Christians and the Government: Romans 13
In Romans 12, Paul wrote that we should be living sacrifices, transformed in our minds so that we please God and do his will. Paul described the attitudes that should characterize believers: humility, service, love and peace. In chapter 13, Paul gets specific about how a Christian should respond to civil authorities.
Submission to civil government
Paul writes, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established” (13:1). Rulers have sometimes used this verse to tell their citizens to obey, but many citizens have rightly wondered if this is what Paul meant, because rulers sometimes tell people to sin. Paul himself once had authority that he used to persecute the church, so how can he say that all authority comes from God?
Remember the context — Paul has just written several verses about how we should respond to evil, and he concludes, “Overcome evil with good” (12:21). Although government authority is established by God, and is good in itself, it is sometimes used in an evil way. Christians should not fight against the government, repaying evil for evil, but are to respond with good behavior.
Paul is giving a general principle, not writing about specific rulers. We do not subject ourselves to specific people, or pay taxes to specific people — rather, we submit to the office, and when a new person is in office, we submit to the new person, not the old one. Once a person is out of office, we do not owe that person any allegiance or payments. The “authorities” that Paul writes about are roles, not specific people.
“Submit” does not always mean “obey,” but it usually does, and Christians should be willing to obey civil authority. If the government commands a sin, then we have to disobey (Acts 5:29) — but that does not mean that we can fight against the government on other issues. We do not conform to the world (12:2), but neither do we try to overthrow it.
When Paul wrote this, he was planning to visit Jerusalem, where there were many political tensions. Jewish Zealots were taking up weapons to fight against Rome. There were also political difficulties in Rome: Jews had been involved in so many disturbances that Claudius had forced them to leave (Acts 18:2). After Claudius died, many Jews returned, but the tensions were still there.
Paul knows that his advice will not be accepted automatically, so he supports it with theological principles: “The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted” (vv. 1-2).
If Caesar demands to be called “Lord and God” (as Domitian did a few decades after Paul wrote), Christians should refuse, even at risk of their lives. But there is a big difference between refusing to obey one law, and a rebellion that claims that Caesar should not rule. It is not wrong to resist specific injustices, but it is wrong to work against government itself. Those who rebel against a God-ordained authority “will bring judgment on themselves.” Civil government is temporary, but it has been established by God (Dan. 4:17; John 19:11). It is not our place to try to overthrow the government.
Paul is writing about a dictatorial government, not a democracy. In a democracy, all citizens are given a small amount of authority each time they vote, and it is not a sin for people to use that authority. They are not rebelling against the government even if they are voting for a new person to fill the office. Quite the contrary: they are supporting the government by participating in it.
Nero, servant of God
Then Paul explains how rebels might be punished: “For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong” (v. 3). Empires are built on the blood of thousands of innocent victims. Jesus himself was killed by the Roman government. But when civil rulers are performing their God-ordained role, they are a threat to evildoers, not to those who obey the laws.
Paul is giving a general principle, not addressing all the confusing situations that sin creates. He does not say what we should do in a civil war, or when the rulers are so corrupt that they terrorize good people and support criminals.
Paul asks, “Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended” (v. 3). If you are a law-abiding citizen, you should have no reason to fear the government. (However, governments sometimes go awry and persecute Christians. Revelation 13, using imagery from Daniel, depicts civil government as a terrifying “beast.”)
Paul then makes the astonishing statement: “For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good” (v. 4). When Paul wrote Romans, Nero was the emperor. In his early years, he was a good ruler. But he turned evil, and tradition says that Paul was executed under his reign. But Paul calls him the minister of God! The fact that rulers often sin, even serving Satan at times, does not change the fact that God designed those roles to be used for good.
“But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (v. 4). Civil rulers serve God by bearing the sword, Paul says. They have authority from God to execute rebels. Genesis 9:6 authorizes capital punishment for murder. God authorized even imperfect governments to administer the death penalty to punish and deter crime.
God has the authority to punish evil (12:19), and he delegates that authority to civil rulers. Personal vengeance is wrong, but civil rulers have the God-assigned responsibility to punish evil. When we report crime to the police, we are seeking the justice that God has designed. Since God wants civil justice, it is permissible for a Christian to serve on the police force, or as a judge, or on a jury, doing what God has declared good, punishing crime not for our own vengeance, but acting on behalf of the civil government that God has authorized.
Paul concludes, “Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience” (v. 5). We should obey civil laws not only because the civil government might punish us if we don’t, but also because God wants us to be law-abiding people (cf. 1 Peter 2:12-14).
