Called to be Subject to Governing Authorities
Truth Taught- Christians are called to submit to the government because God has installed it for order and safety
Which would you most desire, a bad government or no government?
These seven verses contain the clearest and most specific New Testament teaching on the Christian’s responsibility to civil authority. Every Christian, no matter what form of government he lives under, is under the command from the Lord to maintain proper and useful submission to that government for the sake of leading a peaceful life and having an effective witness. This recurring theme of submission to society’s controlling power is nowhere more forcefully dealt with than here.
To disobey the governing authorities is sin. We will discover that there are exceptions, but, in general, we, as Christians, must obey the governing authorities over us.
Romans 13:1–7 (ESV)
13 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 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, 4 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. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 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.
13 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.
This is a good time to teach how we can read the Bible thinking through from command to reason to consequence. This is something that has been lost in modern education. Teaching logic is so important but few ever learn it. Logic is the science of how to think and reason properly. So, let’s take a minute to look at the structure of verses 1 and 2.
What is Paul’s command?
13 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.
He’s making an overarching command to all Christians first in Rome and then to us to be under and live under governing authorities in a peaceful manner. This command also falls within the context of what we’ve just learned in Chapter 12. We’ve learned to show genuine love to others and that as far as it depends on us, live at peace with all people. Sometimes, however, we cannot live at peace with someone or with a government. What he’s talking about is that in a general sense we are to live at peace with our government.
The reason for the command or we might say, why am I commanded to live in subjection to the government?
For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. So, why are we required to be under the authority of our government? Because God has set it in place. The idea of submission to a higher authority is when that higher authority is bringing order and not chaos.
When God created the universe, it was first in chaos. The earth, for example, was formless and void. It was in chaos. God spoke and brought order to His creation, therefore, we submit to His authority because He has brought order. From our text today, we are commanded to submit to civil authorities because God has set them in place to bring order from chaos.
As Americans, we voted the other day, and all who were elected were ordained by God to be over us with authority. Regardless of whether we agree or disagree with their politics we are commanded to submit to them as our leaders, ordained by God to bring order from chaos.
There are television shows that portray a world without a working government and often the writers and actors capture the chaos. The bottom line is even a bad government is better than no government. This does not mean that because God set the government in place that all who participate are going to be Christians. Most often America gets the leaders we deserve. Regardless, God has set it in place to bring about order.
When the people who are in authority over you are not bringing order but chaos, then the command to submit to them ends. We must at that point submit to God and not to them.
Acts 5:27–29 (ESV)
27 And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest questioned them, 28 saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” 29 But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.
When husbands bring order, wives are commanded to submit. When church leaders bring order, church members are commanded to submit. When parents bring order, children are commanded to submit. When masters bring order, slaves are commanded to submit . . . when the authority brings chaos, then we must obey God and not those other authorities.
What are the consequences of rebelling against our government?
2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. When our government is creating an orderly society, we are commanded to obey the authorities, because when we obey them, we are obeying God and the ones He has placed in the governing roles over us.
Let’s think about a few examples . . . .
When our government has laws in place for our safety, we obey those laws. When our government sets in place laws concerning the welfare of others, we obey those laws. When our government sets in place laws that require us to pay taxes, we submit to those laws. However, when our government sets in place laws that say murdering unborn babies is okay, then we obey God and not man. We seek proper channels and fight those laws. When a government’s laws are contrary to God’s laws then they are working outside of God’s authority, and, at that point, we obey our greater authority who is God alone. Because they are now working to create chaos and not order.
An example from Scripture of the point Paul makes here is found in:
John 19:11 (ESV)
11 Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.”
So, even the pagan occultist governor Pontius Pilate had his authority given to him by God.
So, if I rebel against the government when it’s creating order, then I should expect to be punished by God since it is His institution.
3 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, 4 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.
With Paul’s original command in mind, namely, 13 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.
We move on to his second purpose; his second reason why we should be subject to governing authorities. The first was because God set it up, and the second reason we find here . . . we should want to avoid civil punishment.
God has set in place the governing authorities to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. The concept is fairly straightforward isn’t it? Do what you’re supposed to do and don’t do what you’re not supposed to do, and you won’t be punished.
1 Peter 2:13–17 (ESV)
13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
Paul really goes at this principle in two different directions. He calls the authority figure whether it’s the Emperor, Governor, King, or President, God’s servant. He tells us that if we obey this person, then he is God’s servant for our good. If you obey civil authorities, then this servant of God is for your protection because he is going to punish all who disobey which means safety and peace for you. However, if you disobey, again he is called, God’s servant, only now he is God’s servant for vengeance and wrath, as Paul writes, he doesn’t bear the sword for nothing.
This should cause us to think back to:
Romans 12:19 (ESV)
19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
Christians are not to take the law into their own hands, but to leave room for the wrath of God so now we see two ways God carries out His wrath: First, He will make all things right in the last day or the Day of Judgment. Second, He will show judgment and wrath through civil authorities that He has set up. Because both of these reasons are true, and we can trust God in this, we must not take matters into our own hands but trust that God will work. In other words, God will make all things right either in the end or in the due process of the law.
5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.
Here Paul gives us a one sentence review or summary. He writes that we should be in subjection to the authorities because in doing so we will avoid God’s wrath/punishment from civil authorities and for the sake of conscience because we know it’s the right thing to do because God has set it in place.
6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 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.
How are we to relate to those God has placed in civil authority over us? Because we know God has set them in place, and keeping law and order is a full-time job, then we should pay our taxes. Their responsibilities keep them very busy, and they should be paid a decent wage, and that’s where taxes come in.
In the ancient world, tax collectors were considered the worst of sinners when actually, one that does it right is working for God. He is the one that collects the money from citizens who are benefiting from the work the government authorities do to keep them safe etc.
So, beloved, we are to pay the taxes we owe, we are to pay the revenue we owe (this includes other things like licenses, permits, etc.), respect and honor we owe these who stand over us in society.
We realize, don’t we, that we live in a fallen world and those placed in authority over us are often not Christian. They use their power for personal gain. They lie, cheat, and steal and get away with it. We have seen this over and over again. So, we all realize that in a sinful fallen world there are many imperfections in God’s system of government. Yet a fallen government is far better than no government at all. We are very quick to point our fingers at corruption within civil servants and those in power, but we must also be careful because we are also corrupt.
We fail to follow and submit ourselves to the governing authorities like we should. We are fallen and sinful as well. So, before we begin complaining about the corruption we see, we must ask ourselves: Am I placing myself in subjection to them because God set this system in place, or am I just as rebellious as they are?
Here’s a quick test . . .
When you see a policeman are you pleased and thankful to see him as a law-abiding citizen or frightened and stressed to see him as a law-breaking citizen?
The main thrust of these verses is to humble us and to show us what God desires from His people. God desires that we obey those He has placed over us so we become better citizens in our community and better citizens in His kingdom.
When we are called to obey those in civil authority, and we find them to be less than honorable, use that negative experience to remind yourself that we have a real King.
One day, when Christ returns and sets up His kingdom on earth, we will have a perfect government in which to submit. Until then, practice with a fallen government so that when Christ returns, we will be ready to fully submit to His authority as King over us.
Romans by Christopher Ash
Romans by Douglas Moo
Romans by John Stott
Romans by John MacArthur
Outline of Romans by Steel and Thomas
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1991). Romans. Chicago: Moody Press.