Paul now changes the subject in this epistle to address a Christian’s responsibility to the state. This topic is a very important one, because it gives balance to the subject matter that he just covered in chapter twelve. Remember that at the end of chapter twelve Paul was warning believers to not take personal revenge upon those who would do them harm. But when someone hears this command, they naturally think, If God is the one that brings vengeance for evil, when a person rapes, kills, or steals from another, does the victim have to wait until the Lord returns before judgment can occur? The answer to that question is no. There is another option. That option is for the civil authorities and law enforcement in our country to also mete out justice. This is the balance that Paul presents in these verses.
Also, many times when I bring up the issue of a believer’s responsibility to the state, Christians sometimes will respond to me by saying, “Well do I have a responsibility to the state? I’m a citizen of the kingdom of God, so I have a higher calling.” Yes, you do have a higher calling to the King of the Kingdom, Jesus Christ, but you also have a responsibility to the state as explained here in our text. Paul declared clearly, “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God's minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God's minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience' sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God's ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor” (Rom. 13:1-7).
What is your responsibility to the state and to the civil authorities?
There are several very specific commands given in these verses by the Apostle Paul. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he is writing and explaining what believers should do, and why they should do it. May God give you a heart to hear and obey His commands.
1. Your primary responsibility is to be subject to the governmental authorities. Vs. 1-4
Paul first declares that every soul must be subject to the governing authorities. The word subject means to be subordinate and obedient to the government. This word is also in the present tense which means that we all must be obedient continually to the authority over us. Does this subjection mean that you should never try and change the governing authorities when they are doing wrong? No! I will explain my response in more detail later in this study. However, Paul’s point is that if you have surrendered and presented yourself to God, you must also obey the laws of the nation you live in. Every soul must be governed by the rule of law. Without the rule of law, there would be chaos in this world. Yet, there are some Christians who will declare that they are not subject to the laws of man, and that they are only subject to the laws of God. But this is a law of God and given by direct command in this text. The Apostle Peter taught the exact same thing in his first epistle. He said, “Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men” (1 Peter 2:13-15). Notice that Peter confirms what Paul has taught here in Romans. You must submit to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake. That is pretty clear! But the question is, are you doing this?
Why should you be subject to the governing authorities?
Paul explains that God has a very simple reason for commanding us to be subject to the governing authorities. The government has been appointed by God for the express purpose of doing good for you. Paul said, “Rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Rulers then are appointed by God to generally help people within their nation. This is one of the fundamental reasons for human government. This is the primary reason for a police force, the military, and for a national intelligence service. Government should be working for the common good of every person in our country. Paul adds that to resist the governing authority is to resist the God who instituted these authorities. So, law breakers are basically fighting against God Himself.
This ultimate purpose of governing authorities to do good, is why Jeremiah the prophet told the Jews in captivity in Babylon to also submit. He told them to, “Build houses and dwell in them; plant gardens and eat their fruit. Take wives and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, so that they may bear sons and daughters--that you may be increased there, and not diminished. And seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the LORD for it; for in its peace you will have peace” (Jer. 29:5-7). This again was a clear and direct instruction by Jeremiah. He wanted them to pray for the peace of the government, and fulfill the basic tasks of life, such as farming, building homes, and having a family.
2. If governments are to promote good and protect the people, why are there evil governments? Has God appointed these governments also?
Whenever the subject comes up of God appointing rulers for the protection and good of the people, the natural question that comes up, “But, did God appoint Hitler, Stalin, Mao Se Tung, and the Emperor of Japan during the Second World War? These rulers caused the death of over 60 million people. If God appointed them, wouldn’t that make God a party to the evil they did? These rulers surely did not do good for their people!” This is a great question that a believer must answer. How can you answer these questions concerning these incredibly evil rulers?
