Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those [authorities] 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.
It's probably not lost on anyone that this is the weekend before the presidential election. I think you'd have to be from another planet in order to be oblivious to that fact. And this years' election is different from others in that many of you have probably already voted. I know I have.
I went to the DuPage County Fairground last thursday. Waited in a socially-distanced line wearing a mask. And eventually cast my ballot. I think I read that this year about one-third of the expected national total ballot count has already been cast in advance.
If you remember 2016, there was a lot of talk about how “evangelical Christians” voted. And a lot of conversation about what it even means to be an “evangelical Christian.” Christians, it seems, exercised considerable influence on the outcome of that election and commentators interpreted that result in different ways--some as good, some as not a good thing.
Regardless of how you feel about 2016, take comfort that this isn’t the first time that Christians have been identified as influencing the political world, and it's not the first time that critics have said our influence was negative.
I’ve called this series, "The City of God, the City of Man." We'll start this week by looking at the state from Romans 13:1-7 and then next week we'll look at the Christian from the rest of the chapter.
The title--"The City of God"--is taken from the title of a book written by the Church Father Augustine in the 5th Century: On the City of God against the Pagans.
The book was a defense against the charge that Christians were responsible for the decline and collapse of the Roman Empire and the sack of Rome by the Visigoths.
Since Christianity was Rome's state religion (it had been since Constantine's conversion around 100 years earlier), the Christians were naturally blamed for all that had gone wrong in the Roman Empire.
Some were saying, "it all went wrong when we abandoned the 'old gods.' And there was a desire to "Make Rome Great Again."
In The City of God, Augustine argues that human history is a series of struggles between those who value "the City of God"--those who are spiritually and heavenly minded--over against the influence of those who value "the earthly city"--those who value power, wealth, influence.
In other words, the life of a country is always a struggle between good and evil.
The struggle to discern what is right and wrong as well as what government policies elevate good and minimize evil is a central duty of the Christian as she enters the voting booth.
And it can be incredibly difficult to do because, most of the time, there is some grey area and it's not immediately clear how my vote connects to a real change in the world.
For example, I had to offer an opinion on the following proposition:
“Shall DuPage County continue to consider financial support of law enforcement and public safety its top budgeting priority?”
Ok? Well, what does that actually mean? And what actual difference, if any, will result from voting “yes” as opposed to voting “no”?
Because of this, I think the place to start for the Christian is with the Bible. And even that is not as easy as it might seem at first. After all, the Bible was written over centuries and the latest parts of it were still written more than a thousand years ago.
And, at the same time, we affirm in our confessions that the Bible is the rule of faith and provides us an orientation to the moral principles of God's Kingdom that we ought to try, imperfectly, to bring into reality in the world.
So, how should we think about the government and our relationship with it as Christians?
Please note, this is not the same question as how should Christians vote or for whom should Christians vote?
The two are connected, to be sure, but answering the second question is up to you to study and discern.
As Paul approaches this subject, we have to remember the context in which he was writing. The Letter to the Romans wasn’t written during a time of persecution of Christians. And, as a result, Paul is pretty deferential to the governing authorities.
It’s also true that Paul is writing to Christians in Rome, most of whom weren’t converts from Judaism, they were converts from Greco-Roman civil religion.
Many Jewish Christians had a very negative view of the Roman authorities and most of the references to governments in the Old Testament are, in fact, found in the prophets who are generally critical of the ways in which rulers and authorities tend to favor the powerful to the neglect of the vulnerable.
Let’s start by talking about the government in light of Romans 13.
Governments are part of God’s moral order. In other words, God has created humans with a need for moral order and a structure to reinforce that moral order.
Governments are God’s idea (verse 1) “There is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”
Romans 13 assumes that God has established rulers, kings, and governments. In fact, every government in the world today and that has ever been in history, has come about because God has permitted it.
And the reason that governments are even a thing, is because there is, built into our universal moral intuition, the recognition that we need some sort of rule or authority by which to live.
Every unit of people--a family, a church, a town--needs a system of authorities and rules by which to live its collective life. Even animals do this in packs, prides, flocks, etc.
Governments exist to advance the public good
The question naturally occurs: what about bad rulers? Does Romans 13 mean that Hitler or Mussolini is just doing God’s will and we should happily run off and obey them?
I don’t think so. Romans 13 tells us that governments have a specific purpose and that purpose is protecting the vulnerable, and restraining wrongdoing.
Governments do this by protecting the good and punishing the evil. And by implication, governments are accountable to God for misusing or abusing their authority.
When governments do what is wrong they are judged by God.
When governments fail to do what is right they are judged by God.
The Bible tells about wicked kings that God guided into office, sometimes as a punishment for a wayward nation.
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.”
So what’s the point? The lesson?
This means that the Roman Christians and we today should learn that it is God's will to govern the world through imperfect, broken, sinful human civil authorities.
