Wherefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor. (Romans 13:5-7)
Christians are obligated to be in subjection to civil government regardless of how happy we are with the government itself. The most obvious motivation for our subjection is fear of the consequences of rebelling against the authority but that motivation is a shallow one. Think of it this way. A Christian who remains sexually pure based solely on the fear of contracting AIDS has obeyed the letter of the law while missing the main point. A higher reason for subjection is found in verse 5: a clear conscience.
The fear of punishment is an external motivation that promotes submission. The motivation Paul calls for here is internal—that of a desire to maintain a pure and undefiled conscience. The standard which the law sets is the minimal standard for all men. The standard set by our own conscience is personal, individual, and hopefully higher than the minimum set by human government.
What is the conscience? It is an internal standard, defining right and wrong. It is not present only in Christians. All men have a conscience (Romans 2:15). The conscience of one may be stronger than that of another (1 Corinthians 8:7, 10, 12). Some consciences have become hardened and insensitive due to sin (1 Timothy 4:2), while the consciences of others are sensitized by obedience (Hebrews 5:14). We must never defile our conscience by doing what it considers evil, nor should we offend others by practicing what their consciences condemn as evil (1 Corinthians 8).
Our conscience is not an infallible guide to good and evil. While we must never do what our conscience condemns, we dare not assume that everything our conscience permits is good, since our conscience can become hardened and insensitive (1 Timothy 4:2).
Conscience was a very important manner to Paul. He sought to serve God with an undefiled conscience (Acts 23:1; 24:16; 2 Timothy 1:3), which he urged others to do as well (1 Timothy 1:19; 3:9). A clear conscience is a prerequisite for love and service to others: But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith (1 Timothy 1:5).
Whenever we violate our conscience we hinder our fellowship with God and our service to Him and to others. A violated, guilty, conscience makes us less sensitive to sin and more vulnerable to error (Hebrews 5:12; 2 Timothy 3:6). A guilty conscience makes us tend toward a legalistic, external obedience, based upon appearances rather than on reality (Luke 16:15).
What does our conscience have to do with submission to human government? Mere outward compliance with the requirements of government is simply not enough. This we can expect from unbelievers, if for no other reason than the fear of punishment. But God desires a fuller, deeper, obedience from the heart. This requires conscientious subjection—submitting done out of obedience to God. Such an attitude of submission enables us to retain the right attitude and actions toward government even when we must disobey specific laws in order to obey God.
An internal attitude of submission stimulates us to obey government even when our disobedience cannot be seen or punished. The actions of verses 6 and 7 are the outflow of an undefiled conscience and a spirit of submission. Paul does not tell us here to “obey the laws of the land,” but rather to honor those in authority and to pay taxes. Why is this specific form of obedience named? I believe it is because this is an example of something easy to avoid doing with little fear of being caught and punished.
We can be rude and disrespectful to officials and get away with it. We can even more effectively pretend to be respectful and never have our insincerity detected. We can quite easily report our income in such a way as to avoid income taxes. More often than not, if we are devious, we will not be caught.
But Paul has already told us that government has God’s authority and ministers for Him. Thus, when we fail to “pay our dues,” whatever these might be, we disobey God. Even if the civil authorities never catch us, our conscience before God will be defiled. Our fellowship with Him will be hindered. Our service to others will be adversely affected. We are called to live by the higher standard: not only compliance to the government, but cooperation in a spirit of submission. Living by this higher standard keeps our conscience clear, our testimony untainted, and our service unhindered by sin and guilt. Living in subordination to civil authority is beneficial to our walk with God and our service to others.
The things which God requires us to give government officials are those things which facilitate the ministry of public officials: honor and money. Both are necessary for public officials to carry out their tasks.
Our subordination to those in authority not only means that we should do what we are required, but that we should provide all that is necessary so that our superiors can do their jobs. Our submission means that we serve and support them.
