Subjection to God and Subjection to the State, Part 2
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. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 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. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For the same reason 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.
Millions of Christians in history and many around the world today have lived under civil authorities that forbid them to do what the Bible commands or that command them to do what the Bible forbids. For example, the Bible commands, in Hebrews 10:24-25, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” Do not neglect to meet together—that’s what the Bible commands. But there are civil authorities that forbid the meeting together of Christians.
This raises a problem for our understanding of Romans 13:1-7. Verse 1 says plainly, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.” Verse 5 says, “Therefore one must be in subjection.” And verse 7 says, “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.” So Paul is calling us to submit to civil authorities, and he is not, on the surface, mentioning any exceptions. Before we consider why he writes this way, let’s get clear the reason for submission in Paul’s mind.
The Reasons for Submission
There are at least four reasons given for submission.
1) The first overarching one that the others flow from is in verse 1b: “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” Which implies, as verse 2 makes explicit, “Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed.” Another way to say it is verse 4a: “He [the civil magistrate] is God’s servant.” And verse 6b: “The authorities are ministers of God.” So the first reason for this submission is that all authority is instituted by the God who governs all things, and so the civil authorities are God’s servants and ministers.
2) The second reason for submission to civil authority is that they are there for our good. It is good for us that there is government rather than anarchy. Verse 4: “For he is God’s servant for your good.” It’s for your good that there is civil authority rather than everyone doing what is right in his own eyes. That is what we saw last time.
3) The third reason for the submission is that the civil authorities bear the sword (or the gun and Billy club), and if you don’t submit, they will punish you, even with capital punishment (implied in the sword, Romans 8:35-36). Verse 4b: “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.”
4) The fourth reason for submission is that beneath and above the civil authority is a greater reality, namely, the moral law of God expressed in the words “right” and “wrong.” So if you go against the authority, beware lest your conscience condemn you for going against the moral law of God. Paul assumes that if you do right things you will be submitting to the government and they will reward you. And if you do wrong things you are not submitting to the government and you will be punished. You see this in verses 3-4: “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.”
So you see that there is something deeper and higher than mere obedience to authority. Authority itself is in the service of the moral law expressed in the words “good” and “bad.” Might does not make right in this text. Might enforces right. So Paul goes on in verse 3 and says, “Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good [there is the moral law again], and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong [there it is again], be afraid.” So it is clear from this text that doing right is not defined by submission to the government. Doing right is another category. The moral law of God defines what government should call submission. Submission does not equal the moral law of God.
So verse 5 sums up the implications of civil authority being from God and why we must submit: “Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.” In other words, you will be punished if you don’t submit, and Paul assumes that not submitting involves doing something that is wrong apart from whether it is forbidden by the state, and so your conscience will condemn you. Right and wrong do not equal submitting; right and wrong are what the state supports and punishes. The state does not define right and wrong, it rewards the right and penalizes the wrong.
That’s the basic argument of the text. The conclusion is in verse 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,” speed limits to whom speed limits are due, building codes to whom building codes are due, fishing licenses fees to whom fishing licenses fees are due—hunt deer only in season, keep only five trout in southeast Minnesota and only one over 16 inches, no bird trapping or squirrel shooting in the city, keep your grass cut, no debris behind your garage, no loud mufflers, emission control device in place, seat belt fastened, egress windows in the basement if you live down there, shovel your front walk, don’t park more than two hours by the church, etc.
So the argument of the text is clear. Submit to civil authority 1) because it’s instituted by God, 2) because it is good for you that there is civil authority, 3) because you will get punished if you don’t, and 4) because if you don’t, your conscience will condemn you for breaking the higher moral law of God.
Now, you can see that this brings us to the critical problem with our understanding of this text. Historically and biblically we know that civil authorities do not always reward the good and punish the bad. They often reward bad behavior and punish good behavior (cf. Romans 8:35-37). We also know from the Bible that God has approved of his people not submitting to some civil authority. So the questions we need to ask include: 1) What is the evidence from the Bible that God sometimes approves of his people not submitting to the very authority he had put in place? 2) When is such civil disobedience right, and what should it look like? 3) How does such civil disobedience fit with Romans 13:1-7, and why are the statements about the goodness of government stated here with such unqualified absoluteness?
Not Merely Theoretical
These questions are not merely theoretical for any of us today. If you are a Christian living in China or North Korea or Viet Nam or several Islamic states, you are confronted with the question of civil disobedience daily. Just being an obedient Christian can be a breach of the civil law. Here in America our history is defined by the way we have qualified Romans 13. The Declaration of Independence justified the abolition of British government over the colonies.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,—That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
You can hear the roots of this document in the way it argues. The impulse is not Romans 13. It is the man-centered Deism of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Romans 13 says that governments derive their just powers from God. It is probably true that democracy is the best kind of government to protect us from the tyrannical opposition to God that rules in every human heart apart from Christ. But the way to get there is not by denying the deity of Christ, putting God at a deistic distance and elevating man. However you understand the Declaration of Independence, one thing is clear: America’s very existence hinged on the way Romans 13 was or was not understood and obeyed.
