Over twenty years ago, I taught high school classes in a medium security prison. Early in my teaching days there, I had a very idealistic and unrealistic picture of what was happening in that prison. I thought that “we”—the prison authorities who ran the prison—were in charge. The prisoners were confined within those prison walls and could not escape (with only a few exceptions). The prisoners knew the rules and complied with them enough to avoid punishment.
Over a period of time, I came to see that there were two systems of authority in that prison, not just one. The prisoners had a kind of government of their own inside those walls. They had a system of values, of what was right and wrong.70 They had their own authority structure and chain of command.71 And they had their own means of enforcement. A first-time offender was rudely awakened to these realities in his first few days in prison. “Obedience” to prison authorities within those prison walls was, at best, compliance. Whole-hearted cooperation was exceedingly rare.72
Shortly after my teaching experience ended in that prison, I went to work for a reasonably large company. I discovered over time that this company was not unlike the prison in that there were functionally two authority structures there as well. There was the official chain of command, and there were the official policies of the company. But there was also the unofficial chain of command, and a different set of rules. The unofficial system often proved to be more effective and efficient. Employees always complied with the official rules and policies, but the way to get things done was through the unofficial system. There was compliance, but little cooperation.
Over the years I have found Christians are little different than non-Christians in their attitudes and responses toward authority. Compliance is given, but cooperation is not. For example, I would be just as likely to find a radar detector in the car of a Christian (even one serving the Lord), as I would in the car of an unbeliever. Christians comply with the law. We slow down as we pass the police car with its radar speed detection equipment. We drive carefully and lawfully when the patrol car is following us. But as soon as we are sure it is safe, we drive normally—and illegally.
In Romans 13:1-7, Paul deals directly with the Christian’s attitude and conduct with respect to governmental authority.73 In particular, Paul addresses the Christian’s relationship to civil government.74 There are a number of reasons Christians and civil government might be at odds with one another, and Christians might wrongly twist these into excuses for disrespect and disobedience to authorities.
First, civil government is secular in nature while Christianity is spiritual. Christians are aliens and strangers, just passing through this world (see 1 Peter 1:1). Their citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20). Second, the state can look upon Christianity as competitive, even hostile to its authority. The Christian’s highest authority is God. In Rome, Caesar was “god.” Because of this, Romans considered Christians as atheists. Christianity was eventually seen as treasonous. Third, at times Christians were required to “obey God, rather than men” (see Acts 5:29), which openly confirmed the government’s suspicions. Fourth, government officials, either unconsciously or willingly, used their authority to actively oppose the church and to persecute Christians.
If governmental authorities began to view Christians with suspicion, and even fear, Christians also were tempted to see government as their opponent, and as an enemy of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ. Civil disobedience might easily become common practice rather than a necessary exception. Submission to governmental authority was a vital topic in a day and time when the Lord’s church and civil government were on a collision course.
The church is on a very similar course today. In the earlier days of our nation, our government was founded on certain Christian assumptions and convictions. If our early government founders and officials were not Christians, at least their beliefs and values were compatible with Christian doctrines and practices. Our culture and our government has strayed over the years farther and farther from Christianity.
Until recently, many Christians thought their views and values were still held by a majority of Americans. Christians only needed to mobilize the moral majority and encourage them to speak out—especially by voting. We could turn things around, we were assured, if only we could mobilize the masses. This view is now for the most part recognized as unrealistic and untrue. Christians and their values are becoming an unpopular minority view. Consequently, government will increasingly regulate, hinder, and even oppose Christian activity. At the same time, some Christians are becoming increasingly disobedient to the laws of our land. Some even teach that if we disagree with a particular law, we are not only obliged to disobey, but we can also justify disobeying other laws in protest.75
Paul’s words were vital in his own day, and they are just as important to contemporary Christians. Let us consider what God requires of us in our relationship to civil government.
Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities.