This is God's plan. We did not create a government. God did. Civil authority is God's idea in this age.
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.
Government authority is limited and not absolute. We shouldn’t read Romans 13 and think that the government can do anything it likes. There are things that the government thinks it can do, but in reality cannot.
Government doesn’t decide what is right, rather it takes what is good and preserves it. Good is not relative.
Government has no authority to decide theological disputes - The government cannot decide what religious believers think or believe about God. That’s beyond the power of the government to do.
Government has no authority to exercise the marks of the church: administering the sacraments, preaching the word, or exercising church discipline.
Christians should pray for and honor governmental leaders.
“He’s not my president” isn’t something that any Christian should want to say.
Christians should submit to the government.
So, in light of Romans 13, is it ever okay to engage in civil disobedience? Is it ever acceptable for a Christian to say, “I am going to break this law”?
If we look around the Bible for examples of civil disobedience, we will find some clear examples.
Consider a few texts on disobedience to civil authorities. In Acts 5:27-29 where Peter and the apostles say, “We must obey God rather than men.”
In other words, even though God said to submit to the men in authority, he does not mean: Obey them when they forbid what I command or command what I forbid. The command to submit to man does not make man God. It gives man authority under God, and qualified by God.
So let’s turn to some examples where that qualification lead to disobedience.
Then these presidents and satraps came by agreement to the king and said to him, “O King Darius, live for ever! All the presidents of the kingdom . . . are agreed that the king should establish an ordinance and enforce an interdict, that whoever makes petition to any god or man for thirty days, except to you, O king, shall be cast into the den of lions. . .” Therefore King Darius signed the document and interdict.
When Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem; and he got down upon his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously.
Notice how blatant Daniel’s disobedience is. It is, as we say, in your face. When Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he went to his house, where he had windows in his upper chamber—upper chamber!—opened toward Jerusalem. And he got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God as he had done previously. This was an open act of disobedience to the civil authority. It was a public act of putting God before the king’s decree. He took his place at an upper window, so he could be clearly seen. And for it he was thrown to the lions. Which he did not resist. Keep in mind that there is no explicit commandment that one must pray on one’s knees at an open window three times a day. This was Daniel’s conviction about God’s will, not an explicit command in the Bible.
The case of Daniel’s friends, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, was slightly different. The decree was made that all should bow down before the king’s image. In other words, Daniel was forbidden to do a thing, and his friends were commanded to do a thing. They would not. Instead, they said:
O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace; and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image which you have set up.
This was civil disobedience on the basis of religious conscience. And for it they were thrown into the furnace. And they did not resist.
Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwifes . . . “When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women, and see them upon the birth stool, if it is a son, you shall kill him; but if it is a daughter, she shall live.” But the midwifes feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live. . . So God dealt well with the midwifes; and the people multiplied and grew very strong. The midwifes disobeyed the king’s order to kill the babies.
One response to these last two texts is that they portray disobedience to a command that requires sin.
What about civil disobedience to laws that are not requiring you to do anything. They are just forbidding you from doing something that you feel morally bound to do.
Besides the case of Daniel, the Bible gives several other examples (e.g., Kings 18:4,13; Joshua 2:3-4). For example, Queen Esther is honored for disobeying the law against unsolicited approach to the king. King Ahasuerus had decreed that Jews were to be annihilated young and old, women and children (Esther 3:13). Mordecai, Esther’s uncle asked Esther to intervene for the Jews to save their lives.
Esther’s response was to remind Mordecai that any unsolicited approach to the King was against the law. She could be killed (4:11-12), unless the king had mercy on her and raised his scepter. Mordecai answered that Esther may well have come to the kingdom for such a time as this (4:14). So Esther calls for a three-day fast. Finally she resolves, “I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish” (4:16). The effect of her intervention was that the Jews were spared.
There are at least three features of Esther’s disobedience that stand out:
The law Esther broke did not require any active evil of her. It only stood in the way of trying to save the Jews.
There was no guarantee that her disobedience would be successful. It might have only galvanized the king’s opposition to the Jews. She risked it because so much was at stake.
Her act of disobedience to the state is not incidental to the main point of the book. It is the heart of her sacrificial faith: “If I perish, I perish!”
In other words, if the law commands what God forbids or forbids what God commands then you must break the law.
Christians then have a duty to recognize the limits of the government’s authority. And to act in a way that is consistent with the economy of grace, the values of the kingdom, and the rule of love that we will look at next week in the remaining section of the chapter.
C. H. Dodd, The Epistle to the Romans. James Moffatt, ed. The Moffatt New Testament Commentary. (New York: Harper, 1932).
John Piper, “Subjection to God and Subjection to the State.” (2005). Accessed October 27, 2020. Available online at https://bit.ly/3ozdgw8.
Geoffrey B. Wilson, Romans to Ephesians in New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 1. (Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 2005).
“Of the Civil Magistrate,” in Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 23, 1647.