Posted On February 1, 2012

Submission to Government and Leaders

by | Feb 1, 2012 | The Gospel and the Christian Life

Romans 13:1-7 addresses the responsibility of Christians to governing authorities. They are to “be subject to” (which means to obey 1 Pet 3:5-6). The government has been ordained by God. Paul is speaking here of the general principle of submission to government. Several other passages show that God approves of Christians disobeying government, but only when obedience to government would mean disobeying God (Ex. 1:17, 21; 1 Kings 18:4-16; Est 4:16; Dan 3:12-18; 6:10; Matt 2:12; Acts 5:29; Heb. 11:23). There were even times when God raised up leaders to rebel against the government and deliver his people from evil rulers (Exodus 1-14; Judg. 2:16; Heb. 11:32-34). Dr. Seifrid (Seifrid, pp. 681) said, “Paul here emphatically underscores the eschatological nature of the gospel. Faith in this gospel brings with it rejection and persecution from the fallen world, which remains in rebellion against its Creator. Paul’s affirmation that God has ordained earthly government is to be understood in this context; otherwise, his readers mighty falsely understand the gospel to enjoin the rejection of all secular authority, potentially leading to rebellion or sedition.” Dr. Schreiner (Schreiner, pp. 677) said ,”Romans. 12:1-2 is the thematic introduction for the whole section. Giving oneself wholly to God and being transformed in one’s thinking are also expressed in how one relates to governing authorities. The total dedication called for in 12:1-2 does not relate to an ethereal sphere that floats about the exigencies of everyday life. Believers express their commitment to God in how they relate to rulers and the law of the state.” Dr. Moo (Moo, pp. 187) says, “Many interpretations of Romans 13:1-7 end up being explanations of what the text does not mean rather than what it does mean. Paul does not even mention exceptions. His concern is to get us to recognize the place that governing authorities rightly have under God as those placed over us. That should be the focus of our reading and application.”

Romans 13:1 teaches that it is true that those governing authorities that exist have been instituted by God, but God gives good authorities as a blessing, and sometimes he institutes’ evil rulers as a means of trial or judgment (2 Chron 25:20; 32:24-25). God rules over all earthly authorities (Ps. 75:7; Dan 2:21). These earthly authorities will ultimately be superseded by the rule of Christ (Dan. 2:44; Rev 22:1-5). Rulers are not a terror to good conduct but to bad means that civil government in general is a great blessing from God for which we should be thankful. Without civil government there would be anarchy, a horrible alternative in which evil runs rampant. Governing authorities are God’s servants and carry out his wrath on evildoers, and they do so for your good. Even though Christians must not take personal revenge (12:17-20), it is right for them to turn punishment over to the civil authorities, who have the responsibility to punish evil. The reference to the sword most likely refers to the penalty of capital punishment (Gen. 9:6). Christians should obey the civil authorities not only to avoid God’s wrath (coming through those authorities, v.4) but also because their conscience tells them that submitting to the government is right. Christians must not refuse to pay taxes simply because they think some of the money is used unjustly, for the Roman Empire surely did not use all of its money for godly purposes! So, too, believers are to honor their leaders, even if they are not admirable. Verses 8-10 focus on the Christian’s relationship to the Mosaic law. Owe no one anything links back to v.7, and thus the command does not prohibit all borrowing but means that one should always “pay what is owed” (Romans 13:7), fulfilling whatever repayment agreements have been made. The debt one never ceases paying is the call to love one another. Indeed, love fulfills what the Mosaic law demands. Paul cites several Old Testament commandments regarding responsibility to others, all of which are summed up in the call from Lev. 19:18 to love your neighbor as yourself. In this section (12:3-13:14) the final verses call Christians to action, given the shortness of time before Jesus returns. Sleep here is a metaphor for a life of moral carelessness and laxity. Salvation is viewed as a future reality here, and it draws nearer everyday. The nearness of the end summons Christians to put off all evil works and live in the light. Things not fitting for those who belong to the light include 1) sins of addiction in drinking and partying; 2) sexual sins; and 3) social sins. Paul’s exhortation in this chapter is summed up in the call to put on Christ. The metaphor of putting on clothing implies not just imitating Christ’s character but also living in close personal fellowship with him. Even though believers have new life, they still must constantly renounce the flesh and refuse to gratify its desires.
Peter demonstrates the principle of godly resistance to government in Acts 4:17-19 when he tells the council that he will speak of the Gospel. The leaders had charged him to not speak or teach in the name of Jesus. Peter then realizes the impossibility of abiding by this prohibition, thus demonstrating that believers have the responsibility to not obey the authorities when such authorities prohibit preaching the gospel or otherwise require Christians to disobey God’s explicit commandments (5:29). Peter in Acts 5:29 says, “We must obey God rather than men.”

Jesus in Matthew 22:21 says render unto to Caesar and to God. Jesus is not establishing a political kingdom in opposition to Caesar, so his followers should pay taxes and obey civil laws. These are matters that belong to the realm of civil government, and there are other matters that belong to God’s realm. Jesus does not here specify which matters belong in what realm but many Christian ethicists today teach that, in general, civil government should allow freedom in matters of religious doctrine, worship, and beliefs about God and the Church should not attempt to use the power of government to enforce allegiance to any specific religious viewpoint. All forms of the Christian Church throughout the world today support some kind of separation between matters of church and matters of the state. By contrast, the totalitarian governments usually try to suppress the Church and subsume everything under the realm of the state. And some extreme Islamic movements have tried to abolish independent civil governments and subsume everything under the control of Islamic religious leaders. Historically, when the Church and state have become too closely aligned the result most often has been the compromise of the church. The principle Jesus is giving here is not that giving taxes are unimportant but that people should give to God that which bears his image and likeness, namely, themselves (Romans 12:1).

Many people today misunderstand what government is and how it should function. Dr. Carson (Carson, pp. 392-393 said, ”Serving God does not mean, Paul cautions that the Christian can ignore the legitimate claims that the government makes on us (13:1-7). Nor, though free from the law, can Christians ignore the continuing validity of the commandment that summarizes the law: loving our neighbor as ourselves (13:8-10) The Christian is to serve God in this way, recognizing that the day of salvation is already casting the rays of light on our path, and our lives must reflect that light (13:11-14). This is particularly important to understand given the political climate of the day. The Biblical principles of government are established by the fact that God is the ultimate sovereign (Matthew 22:21). God ordains all authority (Romans 13:1-2). God prefers Republicanism-not monarchy (1 Sam 8:4-9). God limits civil power (Deut 17:15-17). God ordains a constitutional system (Deut 17:18). God in His Word also sets forth how people can resist yranny. God’s Word is foundational for governments (Deut 17:19, Romans 13:7-9). God prefers the consent of the governed (Deut 1:4-6). The Lord wants good rulers to rule the people but also uses evil rulers. God permits resistance to tyrants (Acts 5:29). God ordains resistance through lesser magistrates (Judges 2:18). God wants us to have liberty (1 Cor 7:23).


Beale, G.K., Carson, D.A. Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. (Michigan: Baker Academic, 2007), 681).

Carson, D.A., Moo, Douglas. An Introduction to the New Testament.(Michigan: Zondrvan, 2005), 392-393).

Moo, Douglas. Encountering the Book of Romans: A Theological Exposition (Michigan, Baker Academic, 2002), 187.
Schreiner, Thomas. Romans. (Michigan, Baker Academic, 1998), 677.


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