Paul gives us a very clear, categorical commandment at the beginning of our text. The commandment is addressed to all mankind, without exception. Every person76 is included in this instruction—both believers and unbelievers. Every person is required to be in subjection to the governing authorities. Subjection certainly includes obedience, but it implies even more. Subjection focuses on the spirit or attitude of the individual, which leads to obedience. It recognizes an authority over us to which we are obliged to give not only our obedience but our respect. It implies a spirit which seeks to understand the perspective and purpose of the one who is superior and to seek to enhance that one’s position and purpose.
The authorities in view here are the governing authorities, those authorities which govern us politically. Submission to other authorities (e.g. wives to their husbands; slaves to their masters) is discussed elsewhere. These governmental authorities are assumed to be legitimate, for there are those who claim authority but are illegitimate. A Christian living in a country where a military coup has occurred may have to determine which government is actually in power. Under normal conditions, it is the government which is in place (see verse 1b).
From several Scriptures one might come to the conclusion that there are exceptions to the rule or precept Paul has laid down here. There were times when men had to chose to "obey God, rather than men" (e.g. Daniel 3, 6; Acts 4:19-20; 5:27-32). I would like to suggest to you that while the Christian may not, in good conscience before God, be able to obey the government in every instance, true submission to the government is never actually set aside. Generally, submission is exhibited by one’s obedience. But when one cannot obey, they can still demonstrate a submissive spirit. This submissive spirit should never be set aside when it comes to those in authority over us.
Let me try to illustrate what I mean, using some of the texts which seem to be exceptions to submission. In 1 Samuel chapter 25 Abigail takes a gift to David, and tells him that her husband is a fool. She knew that Nabal would have forbidden her to do what she did. She acted in a way that was contrary to her husband’s will, but not contrary to true submission. She subordinated her interests to those of her husband, putting herself at risk in an attempt to save the life of her husband and the men in her household. By the way, she acted in submission not only to Nabal, but to David, the one she knew was going to be Israel’s next king. She talked David out of doing a foolish thing that would have negatively impacted his reign, yet with a submissive spirit.
In Daniel chapter 3, Daniel’s three friends were commanded to bow down before an image of gold. They refused, and rightly so, for they could not serve God and bow down to an idol. But the way in which they declined to do so demonstrated a submissive spirit. They did not refuse to obey all of the king’s commands, only this one. They knew that disobedience might cost them their lives, and they were willing to pay this price. They did not advocate the overthrow of this government, and they were willing to submit to the death penalty if necessary. The same is seen in Daniel chapter 6, where Daniel will not cease praying to his God. Daniel refuses to comply with a specific law, and even the king agrees with him and hopes for his rescue.
In Acts chapter 5 the Sanhedrin has demanded that the apostles (Peter and John) stop preaching in the name of Jesus. This they cannot do, lest they disobey God. Though they could not and would not stop preaching about heir resurrected Lord, they did not challenge the authority of this body. Their answer was evidence of their submissive spirit and intent: “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20). Submission usually is demonstrated by our obedience, but even when we must disobey, we can and should do so in a submissive spirit and manner.
Therefore submission to the authority of legitimate governmental agents is required by God, at all times and in all cases. Submission usually, but not always, results in obedience. Submission always gives honor to whom honor is due. In the remaining verses of this text, Paul gives us three reasons for our submission to human government.
For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.
Paul’s entire argument is based upon a fundamental premise: God is sovereign. He possesses ultimate authority. He is the sole authority of His creation. All human authority is delegated to men by God.77 No one has authority independent of God.
How do we know that a given government is ordained of God and that He has given it authority? A government’s existence is proof that it is ordained of God and that it possesses divinely delegated authority. Paul says, “those which exist are established by God.” God is sovereign. He is in control of all things. He causes all things to “work together for good” (8:28). In days gone by, He raised up a disobedient Pharaoh (9:17), as well as Assyria and Babylon, as His chastening rod (for example, see Habakkuk 1 and 2). Whether democratic or autocratic, heathen or God-fearing, every government which has the power to rule over its people has been granted that power and authority by God.
