13:1 That no authority exists except from God indicates God’s sovereignty over human affairs. It also shows why unwarranted rebellion against government is de facto rebellion against God (v. 2).
13:1 Paul urged Christians to be submissive and model citizens because God has installed the governing authorities to keep the civil order and punish wrongdoers. Peter gave similar instructions about submission (1Pt 2:13–14, 17). However, submission to authorities is not absolute. Both Jesus and the writer of Acts established this central Christian principle. Jesus said, “Give, then, to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mt 22:21). Peter and the apostles declared that they must obey God rather than humans (Ac 5:29). Any submission to the authorities must pass through the filter of God’s will and call on a believer’s life.
The difficulty here involves discerning God’s will and call in those areas to which Scripture does not speak, which requires determining and applying biblical principles rather than explicit biblical statements. This is the Christian’s crucial duty, for a failure to discern God’s will risks disobeying God and incurring his displeasure. Of course, obeying God against the government may result in incurring the government’s anger—as the NT and subsequent church history well attest—but this puts a Christian in good company (Mt 5:10–12).
13:1 Christians have a distinct rationale for an appropriate submission to the governing authorities: the recognition that God Himself is the source of government in society (Prov. 8:15, 16; Dan. 2:21). See theological note “Christians and Civil Government” on the next page.
13:1 governing authorities Refers to human government officials, not spiritual authorities (see Rom 13:3).
be subject Paul wants to ensure that Christians act as good citizens and avoid civic conflicts. This does not mean blind obedience, however. The Bible sometimes depicts people acting against public authorities in order to obey God (e.g., Exod 1:17; Dan 3:10–12; Acts 5:29). See note on 1 Pet 2:13.
authority The Greek word used here, exousia, refers not to an abstract concept, but to the authority exercised by government officials. The ot consistently views God as the ultimate authority over human government (Dan 4:17).
13:1 It is true that those governing authorities that exist have been instituted by God, but sometimes 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). On God’s rule over earthly authorities, see Ps. 75:7 and Dan. 2:21. These earthly “authorities” will ultimately be superseded by the rule of Christ (Dan. 2:44; Rev. 22:1–5).
13:1 be in subjection. This Gr. word was used of a soldier’s absolute obedience to his superior officer. Scripture makes one exception to this command: when obedience to civil authority would require disobedience to God’s Word (Ex 1:17; Da 3:16–18; 6:7, 10; see note on Ac 4:19). governing authorities. Every position of civil authority without regard to competency, morality, reasonableness, or any other caveat (1Th 4:11, 12; 1Ti 2:1, 2; Tit 3:1, 2). there is no authority except from God. Since He alone is the sovereign ruler of the universe (Pss 62:11; 103:19; 1Ti 6:15), He has instituted 4 authorities on earth: 1) the government over all citizens; 2) the church over all believers; 3) the parents over all children; and 4) the masters over all employees. established. Human government’s authority derives from and is defined by God. He instituted human government to reward good and to restrain sin in an evil, fallen world.
13:1 — 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.
Joseph submitted to the Egyptian authorities; Daniel submitted to the Babylonian authorities; Mordecai submitted to the Persian authorities; Jesus submitted to the Roman authorities. While none of these regimes were godly, God had authorized them all.
13:1 God, the supreme Sovereign, has ordained (v. 2) that there should be governing authorities. Every believer is to be subject to these various authorities, even if these authorities are evil as Nero (a.d. 54–68), the emperor of Rome who cruelly persecuted Christians. When Paul wrote this letter, Nero was in power. Yet Paul exhorted the Roman believers to submit to Nero’s authority, because that authority was ordained by God Himself, although God may not approve of all acts that a government or leader may do.
13:1 Those who have been justified by faith are obligated to be subject to human government. Actually the obligation applies to everyone, but the apostle here is concerned especially with believers. God established human government after the flood when He decreed, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed” (Gen. 9:6). That decree gave authority to men to judge criminal matters and to punish offenders.