Everyone who looks at the history of mankind or the history of Israel must admit that there have been some governing authorities that were extremely evil. Here are some Scriptures where God speaks directly about these rulers and kings that were evil. First, do you realize that God declared that there are rulers that He did not set up? God spoke through Hosea the Prophet and said, “Israel has rejected the good; the enemy will pursue him. ‘They set up kings, but not by Me; they made princes, but I did not acknowledge them. From their silver and gold they made idols for themselves-- that they might be cut off’” (Hosea 8:3-4). Note that God said, the people “set up kings, but not by Me.” They made princes, but He did not recognize them. They did all these things that would ultimately bring their own downfall and judgment, which is what it means to be cut off. This is the difference between God’s directive will and God’s permissive will. God allowed them to do these things, that it might bring judgment upon themselves. What do I mean by God’s directive and permissive will? There are certain things that God specifically directs, and there are other things He allows men to do, because He will not force His will upon men. God commands people to do as He directs, but men must choose to do what is right in His sight. When men reject God’s directive will, they will bring upon themselves His chastening and judgment. You see this truth stated by God in Isaiah 3:1-5, where He says, “For behold, the Lord, the LORD of hosts, takes away from Jerusalem and from Judah the stock and the store, the whole supply of bread and the whole supply of water; the mighty man and the man of war, the judge and the prophet, and the diviner and the elder; the captain of fifty and the honorable man, the counselor and the skillful artisan, and the expert enchanter. ‘I will give children to be their princes, and babes shall rule over them. The people will be oppressed, every one by another and every one by his neighbor; the child will be insolent toward the elder, and the base toward the honorable.’” In these verses, God is speaking of the judgment that He will send upon the people for their rebellion against Him. There will be a famine, no skillful judges or prophets, no honorable military leaders, and children will be their rulers. But, the most important thing God says is that “the people will be oppressed” by their own countrymen. How difficult it would be for the people in such circumstances. In Hosea 13:11, God said that He does these things in His anger because the people have rebelled. He declared, “I gave you a king in My anger, and took him away in My wrath.” It is important to remember that God can in anger allow people and circumstances to occur as judgment in this world. He permits it to take place, but it is not His directive will. He allows it, but does not sanction it. If you don’t believe this to be the fact, then you must believe that God is a party to the evil that people do. Notice that when justice is taken away from people, God blames the evil rulers who do it. He does not take credit for this calamity. You see this truth expressly stated in Isaiah 5:20-23 where He says, “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight! Woe to men mighty at drinking wine, woe to men valiant for mixing intoxicating drink, who justify the wicked for a bribe, and take away justice from the righteous man!” Why is justice taken away from the righteous man? Because of the unrighteous rulers who call good evil and evil good, and who take bribes. This is not God’s doing, but the result of evil men who are in rebellion against God. David said, “The face of the Lord is against those who do evil” (Ps. 34:16). This means that God’s face was against Hitler, Stalin, and the Emperor of Japan because of the great evil that these men did!
The Scripture then is very clear. God appoints certain rulers for good, and He allows other rulers who are to be a judgment for the people and the world. This is the only conclusion you can come to from the Scripture I have just quoted.
3. Is there ever a time that you should resist the government?
This question must also be answered to be fair and balanced in your beliefs. The answer is yes! The scripture gives you several reasons why you should not be subject to all governing authorities. What are these reasons?
- When you are personally required by the government to sin against God, or to violate your own conscience. If you are ever commanded by your government or your employer to sin against God, violate His word, or go against your own conscience, then you should not submit. Under our form of government here in the United States, we allow for what we call a conscientious objector. Freedom of conscience is a fundamental right of man. Paul taught that a good conscience was the ultimate purpose and goal of God’s commandments. He wrote, “Now the purpose of the commandment is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from sincere faith, from which some, having strayed, have turned aside to idle talk” (1 Tim. 1:5-6). His commands were given to cause you to seek a pure heart from a good conscience, and with real faith so that you could love God and others. This is why Paul also said that the testimony of his own conscience was what assured him the he was acting in a godly way toward the Corinthians. He said, “For our boasting is this: the testimony of our conscience that we conducted ourselves in the world in simplicity and godly sincerity, not with fleshly wisdom but by the grace of God, and more abundantly toward you” (2 Cor. 1:12). Paul knew he was sincere in his conduct toward the church by the testimony of his own conscience. When the Jews were in Egypt and Pharaoh commanded the Hebrew mid-wives to kill all of the male children, they refused to obey (Ex. 1:15-17). Why did they refuse? Because they would have been committing genocide upon their own people, and breaking God’s commandments. Therefore, if you cannot do what the government asks you to do in all good conscience, then you should refuse to do it.
- When you are required to worship a false god. The best example of this reason to not obey your government, is when the three Hebrew men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, were commanded to bow down to a golden idol or be cast into a fiery furnace (Dan. 3:16-19). Their response was to refuse for conscience sake, and because of their faith in God. Their only option was to refuse to obey. This is the reason why people during the Tribulation period, the last seven years before the Second Coming of Christ, will refuse to take the mark of the beast (Rev. 13:11-18; Rev. 14:9-10). This refusal to take the mark, will cause those living on the earth at that time to be put to death.
