Subjection to God and Subjection to the State, Part 1

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 the same reason 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.

As we enter our eighth year together on the book of Romans, I am continually amazed at the majesty of the message of this book. We move from one majestic theme to another and our minds and hearts and lives are lifted out of the triviality and banality of ordinary American life—especially as you find it on television. Moving from American culture to the book of Romans is like moving from Buck Hill in Burnsville to Mount Everest in Nepal.

William Tyndale and Romans

I am reading a very good biography by David Daniell on William Tyndale who was burned at the stake for translating the New Testament from Greek into English in 1526. Tyndale had been awakened to the glory of the gospel of Christ by reading the Greek New Testament (especially Romans) for himself instead of reading it through the ceremonial, sacramental, legalistic, glasses the late Medieval Roman Catholic Church and through the Latin mistranslations of the Bible (e.g. “penance” for the Greek metanoia instead of “repentance”). The biographer contrasts Tyndale with his famous contemporary, Erasmus, who loved the new humanistic learning of the time, and who published the first printed Greek New Testament, who wrote well-known books on religious themes.

But there were huge differences between Tyndale and Erasmus. As far as we can tell, Erasmus never saw the central doctrines of the gospel that set Luther and Calvin and Zwingli and Tyndale free with thousands of others. For all his biblical learning, there was a great omission in Erasmus' writing and thinking and believing. Erasmus never wrote anything substantial on Paul's Letter to the Romans. (“We nowhere have Erasmus on Romans” 1). This was the dangerous book. This was the book that interpreted most fully and most unmistakably the meaning of Christ and his death and resurrection to justify sinners by faith alone. This was the book that the ordinary people of England must not read for themselves, even if the ruling church must burn people at the stake to prevent it.

When the book of Romans was read with clear eyes the whole system of Roman Catholicism exploded—and the Reformation was born. Purgatory exploded. The practice of penance exploded. Indulgences exploded. Baptismal regeneration exploded. Papal infallibility equal with Scripture, Eucharistic transubstantiation, sacerdotalism, the treasury of merit, the mediatorial role of Mary, and so on. Romans and Galatians must be avoided at all costs, and the translation of the Bible from Greek to the simple, plain English of the time became a capitol crime punishable by being burned at the stake.

But you can't hide Mount Everest for ever. God has been very merciful to the world, and to us. Romans and the whole Bible—God's precious word—is available in English. And hundreds of other ordinary languages. I feel very inadequate as we press on now into chapter 13. And I hope that you will pray for me that I will not build with wood, hay, and stubble in this pulpit, but with gold, silver, and precious stones.

God Has Established Every Government

It will take us two or three messages to deal with Romans 13:1-7. Here again is one of these great themes—the great issues of the world—that lift us out of the ordinary ways. Here is the theme of God's establishment of every government in the world today and that has ever been in history. And, by implication, God's sovereign disestablishment of every government in the world that has ever ceased to be. Verse 1: “There is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” And flowing from this theme is the theme of our relation to the government whether we live in Boston or Baghdad, Northern Ireland or North Korea.

This text has implications for war and peace, dictators and totalitarianism, concentration camps and gulags, revolts and revolutions, laws and law enforcement, political activism and civil disobedience, elections and lobbying, voting and paying taxes, speed limits and seat belts, stop signs and baby seats. This is not a small text. It is one of those mountain peaks of the book of Romans that makes a reader dizzy with implications.

Why Does Paul Take Up This Theme?

So here is our first question: Why does Paul take up this theme of governing authority? If you had been reading along in Romans 12, would you have expected him to take this turn here in chapter 13? Was there something he had said, or something happening in Rome that made this a crucial issue? There are several general reasons the issue needs to be dealt with and then two specific situations that make the issue crucial.

1. In Romans 12:2 Paul had said, “Do not be conformed to this world [or this age].” This fundamental command put the church on a collision course with secular society. You may remember how we said there is a tension in the New Testament between the pilgrim principle (“don't be conformed to this world”) and the indigenous principle (“become all things to all men” 1 Corinthians 9:22). We are here in this world and must adapt in some measure to the culture where we live. But we are citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20) and must make the counter-cultural life of Christ known in this world.