In every ordered society there must be authority and submission to that authority. Otherwise you have a state of anarchy, and you cannot survive indefinitely under anarchy. Any government is better than no government. So God has instituted human government, and no government exists apart from His will. This does not mean that He approves of all that human rulers do. He certainly does not approve of corruption, brutality, and tyranny! But the fact remains that the authorities that exist are appointed by God.
Believers can live victoriously in a democracy, a constitutional monarchy, or even a totalitarian regime. No earthly government is any better than the men who comprise it. That is why none of our governments is perfect. The only ideal government is a beneficent monarchy with the Lord Jesus Christ as King. It is helpful to remember that Paul wrote this section on subjection to human government when the infamous Nero was Emperor. Those were dark days for Christians. Nero blamed them for a fire which destroyed half the city of Rome (and which he himself may have ordered). He caused some believers to be immersed in tar, then ignited as living torches to provide illumination for his orgies. Others were sewn up in animal skins, then thrown to ferocious dogs to be torn to pieces.
13:1. When it came to presenting oneself as a living sacrifice to God, Paul “urged” the Christians to do so (Rom. 12:1). But when it came to submitting oneself to the governing authorities of the land, urging was replaced by commanding: Everyone must submit himself (hupotasso; present passive imperative) to the governing authorities. Why the imperative, the command? Because, in principle (though not always in specifics), to submit to the civil authority is to submit to God. The statement in this command which unlocks its meaning, and which gives Christians ground to accept it and apply it, is this: There is no authority except that which God has established. This is a statement of the overarching sovereignty and rule of God in the affairs of this world. If God has appointed every civil ruler, every governing authority, then why should any Christian fear submitting to that which God has appointed?
Daniel said that God “sets up kings and deposes them” when he praised God in prayer for revealing to him the meaning of King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Dan. 2:21). When Daniel conveyed the dream and its meaning to the king, he said plainly, “The God of heaven has given you [Nebuchadnezzar] dominion and power and might and glory … he has made you ruler” (Dan. 2:37–38). Daniel continued illustrating Paul’s point: “After you [Nebuchadnezzar], another kingdom will rise.… Next, a third kingdom … will rule.… Finally, there will be a fourth kingdom” (Dan. 2:39–40). Then, “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed” (Dan. 2:44).
Daniel’s point is conclusive: from Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom to God’s final kingdom, God is in control, setting up and taking down kings to accomplish his perfect will. Later, Nebuchadnezzar recounted another dream he had in which he was told by “holy ones” (angels) that “the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes and sets over them the lowliest of men” (Dan. 4:17). Unfortunately, Nebuchadnezzar was to become a living illustration of his own dream as he was driven from his throne for seven years (Dan. 4:24–27).
What Paul wanted the believers in Rome to understand was that, in the Roman Empire (or any other), “No one from the east or the west or from the desert can exalt a man. But it is God who judges: He brings one down, he exalts another” (Ps. 75:6–7). And even after he is in office, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases” (Prov. 21:1). Therefore, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero (those Roman emperors spanning the lifetime of the Roman church up until Paul’s writing) had ascended to power with God’s permission—actually, by his direction (have been established by God)—as have the rulers of today.
As an aside, it should be noted in the name of thoroughness that Paul does not contradict himself between what he says here and in 1 Corinthians 6:1–8. In the latter passage, where Paul commands believers not to air their dirty laundry in front of civil magistrates, he is not encouraging them to bypass the duly constituted legal process for redress of grievance. Rather, he is asking the Corinthian believers, “Why do you have any grievance at all?” This is not a matter of being unwilling to obey the governing authorities. It is a matter of the shameful condition the church was in when they could not find among themselves enough wisdom to settle differences without having to ask for the help of unspiritual, civil judges.
