“For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you.”- Romans 13:1–3
Romans 13 gives us the definitive New Testament teaching on the place and purpose of the civil government. Paul begins by telling us that “everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities,” because these “have been established by God.”
What does it mean when Paul writes that these authorities are ordained by God? Were Hitler’s and Stalin’s governments ordained by God? Remember that Paul was writing this to the Romans. It was the Roman government that ultimately beheaded Paul himself and tortured and slew thousands of early Christians. Was this government ordained by God?
To understand this we have to remember Paul’s teaching concerning the sovereignty of God. He is the Lord of history. God raises up people and brings them down. We have to distinguish, however, between a government ordained by God and a government approved by God. God did not approve of Nero and Stalin, but it was His design that they come to power. God gives us wicked rulers as part of His judgment on our sins.
Even under a wicked regime, however, Christians still have an obligation to render civil obedience. Peter writes, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right” (1 Peter 2:13–14).
There are limits to this submission, however. This same Peter, when ordered by the authorities not to preach, said, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Jesus said to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s (Matthew 22:21). So the first principle is that we should always seek to obey the civil magistrate and bear witness as peaceful Christians. But the second principle is that if there is a true conflict in authority, we have to obey God and then suffer for the faith.
Verses 3–4 make the point that even bad government is better than no government at all. God ordained government for our good, and it is necessary for us. Anarchy is always worse, because even the worst governments punish some evil and reward some good.
In the face of evil government, Christians can hide from view and keep out of the way as much as possible. Though many formerly enslaved nations have been set free in recent years, there are still Christians who live in fear in places like Cuba, China, and Vietnam. Pray for these brothers and sisters in Christ today.
Passages for Further Study