Romans 13 and the Role of Government (1)

by Richard Mansel, assistant editor
h_government.jpgThe Apostle Paul provides a concise discussion on God’s view of government. It is important that Christians study Romans 13:1-6, especially when the role of government is under reconsideration in the United States.
“Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God” (Romans 13:1, NKJV).
The phrase “every soul” refers to “every person” and “every man” (RSV; NASB; NEB; cf. Acts 2:43). /1 Morris says that it speaks of “universal duty.” /2
We must understand that God is speaking to all of us and telling us how we should understand and respond to the governing authorities. As Christians, we must always be aware of our place in the larger scheme of things. Everything that we do must be for the purpose of bringing glory to God and being obedient to him (Colossians 3:17; Ephesians 3:20-21).
Subjection to government means that we place ourselves under the authority of the government, as long as it does not violate God’s will (Acts 5:29). We do not have the right to pick and choose the laws we will follow. For example, people often think traffic laws do not apply, unless there are police officers around. Since God is watching, we should always obey the law.
God has commanded us to be in subjection to the laws of the land. “Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme” (1 Peter 2:13). Even when the New Testament was being written, oppressive rulers were in power, so they do not negate the command.
God has placed the government in charge to order society and to keep its citizens safe. While man has too often abused their power, this does not mean that God’s plan is faulty. God has placed authority in the concept of government, not in individual rulers.
When men abuse the powers given to them, they will suffer the consequences. “Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment upon themselves” (Romans 13:2).
The word judgment means “a condemnatory or penal sentence.” /3 The New English Bible reads, “anyone who rebels against authority is resisting a divine institution, and those who so resist have themselves to thank for the punishment they will receive.”
In peaceful countries, this command rarely comes to mind. However, under oppressive regimes, like some of those in the first century, it becomes a more difficult command to live each day.
“For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same” (Romans 13:3).
“We must keep in mind that Paul was discussing the mission of government–not the abuses of civil government.” /4
We must be good examples to others and obeying the law is certainly one way to do so. When we do God’s will and rulers who oppose God’s will still bring condemnation down on us, we have still pleased God. That is all that will really matter when the final judgment comes.

1/ A.T. Robertson, Word Meanings in the New Testament (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1931), 4:704.

2/ Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 460.

3/ Joseph Thayer, Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman, 1977), 360.

4/ Roy Deaver, Romans (Austin: Biblical Notes, 1992), 498.

10 Replies to “Romans 13 and the Role of Government (1)”

  1. It should also be pointed out that in a democratic republic such as the United States, each qualified voter is expected by the government, and therefore by God, to express his or her will by voting in elections.

  2. Excellent article. I have had personal contact with those that (I think) did not understand a Christians duty to “Government”. I have no problem with anyone that has for conscience sake a different view….

  3. This hits home with me. I’ve discussed this very issue with one of my local elders, particularly concerning traffic laws. His conclusion; if the laws are not enforced, we don’t have to obey them. As the article pointed out God sees everything we do including how well we “submit to the governing authorities”. My prayer is that not only do all citizens obey the traffic laws but all laws. Also that every citizen especially every Christian citizen will exercise their civic responsibility to vote. It is the least that all of us can do.

  4. Thanks, Wayne. I certainly think that Christians have a responsibility to vote. I will have more to say on voting.

  5. Thanks, Steve. It would be very difficult to prove from Scripture that we can pick and choose which laws to follow. Doing the right thing is always right.

  6. Romans 13 is a critical text for sure but it is not the only witness in Scripture to civil government and it also has a context that shapes it.
    It goes, almost without saying, that early christians had a different understanding of government than most conservative American christians today. I would love to see you interact with such writers as John Howard Yoder and his THE POLITICS OF JESUS which has quite possibly the best exposition of Romans 13 in the English language … at least that I know of.
    Bobby Valentine
    via Bakersfield, CA

  7. Bobby,
    Thanks for you comments. I am not writing from an American conservative perspective. I am approaching Romans 13 and what the Apostle Paul says by inspiration.
    Are you saying that there are things in my article that are tainted because of this perceived bias?

  8. Richard, I simply said that there is more about government in the Scriptures than Romans 13 and I said that your perspective is considerably different than that of the Pre-Constantinian Church (i.e. they did not read Romans 13 as seem to do) and I said I would have liked to see you interact with Yoder. That’s it.
    Bobby Valentine
    Tucson, AZ

  9. Bobby,
    Thanks for the clarification. I am trying to say just what the text says. I picked up Yoder’s book from the library. The chapter on Romans 13 in his book is interesting, from a quick run through. I hope to give it a better read. I disagree with some of it and other parts agree. I may address it on my blog since it won’t fit with this series. The passive perspective is different from much of the research I have done.

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