and avoiding these two extremes, doesn’t make all difficulties go away. There are always going to be problems and situations that aren’t black and white and require a good amount of humility and patience with others who differ from us on them. Take the current situation involving COVID-19. In some parts of the country, churches are still under orders from the authorities not to meet face-to-face. Some churches have chosen to obey this without question, others have obeyed while fighting the restrictions in the courts, while still others have chosen the course of civil disobedience. I know good people in every one of those groups, and they are all appealing to the Scriptures for the reasons why they have acted the way they have acted. Because of the pandemic, it’s hard for me to be too dogmatic. In the absence of a pandemic, the course would be more obvious: if the state commands the church not to meet because the state doesn’t approve of the church as such, we must clearly obey God over men. But my point is that the pandemic makes reasoning through this a bit more difficult and this is seen in that good Christian people fall in different camps on this issue.
My desire in dealing with this text is not to answer every question or to deal with every problem that we might encounter in our relationship to the state. Rather, I want to stick with the clear principles that are articulated here, because obedience to what is clear in Scripture is the first step to discernment in those cases that are less clear in the Bible (less clear in the sense that they are not dealt with directly). Let’s be clear on those things on which Scripture is clear and let’s be unified around those things to which Scripture speaks more directly.
Now, I do think that we must be aware of the political situation in which the Christians at Rome found themselves. This is important because someone might look at this and argue that if the state is not just in every respect, it need not be obeyed. But that was not the case in Rome. It can hardly be argued that the Roman Empire was just in truest sense of just – it was under the authority of the Roman Empire, after all, that Christ was crucified and that a lot of Christians were suffering persecution! It is true that the persecution was not as hot at that time as it would be come later, but we know that Paul spent quite of bit of time in prisons all over the Roman Empire, just because he preached the gospel (cf. Rom. 12:14, 17-20). The Roman Empire was not Christian, and would not be for another 300 years; it was decidedly pagan. It was at that time ruled over by Nero who would make the worst politician you can think of today look like a Boy Scout.
Nevertheless, the first century was part of the time that historians have come to call the pax Romana – the Roman peace, a 200 year period in which the Roman Empire for the most part sustained peace and stability throughout the empire. It was generally a time of law and order (as defined by the Roman government of course!). So it is these two things we must keep in mind as we read this passage. The state, to which the apostle refers, was not just in every respect – and it certainly did not adhere to what we today know as the Judeo-Christian ethic. Nevertheless, it did for the most part maintain stability throughout the empire, which is important for any community, including the church, to flourish. Thus Paul asks Timothy to encourage believers to pray for an extension of this pax Romana - “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Tim. 2:2).
The over-arching command here is obedience to the state: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities” (1). Under this command, there are basically two things the apostle speaks to with respect to submitting to the governing authorities. First, he speaks to the issue of the authority of the state (1-2), and then to the issue of the activities of the state (3-7). The first point is important because it tells us why we are to obey; the second point is important because it tells us in what respects we are to obey.
The Authority of the State
Why are we to be subject to the governing authorities? We are to do so, “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (1-2). The point is that the state receives its authority and right to govern from God. Note how the apostle emphasizes this again and again. “There is no authority except from God.” The governing authorities “that exist have been instituted by God.” To resist the state is to resist “what God has appointed.” They are called, in fact, the servants and ministers of God (4, 6). The bottom line here is that Scripture teaches that what ultimately legitimatizes the authority of a government is not the consent of the governed but rather the consent of God. This is true even though earthly governments could be said to be under the grip of the evil one (cf. Mt. 4:8-9).
There are two realities which undergird statements like this. The first is that God is the one who instituted government. We find this back in Gen. 9:5-6, when the Lord institutes the death penalty for those who commit murder (note that Paul says this is one of the main functions of the state in Rom. 13:4). In that institution is the foundation of the state. Sometimes it bothers me when I hear well-meaning Christians talk about government as if it is inherently evil. There is nothing in Scripture that would support that. God is the giver of government. And though it may only be necessary because of the presence of sin in the world, yet it is a good institution because it is given by God.
The second reality is that God is sovereign over all things. There is no king or president or dictator or whatever who was not in some sense put there by God. Our Lord said to Pilate, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above” (Jn. 19:11). This is true even of pagan kings like Cyrus (Isa. 45:1) and Nebuchadnezzar (Dan. 2:21, 37; 4:17, 25, 32). God puts kings on the throne and he removes kings. Bad kings and rulers, no less than good ones, are subject to God’s overruling providence and purpose and power.