Submission to government then is an expression of our submission to God. God has instituted human government to exercise divinely delegated authority over men. We should be subject to human governments for this reason alone. But Paul adds two very practical reasons for our submission and obedience in verses 2-7. These provide additional motivation for our obedience to this divine command.
Therefore he who resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil.
In verse 1, Paul has stated that human government has divine authority. Verse 2 seems to emphasize divine consequences, based upon Paul’s statement in verse 1b. Because of these consequences, resistance to governmental authority is also resistance against God Himself. Such resistance eventually brings divine judgment.78
Disregard for government’s authority also has present ramifications. These are described in verses 3 and 4. Government is given an unexpected title in verse 4—“minister of God.” Its task is to serve God by dealing appropriately with those who do good and also those who do evil. God’s purpose for human government is to reward those who do good and to punish those who do evil.
The role of government in punishing those who do evil, and in rewarding those who do good, is consistent with and complimentary to the purposes of the Christian. You will remember that in verse 9 Paul wrote,
Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good.
The Christian should abstain from evil and pursue what is good. Government should praise those who do good and punish those who do evil. Therefore God’s purposes for us and for government are in harmony. Government is here to help us do what God has called us to do and what we should desire to do.
Ordinarily, one who is seeking to do good need not fear government. One who is serving God need not worry about government opposition. Christians should be the best citizens, for their calling is consistent with government’s divine commission.
But we should fear government when we choose to do evil. Only the law-breaker looks over his shoulder, wondering where the police are. The Christian should never need a radar detector, nor should he ever fear paying the penalty for speeding. If we would desire to live our lives without fear of punishment, we need only to do what God has required of us, and what government requires as well.
It should also be said that government’s God-given role also frees the Christian from returning “evil for evil” by retaliating against those who persecute or mistreat him (see Romans 12:14-21). God has not given us the task of administering justice or of paying men back for their wrong-doings. God has given this task to governmental authorities. When we “leave room for the wrath of God” (12:19), we leave room for government to deal with the evil deeds of men against us. Government “bears the sword”79 for such purposes. And if government should fail in this task, God will make things right in that day when He judges with perfect judgment.
Wherefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.
Subjection which is based only on the fear of painful consequences is as incomplete as sexual purity based solely on the fear of contracting AIDS. A higher reason for subjection is found in verse 5.
The external motivation that promotes submission is the fear of punishment—at least primarily. The motivation Paul calls for here is internal—that of a desire to maintain a pure and undefiled conscience. The standard which the law sets is the minimal standard for all men. The standard set by our own conscience is personal, individual, and hopefully higher than the minimum set by human government.
What is the conscience? It is an internal standard, defining right and wrong. It is not present only in Christians. All men have a conscience (Romans 2:15). The conscience of one may be stronger than that of another (see 1 Corinthians 8:7, 10, 12). Some consciences have become hardened and insensitive due to sin (1 Timothy 4:2), while the consciences of others are sensitized by obedience (Hebrews 5:14). We must never defile our conscience by doing what it considers evil, nor should we offend others by practicing what their consciences condemn as evil (1 Corinthians 8).
Our conscience is not an infallible guide to good and evil. While we must never do what our conscience condemns, we dare not assume that everything our conscience permits is good, since our conscience can become hardened and insensitive (1 Timothy 4:2).
Paul’s conscience was very important matter to him. He sought to serve God with an undefiled conscience (Acts 23:1; 24:16; 2 Timothy 1:3), which he urged others to do as well (1 Timothy 1:19; 3:9). A clear conscience is a prerequisite for love and service to others:
But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith (1 Timothy 1:5).
I thank God, whom I serve with a clear conscience the way my forefathers did, as I constantly remember you in my prayers night and day (2 Timothy 1:3).
How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? (Hebrews 9:14).
Let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water (Hebrews 10:22).