- When you are not allowed to worship the true and living God, or preach the Gospel. The best example of this truth is when the disciples were commanded by the religious leaders to not preach anymore in the name of Jesus. The disciples responded by saying, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). They were then beaten by the religious leaders, and they went rejoicing, knowing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name.
From these examples, it is abundantly clear that being subject to the governing authorities is not absolutely required in every case. However, it is required under every other situation that may arise in your life. This would include paying your taxes, obeying the speed limit while driving, and doing what your employer tells you to do.
For the same reason the founding fathers of our nation refused to obey King George and ultimately declared independence from England. History tells us that the colonists first tried to use every legal means to obtain a resolution for their complaints. They asked for legislation, they sent emissaries to King George, and they even tried boycotts of British goods to try and pressure England to make changes. But King George only became more hostile toward the colonies. He forced British soldiers in the homes of the colonists, he removed the right to have firearms, he taxed the people more and more to try and break them, he refused justice in the courts, sent judges sympathetic to England to replace American judges, he took Americans on the high seas and forced them into the British navy, citizens were killed for assembling in protest (Boston Massacre), and many other oppressive measures were used. There are twenty-seven grievances listed in the Declaration of Independence that itemize these offenses. If you have not ever read the Declaration of Independence before, I would suggest doing so. It will help you to see what tyranny and dictatorship look like in practical terms.
Because of an unbalanced view of Romans 13, many Christians think that the founders of our country should not have declared independence. I believe this is an incorrect belief. Why? Because the colonists tried in every way to seek a solution within the legal system and found that no one would listen. Then it became the responsibility of those governing the colonies to recognize their error and to change. But they did not. They failed to realize that they were failing in their responsibility to work for the good of the people and for their protection as Romans 13 states.
Why has God placed governing authorities over nations?
1. Because the government is to protect you from evildoers. Vs. 3-4
Government is to protect its citizens from those who practice evil. This is one of a government’s primary reasons for their existence. Paul said, “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God's minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil” (Rom. 13:3-4). Notice that Paul declared at the end of verse 4, that rulers are God’s ministers, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. This is why we have a police force. They protect us from evil doers in our town and cities. Our military has been established to protect us from other nations who would perpetrate evil against us.
If you are a pacifist and you think to yourself, We don’t need a military, do you know what would happen to us as a nation if we disbanded our military? What would happen if we took all of our weapons and destroyed them? The answer is simple. We would be taken over by another country immediately. Why? Because there are evil rulers in this world who would want to do us harm and exploit us and our resources. Men are sinners by nature, and sin is what motivates evil doers. What would happen if we disbanded or defunded our police? Anarchy would overcome our cities, because of the sinful nature of men. If you are a pacifist, think long and hard about this reality.
What does it mean when Paul writes, “For he is God’s minister to you for good? But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God's minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.” Paul could not say this any clearer. A police force has been established, and they have a sword, or in our day a firearm, to protect us and stop someone who purposes to do evil. Does this mean that a police officer has the right to use lethal force against someone who is committing a capital offense, or when a person is attempting to kill a police officer? Absolutely! But, people say, “This is a violation of the 6th commandment, You shall not kill.” However, most people don’t realize that the Hebrew word for kill in this commandment means to commit an intentional, premeditated act of murder. When people say this to me, I usually respond, “There is a big difference between the intentional, premeditated murder, and self-defense by a police officer or civil justice by a court of law. Murder has nothing to do with civil justice.
What about capital punishment?
Others ask, does this verse in Romans allow for capital punishment? Yes! Again, I remind you, capital punishment is the execution of civil justice upon those who practice evil. But there are those who respond, “Capital punishment is against our eighth amendment to the constitution which states the premise of prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment.” However, this provision refers to torture and all forms of punishment that are similar. When you look at the torture machines used in the middle ages, you immediately understand what the framers of the constitution meant. I’ve seen these torture machines up close in museums in Europe. If you are interested, just do an Internet search for torture machines of the middle ages, and you will see what I mean. In addition, it should be quite obvious to even the most casual look at this subject, that the same people who prohibited cruel and unusual punishment in our constitution, were also the same people who established the laws concerning capital punishment. So, these men obviously did not see capital punishment as cruel, barbaric, or unusual punishment. Just remember, there is a big difference between murder and the justice of capital punishment, a big difference between a personal act of revenge out of hatred or greed, and civil justice motivated by righteousness and the protection of our society.
