The Christian and the Government
“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
Christianity, despite the claims of many of its detractors, is not a “pie-in-the-sky religion” that leads to escapism or a shirking of responsibilities in this world. Actually, as we have seen in our study of Romans 12, our transformation by the Holy Spirit raises the bar for how we are to relate to others on this side of eternity. Believers must actively love their enemies in a manner that seeks their well-being (vv. 14-21). We must show sacrificial hospitality to other Christians (v. 13). Furthermore, as today’s passage indicates, the servants of Christ must be model citizens of the civil government.
Romans 13 contains some of the most important teaching on the believer’s relationship to secular government in all of Scripture. Although it might seem that Paul introduces this topic from out of nowhere, the placement of Romans 13 makes good sense in its context. First, we know that many of the earliest Christians misunderstood what it means to be free in Christ, and they attempted to live without any restraint. For example, the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians show that the church in Corinth had a strong tendency toward libertinism. Second, the teaching that vengeance belongs to the Lord (Rom. 12:19) likely led many of the first readers of Paul’s epistle to the Romans to think that there was no hope in this life for seeing justice done. Romans 13 addresses both of these concerns. In calling us to submit to earthly authorities, the Apostle shows that freedom in Christ does not mean that we can do whatever we want; rather, we are to honor those in authority over us as long as they do not require us to commit sin. In describing the state’s duty to punish evil, Paul reveals that there is a place for justice on this side of heaven, but that there is an ordained structure for the punishment of evildoers. In other words, we do not find in Scripture an endorsement of vigilante justice.
We have seen that submitting to authorities does not extend to obeying them when they command us to do what God has forbidden or when they forbid us from doing what God has commanded. This qualification is implicit in the words Paul chooses. Paul says “be subject,” not “obey without question.” To be subject, or to submit, is an act of the will to give oneself over to those in authority; it is not blind obedience. There may be points at which the state’s law conflicts with the law of God. On such occasions, the Lord’s commands win. Dr. R. C. Sproul writes in his commentary Romans, “If the civil magistrate calls us to sin, we must say no.”
Dr. Sproul has noted that although we may easily grasp the principle that we must obey the state unless it commands us to do something God forbids or forbids us from doing something God commands, applying it correctly is not always so easy. However, we can say that our general approach should be to go out of our way to obey the law of the state. At times, we may have to disobey the state in order to obey the Lord, but those occasions should be relatively rare.
Passages for Further Study
1 Peter 2:13–17