To admit that, with God’s help, in the body of Christ we cannot solve our differences, is to admit defeat. It would be better to suffer the wrong than to admit to the world the inability to solve the dispute (1 Cor. 6:7–8). A private defeat with a believer’s name shamed is better than a public defeat with God’s name shamed.
13:1 “Every person is to be in subjection” This is a PRESENT PASSIVE IMPERATIVE meaning, “continue to be made submissive” (cf. Titus 3:1; 1 Pet. 2:13). “Submit” was a military term used to describe a chain of command. Paul, in context, was addressing all believers (cf. Eph. 5:21), where Paul asserts that believers should be subject to one another.
In our day submission seems like a negative term. It is a word that depicts both a humility and a profound understanding of God’s world and our place in it. Jesus was said to be submissive to (1) His earthly parents (cf. Thess. 2:51) and (2) His heavenly Father (cf. 1 Cor. 15:28). He is our guide in this area!
© “to the governing authorities” Although Paul used this word (exousia) in other contexts to refer to angelic powers, primarily demonic (cf. 8:38; Col. 1:16; 2:10, 15; Eph. 1:21; 3:10; 6:12), here the context demands “civil authorities” (cf. 1 Cor. 2:6, 8; Titus 3:1; 1 Pet. 2:13). The Bible seems to imply that there are angelic authorities behind human governments (Daniel 10 and the LXX of Deut. 32:8 “When the Most High divided the nations, when He separated the sons of Adam, he set the bounds of the nations according to the number of the angels of God.”) But still governing authorities function under God (cf. vv. 1b, 4a, and 6). The word translated “governing” is the term huperexō which means “superior” (cf. 1 Pt. 2:13). See Special Topic: Paul’s Use of “Huper” compounds at 1:30.
|SPECIAL TOPIC: HUMAN GOVERNMENT
A. Definition—Government is humanity organizing themselves to provide and secure sensed physical needs.
B. Purpose—God has willed that order is preferable to anarchy.
1. The Mosaic legislation, particularly the Decalog, is God’s will for mankind in society. It balances worship and life.
2. No form or structure of government is advocated in Scripture, although ancient Israel’s theocracy is the anticipated form of heaven. Christians are to act appropriately in whatever governmental system they find themselves. The purpose of the Christian is evangelism and ministry, not revolution.
C. Origin of human government
1. Roman Catholicism has asserted that human government is an innate need, even before the fall. Aristotle seems to have agreed with this premise. He says, “man is a political animal” and by this he meant that government “exists for the promotion of the good life.”
2. Protestantism, especially Martin Luther, has asserted that human government is inherent in the fall. He calls it “the Kingdom of God’s left hand.” He said that “God’s way to control bad men is to put bad men in control.”
3. Karl Marx has asserted that government is the means by which a few elite keep the masses under control. For him, government and religion play a similar role.
II. BIBLICAL MATERIAL
A. Old Testament
1. Israel is the pattern which will be utilized in heaven. In ancient Israel YHWH was King. Theocracy is the term used to describe God’s direct rule (cf. 1 Sam. 8:4–9).
2. God’s sovereignty in human government can be clearly seen in:
a. Jeremiah 27:6; Ezra 1:1
b. 2 Chronicles 36:22
c. Isaiah 44:28
d. Daniel 2:21
e. Daniel 2:44
f. Daniel 4:17, 25
g. Daniel 5:28
3. God’s people are to be submissive and respectful even to invading and occupying governments:
a. Daniel 1–4, Nebuchadnezzar
b. Daniel 5, Belshazzar
c. Daniel 6, Darius
d. Ezra and Nehemiah
4. God’s people are to pray for civil authority:
a. Jeremiah 28:7
b. Mishnah, Avot. 3:2
B. New Testament
1. Jesus showed respect to human governments
a. Matthew 17:24–27, paid the Temple tax
b. Matthew 22:15–22, advocated a place for the Roman tax and thereby Roman civil authority
c. John 19:11, God gives civil authority
2. Paul’s words related to human governments
a. Romans 13:1–7, believers must submit to and pray for civil authorities
b. 1 Timothy 2:1–3, believers must pray for civil authorities
c. Titus 3:1, believers must be subject to civil authorities
3. Peter’s words related to human governments
a. Acts 4:1–31; 5:29, Peter and John before the Sanhedrin (this shows civil disobedience)
b. 1 Peter 2:13–17, believers must submit to civil authorities
4. John’s words related to human governments
a. Revelation 17, the whore of Babylon stands for human government opposed to God
A. Human government is ordained by God. This is not “the divine right of Kings,” but the divine place of government. No one form is advocated above another.