If you are opposed to capital punishment, do you realize that there is an eternal capital punishment? One day Jesus will separate all people into one of two places, everlasting punishment, or eternal life. Jesus said referring to this separation of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:46, “These will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Now you know both of the words everlasting and eternal are the exact same Greek word, so they mean the same thing. If you believe that there is eternal life for those who believe and follow Christ, then you must come to the same conclusion that there is everlasting punishment for those who willfully choose to reject Jesus. When I say this to people many respond, “Jesus wouldn’t do this; He is so loving!” But Jesus is the One who taught this truth, and He is the One who will say to those who choose not to follow Him, “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41). There are only two ends for all people on this earth. There is a resurrection of the just and the unjust. There is a resurrection to life, and a resurrection to condemnation (John 5:28-29). This means everyone lives forever, and you get to choose where you want to spend your eternity. So, if you are opposed to capital punishment, then you probably have a problem with God’s eternal capital punishment as well.
In addition, those who are against capital punishment are usually opposed to all war and don’t think we should have a standing army ready to fight. I used to be a total pacifist until I read the Scripture in Revelation 19:11-16. John says of Jesus, “Now I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse. And He who sat on him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and makes war. His eyes were like a flame of fire, and on His head were many crowns. He had a name written that no one knew except Himself. He was clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God. And the armies in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, followed Him on white horses. Now out of His mouth goes a sharp sword, that with it He should strike the nations. And He Himself will rule them with a rod of iron. He Himself treads the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God. And He has on His robe and on His thigh a name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.” Do you realize that the Bible calls Jesus the One Who judges and makes war? This means that there is a just war. You will be a part of the armies that come with Him to this war with the nations of the world. Remember, the first time Jesus came to this earth He came in humility as a Savior, but the second time He is coming as the righteous judge to make war and set up His kingdom here upon the earth. He will rule this earth with a rod of righteousness and justice, a rod of iron, and anybody that violates His will is going to be dealt with swiftly. So, you need to have this balance in your thinking. Don’t be swayed by the prevailing culture today, or by the mores and values of our society. Let your thinking be governed by God’s Word. We need justice and mercy if we are going to live in a civilized society. I know that these issues are somewhat difficult to sort through in your mind, but I hope you will allow the Word of God to be the final arbitrator of truth on this, or any topic.
I believe that one of the greatest problems in sorting through these issues is that people have lost their sense of what true justice is all about. The further people get away from the Word of God and the Judeo-Christian ethic in our society, the harder it is to see the meaning of true justice. People have rejected the Word of God as their ultimate standard of truth. In so doing, men have lost all sense of what is good and evil (Is. 5:20). Jeremiah told the people in his day how God considered them. He said, “For My people are foolish, they have not known Me. They are silly children, and they have no understanding. They are wise to do evil, but to do good they have no knowledge” (Jer. 4:22). Note that foolish and silly decision-making comes from not knowing God. People then become wise in doing evil, but doing good is completely foreign to them. The word silly in this verse means foolish decision-making that is without godly judgment. I believe this is exactly where the general population of the United States is today, and for that matter, the entire world. The foolish decisions that people make to pursue evil is beyond belief. The decisions our government makes are foolish and corrupt. If any of us spent money like the government does today, we would be bankrupt in a very short time. But the government can print worthless paper money anytime they choose, thinking that the spending spree can go on forever. They are silly children!
My encouragement is that you would pursue God’s truth so you can understand what true justice and righteousness looks like. Do not be like the children of Israel of whom God said, “The way of peace they have not known, and there is no justice in their ways; they have made themselves crooked paths; whoever takes that way shall not know peace” (Is. 59:8). True justice in our world would bring true peace to this earth. One day the Just One will reign on this earth, and He will bring peace forever!
2. Because for conscience sake – not fear, you should submit. Vs. 5
The second reason you should be subject to the governing authorities is for conscience sake. Yielding to and obeying your conscience means you won’t have to walk around in fear because you are breaking the law. This is a very important principle, because your conscience is what motivates you to live by a higher standard than the law of man. The law of God placed in your heart is what sensitizes your conscience to either accuse you for disobedience, or to agree with and approve your behavior, which makes you feel good about what you are doing. Paul said in Romans 2:14-15, “When Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them.” Therefore, the law of God written in your heart either accuses or excuses your behavior. Paul also said in Acts 24:16, “I myself always strive to have a conscience without offense toward God and men.” If you want to have a conscience void of offense toward God and men, then act upon and yield to your conscience.
