You can read earlier posts in this series by clicking on the links below:
As we round out our discussion of Romans note that, in our last three articles, we highlighted Paul’s desire to preach the gospel to the church at Rome. Paul’s mention of his desire in Romans 1:15-17 functions as the thesis statement of the letter:
So, for my part, I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘But the righteous man shall live by faith,’ (Romans 1:15-17; NASB).
In the first two articles on Romans, we noted four themes in this thesis statement: a gospel for the church, the gospel as God’s power unto salvation, salvation to all without distinction and how, in this way, God will save all His chosen people. These four major themes help us to understand why Paul takes both the first eight chapters of Romans explaining the gospel of Jesus Christ and the following three chapters explaining the relationship between Israel and the church. Since the thesis statement of Romans 1:15-17 sets the framework for all that follows, we are in our present study using it as the lens through which we examine the rest of the book of Romans. In our last article and this one, we are focusing on the theme from faith to faith. Last article, we examined what chapters 12 and 14-16 taught on the matter. This article will focus exclusively on on how the theme is addressed in Romans 13.
In chapter 13, Paul turns the church’s gaze to the government and encourages them to see it as a minister of God for justice. He does not tell them to take the government by the reigns and wield its sword for the cause of social justice. Rather, more radically, he encourages them to submit to the government in all things lawful.
Paul sets the context of this passage in the preceding chapter , which discusses the characteristics of a true Christian lived “from faith to faith.” In Chapter 12, Paul addresses how Christians should conduct themselves in society and in the Church. In this chapter, Paul continues to address the characteristics of a true Christian by discussing how a Christian should conduct themselves with respect to the governing authorities. Furthermore, it’s important to note to whom Paul is writing. He is addressing Christians who are living under the Roman Empire during the 1st century. In some sense, Paul is exhorting the Roman Christians to apply the precepts of Romans 12 to the governing authorities. Finally, it’s important to note that Romans 13 does not contain all of the Bible’s teaching on this topic nor does Romans 13 only speak about the Christian’s conduct in regards to the State.
On Submission to Governing Authorities
Paul opens Romans 13 with a very clear imperative:
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. (Romans 13:1-2; NASB).
Paul did not write this as a suggestion for the believer; rather, it is a command to all Roman believers and it has application to all Christians at all times. Paul grounds this command in the sovereignty of God. According to Paul, all authority is derived from God, and therefore, if an authority is in power, it is because God has instituted that authority. In other words, rebellion against authority is rebellion against the One who instituted the authority. Paul’s essential exhortation is that the default Christian position towards governing authorities is submission.
This is a point worth emphasizing because for many American Christians, the default Christian position is skepticism or contempt for authority. When many Christians read this passage, the instinctive response is to discuss the limits of governmental authority, rather than considering Paul’s first exhortation concerning our submission to authority. The Christian must submit to God’s authority because it is God Himself who instituted this authority (cf. Num. 12:1-16). Moreover, God does not establish an authority arbitrarily; rather He has a goal in mind and the Christian is called to humble himself before the Lord and His plans.
This posture of humility and submission not only applies to our response to the government; it is also observed throughout Scripture for other institutions in which God has established authority. Within the home, the wife is called to submit to her husband’s authority (cf. Ephesians 5:22) and children are called to obey their parents (cf. Ephesians 6:1). Within the local church, members are called to submit to the authority of the elders (cf. 1 Peter 5:5; Hebrews 13:7, 17). Hence, Paul’s command concerning submission to the governing authorities is not unique to the government. This command regards every institution that God has established. Just as it would be sinful and unacceptable for children to disobey their parents and wives to disrespect their husbands, it is sinful for Christians to rebel against the authority that God has established in the government. Finally, it’s also important to note that Paul does not ground this command based on the worthiness of the authority figure. In other words, governments do not have to prove their worthiness before we agree to submit to them. A beautiful summary of the posture that Christians ought to have towards the government is expressed in the Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. 127:
Q: What is the honor that inferiors owe to their superiors?
A: The honor which inferiors owe to their superiors is, all due reverence in heart, word, and behavior; prayer and thanksgiving for them; imitation of their virtues and graces; willing obedience to their lawful commands and counsels; due submission to their corrections; fidelity to, defense, and maintenance of their persons and authority, according to their several ranks, and the nature of their places; bearing with their infirmities, and covering them in love, that so they may be an honor to them and to their government.
On the Exercise of Authority
In discussing the exercise of authority, Paul continues
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 on the one who practices evil. (Rom. 13:3-5; NASB).
