Thursday, September 3, 2009

Are Christians to Submit to Government...Always?

"Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer" (Romans 13:1-4).

Paul’s teaching in Romans 13:1-4 regarding Christian submission to government must be seen in light of the whole of the Bible’s teaching. The Bible says that believers are to be in submission to civil government, but also those who govern are to be in submission to God (c.f. Psalm 2, Daniel 4:34-35). No government can say it rose to power on its own (c.f. John 19:11). God has established governing authorities to reward those who do good and to be an “avenger” upon those who do evil. Biblically there is no double standard for good and evil. All nations must honor God’s law or be brought to an end. (Daniel 2:31-35).

The Bible is clear that the magistrate is not free to create and enforce his own arbitrary set of laws to serve his own ignoble ends (c.f. Isaiah 5:20). To do so would be a license for tyranny, something Jesus opposed (c.f. Luke 22:25-26). As a “minister of God,” the civil government is charged with upholding God’s justice, not man’s quest for totalitarian control over others. Nations that throw off God’s law face severe punishment. The blessings and curses that relate to the Law given to Israel apply equally to all nations of the world (c.f. Psalm 82:7).

Therefore, Paul is not giving carte blanche to all governmental actions. Rather, he is pointing to God’s intended design for government. He is mainly concerned with submission to the principle of authority – the function that God has appointed the magistrate to fulfill.

Gary DeMar writes, “Paul is describing what a ruler’s proper function is. The apostle is not making a moral judgment about any particular ruler or political party. Rather, his words describe what civil governments ought to be and ought to do."

The context of Romans 13 reveals that there is no basis to conclude that Paul was encouraging Christians to submit to political oppression. His main concern is submission to the principle of authority as it comes from God.


  1. John, am I correct in discerning that you're trying to soften a blunt and counter-intuitive command? Submission to oppression is precisely what Paul is commanding here. That's why he has to command it. Paul says that government is God's (generally unfaithful) servant for your good (even the worst government provides some good), so out of reverence for God, people must submit to government. The only qualification I see is Acts 5:29. You may disobey (but not revolt) if the government is requiring you to sin.

    The response of intermediate authorities to injustice is another matter.

    My students routinely bristle at this notion. Their sympathies are with Locke rather than Paul on this point. Understandably. It's a radical teaching because it reflects a radically different cosmology (the unseen Creator Covenant God governs all things) and a radically different hope ("longing for a better country--a heavenly one"). The cultural mandate is not the basis for popular rebellion, but rather for this paradoxical submission that testifies to the sovereignty of God and the hope of glory.

  2. Paul wrote the letter to the Romans in A.D. 57 during the early part of Nero’s reign. There appears to be no indication that at this time Nero was a tyrant and brutal ruler. The Jews had been expelled in A.D. 49, but that was under Claudius and things appeared to be different in A.D. 57. There was a problem with tax protests under Nero in A.D. 58, which likely explains Rom. 13:7. Therefore, we may assume that political conditions were fairly stable and that the Christian church enjoyed the status of religio licita (note change of status from A.D. 35 when the Roman Senate declared Christianity strana et illicita "strange and unlawful." On this point, see Frend, W.H.C. Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church. A Study in Conflict from the Maccabees to Donatus. Oxford: Blackwell, 1965. I do not have the page number off the top of my head). Both the grammatical and historical context of Romans 13 reveals that there is no basis to conclude that Paul was encouraging Christians to submit to political oppression. His main concern, as I previously mentioned, was submission to the principle of authority as it comes from God (vs. 1).