One of the great Biblical illustrations of this truth is in the way David related to King Saul. Even though God anointed David to be the king of Israel and even though Saul unjustly attempted again and again to take David’s life – even after all of that David refused to kill Saul when he had the chance (more than once). As he put it, “Do not destroy him [Saul], for who can put out his hand against the LORD’s anointed and be guiltless? . . . The LORD forbid that I should put out my hand against the LORD’s anointed” (1 Sam. 26:9, 11). David recognized Saul’s authority because he fundamentally recognized God’s authority and God’s sovereignty over all things, including the throne of Saul. And this attitude was reflected in the way he restrained himself and others from acting in ways that would undermine the authority of Saul.
We need to be reminded of this – especially those of us who live in a democracy. Just because I didn’t vote for those who are presently in positions of power and leadership does not mean that I do not have to respect the authority that they possess. For it is ultimately derived from God. In the words of verse 7, we are to show them respect and honor.
Another good example of this is found in Paul’s response to the Jewish high priest Ananias. When he was rebuked for calling him a “whitewashed all” (Acts 23:3), Paul responded, “I did not know, brothers, that he was the high priest, for it is written [here he quotes Exod. 22:28], ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people’” (Acts 23:5). This is significant because Paul is being unjustly persecuted here. And even under those circumstances, the apostle was careful to show the proper deference and respect to those in positions of power. And note that he didn’t do it out of fear or out of convenience; he did so because this is how Scripture commands us to act.
We cannot but at the same time pause to reflect on the comforting reality that God is sovereign and rules in the heavens and among the inhabitants of the earth. The reason the state receives its authority from God is because God is sovereign over all. This does not change no matter how the elections go in our country. Thank God for the truth of Proverbs 21:1: “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.”
The apostle draws two conclusions from this, from the fact that the state receives its authority and power from God, and these in turn serve to further motivate submission to the state. First, whoever resists the authorities, resists God. We are to be submissive to the authorities because this is part of our submission to God. This is no light thing. This is not a matter of convenience or a matter of pragmatism. It is part of our obedience to God.
Second, those who resist will incur judgment (KJV has “shall receive to themselves damnation”). Paul is implying that generally (there are qualifications to this) whatever punishment a man receives in breaking the laws of the state, it is just, it being an extension of God’s rule. The apostle is not just stating that if you break the law you will be condemned as a matter of course; he is saying that we will be condemned because we are breaking God’s law, and God will not hold us guiltless when we break his law.
Are there exceptions to this? Are there times when the judgment of the state is contrary to the judgment of God? Of course there are. Look at the way Peter handles it. He puts it this way: “But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name” (1 Pet. 4:15-16). In other words, suffering because you break the laws of the state is only commendable and righteous when it means suffering as a Christian – suffering in obedience to Christ. Breaking the law in any other way is not only not commendable, but it also damages our witness to our fellow men and it is in direct conflict with God’s will for his people. On the contrary, these suffering saints are to “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Pet. 2:13-14).
This passage is certainly no carte blanche for a “divine right of kings” or a command to obey every decree of a godless government. There are many instance in Scripture of what you might call “civil disobedience.” For example, the apostles in front of the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:18; 5:29), the Hebrew midwives (Exod. 1:17), Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Dan. 3), and Daniel himself (Dan. 4). All these Biblical examples illustrate the following principle: if the ruling authorities enact laws that are contrary to the laws of God, it is both right and our duty to disobey.
Why? Because we only obey them out of submission to God. When governments constrain disobedience to God, they forfeit their right to be obeyed. In other words, the overriding principle here is the authority of God. Because God has given authority to the governing authorities, we must obey them. But the moment they require us to disobey God, we can no longer submit to them, indeed, we must not submit to them.
This does not men, however, that we have a right to disobey just because governments are at times bad and oppressive. Paul makes no such qualifications. He is not calling us to obey only “just” governments. As we’ve already pointed out, the Roman government, though it did have an overarching commitment to what it considered justice and though this did overlap with some of what the Bible says is just, yet the reality is that the Roman government did a lot of really bad things. But the apostle does not reason from this that the Christian could therefore flaunt the authority of the emperor. We must not reason that way, either.