B. It is a religious duty for believers to obey civil authority with a proper reverent attitude.
C. It is proper for believers to support human government by taxes and prayers.
D. Human government is for the purpose of order. They are God’s servants for this task.
E. Human government is not ultimate. It is limited in its authority. Believers must act for their conscience’s sake in rejecting civil authority when it oversteps its divinely appointed bounds. As Augustine has asserted in The City of God, we are citizens of two realms, one temporal and one eternal. We have responsibility in both, but God’s kingdom is ultimate! There is both an individual and corporate focus in our responsibility to God.
F. We should encourage believers in a democratic system to actively participate in the process of government and to implement, when possible, the teachings of Scripture.
G. Social change must be preceded by individual conversion. There is no real lasting eschatological hope in government. All human governments, though willed and used by God, are sinful expressions of human organization apart from God.
This concept is expressed in the Johannine usage of “the world.”
|“those which exist are established by God”
|“that exist are appointed by God”
|“that have been instituted by God”
|“have been put there by God”
|“have been appointed by God”
This is a PERIPHRASTIC PERFECT PASSIVE PARTICIPLE. This asserts that God is behind all human authority (cf. John 19:11). This does not refer to “the divine right of Kings,” but to the divine will for order. This is not asserting a specific type of government, but government itself. Civil order is better than chaos (cf. v. 6).
1. Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities.
Literally Paul says, “Let every soul …,” but the word “soul,” as here used, means person, human being. The apostle, writing by inspiration, wants everyone to subject himself voluntarily to the then existing governing authorities. In the divine providence the Roman government of Paul’s day was such that within its boundaries compliance with the will of God and wholehearted consecration to him were possible. As Paul puts it:
For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been ordained by God.
The civil magistrates to whom Paul refers, from the emperor down to the rulers of the lowest rank, in the final analysis owed their appointment and right to govern to God. It was by his will and in his providence that they had been appointed to maintain order, encourage well-doing, and punish wrong-doing.
1. Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. ‘The thirteenth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans’, says J. W. Allen, ‘contains what are perhaps the most important words ever written for the history of political thought. Yet’, he continues, ‘it would be a gross mistake to suppose that men, at any time, took their political opinions from St. Paul.’ Some, however, have made a more deliberate effort to do so than others.
The question is raised whether the ‘governing authorities’ here are angelic powers, or human powers, or both angelic and human powers. The general biblical view is that secular power is wielded by ‘the host of heaven, in heaven’ as well as by ‘the kings of the earth, on the earth’ (Isa. 24:21). It is true, moreover, that the plural of exousia (‘authority’) is freely used by Paul to denote angelic powers (cf. 8:38; Eph. 1:21; 3:10; 6:12; Col. 1:16; 2:10, 15). We may compare what he says in 1 Corinthians 2:8 about ‘the rulers (archontes) of this age’ who were responsible for crucifying ‘the Lord of glory’; he appears there to have more than human agents in view. Yet in the present context the ‘authorities’ are best understood as human rulers, who wield ‘the sword’ for the punishment of wickedness and the protection of the good, who therefore have the right to command and receive obedience, and who are to be paid appropriate taxes and other dues, together with fitting respect and honour. Paul’s references elsewhere to angelic powers are very far from suggesting that Christians should be subject to them in any sense; on the contrary, Christians are liberated from their jurisdiction through their union with Christ, for he is the creator and head of all those powers (Col. 1:16; 2:10), and their conqueror when they set themselves in hostility to him and his people (Col. 2:15).