It was similar a hundred years later with the Civil War. The issue was whether states must submit to the laws of the union, especially laws about slavery. It was similar again another hundred years later with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. The issue was whether segregation laws were so morally wrong as to justify peaceful non-violent civil disobedience.
Our country is defined from the beginning until now by events and movements that have to come to terms with Romans 13 and the command to submit to the governing authorities. As you look around the world you can imagine easily that before long there may be laws in this country that an obedient Christian cannot obey. For example, if the congress passed a law outlawing spanking (as exists in Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, and seven other countries) I would not only disobey it, I would preach that you should disobey it too, because the Bible is clear that it is one of God’s good purposes for children and how best to love them.
Three Suggested Answers to Question #3
So wherever you live around the world, the issue of submitting to the governing authorities and the meaning of Romans 13 are important matters. Of the three questions I said need to be answered—(1) What is the evidence from the Bible that God sometimes approves of his people not submitting to the very authority he had put in place? (2) When is such civil disobedience right, and what should it look like? (3) How does such civil disobedience fit with Romans 13:1-7, and why are the statements about the goodness of government stated here with such unqualified absoluteness?—I want to end today by dealing with the last one, then deal with the other two next time.
If the Bible allows for civil disobedience sometimes (as in Acts 5:28-29, where the Jewish officials said, “‘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.’ But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than men.’”) then why does Paul speak the way he does in Romans 13? Why is there such a seemingly unqualified of the rights of civil authority?
I have three answers to suggest. I offer them for your consideration, not as something I am completely sure of. Paul doesn’t say why he speaks this way.
1) Paul is probably writing to be read by government officials as well as by the church in Rome. In other words, he knows that this letter will find its way into Caesar’s household and into the hands of the civil authorities. He wants them to understand two truths. One is that Christians are not out to overthrow the empire politically by claiming Jesus, and not Caesar, is Lord. Christians submit to laws and pay taxes and show respect and do good in the community. Leave us alone. We are not revolutionaries against your throne. We are harmless lovers of lost and hurting people and will do much good in your empire.
2) The other truth he wants the civil authorities to see (and this is the second reason Paul writes the way he does) is that their authority is based on God’s sovereignty and God’s moral law. Verse 1: “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” Listen to that the way Caesar would, not just the way Christians would. It is a powerful statement that Caesar is not God. He is not absolute. He is secondary not primary. He is not in control, God is in control. So the absoluteness of the statement may be designed to leave Caesar no wiggle room. God is absolutely above Caesar (no wiggle room), but that means for Christians: Yes, God has put governments in place and submission should be our first impulse, but no, they are not absolute.
Then consider Caesar reading verse 3. Paul wants civil authorities to know they are based not only on God’s sovereignty, but also on his moral law: “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.” Here is a clear declaration that civil authority must itself submit to the moral law of God. There is right and there is wrong. Government does not create it. Government conforms to it. So Paul has two devastating things to say to Caesar. One, you are not God. Two, your laws are not the highest laws. Paul writes absolutely the way he does, I am suggesting, because all the truths he is concerned with will have a greater impact on civil authorities if he writes this way.
3) The third reason Paul writes in such absolutes (“Be subject to the governing authorities.” “Do what is good, and you will receive his approval.” “He carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer.”) is that he is more concerned with our humility and self-denial and trust in Christ, than he is about our civil liberties. In other words, Paul risked being misunderstood on the side of submission because he saw pride as a greater danger to Christians than government injustice. I cannot imagine Paul writing this way if Paul thought that the ultimate thing was being treated fairly by the government. But I can imagine him writing this way if faith and humility and self-denial and readiness to suffer for Christ is the main thing.
That is where I want to leave us today. Both matter: civil liberties and social justice on the one hand, and personal faith and humility and self-denial, on the other. But in Paul’s mind, faith and humility and self-denial are vastly more important for the Christian than that we be treated well by the government. And the reason is this: Being persecuted unjustly is not the reason anyone goes to hell. But being unbelieving and arrogant and self-indulgent is why most people go to hell. Jesus never promised his people a fair fight. He promised them the opposite: if they treated the master of the house like the devil, how much worse will they treat you. The main issue is not being treated justly in this world by civil authorities. The main issue is trusting Christ, being humble and denying ourselves for the glory of Christ and the good of others.
Next time we will see where that leads in terms of civil disobedience, but for today, let us humble ourselves under a thousand laws and ordinances in our city and state and nation, and let us give thanks, and use our liberties for the spread of the gospel.
© Desiring God Foundation. Distribution Guidelines
Share the Joy! You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in physical form, in its entirety or in unaltered excerpts, as long as you do not charge a fee. For posting online, please use only unaltered excerpts (not the content in its entirety) and provide a hyperlink to this page. For videos, please embed from the original source. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Desiring God.
Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By John Piper. © Desiring God Foundation. Website: desiringGod.org