So the question of the church in Rome would naturally arise: How shall we think about Caesar? Do we support him or not? How do the pilgrim principle and the indigenous principle work in relation to civil authority?  The question came to Jesus (Mark 12:13-17), and now the question comes to Paul.

2. Another reason the question of civil authority arises comes from Romans 8:34-38. Paul had said, “[Christ] was raised . . . [and] is at the right hand of God.” The issue of Caesar is not a vague God and Government issue, shared, for example, with Islam and Judaism. The issue for Christians is supremely: Jesus Christ. When he rose from the dead he said in Matthew 28:18, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” That includes every government in the world. The confession “Jesus is Lord!” was a political statement. His lordship is over Caesar's lordship. This is why Jesus was killed. The crowds intimidated Pilate with the words, “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15). “These followers of Jesus, they have another king!  They are subversive, treasonous.” And when he was raised he became known as “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Revelation 19:16; 17:14) that is, King over all earthly kings. So when Paul says, “There is no authority except from God,” he is talking not just about God the Father but also God the Son.  Christians know that whatever authority is given to man has first been given to Jesus Christ.

But then we read in Romans 8:35-38 that the faithful subjects of King Jesus are “being killed all day long” by the “sword”—the sword of Romans 13:4, the sword of the state.  Then we read that “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers [the rulers of Romans 13:3!] . . . will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” And when we read this, we wonder, How do we relate to rulers who slaughter Christians? How does God – how does the risen Christ -- relate to rulers who treat Christians like sheep to be slaughtered? Romans 13:1-7 is not coming out of nowhere.

3. Another reason the question of civil authority arises is in the immediately preceding verses of chapter 12. The chapter begins with the mercies of God—“ I appeal to you therefore, brothers,by the mercies of God”—and it comes to a climax with a repeated call to a life of mercy. Verse 9: “Let love be genuine.” Verse 13: Contribute to the needs of the saints.” Verse 14: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” Verse 17: “Repay no one evil for evil.” Verse 19: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves.” Verse 20: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him.”

And we are left almost breathless with the beauty of this mercy, and yet with the question: Really, Paul? Is that all you have to say about how life works, and how evil in the world is to handled? And Paul answers: No, that is not all I have to say. And that is not all you need to know about the way evil is handled in the world. And he writes Romans 13:1-7.

4. Besides these three general reasons that Paul deals with governing authority in Romans 13, there are two specific situations he probably means to address. The first is seen in verses 6 and 7. Everything is general until you get here: submit, don't resist, do what is good, avoid what is bad. That is what we have until we get to verse 6. Then Paul gets specific:

For the same reason 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.

So, out of all the behaviors Paul might have used to illustrate submission, he uses paying taxes. So I assume that this needed special mention, along with respect and honor. The issue never went away. The Jewish leaders asked Jesus, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” (Mark 12:14). Jesus answered, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's” (Mark 12:17). So here we are 20 years later and the same question needs to be addressed. Should we pay taxes to Christ-denying, secular governments, Paul? Answer, yes, you should.

5. The other specific situation that may have given rise to Romans 13:1-7 is referred to in Acts 18:2.  “And [Paul] found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome.” That expulsion of Jesus would have included Jewish Christians. And it may be that the expulsion was owing to insubordinate behavior. Romans was written about A. D. 55 and this expulsion happened about five years earlier (according to F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, p. 368). So Paul, in conversation with Priscilla and Aquila would be very sensitive to the issue of church-state relations.

Does This Include Evil Rulers?

Now we all know that there are some very difficult questions to be answered here. When it says again in verse 1 that “there is no authority except from God,” does it include evil rulers? When it says in verse 1 that we should submit to civil authority, does it mean always and no matter what? When it says in verse 3 that the civil authorities are “not a terror to good conduct, but to bad,” is that always true, or do some governments terrorize good conduct? What are we to make of Paul's seemingly absolute statements?