Those that exist have been instituted by God. There is no contradiction between the principle and the argument of 1 Corinthians 6:1–8, where Christians are dissuaded from suing or prosecuting one another in secular law-courts. Recognition of the civil authorities makes no difference to the fact that it is unbecoming for Christians to wash their dirty linen in public. And while civil magistrates or judges are divinely ordained, that ordination carries with it no status in the church: they are ‘men who count for nothing in our community’ (1 Cor. 6:4, neb).
1. Let every soul, &c. Inasmuch as he so carefully handles this subject, in connection with what forms the Christian life, it appears that he was constrained to do so by some great necessity which existed especially in that age, though the preaching of the gospel at all times renders this necessary. There are indeed always some tumultuous spirits who believe that the kingdom of Christ cannot be sufficiently elevated, unless all earthly powers be abolished, and that they cannot enjoy the liberty given by him, except they shake off every yoke of human subjection. This error, however, possessed the minds of the Jews above all others; for it seemed to them disgraceful that the offspring of Abraham, whose kingdom flourished before the Redeemer’s coming, should now, after his appearance, continue in submission to another power. There was also another thing which alienated the Jews no less than the Gentiles from their rulers, because they all not only hated piety, but also persecuted religion with the most hostile feelings. Hence it seemed unreasonable to acknowledge them for legitimate princes and rulers, who were attempting to take away the kingdom from Christ, the only Lord of heaven and earth.
By these reasons, as it is probable, Paul was induced to establish, with greater care than usual, the authority of magistrates, and first he lays down a general precept, which briefly includes what he afterwards says: secondly, he subjoins an exposition and a proof of his precept.
He calls them the higher powers, not the supreme, who possess the chief authority, but such as excel other men. Magistrates are then thus called with regard to their subjects, and not as compared with each other. And it seems indeed to me, that the Apostle intended by this word to take away the frivolous curiosity of men, who are wont often to inquire by what right they who rule have obtained their authority; but it ought to be enough for us, that they do rule; for they have not ascended by their own power into this high station, but have been placed there by the Lord’s hand. And by mentioning every soul, he removes every exception, lest any one should claim an immunity from the common duty of obedience.
For there is no power, &c. The reason why we ought to be subject to magistrates is, because they are constituted by God’s ordination. For since it pleases God thus to govern the world, he who attempts to invert the order of God, and thus to resist God himself, despises his power; since to despise the providence of him who is the founder of civil power, is to carry on war with him. Understand further, that powers are from God, not as pestilence, and famine, and wars, and other visitations for sin, are said to be from him; but because he has appointed them for the legitimate and just government of the world. For though tyrannies and unjust exercise of power, as they are full of disorder, (ἀταξίας,) are not an ordained government; yet the right of government is ordained by God for the wellbeing of mankind. As it is lawful to repel wars and to seek remedies for other evils, hence the Apostle commands us willingly and cheerfully to respect and honour the right and authority of magistrates, as useful to men: for the punishment which God inflicts on men for their sins, we cannot properly call ordinations, but they are the means which he designedly appoints for the preservation of legitimate order.
1 Paul gets right to the point: “Every person is to be submissive to the governing authorities.” In typical OT and Jewish fashion, Paul uses psychē (sometimes translated “soul”—KJV; NKJV) to denote not one “part” of a human being (soul in distinction from body or spirit) but the whole person. The translation “every person” (NRSV; ESV; NASB; CEB) or “everyone” (NIV; CSB; NLT; NJB) is therefore accurate.279 The basis of Paul’s own authority—an apostle of the gospel—as well as the audience of the letter indicates that his immediate reference must be to Christians. But we should probably not limit the reference to Christians. Submission to governing authorities is especially incumbent on Christians who recognize that the God they serve stands behind those authorities, but it is required even for those who do not know this.
