Romans 13:3-4, “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”
Unthinking or unquestioning obedience to those who are in power over us has never been the call of God. Consider the examples of Daniel, who prayed to the God of Israel when he was commanded not to, and Esther, who went before the king of Persia though it was dangerous to do so without a summons. In such examples of faith, we see that Lord-honoring discipleship entails relating to the civil government in a way that recognizes its rightful authority but does not slavishly follow it into sin (Est. 4:1-5:8; Dan. 6:1-10).
Nevertheless, the principles laid out in Romans 13:1-2 mean that our inclination should be to obey our secular leaders. We should not be looking for excuses to get away with disobedience; rather, any decision not to follow the law of the state should be made only after much prayer and reflection. God-honoring civil obedience and disobedience must be our aim, and the difficulty of knowing when the state has transgressed its boundaries means we should not take any of these decisions lightly.
Paul exhorts us to obey the civil magistrate, first, because God has instituted the secular government and given it a specific vocation to protect its citizens. The Lord raises up leaders and brings them down, and those who are in power are there because of God’s plan. This does not mean everything they do is acceptable in the Lord’s eyes. Sin is still sin, and we are to participate in the political process to keep our laws and justice system as godly as possible. Still, by obeying the laws of the state that do not conflict with God’s law, we are actually obeying God Himself, who rules the nations and even the rulers of the nations (Rom. 13:1-2).
The second reason we are to submit to the civil authorities is because they are God’s servants “for our good” (v. 4a). Certainly, Paul is not naive. He knows that governments do not always fulfill their vocations, and that the state can even become beastly and persecute believers. He was arrested and beaten by the very same government to which he called his readers to submit. Yet, as a general rule, the laws of any nation are fundamentally designed to punish sin and wickedness, and even the most corrupt states have rules to protect innocent people. The Lord has given us the secular government for our own well-being—to protect us from anarchy and to keep us safe from criminals. Secular government often fails, and we must be honest about that, but we are not to be antagonistic toward the authorities.
Not until eternity will perfect justice be dispensed on earth. According to His own wise counsel, the Lord has determined that all of the unrighteous will receive their just deserts at the resurrection of the dead. Until then, however, He works through the imperfect means of secular authorities to keep society safe and to protect His people from harm. May we be encouraged not to show antagonism toward the state but rather humble submission when it does things right.