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.
Three Proofs That Earthly Government Has Limitations Placed Upon It By God:
The First Proof
The Bible does not grant unlimited powers to any earthly governmental authority in any part of life. This means that no authority is to be obeyed (except Jesus Christ) absolutely. This means that our obedience, as Christians, to the civil government (or any government) – is limited within its extent. However, many today will tell us that we cannot properly resist evil. However, this idea does not arise from the text of Romans 13:1-7.
What does the text say?
However, there are key cues within this passage that show the Bible demands or instructs limited obedience to the civil government and we will examine those under heading #3.
The Second Proof
1. The whole of Scripture teaches us to obey God not man and that to defy tyrants is obedience to God
2. Hermeneutics (How to interpret Scripture) is really, really, important at this point. In other words, we do not read a verse or passage in a vacuum (isolation). The hallmark of good hermeneutics is “Scripture interprets scripture.” In other words, every individual passage or verse must be interpreted by considering what the rest of God’s Word has to say on the topic, issue, doctrine, etc. Always remember, “Scripture interprets scripture.” (Examine the specific by the whole).
3. When we look at the whole of God’s Word, we see passages that help us understand what Paul is presenting in Romans 13:
EXAMPLE #1: THE HEBREW MIDWIVES
For example, Exodus 1:15-21 records the story of the Hebrew mid-wives who were commanded by the king to kill the male
Hebrew babies. The Scripture says they “feared God,” and therefore refused to kill the male babies. God commended them for their actions, as the Scripture states, “Therefore God dealt well with the midwives, and the people multiplied and grew very mighty.”
The point is, if the assertion is true that God’s people are always to obey the laws and orders of the State, this passage stands in complete contradiction to it.
EXAMPLE #2: DANIEL THE PROPHET
In Daniel chapter six, we read that the king declared that no one could pray to any deity, but only to him. Notice that this law was made in clear contradiction to the law of God. The men who conspired to make this law understood that the only charge they could raise against Daniel was one concerning “the law of his God.” Therefore they made a law according to man – “the law of the Medes and Persians.” This was a classic showdown where the law of man breached – violated, opposed, and contradicted – the law of God and the Word of God.
What was Daniel’s response? Did Daniel obey this law? Did he say, “Oh, that is a bad law, but we must obey the State?” No, Daniel took an open stand in defiance of this unjust law. The Scripture says that “Now when Daniel knew that the writing was signed, he went into his house; and his windows being open in his chamber toward Jerusalem, he kneeled down upon his knees three times a day, and prayed, and gave thanks before his God, as he did aforetime.”
Notice he “knew” of the unjust law; notice his windows were “open” so all could see his non-compliance with the law; notice he “knelt down on his knees” so no one could mistake his defiance of the law; and, notice he did it “three times” in one day.
The standard is that if a law enacted by the civil government violates the law of God or the Word of God, we are to obey God, not the State.
EXAMPLE #3: PAUL
2 Corinthians 11:32-33 speaks of how Paul avoided the government officials who were attempting to arrest him, by escaping down the side of the city wall. The Scripture reads, “In Damascus the governor under Aretas the king kept the city of the Damascenes with a garrison, desirous to apprehend me: And through a window in a basket was I let down by the wall and escaped his hands.” Paul knew the government officials were trying to arrest him, but rather than submit, he craftily fled.
EXAMPLE #4: THE APOSTLES
Acts 5, the apostles were told by the authorities not to preach about Jesus. They refused to obey them and responded by saying, “We ought rather to obey God than men.” When human authority opposes the Law Of God or Word of God, we have a duty to obey God rather than man.
1. “Scripture interprets scripture,” must always be our war cry.
2. John Knox for example, in his Appellation written to the nobles of Scotland in 1558, cites many passages to support the doctrine. Knox wrote his appellation (appeal) to the nobles because the Roman church had condemned him and burned him in effigy. He wrote to declare to the nobles, as lesser magistrates, their responsibility in protecting the innocent and opposing those who had made unjust decrees.
3. Knox makes it clear that it is the duty of lesser magistrates to resist the tyranny of chief magistrates when the chief magistrate exceeds his God-given authority or makes declarations, which are in rebellion to the law of God. He exhorts the nobles (lesser magistrates) in his Appellation, “You are bound to correct and repress whatsoever you know him (the higher magistrate) to attempt expressly repugnant to God’s word, honor, glory, or what you shall espy him to do against his subjects great or small.” Some of the Scripture texts Knox cites to expound on the lesser magistrate doctrine.
The Third Convincing Proof
1. Romans 13 contain limitation clauses, which limit the authority and function of the civil government, and therefore clarify that our obedience to the State is not to be unlimited.