“Governing authorities” (see also NRSV; NIV; NASB; NJB) translates a phrase that is central to the interpretation of the paragraph. Like our “authority,” exousia refers broadly in secular and biblical Greek to the possession and exercise of (usually legitimate) power. As an abstract noun, the word usually denotes the concept of authority. Jesus’ well-known words in Matt. 28:18 use the word in a typical way: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” But the word can also have a concrete application, in which case exousia denotes a sphere over which authority is exercised (e.g., a “dominion”; see Luke 23:7) or the being who exercises authority. Paul obviously uses the word in the last sense. The NT refers to two different kinds of beings who exercise authority: a person in authority (usually a governmental “ruler”) and spiritual powers.283 A few scholars have argued that Paul may be referring at least partially to spiritual beings in Rom. 13:1. But this is unlikely. As parallel terms in this context suggest (see “rulers” [archontes] in v. 3), the “authorities” occupy positions in secular government. Paul qualifies them as “governing” in order to indicate that they are in positions of superiority over the believers he is addressing.
Paul calls on believers to “submit” to governing authorities rather than to “obey” them; and Paul’s choice of words may be important to our interpretation and application of Paul’s exhortation. To submit is to recognize one’s subordinate place in a hierarchy, to acknowledge as a general rule that certain people or institutions have authority over us. In addition to governing authorities (see also Tit. 3:1), Paul urges Christians to submit to their spiritual leaders (1 Cor. 16:16) and to “one another” (Eph. 5:21); and he calls on Christian slaves to submit to their masters (Tit. 2:9), Christian prophets to submit to other prophets (1 Cor. 14:32), and Christian wives to submit to their husbands (1 Cor. 14:34 [?]; Eph. 5:24; Col. 3:18; Tit. 2:5). It is this general posture toward government that Paul demands here of Christians. And such a posture will usually demand that we obey what the governing authorities tell us to do. But perhaps our submission to government is compatible with disobedience to government in certain exceptional circumstances. For heading the hierarchy of relations in which Christians find themselves is God; and all subordinate “submissions” must always be measured in relationship to our all-embracing submission to him.289
Verse 1b gives the reason why we are to submit to governing authorities: “there is no authority except by God, and the existing authorities have been appointed291 by God.” In light of exousiai in v. 1a, “authority” will refer to the individual human ruler. Paul’s insistence that no ruler wields power except through God’s appointment reflects standard OT and Jewish teaching. Daniel tells the proud pagan king Nebuchadnezzar that God was teaching him that “the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes and sets over them the lowliest of people” (4:17). Paul’s dependence on this tradition and his all-inclusive language (“there is no authority except”) make clear that he is asserting a universally applicable truth about the ultimate origin of rulers. From a human perspective, rulers come to power through force or heredity or popular choice. But the “transformed mind” recognizes behind every such process the hand of God. Paul brings home this general principle in the last clause of the verse.295 The believers in Rome are to recognize that the specific governmental officials with whom they have dealings—“the ones that now exist,”297 as Paul puts it—are “appointed,” or “ordained,” by God.
1 The teaching that follows is addressed to “everyone” (pasa psychē), i.e., every believer rather than everyone in general, even though government is necessary for society as a whole. Paul could admonish only Christians. What he requires is “submission,” a term that calls for placing oneself under someone else. Here and in v. 5 he seems to avoid using the stronger word “obey” (hypotassō, GK 5718), and the reason is that believers may find it impossible to comply with every demand of the government. A circumstance may arise in which they must choose between obeying God and obeying human authority (Ac 5:29). But even then they must be submissive to the extent that if their Christian convictions do not permit compliance, they will accept the consequences of their refusal.