Romans 13:1-7 is not the only text in the Bible on the matter of “conscientious subjection.” Paul writes generally of this obligation to (Titus 3:1). Peter speaks of submission to human government in the context of suffering (1 Peter 2:13-14). But when Paul speaks of submission to government in this passage, he does so in the context of service.
This passage is part of a larger section with this theme in Romans 12:1–13:7. Paul opens the section in 12:1-2 with a challenge to present our bodies to God as living sacrifices, which is our reasonable service of worship. Paul then moves on to our sacrificial service in terms of the church, the body of Christ, and of the exercise of our spiritual gifts (12:3-8). Then in verses 9-21 Paul writes of our service in the context of love, whether we are serving our fellow-believers or our enemy. This is the context in which subordination to civil government is discussed in Romans 13:1-7.
Paul teaches on the importance of subordination in this whole section. We must subordinate our lives to God, presenting our bodies as living sacrifices to Him. We must subordinate our interests to the interests of others if we are to walk in love. We must also subordinate our lives to those in authority over us as civil servants.
Paul seems to me to state a principle: SUBORDINATION IS A PREREQUISITE TO SERVICE AND A MINDSET WITHOUT WHICH SERVICE IS EITHER IMPOSSIBLE OR UNFRUITFUL.
True service is only rendered if self-interest is set aside and replaced by a spirit of subordination. We cannot seek our own interests as a priority and serve others as a priority at the same time. It simply does not and cannot work. Subordination is prerequisite to service. This is precisely the point Paul makes concerning our Lord’s attitudes and actions in Philippians 2:5-8: Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Subordination is the key to loving God and others. It goes against the grain. It is not the spirit of our age. But it is what God requires and what the Spirit enables when we walk in Him.
As I said in an earlier post, I see Christians rapidly moving in the direction of opposing government more than submitting to it. We have lost our respect for those in authority and have come to disdain, en masse, those in public office. We have come to view government as God’s opponent rather than as God’s ordained instrument. No doubt there is reason for disobedience to certain laws, but there is no excuse for our spirit of insubordination and for an obedience which is more compliant than it is cooperative and supportive.
It seems to me that the church of today is much more intent upon producing Christian leaders than it is in producing Christian followers. While the disciples of Jesus had their heads filled with thoughts of position, power, and prestige, Jesus constantly talked to them about subordination and service. While we think much about leaders, Jesus talked most about being followers, disciples. Ironically, the way to become good leaders is by learning to become good followers.
Evangelical Christianity is probably more purposeful and aggressive in seeking to influence government and legislation than ever before. And yet I fear that we are less effective than in previous times. How can this be? On the one hand, we seem to be relying on the “arm of the flesh,”
on human mechanisms and motivations, rather than on those which are spiritual. We seem to think that we need large numbers to attract the attention of government officials, and that we will not be able to change men’s minds or voting habits unless we hold over their heads the threat of losing the next election.
Down through history, Believers have had a profound impact on kings and government officials—even though they served God and even though they were in the minority. John the Baptist was a man who stood for what was right and who did not shrink back from pointing out Herod’s sin. And yet, Herod found himself strangely drawn to John and his teaching. He listened intently to him. He would not have put him to death except for his drunkenness, his foolish offer, and his foolish pride (Mark 6:14-29).
Jesus had the attention of the governmental leaders of His day. They were eager to see Him face to face. It was only reluctantly that they played a part in His death. Paul too had a spiritual impact on some of the political leaders of his day. Even today, men like Billy Graham are sought out by presidents and powerful political figures. Why? Because even when they disagree with the powers that be they are subject to God, to His Word, and therefore to the government under which He has placed them.
We do not need to muster more votes or more political clout. We need more “moral clout,” gained by simple obedience to God, to His Word, and to the institutions He has ordained.
To honor God we present ourselves to Him as living sacrifices, we subordinate ourselves to others and to the government He has ordained.