In my last post I laid out my understanding of Paul’s precept of the Christian’s relationship to civil authority: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.” (Romans 13:1a) Today I want to explore the reasons behind that precept.
“For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God”. (Romans 13:1b)
Paul’s precept that Christians are to be subject to civil authority is based upon a fundamental premise: God is sovereign. As sovereign He possesses ultimate authority and all human authority is delegated by God.
There is no authority independent of God.
How do we know that a given government is ordained of God and that He has given it authority? By its existence: Paul says, “those which exist are established by God.” A government’s existence is proof that it is ordained of God and that it possesses divinely delegated authority. God is sovereign. He is in control of all things. He causes all things to “work together for good” (8:28).
Paul writes while under the government of Rome. As a Jew he is well aware that God raised up a disobedient Pharaoh in Egypt and the empires of Assyria and Babylon as His servants to discipline His people. So, like it or not, according to Paul – every government, whether democratic or autocratic, heathen or God-fearing – every government that has the power to rule over its people has been granted that power and authority by God.
Submission to government then is an expression of our submission to God. God has instituted human government to exercise divinely delegated authority over menkind. Christians should be subject to human governments for this theological reason alone. But Paul adds two practical reasons for our submission and obedience in verses 2-7.
These provide additional motivation for our obedience to this command which goes against the grain of human nature.
“Therefore he who resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil.” (13:2-4)
In Rom 13:1b, Paul asserts that human government is divinely commissioned. Based on that assertion he next emphasizes that our response to civil authority has divine consequence. His logic is that resistance to governmental authority is also resistance to God Himself. Therefore such resistance eventually brings divine judgment.
Next Paul moves on in verses 3 and 4
to warn that disregard for government’s authority also has present ramifications. In verse 4 he refers to civil authority as a “minister of God.” Government, then is a servant of God tasked with dealing appropriately with those who do good and those who do evil. In short, God’s purpose for human government is to reward those who do good and to punish those who do evil.
Since as Christians we are to abstain from evil and pursue what is good (“Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good.” Rom. 13:9) the role of civil authority is both consistent with and complimentary to the Christian lifestyle. Government should praise those who do good and punish those who do evil. Therefore God’s purposes for us and for government are in harmony. Government is here to help us do what God has called us to do and what we should desire to do. Ordinarily, anyone seeking to do good need not fear government. Anyone who is serving God need not worry about government opposition. Christians should be the best citizens, for our calling is consistent with government’s commission. But we should fear government if we choose to do evil. Only the law-breaker looks over his shoulder, wondering where the police are. In order to live our lives without fear of punishment, we need only to do what God has required of us, and what government requires as well.
One of the major benefits of civil government’s God-given role is that it frees us from returning “evil for evil” by retaliating against those who persecute or mistreat us. God has taken the task of administering justice or of avenging wrong-doings off our backs and placed it on the back of governmental authorities. It is the role of government to deal with the evil deeds of men against us. Government “bears the sword” for such purposes. And if government fails in this task, we trust in God to make things right in that day when He judges with perfect judgment.
The failure of government does not give us the right to take the law into our own hands.
Next post: on to Rom. 13:5-7 for part 3 of this series.