Obedience to your conscience is an essential thing if you are going to be subject to governing authorities in the city where you live. This is what enables you to live above reproach (Col. 1:22). However, my conscience is many times what tells me that I am not being subject to the governing authorities. Let me give you an example of what I mean. Probably all of you reading this have at some time been late for an appointment, and you have broken the speed limit while driving. What were you doing the entire time while you were speeding down the road? Weren’t you constantly looking in your rear-view mirror to make sure the Highway Patrol was not behind you? Why? Because your conscience was accusing your behavior. You were afraid, because you didn’t want to get a ticket. This fear and your constant scanning of your rear-view mirror should have told you that something was wrong with your behavior. I think one of the greatest inventions in our cars today is cruise control, because if you don’t want to be fearful of a ticket, and constantly checking your rear-view mirror, then just set the right speed, and push the cruise button. Let your conscience be your guide. Then you don’t have to be fearful about breaking the speed limits of the governing authorities. Set the cruise control and rest.
Be subject by paying your taxes. Vs. 6-7
Paul declared, “For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.” Why does Paul teach that we should pay taxes? He explains that we should do this because the governing authorities are continually working to provide, protect and defend us. This is a simple and yet important principle to address, because there are some Christians who declare that they don’t have to pay taxes. However, this belief is clearly contrary to the express command by Paul recorded here. A person cannot logically or honestly interpret this command any other way, when Paul said, “You also pay taxes.” Paul meant what he said!
In addition, I usually remind people who incorrectly think this way that Jesus paid taxes. You remember the account that Matthew recorded when he wrote, “When they had come to Capernaum, those who received the temple tax came to Peter and said, ‘Does your Teacher not pay the temple tax?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ And when he had come into the house, Jesus anticipated him, saying, ‘What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth take customs or taxes, from their sons or from strangers?’ Peter said to Him, ‘From strangers.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Then the sons are free. Nevertheless, lest we offend them, go to the sea, cast in a hook, and take the fish that comes up first. And when you have opened its mouth, you will find a piece of money; take that and give it to them for Me and you’” (Matt. 17:24-27). Now, I would love to go fishing and come up with my tax money! This would really be a good deal, wouldn’t it? I love to fish, so this would be a double blessing. But Jesus did this miracle to demonstrate to Peter that the Lord can provide in many different ways. Normally, we simply work so that we can pay our taxes. If you choose to not pay your personal taxes, or your employee payroll taxes, I can assure you that the governing authorities will be coming for you one day. Hopefully you will pay these taxes, because your own conscience will move you to act in obedience to the Word of God. You should take every deduction allowed by law, and trust God to provide your needs.
Remember, the primary reason why we pay taxes is to support those who are administrating our government and protecting us. I sure am glad that when I have had to call the police, most of the time they were at my door within minutes. If you ever have a similar need to call the police, you sure will be thankful you paid your taxes, so they can be there to help you.
This is the same reason the Bible commands you to support the church you attend. Just as the governing authorities are to be supported to care for the common good, so those serving in the church are laboring continuously for your spiritual good, and for that of your children. In 2 Chronicles we read where King Hezekiah commanded the people to support the Temple priesthood for this same reason. He says, “Moreover he commanded the people who dwelt in Jerusalem to contribute support for the priests and the Levites, that they might devote themselves to the Law of the LORD. As soon as the commandment was circulated, the children of Israel brought in abundance the first-fruits of grain and wine, oil and honey, and of all the produce of the field; and they brought in abundantly the tithe of everything. And the children of Israel and Judah, who dwelt in the cities of Judah, brought the tithe of oxen and sheep; also the tithe of holy things which were consecrated to the LORD their God they laid in heaps” (2 Chronicles 31:4-6). The same rationale is taught in the New Testament in Acts 6:2, “Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, ‘It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables.’” Studying, preaching, and counseling God’s people with the Word of God is the primary way the body of Christ is benefitted by full time workers in the church. A similar instruction is given by Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:1-11, where he explains the reason why the apostles were to be supported by the local church.
I hope that these passages I have given you bring a balance in your mind over your responsibility to the government. As a citizen of this country, you are to be subject to the governing authorities. If you have a problem with anyone in government, then exercise your right to reconcile your issue through the legal channels. If the government commands you to sin against God, against your own conscience, or do something that is directly contrary to God’s Word, then you are responsible to disobey the governing authorities. With any other issue that you may not like about the government, you must be subject to them for conscience sake before God, then as a citizen work to change it.