Whenever we violate our conscience we hinder our fellowship with God and our service, to Him and to others. A violated, guilty, conscience makes us less sensitive to sin and more vulnerable to error (see Hebrews 5:12; 2 Timothy 3:6). A guilty conscience makes us more tentative and less bold to proclaim and practice our faith. Due to a defiled conscience, we may tend toward a legalistic, external obedience, based upon appearances rather than on reality (see Luke 16:15).
What does our conscience have to do with submission to human government? Mere outward compliance with the requirements of government is simply not enough. This we can expect from unbelievers, if for no other reason than the fear of punishment. But God desires a fuller, deeper, obedience from the heart. This requires conscientious subjection—submitting done out of obedience to God. Such an attitude of submission enables us to retain the right attitude and actions toward government even when we must disobey specific laws in order to obey God.
An internal attitude of submission stimulates us to obey government even when our disobedience cannot be seen or punished. The actions of verses 6 and 7 are the outflow of an undefiled conscience and a spirit of submission. Paul does not tell us here to “obey the laws of the land,” but rather to honor those in authority and to pay taxes and custom fees. Why are these specific forms of obedience named? I believe it is because these are the very things which are easiest to avoid doing, and the least likely violations to be discerned and punished.
We can be rude and disrespectful to officials and get away with it. We can even more effectively pretend to be respectful and never have our insincerity detected. We can quite easily report our income or our baggage in such a way as to avoid income taxes or customs fees. More often than not, if we are devious, we will not be caught.
But we already know that government has God’s authority and ministers for Him. Thus, when we fail to “pay our dues,” whatever these might be, we disobey God. Even if the civil authorities never catch us, our conscience before God will be defiled. Our fellowship with Him will be hindered. Our service to others will be adversely affected. And so we must live by the higher standard. We must not only comply with the demands of government, we must cooperate in spirit. In so doing our conscience will be clear, our testimony untainted, and our service unhindered by sin and guilt. Living in subordination to divinely ordained government is beneficial to our walk with God and our service to others.
Finally, these things which God requires us to give government officials are those things which facilitate the ministry of public officials. Both honor and money are necessary for public officials to carry out their tasks.80 Our subordination to those in authority not only means that we should do what we are required, but that we should provide all that is necessary so that our superiors can do their jobs. Our submission means that we serve and support them.
This is not the only text in the Bible on the matter of “conscientious subjection.” Paul writes generally of this obligation to Titus (3:1). Peter speaks of submission to human government in the context of suffering (1 Peter 2:13-14). But when Paul speaks of submission to government in our text, he does so in the context of service. This is the main theme of Romans 12:1–13:7. We are challenged by Paul in 12:1-2 to present our bodies to God as living sacrifices, which is our reasonable service of worship. Paul then speaks of our sacrificial service in terms of the church, the body of Christ, and of the exercise of our spiritual gifts (12:3-8). In verses 9-21 Paul writes of our service in the context of love, whether we are serving our fellow-believers or our enemy. Subordination to civil government is discussed in Romans 13:1-7, only to find Paul returning to the theme of walking in love in verses 8 and following.
Paul’s teaching on subordination is no interruption of his theme or emphasis, but rather an extension of it. From verse 1 of chapter 12, Paul has been teaching the importance of subordination. We must subordinate our lives to God, presenting our bodies as living sacrifices to Him. We must subordinate our interests to the interests of others if we are to walk in love. We must also subordinate our lives to those in authority over us as civil servants.
There is a very important principle underlying all of Paul’s teaching on subordination, which we are now able to identify: SUBORDINATION IS A PREREQUISITE TO SERVICE AND A MINDSET WITHOUT WHICH SERVICE IS EITHER IMPOSSIBLE OR UNFRUITFUL.
Recently I watched a television program called “Over My Dead Body.” In this program, a long-time servant was arrested for murder—naturally, he was innocent. In the course of events, a famous author (turned detective) secretly took the servant’s job to try to uncover the truth and expose the real murderer. The true servant’s spirit, as well as his service, was vastly different from that of the short-term “servant.” The true servant saw himself as subordinate to those he served. The one disguised as a “servant” saw himself as better than the job and those whom he served. Without true subordination, loving service is impossible.
