Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Rom. 13:1a (Holman) “Everyone must submit to the governing authorities,”
Good Christians will be good citizens. This emphasis is needed because Christians have a strong reason to hate governments–one crucified our master.
The situation was made worse in the first century by the fact Israel hated to submit to Rome’s heathen authority. Israel was always in an uproar, stirring up trouble against their Gentile rulers. The Jews, expecting their Messiah to be a political ruler who would overthrow the yoke of Rome, were seeking to be subversive, not submissive. Rebellions were always breaking out among them.
Jews at Rome were especially notorious troublemakers. In 49 A.D., Emperor Claudius expelled Jews from Rome. Suetonius, a Roman historian, said this banishment was due to agitations centering around a certain “Chrestos,” probably a misnomer for Christ. They evidently argued among themselves about Christ.
Claudius’ successor, Nero, relaxed the edict. As Jews, some of whom were Christians, re-entered Rome, Paul knew they had to be careful in their dealings with government. Therefore, the directive, “Submit to the governing authorities.”
Rom. 13:1b “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist are instituted by God.”
Government is a permanent institution created by God for the regulation of human affairs. God saw this as the best way to provide management for mankind.
Without government, the world would fall into utter chaos. Society would disintegrate into fragments. People would live by the rule of the fish: the larger devour the small. Bad people would reign supreme.
Government is God’s way of enforcing law and order on earth. God does not ordain any particular kind of government, but does approve of it. There must be administrators of law. There is no place in Christian teaching for anarchy.
The fact rule by government is God-sanctioned does not mean He approves of power abused. He is the Author of government, but not of sin. The situation is similar to that of our bodies. God made them, but He is not to blame for their sins.
Christians must respect governmental authority because God allows such rule. Even in a severe time of persecution, Tertullian told the heathen, “Caesar is more ours than yours because our God appointed him.”
Rom. 13:2 “So then, the one who resists the authority is opposing God’s command, and those who oppose it will bring judgment on themselves.”
Christians who blatantly defy the laws of their land will receive judgment, which in this context refers to judicial punishment from God. Believers will be called to account for unlawfulness. God Himself will reckon with them.
Obey the law, brothers and sisters. It is a way of obeying God. “It matters not half so much what kind of a vote you drop in the ballot box once a year, as what kind of a man you drop out of bed into the street every morning” (Thoreau).
Do not view government as an enemy. Christianity would make society worse if believers withdrew from politics. Even in times of persecution Christians have remained loyal to the government. Justyn Martyr wrote, “Everywhere, we, more readily than all men, endeavor to pay to those appointed by you taxes, both ordinary and extraordinary, as we have been taught by Jesus.” Tertullian wrote, “Without ceasing, for all our emperors we offer prayer.”
Believers must obey government leaders, with one exception. All human authority is void if it calls on us to disobey God’s law. God created government; thus His law supersedes any edict of a government. In all matters we are to obey the government, unless told to violate the law of God. Daniel continued to pray, the three Hebrew children refused to bow, the disciples said, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (AC 5:29). Paul, the author of our text, was later beheaded.
There are times when civil disobedience is necessary. If we choose to disobey, though, we must submit to the punishment prescribed by our government or else flee from its jurisdiction. Bunyan’s do have to go to Bedford jails. Martin Luther King’s do have to enter Montgomery City jails.
Under Hitler’s Nazi regime, pastor Martin Niemoeller was thrown in prison for preaching the truth. All that was required for his release was for him to keep silent about certain subjects. Hence, a fellow pastor came to see him and asked, “Why are you in jail?” Niemoeller replied, “Why are you not in jail?”
Christian history has shown there are times when a person must go to prison rather than obey a certain law. Lest we forget, “If certain men had not gone to prison, certain other men never could have gone to church” (Parker).
Rom. 13:3 “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have its approval.”
Law-abiding citizens need not fear government. Its purpose is to punish law-breakers. Even the most tyrannical rulers maintain some semblance of justice in their government. Murderers, thieves, and rapists are tracked down and punished. Governments protect our lives and property, and guard our safety. Whatever peace and order we enjoy on the street, we owe to civil government one way or another.
To live without fear, obey the law. If Christians obey the law and live godly lives, they escape punishment, and win their enemies’ admiration. The church’s worst persecutors have often had to confess respect for the ones they persecuted.
Rom. 13:4a “For government is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, because it does not carry the sword for no reason.”
Government officials are ministers of God, servants under the authority of Another. Whether they know it or not, or like it or not, they are answerable to God. They are to protect the law-abider and punish the law-breaker.
The sword was a symbol of authority, especially regarding the right of life and death. The common method of inflicting capital punishment in Rome was decapitation with a sword. Government rightfully wields the power of capital punishment. This awesome power, however, belongs solely to civil government.
No individual is permitted to be a swordsman, in the sense of taking law and punishment into his own hands. Even if it be a Simon Peter, leader of the Apostolic band, who decides to try it and lops off an ear, he must hear the Divine reprimand, “All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword” (Matthew 26:52).
Rom. 13:4b “For government is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong.”
God delegates to civil governments a function forbidden to individual Christians. Paul told believers, “Recompense to no man evil for evil” (RM 12:17). Our present text helps us realize evil and vice are not to be allowed to run rampant.
Violent forms of evil must be put down by government. Without government, we would be in a state hardly better than the beasts. Church and State have two distinct spheres of obligation to God. If their duties were identical, God would not have ordained both. The church is on earth to strive for the salvation of the world. Government strives for order and stability in the world.
It is not the purpose of government to promote evangelism and advance the kingdom of Christ. This is the responsibility of churches and individual believers. A Christian’s ultimate goal is to win others to herself and thereby to Christ. Therefore, on an individual basis, believers are not to retaliate.
However, government’s purpose is not salvation. It is not trying to woo or impress people. Its job is to provide order, to prohibit chaos. Government can thus do certain things, with regard to retaliation, Christians on their own behalf must not do. Government exists for law; “law produces wrath” (Romans 4:15). The church lives by faith; faith works “through love” (Galatians 5:6).