That is what we will talk about in weeks to come. But today I simply want to affirm the positive teaching that is here that we should embrace apart from any those questions.

The first clear, positive teaching is that civil authorities are ordained by God. Verse 1b: “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” We know this includes wicked rulers as well as good ones because the Bible tells about wicked kings that God guided into office. For example, Jeroboam was one of the most wicked kings of Israel, and 1 Kings 12:15 describes the intrigue that put him in place like this: “It was a turn of affairs brought about by the Lord.”

And Nebuchadnezzar was the pagan Babylonian king that destroyed Jerusalem. And in Jeremiah 27:6 God says, “Now I have given all these lands into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, my servant.” He calls him a servant, the same term for the king that we find in Romans 13:4 (“he is the servant of God”).

And what about Pilate, the ruler who above all other rulers did not reward good behavior but punished the only perfect man whoever lived? When he said to Jesus, “Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?' 11 Jesus answered him, ‘You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above'” (John 19:10). So Romans 13:1 includes Pilate.

Paul knew from Daniel 2:21, “[God] removes kings and sets up kings” – all kings. They are all under his control. He puts them in office and he takes them out of office. So the answer is yes, Romans 13:1 applies to all rulers good and bad. “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”

This means that the Roman Christians and we today should learn that it is God's will to govern the world of mankind through human civil authorities. This is God's plan. Man did not create government. God did. Man does not sustain it. God does. Civil authority is God's idea in this age. Yes, we are not to conform to this age. Yes, many of these rulers kill Christians. Yes, they tax you and take your money—God's money. Yes, your lifestyle should be merciful and not vengeful. Yes, they can exile you and make you leave Rome or anywhere else. And I say to you, civil authority is God's chosen instrument to govern the world of men.

Submit to it out of reverence for God—not reverence for the ruler. God has stripped rulers of their final authority. That's what verse one means. They are not God. God is God. When you submit, you submit for God's sake. “Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution” (1 Peter 2:13). And this Lord is the risen Lord Jesus who is King of Kings and to whom all authority in heaven and earth has been given. In other words, keeping the speed limit is Christian worship.

Civil Authority and Common Grace

Here is a second clear, positive teaching of these verses: When you submit for Christ's sake to the civil authorities, remember that this authority is a great gift of common grace to the world. It is good for us. One of the most important phrases in the paragraph is verse 4a: “He is God's servant for your good.” For your good! What a tidal wave of evil would break over the world if there were no civil authorities for restraint—even bad civil authorities.

O, how we should give thanks for the restraint on evil that government brings! Consider by contrast this story from Friday's StarTribune (June 10, 2005, p. A3). Across the border from Laredo, Texas is the city of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. The town has lost its civil authority and is ruled by gangs.

Alejandro Dominguez was the only person brave enough to be police chief. Hours after he took office, assailants riddled his body with dozens of bullets in this city wracked by a turf battle between Mexico's two main drug gangs.

The streets were virtually empty Thursday, a day after the killing, with only a handful of federal police armed with rifles and automatic weapons. . . .

“We are defenseless,” attorney Zorina Medrano said at City Hall. “It's obvious that the criminals are better organized (than the authorities.) They sent the national army and even they weren't respected. Who else can we ask for help?'”

That's a small snapshot of what the world would look like without God's common grace of civil authority. What would you do if 911 didn't answer? If there were no police. No firemen. No national guard. Only gang members stealing and murdering without any restraint or retribution. Get this picture very clearly in your eyes, and then read verse four: “He [the civil authority] is God's servant for your good.”

Let us give thanks for God's wisdom and grace that the whole world is not one huge Nuevo Laredo. And while we have a measure of peace—since it will not always be so—let us use it for the gospel of the glory of Christ, who rules the world.

[If you would like to learn more about William Tyndale, Iain Murray has an excellent biography available for free.]

  1. David Daniell, William Tyndale: A Biography (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), p. 162.