2. The advocates of unlimited obedience to the State point to verse one, which says, “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God” and then impose upon the text that we to simply to keep quiet, obey and/or suffer without objection.
3. The passage does talk about obeying authorities, but there are conditions stated which limit the ruler’s authority. There are limitation clauses attached to what the Apostle Paul says in Romans 13.
A. Verses 3-4 limit the ruler’s authority.
B. When the State commands that which God forbids or forbids that which God commands, we are to obey God rather than man.
C. We are not to join the ruler in his rebellion against God.
4. When he rules justly, we are not to resist him (v.2). But if he rules unjustly, then we are to resist him. In such instances, we are to obey God, rather than man.
A. God has established four (4) governments in the earth, namely, self- government, family government, church government, and civil government. Each has its own function and jurisdiction in the lives of men. Family, church, and civil government assist in producing self-government in the individual.
B. Each of these governments has positions of authority. For instance, in family government, the man is the head; the wife is his helper in the governance of the home. In church government, positions include pastors (elders), and deacons. In civil government, positions range from the President to the policeman. The authority that each possesses is delegated authority – authority given to them of God.
5. Let us examine each of these governments from Scripture.
A. Self-Government- Proverbs 16:32, 25:28
B. Family Government – Deuteronomy 6:4-6; Colossians 3:18-20; Ephesians 5:21- 6:1; 1 Peter 3:7
C. Church Government – Acts 6:3; Titus 1:5; 1 Peter 5:1-4; 1 Timothy 3:1-13; Hebrews 13:7, 17
D. Civil Government – Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14; Matthew 22:21; Titus 3:1
6. Romans 13 is clear that the civil magistrate is to mirror the justice and law of God in the earth.
A. They are to reward those who do good and punish those who do evil. They are to execute wrath on those who practice evil.
B. Therefore, when the magistrate makes or advocates law which contravenes the law of God, the Christian has the duty to resist and oppose such law and obey God rather than man.
C. 13:4 makes it clear that the authority the civil government possesses is delegated authority. “For he is God’s minister”.
D. Therefore, the civil authorities are to govern in accordance with God’s rule.
In context we understand this because of 13:9, which clearly tells us that God’s Moral Law (as codified in the 10 Commandments) and Word is the standard for knowing good and evil.
7. The Magdeburg Confession of 1550 states,
“If God wanted superior magistrates who have become tyrants to be inviolable because of his ordinance and commandment, how many impious and absurd things would follow from this? Chiefly it would follow that God, by his own ordinance and command, is strengthening, nay, honoring and abetting evil works, and is hindering, nay, destroying good works; that there are contraries in the nature of God Himself, and in this ordinance by which He has instituted the magistrate; that God is no less against his own ordinance than he is for the human race.”
8. We must remember that all authority is delegated.
A. No man who holds State office rules autonomously. The authority he has is delegated to him by God. Consequently, all those in positions of authority stand accountable to God. Therefore, the practice of the church historically has been – when the State commands that which God forbids or forbids that which God commands, we have a duty to obey God rather than man. The Bible clearly teaches this principle.
B. Christians must be the best of citizens. We subject ourselves to the governing authorities and obey them in all points of civil law except in those points where they clearly contravene the law and Word of God. Even when we disobey an unjust or immoral law, we benefit the ruler and the people of the nation. We benefit those in authority because, due to our disobedience, they are confronted with the reality of their rebellion against God. Our Christ-obeying disobedience gives them opportunity to recover themselves and turn from their unjust and/or immoral deeds. We benefit the people of the nation because we act as a check against tyranny. Our devotion is to Christ. This benefits the entire nation in that the tyrant government is not allowed to continue unchecked in its tyranny. This is one way in which Christianity preserves liberty for a nation.
9. Christians, when necessary, are to suffer well.
A. We will suffer at the hands of the State due to our disobedience of their unjust or immoral laws or decrees. The rest of the nation benefits from our suffering because in suffering well, God uses our suffering to rein in tyrannical governments.
B. This has been the history of the Church.
Like Daniel said to Darius in Daniel 6:22 “and also before thee, O king, have I done no hurt.” In other words, an unjust or immoral law is no law at all. As Christian men and women, may we stand true to Christ, and to the law and Word of God.
 Much of this information has been modified and adapted from Trewhella, Matthew J. The Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrates A Proper resistance to Tyranny and Repudiation of Unlimited Obedience to Civil Government. 2013. Pg. 71-81
 Exodus 1:21
 Exodus 1:20
 Daniel 6:7-9
 Daniel 6:5
 Daniel 6:8
 Daniel 6:10
 Acts 5:29
 Colvin, Magdeburg Confession, 67.