In this section, Paul describes the nature of governmental authority and how this authority is exercised. First, it should be noted that essential purpose of governmental authority is to punish evil. According to the above passage, the governing authorities are the means by which God punishes evildoers within society. In particular, it is through the governing authorities that fear is struck in the hearts of evildoers. It’s also important to note that this passage explicitly indicates that the government (not the Church or any other institution) wields the sword. This statement gives a very practical prescription for the purpose of government: government must be a terror to bad conduct and plays an important role in the life of any given society.
This positive prescription tells us that those who hold positions in governing authority are responsible for carrying out their job description. The government’s essential duty is to initiate force against evildoers and to be an avenger against evildoers. This responsibility is not limited to theocratic Israel or a hypothetical Christian society, but it applies to all governing civil authorities that will ever exist. However, it should be noted that the wrath poured out on evildoers by the civil authority is punitive in nature. The purpose here is not to reconcile God and man (since God’s wrath against those who have offended Him is yet to come), but rather it is meant to bring restitution. Civil officials ought to be “devoted to this task” (13:6). It does not have the right to “wield the sword” towards good behavior nor do they have the right to permit bad conduct. This essential purpose of government was understood by previous generations and it gave rise to the rule of law within Western societies. The presence of fixed and respected laws in society (which commends good behavior and punishes bad behavior) tends to curb the actions and whims of tyrannical civil authorities who call evil “good” and good “evil”.
On the Support of Authority
From this job description, a question naturally arises. It is clear to all that there are different standards of good and bad behavior. We know that governing authorities will always wield the sword towards evildoers. What if the governing authorities create its own standards for good and evil, in contradiction to God’s Word? It is at this point in which Christians are best equipped to support the civil authority. First, because Christians are charged to maintain a humble and submissive posture towards the civil authority, this implies that Christians are charged to be good citizens, giving “tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom is due; fear to whom fear is due; honor to whom honor is due” (13:7). Second, because Christians are commanded to love their neighbor with words and deeds, this implies that Christians will “do no wrong to the neighbor” (13:10) and defend those who have been defrauded or wronged by evildoers.
Thirdly, because Christians possess the perfect standard of right and wrong (as expressed in the Scriptures) and have the moral law written about their heart, Christians are best equipped to inform civil authorities of their role and responsibility and society. This also suggests that God may use His children within the Church in order to serve their fellow man (and thus love their neighbor) by serving as a civil authority. However, it should be emphasized that when a Christian serves as a civil authority, he is not serving in an attempt to fulfill the Great Commission (which is a task given to the Church); he is fulfilling the Great Commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (13:9)
Furthermore, because Christians are given the proper perspective on the role of government, Christians ought to be best equipped in providing checks and balances to the expansion of government power beyond its proper bounds. Just as it is possible for the local church to extend its influence beyond its proper bounds and engage in “mission creep”, it is also true that the government can also engage in “mission creep”. The civil authority is not given the charge to care for the poor, to educate its citizens, or to do a number of other things that is responsibility of families and individuals. We can say that a Christian’s submission to the government is unconditional yet limited to its proper bounds. It is only when the civil authority oversteps its bounds (by commanding what God forbids and forbidding what God requires) that the Christian can (and must) appeal to authority, confront authority, and, perhaps, flee from authority. In this way, Christians can engage with the civil authority without becoming the civil authority or without rebelling against the civil authority.
It should also be noted that, as Americans, we have both the privilege and responsibility of living within representative form of government. This form of government is a relatively modern concept and contrary to any form of government that is observed in Scripture. In particular, within our Constitution, citizens have the protected right to petition the government. Moreover, since we elect our officials (rather than having our civil authorities imposed upon us), we have a form of government in which the civil authorities answer to their citizens. Therefore, if we were to apply the precepts of this chapter to our current society, Christian citizens must know what are the essential responsibilities of civil magistrates . Just as civil authorities will be held responsible for fulfilling their job description, citizens will also answer to God for how they have chosen their civil authorities. Hence, American Christians, as members of the American ruling class, should provide a practice check on the influence of governing authorities first by respectfully confronting authority when it exceeds its proper domain and second by electing civil authorities who will fulfill their essential job descriptions.
Our Final Hope
Paul concludes Chapter 13 with an exhortation regarding the future hope of believers. Christians are called to conduct themselves in a godly manner with respect to the world and the civil authority because “salvation is nearer to us than when we believed” (13:11). In much of our discussion regarding the Christian’s engage with the culture, it’s important to never forget the ultimate end – our full and final salvation. The gospel is proclaimed, not only because we desire to see the evil of this present age curbed; rather, it is proclaimed because “the night is almost gone, and the day is near.” The day of our salvation as well as the day of eschatological judgment is near. We proclaim the gospel and engage with our culture and the civil authorities because we desire that they would know the salvation that has been purchased with Christ’s blood.