Civil Obedience

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

As with most doctrines, the biblical doctrine of the state rests on passages where the teaching on the subject is incidental as well as texts where the doctrine is the focus. Romans 13:1–7 represents one of these latter type of texts. The Apostle Paul’s extensive presentation on the “governing authorities” and their duties tells us that obeying our civil rulers is required if we want to obey the Lord Himself.

God’s authority establishes all human authorities, so submitting to earthly leaders means that we are following divine authority. Scripture tells us that ultimate authority belongs to the Holy Trinity, and this authority is exercised in the first instance by God the Father (John 8:28). Following Jesus’ resurrection, the Father entrusted Christ, the incarnate Son of God with all authority in heaven and on earth (Matt. 28:18–20). Jesus then appointed authorities under Him — husbands, rulers, teachers, parents, employers and so on (Rom. 13:1; 1 Cor. 11:3; Col. 2:9–10). Having earned the right to exercise full authority according to His humanity, an authority He possessed from all eternity according to His deity, Jesus delegated authority to others in the church and in the world.

Since all rulers and leaders operate on the basis of Christ’s mediated authority, we cannot fully obey Jesus without obeying the civil authorities. Paul makes this point in 13:1–2, warning that the consequences for not obeying the civil magistrate include divine judgment. Importantly, we are not told to obey only those rulers who are Christians or who otherwise have a benevolent approach to the church. In fact, the Roman government to which Paul orders the Roman believers to submit is the same government that later put the Apostle to death. This indicates that believers must be model citizens even when we do not have a position of privilege. Christians must blamelessly obey all laws, even the foolish ones, that do not command what God forbids or forbid what God commands. We do not have to agree with the government’s policies, but we must submit graciously when doing so will not make us violate God’s Word (1 Peter 2:18).

By commanding submission, God does not mean that evil rulers please Him, or that we should be silent about corrupt governance. Yet we are not to operate outside the law to deal with corrupt leaders, for vengeance is the Lord’s prerogative (Rom. 12:9). Unless evil rulers call us to disobey the Word of God, even they deserve our submission.

Coram Deo

It is easy to obey God’s command to submit to our earthly rulers when they rule wisely. It is much harder, on the other hand, to submit when we think our rulers are corrupt. The Lord often calls us to do hard things, however, and this includes obeying the rulers with whom we disagree. They are not to be followed absolutely, that is, we cannot justify sin by saying “the government told me to do it.” But the civil magistrate is to receive our deference and honor.

Passages for Further Study

Nehemiah 2:1–8
Proverbs 24:21–22
Matthew 17:24–27
Acts 21:17–26

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