Paul then moves from general principles to the more specific matter of taxes: “This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing” (v. 6). Since civil rulers have a legitimate, God-ordained function, it is right for us to pay taxes to support this service. Rulers are never perfect, but they are still worthy of their wages, and God does not want us to rebel against that role.
Nero changed the tax system in A.D. 58 because of a widespread outcry against the greed of the tax collectors. Paul wrote shortly before that, when the resentment was growing. But a tax revolt would be bad for the Christian community. Paul did not want the believers to be associated with rebellion — especially when Christ himself had been executed for anti-government activity in Judea! Such a reputation would make it difficult for Paul to spread the gospel.
Just as Paul began this section with a comment about what “everyone” should do, he concludes with a command for everyone: “Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor” (v. 7). Taxes are a debt that should be paid, he implies. We should also pay customs duties, commissions, royalty fees and other obligations spelled out by law. We also have intangible obligations: to respect and honor government officials (Acts 23:5; 1 Peter 2:17) — not for their private lives, but for their God-ordained role of restraining evil.
Since we should respond to evil with good, blessing even those who persecute us (12:14-21), in most situations we should cooperate with civil authorities, since they have a God-ordained function in society. The basic Christian ethic is not to fight for our own benefit, but to do good to others.
Paul’s own experience with the government is an example of a balanced approach. When he was on trial for his life in Judea, he was respectful, but he did not passively submit to whatever the rulers wanted. Rather, he used his rights as a Roman citizen to prevent a flogging (Acts 22:25) and to prevent being sent back to Jerusalem (25:11).
The government gave citizens the right of appeal because they knew that their officials sometimes made wrong decisions, and when Paul used his rights, he was not submissive to the specific person in front of him, but he was submissive to the governmental system. In the same way, Christians today can use their rights as citizens to request changes in government policy, including changes in personnel. Voting is not a sign of disrespect, but is an opportunity to use some of the civil authority that God has authorized.
The law of love
After saying that we should pay whatever we owe, Paul shifts the subject back to love through a play on words: “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another…” (13:8; 12:9-10). Love is the most basic Christian ethic. We will always need to love one another; it is an eternal obligation.
Why? Because “whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.” The way this is written, the logic could imply that “the law” is the primary goal, and love is a stepping-stone toward that goal. But more accurately, love is the goal, and the law provides guidance about how we are to love. Paul then gives some examples of harmful behaviors we should avoid:
“The commandments, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not covet,’ and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (13:9; cf. Matt. 22:36). These commandments are not a complete guide to love — they specify a few things to avoid. Written commandments can never be a complete guide to love. Human situations are too diverse for rules to be written about all possibilities. However, the law guides us — it is impossible to love our neighbor while violating these commandments.
Paul is dealing with laws about how we interact with other people — he is not saying how we should show love to God. Most of the old covenant laws about worship are obsolete.
“Love does no harm to a neighbor,” Paul says — but love must go further than simply avoiding harm — it should actively seek to do good to the neighbor. Paul is summarizing the function of the commandments he quoted. He concludes, “Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (v. 10). If we love others, we have fulfilled the purpose of the law — and have gone further than what it requires. If we love our neighbor, we should pay our taxes. Even if the government is evil, we should respond to evil by doing good, not by taking matters into our own hands.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com
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This article was written by Michael Morrison in 2004 and updated in 2011. Copyright Grace Communion International. All rights reserved.
Clothed in Christ
“Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy” (v. 13). The Roman Christians were probably not involved in debauchery, but judging from chapter 14, they probably were involved in dissension and jealousy. By grouping these vices together, Paul is implying that competitive attitudes within the congregation are just as inappropriate as debauchery. The church is to be a community of brothers and sisters, not a place where one person vies against another.
Paul then gives the alternative: “Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh” (v. 14). Drunkenness and immorality come from the sinful nature; so do jealousy and dissension. Neither are appropriate for people who give their allegiance to Jesus Christ. When we clothe ourselves with him, imitating him, cooperation and mutual esteem will replace selfishness.
Pontius Pilate ordered the death of an innocent man. Would Paul have given Pilate as much respect as he gave Festus and Felix? When might Paul refuse to obey?
A government has the right to execute criminals. However, does it have a right to use lethal force to pursue criminals who are being protected by another nation?
What might Paul say about the American War of Independence, which began as a protest against taxation?
How does the law of love (v. 10) apply to our relationship with God? What does it command, and what does it prohibit?
When we are saved by grace, why is important that we “behave decently”? (v. 13)