The Activities of the State
Paul does not give a full manifesto on the responsibilities of the state, and this is important to remember. Rather, the apostle touches on those aspects that related to the relationship of the government to the believers in Rome. In particular, it has been noted by scholars that there had been unrest in Rome over taxation (here we see there is nothing new under the sun!). Tom Schreiner relates that “Suetonius records that taxes were exorbitantly high, and Tacitus comments that in AD 57 or 58 complaints surfaced over the extortionary practices of some tax collectors.” Apparently, Nero even considered repealing indirect taxes, was in the end persuaded otherwise. We must not think that it would have been beneath the Roman Christians to be grumbling about their taxes. How should they think about this? Paul gives them an answer.
He will come to the issue of taxes, but before he does this, he deals with another responsibility of the state. So there are basically two things that the apostle highlights with respect to the responsibility of the government. They are (1) to praise the good and punish the evil, and (2) to collect taxes.
With regard to the first, the apostle writes, “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” (Rom. 13:3-4). Again, Schreiner reminds us that “even oppressive governments, by their very nature seek to prevent the evils of indiscriminate murder, riot, thievery, as well as general instability and chaos, and good acts do at times meet with its approval and praise.” Government is good not only because it has been ordained by God but because it serves for our good: “he is God’s servant for your good.” Government is good because it protects us from anarchy and chaos. Government allows us to live quiet and peaceable lives (1 Tim. 2:2). From this we see that Christians are to be neither vigilantes (Rom. 12) nor are they to be anarchists (Rom. 13). “God is not the author of confusion but of peace” (1 Cor. 14:33), and so God has given us governments so that order may be maintained.
One of the ways that order is maintained in society is by the sword (4), which is a reference to capital punishment. It is the right of the state, for example, to deprive murderers of life. Some Christians throughout history have maintained that capital punishment is never right, but God’s word bases it on the fact that human are made in God’s image and to strike one of God’s image-bearers down in death is to deprive one’s right to life. Now it is certainly true that at times the state has overused the sword. And we should never be against safeguards against its abuse. But nowhere does Scripture indicate that it is a more just society which refrains entirely from capital punishment. It is in fact a necessary bulwark against the evil in resides in the hearts of men.
The other activity of the state to which the apostle refers is the collection of taxes: “For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 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” (6-7).
Note that Paul does not debate the merits of the tax system. He simply says to pay your taxes. Paul even goes into detail about what kinds of taxes we are to pay, for “taxes” refer to direct taxation (like property taxes), although Roman citizens would have been exempt from these (however, not all who were in Rome would have been citizens of Rome). Then “revenue” would have referred to indirect taxes (sales tax, for example, would fall under this category). Other than that, the apostle makes no distinction. They are to pay them all.
Verse 5 sums up the argument nicely: “Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.” Now the word “God’s” is not in the original text, and I’m not sure that I agree with it. I think what the apostle is saying is that our obedience to the state is not to be merely a pragmatic thing – doing it just to avoid getting caught and punished. Rather, we are fundamentally to obey the state because it is a conscience thing – in other words, it is part of my obedience to God.
When we began, I said that I wanted to stick to what is clear. From that perspective we can use our discernment when the waters get a bit more murky. What then are those principles in the text which we can say are clear?
First, it is clear that God’s sovereignty grounds the sovereignty of the state and that my obedience to God requires submission to the state.
Second, it is clear that my obedience to the state, being a part of obedience to God, does not require me to obey the state when its laws are contrary to God’s laws.
Third, it is clear that it is the responsibility of the state to provide social stability and protection from chaos and anarchy. It does this by rewarding the law-abiders and by punishing the law-breakers. And it finances its ability to do this through the collection of taxes.
Fourth, it is clear that it is our responsibility to pay taxes.
Fifth, it is clear that, the state being ordained by God, it is not improper but even right and good for Christians to hold positions of political leadership in the state. They are God’s ministers (for examples, consider Daniel, Erastus, etc.).
That much is clear, it seems to me. There are other questions one could consider, but I will leave you to work out the answers in light of these principles.
The last thing I want to say is this: if this text teaches anything it is that our submission to God is to extend into every area of our lives. It is not to be bottled up at church. It must permeate every area of our lives – at home, at church, at the workplace, at the court house, in our relationships to each other and to the state. The secular dimension of our lives is to be filled up with the spiritual. Why? Because God is ultimately sovereign over all the universe!