“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” (Rm 13:1)
Relationship With the Governing Authorities (Rom 13:1-7)
In Romans 13, Paul talks about Christians’ relationship with the governing authorities and the law. Let’s first talk about the relationship with authorities.
Since Christianity began, the relationship between churches and governments has been debated. At first, churches didn’t have much power and the Roman government persecuted Christians and churches very harshly because they refused to worship the emperor. Christians escaped Roman soldiers, got down into the Catacombs under the ground, and lived there. At that time, churches were under the control of governments.
But, the situation started to change. After a few hundred years, the Roman government officially accepted Christianity and established religious tolerance toward Christianity within the Roman Empire through the Edict of Milan, proclaimed by an emperor named Constantine. And, 10 years later, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.
Churches started to gain a lot of power and wealth and at times the Pope had even more influence than the emperor—so much so that the Pope was able to appoint emperors. At that time, the empire was more like a theocracy. The government was under the control of the church.
Now, it’s generally accepted in modern society that the best relationship between churches and governments is that they are separated from each other, acknowledge that both have different roles and responsibilities, and help one another as partners.
The fact that churches and governments have different roles is implied in what Jesus said in Mark 12: “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Mk 12:17).
So, in the first part of Romans 13, Paul describes the relationship between Christians and governments. In this passage, Paul talks about what the roles of governments are and how Christians should treat governing authorities. Paul said, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities.”
Actually, the government Paul is talking about here is the Roman government which was unfavorable and even hostile to churches. Nevertheless, Paul said that Christians should obey governing authorities because all authorities are established by God.
Paul affirmed this three times.
“There is no authority except that which God has established.” (Rom 13:1).
“The authorities that exist have been established by God” (Rom 13:1).
“Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted” (Rom 13:2).
But, we should be careful how we interpret these verses. As we know from context, and from other books in the Bible, they don’t necessarily mean that we must blindly obey all rules enacted by governments.
Paul was not saying that we must obey all authorities. Some Roman emperors such as Nero and Domitian harshly persecuted and killed Christians, and more recently, dictators such as Hitler and Stalin have committed genocide. These leaders were not following God’s will.
So, when it’s obvious that what governments are doing is against God’s will and disobeys God, we must disobey the governing authorities to obey God. If the government commands us to do what God prohibits or prohibits us from doing what God commands, Christians’ response should be resisting the government to obey God.
As Peter and other apostles professed, “We must obey God rather than human beings!” (Ac 5:29)
So, when laws of the world are enacted against God’s law, Christians should disobey them. We can find some examples of this in the Bible.
When Pharaoh commanded Hebrew midwives to kill baby boys, “The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live.” (Ex 1:17)
When Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, commanded all his officials to worship the image of gold that he had set up, Daniel’s three friends refused to obey the king’s order even though they knew they would be killed for it.
When King Darius issued an edict that prohibited anyone from praying to other gods, Daniel refused to obey the command even though he knew that he would be thrown into a lion’s den as a result of his decision.
Daniel 6:10 says,
“Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before.” (Dn 6:10)
So, when Paul says, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities” he’s basing it on the premise that the government is in line with God’s will. The reason Paul urges Christians to obey the governing authorities is because it is the same as obeying God.
So in the next 4 verses, Paul affirms three times that the governing authorities are in fact God’s servants.
“For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good.” (Rom 13:4)
“They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” (Rom 13:4)
“This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants” (Rom 13:6)
As Christians, the basic important fact that we should keep in mind about governments is that all authorities are from God and that God rules over the world, using them.
Then, what mission does God give governments? They are basically related to good and evil.
First, when it comes to evil, “They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” (Rm 13:4)
In the previous chapter, Paul said that Christians shouldn’t take revenge but leave room for God’s wrath because only God has the authority to judge and punish. And, what Paul is saying in this chapter is that one of the ways God judges and punishes evil is through the governing authorities. So, the first function of governments is to suppress evil by punishing wrongdoers.
Second, in regard to good, Paul said, “The one in authority is God’s servant for your good” (Rom 4:1). Another important function of governments that God expects is for them to establish good.
Moses depicted God as the One who ℗ “defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.” (Dt 10:18)
In the book of Amos, God strictly rebuked the Israelites, because even though they worshiped Him on a regular basis and brought Him many different kinds of offerings, they failed to seek His justice.
“For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not relent. They sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed.” (Am 2:6-7)
God wanted to establish His justice on earth through His people, but they failed to seek it. They outwardly worshiped God, but God didn’t accept their worship because they failed to establish His justice. So, God said to them,
“Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Am 5:24)
God wants the world to be filled with His good will, justice, and righteousness. For this purpose, God uses not only His people, but the governments in the world. For this reason, God gave them authority. So, even though they might deny that their authority is ultimately from God and that they are God’s servants, God still uses them and establishes His kingdom of justice through them.
These are the reasons why Christians should obey governing authorities. We must remember that we’re called not to be separated from the world but to go into the world. So, we should carefully see if what our government is doing is in line with God’s will or not and actively obey or disobey it according to God’s will.
We’re to respect and honor the governing authorities even if they are not the leaders or parties we personally like or vote for. We should pray for them to be able to do what God wants them to do and for God’s justice and righteousness to be established through them. That’s how we as Christians can have a proper relationship with government.