Self-interest must be set aside and replaced by a spirit of subordination if true service is rendered. We cannot seek our own interests as a priority and genuinely serve others at the same time. We cannot love ourselves first and love God and others next. It simply does not and cannot work. Subordination is prerequisite to service. This is precisely the point Paul makes concerning our Lord’s attitudes and actions, which should serve as our example:
Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8)
Subordination is the key to loving God and others. It is not the inclination of our flesh. It is not the spirit of our age. But it is what God requires and what the Spirit enables when we walk in Him.
As said earlier, Christians are rapidly moving in the direction of opposing government more than submitting to it and serving it with a pure heart and a clear conscience. We have lost our respect for those in authority and have come to disdain, en masse, those in public office. We have come to view government as God’s opponent rather than as God’s divinely ordained instrument. There may be reason for disobedience to certain laws, but there is no excuse for our spirit of insubordination and for an obedience which is more compliant than it is cooperative and supportive.
Christianity is, at the moment, much more intent upon producing Christian leaders than it is in producing Christian followers. While His disciples had their heads filled with thoughts of position, power, and prestige, Jesus constantly talked to them about subordination and service. While we think much about leaders, Jesus talked most about being followers, disciples. Ironically, the way men become good leaders is by learning to become good followers.
Contemporary Christianity is probably more purposeful and aggressive in seeking to influence government and legislation than ever before. And yet I fear that we are less effective than in previous times. How can this be? On the one hand, we seem to be relying on the “arm of the flesh,” on human mechanisms and motivations, rather than on those which are spiritual. We seem to think that we need large numbers to attract the attention of government officials, and that we will not be able to change men’s minds or voting habits unless we hold over their heads the threat of losing the next election.
Daniel illustrates the truth of Romans 13:1-7 and exposes the folly of our fleshly efforts to affect change in government. Daniel was a young political hostage. He had no credentials or political clout to impress his Babylonian captors. And yet Daniel had tremendous political influence on several kings and administrations over a long period of time. What was it that made Daniel the E. F. Hutten of his day? What made kings listen when he spoke?
I believe the answer is that Daniel subordinated himself to the heathen, human government of Babylon as God’s divinely ordained institution. In the first chapter of Daniel, and again in chapter 6, Daniel had to say “no” to his government, even though it might have meant death. He had to disobey two specific orders because his obedience to government would have been disobedience to God. He refused to eat from the king’s table, because it would defile him and deprive him of a clear conscience. He would not cease praying for the same reason. He disobeyed his government when his faith and his conscience required it.
But our text in Romans explains the positive way in which Daniel maintained a clear conscience. Daniel maintained a clear conscience not only in what he refused to do but also in what he did. While Daniel would not defile himself by eating food from the king’s table, he did submit to the king and his government by showing those in power his respect and by cooperating and supporting that government in every way possible. He was educated in the ways of the Babylonians. He worked hard and was at the top of his class in his studies. He aggressively sought not only to interpret the king’s dream, but also to spare the lives of his heathen counterparts.
Daniel was but a single man, living in a godless society and in a heathen culture. But Daniel was a man who was respected and sought by the political leaders of his day. Why? I believe it was because Daniel was practicing what Paul later preached. Daniel was serving God by his subordination to civil government. As he sought to serve God with a clear conscience, he refused to do only that which was disobedient to God and defiling to his conscience. As he served God, he eagerly cooperated and supported the governmental system under which God had placed him.
Down through history, men like Daniel have had a profound impact on kings and government officials—even though they served God and even though they were in the minority. John the Baptist was a man who stood for what was right and who did not shrink back from pointing out Herod’s sin. And yet, Herod found himself strangely drawn to John and his teaching. He listened intently to him. He would not have put him to death except for his drunkenness, his foolish offer, and his foolish pride (see Mark 6:14-29).
