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 every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except by God’s appointment” (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 instituted by God. So the person who resists such authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will incur judgment” (verses 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 incur judgment.” Civil government is temporary, but it has been established by God (Daniel 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 democracy by participating in it.
Nero, servant of God
Then Paul explains how rebels might be punished: “for rulers cause no fear for good conduct but for bad” (verse 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 desire not to fear authority? Do good and you will receive its commendation” (verse 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 that the civil authority “is God’s servant for your good” (verse 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 servant 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 in fear, for it does not bear the sword in vain. It is God’s servant to administer retribution on the wrongdoer” (verse 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 be in subjection, not only because of the wrath of the authorities but also because of your conscience” (verse 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: “For this reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants devoted to governing” (verse 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 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: “Pay everyone what is owed: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due” (verse 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 because of their private lives, but because of 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.
Things to think about
- 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 in some other nation?
- What might Paul say about the American War of Independence, which began as a protest against taxation?
For a longer article on this passage, see “Romans 13 and Christian Submission to Civil Authority.”
Author: Michael Morrison, 2004, 2011