Jesus had the attention of the governmental leaders of His day. They were eager to see Him face to face. It was only reluctantly that they played a part in Jesus’ death. Paul too had a spiritual impact on some of the political leaders of his day. Even today, men like Billy Graham are sought out by presidents and powerful political figures. Why? Not, I think, because they control votes, but because they are subject to God, to His Word, and to the government under which He has placed them.
We do not need to muster more votes or more political clout. We need more “moral clout,” gained by simple obedience to God, to His Word, and to the institutions He has ordained. May God grant that we will present ourselves to Him as living sacrifices, as we subordinate ourselves to others and to the government He has ordained.
70 This system of values differed significantly from the value structure of society, however. For example, an inmate who was serving time for killing a police officer would normally be very highly respected by his peers. This was a “status offense.”
71 Strange as it might seem, this authority structure included both inmates and prison staff, as well as guards. A guard might be lower in this structure than an inmate. Because of this, certain inmates could issue commands to certain guards and expect to be obeyed.
72 One of the joys I have had in working with prisoners down through the years is to see newly saved Christian inmates begin to manifest genuine obedience from the heart, because of the work of the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit in their lives.
73 Submission to civil authority is but one facet of the much broader issue of authority. Authority has been one of man’s prominent problems down through the ages. Satan rebelled against God’s authority and then tempted Adam and Eve to do likewise (see Genesis 2 and 3). Jacob was always seeking to resist or manipulate authority. Joseph had to learn what authority meant, and especially how he was to use it. David struggled with his authority as the promised king of Israel and with Saul’s authority as king until the time of David’s coronation. Israel’s kings, priests, and prophets all struggled with the proper use of their authority. Often those in positions of power misused their authority.
When Jesus came to the earth, He rebuked the scribes and Pharisees for their misuse of authority (see Matthew 21:23-46; 23:1-39). His disciples were preoccupied with acquiring positions of authority. Jesus had to continually contrast the servanthood which was to characterize the Christian in power to the self-seeking of the unbeliever who abused his power (see Mark 10:35-45).
75 Thus, a law which permits abortion is viewed little differently from a law which requires it. In protest against abortion, some Christians feel compelled to trespass and to commit other violations of the law in order to make their point. It becomes very difficult to define where civil disobedience must stop. Is it right, in order to save the unborn from the murderous and mercenary hand of the abortionist, to burn down an abortion clinic? These are now issues Christians are debating among themselves. All the while, civil government is looking at us as its opponent.
78 The rendering “condemnation” in the NASB and “damnation” in the KJV strongly suggest divine retribution. The more neutral “judgment” of the NIV leaves the interpretation somewhat undefined. When Paul uses this same term in Romans 2:2, 3, he adds the expression, “of God” in both instances. Elsewhere in Romans the term is used in 3:8; 5:16; and 11:33. The context seems to require us to take “judgment” here as divine judgment. Government will also penalize men for their wrong-doings, but this is a more indirect form of divine chastening. What government fails to judge properly in this life, God will make right in the final judgment.
79 One can safely imply that government’s authority to judge the evil-doer extends to the degree of capital punishment. I believe that the reader of Paul’s day understood “the sword” in verse 4 to include capital punishment. Having said this, let us not lose sight of the many offenses for which capital punishment was the penalty in the Old Testament. If we were to follow the Old Testament in the matter of capital punishment, we would all live in dread fear. Capital punishment is not the focus of Paul’s teaching here, and so we should be careful not to overlook the “camels” in this text because we are straining at the “gnat” of capital punishment (see Matthew 23:24).
80 In the context of church “ministers,” both honor and financial means are also to be a token of our submission and of our support (see 1 Corinthians 9:3-14; Galatians 6:6; 1 Timothy 5:17-19; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13; Hebrews 13:17). It is interesting that in 1 Timothy 5:17 the word “honor” itself has this two-fold sense of honor and remuneration.