Those to whom submission must be rendered are called “the governing authorities.” Two different words are used for “authority” in this passage. In v. 1, the word exousiai (GK 2026) is not a specific or technical term; it simply means those who are over others. With respect to the second word, archōn (GK 807; v. 3), we find Josephus using it, as Paul does, with reference to Roman rulers, but specifically to those who ruled in the name of Rome over the Jews in Palestine (J.W. 2.350).
Paul makes a sweeping statement when he says, “There is no authority except that which God has established.” It is true even of Satan that what authority he exercises has been given to him (cf. Lk 4:6). God has ordained this tension between authority and submission: “God has so arranged the world from the beginning—at the creation, by all means, if you like—as to make it possible to render him service within it, and this is why he created superiors and subordinates” (E. Käsemann, “Principles of the Interpretation of Romans 13,” in New Testament Questions of Today [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1961], 208).
It is probably significant that the name of Christ does not appear anywhere in the passage. The thought does not move in the sphere of redemption or the life of the church as such, but in the relationship to the state that God in his wisdom has set up. While Christians have their citizenship in heaven (Php 3:20), they are not on that account excused from responsibility to acknowledge the state as possessing authority from God to govern them. They hold a dual citizenship.
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.
In the fall of 1561 an important conversation took place in Scotland between Queen Mary and the Calvinistic Protestant preacher John Knox.
Mary was a Catholic. She had been educated in Catholic France, and she believed that sovereigns—she herself was one—had absolute power over the consciences of their subjects. Knox was a reformer. For his uncompromising preaching he had been sentenced to serve as a galley slave for nineteen months. After his release, he had studied in Geneva under John Calvin from 1553 to 1559. Then, in the summer of 1560, he had participated in the drafting of the Scottish Confession of Faith that stated that Jesus Christ “is the only Head of His Kirk” (sections 11 and 18). Knox had returned just two years before his celebrated conversation with Queen Mary.
In the interview Mary accused Knox of having wrongly taught the people to receive another religion than their princes allow. “And how can that doctrine be of God, seeing that God commands subjects to obey their princes?” she asked. She was referring to Romans 13:1 and other texts.
Knox answered, “Madam, as right religion took neither [its] origin nor authority from worldly princes, but from the Eternal God alone, so are not subjects bound to frame their religion according to the appetites of their princes.”
He admonished Mary, “God commands queens to be nurses unto his people.”
“Yes, but you are not the church that I will nourish,” she retorted.
Knox replied, “Your will, Madam, is no reason.” In this way the issues of church and state and the proper role and function of the state were framed in Scotland in the sixteenth century. There was no relief in Scotland until Mary’s forced abdication in 1567.
Christians and the State
What is the role of the state in human affairs? How is the state to relate to the church of Jesus Christ? How are Christian people to relate to the government’s authority? It is these questions that Paul raises and answers in the first seven verses of Romans 13.
What a source of controversy they have been! J. C. O’Neill in Paul’s Letter to The Romans wrote, “These seven verses have caused more unhappiness and misery in the Christian East and West than any other seven verses in the New Testament.” That is probably not true. But they have certainly puzzled many and caused unhappiness among some scholars. Some of them, like the one I just quoted, have attempted to eliminate the verses from the letter, reasoning that they are un-Pauline and come rather from a Stoic source. Such persons think the verses have been interpolated, arguing that verse 8 would follow nicely after 12:21, and that there is nothing quite like this section anywhere else in Paul’s writing.
This is true, but that does not mean that Paul did not write it. Furthermore, it can be argued equally well that his discussion of the legitimate authority and proper function of the state is a natural follow-up to the immediately preceding section in which he presented the duty of the Christian to return good for evil, since to do that does not mean that a Christian always has to be victimized by evil persons. It is the state’s duty to restrain and punish evil.
Again, a discussion of the role of the state is natural in a letter to Christians living at the center of the Roman world. Jews were notoriously resistant to all outside authority. They had fomented numerous rebellions, and the greatest one of all, the rebellion that was to be crushed by the Roman general Titus in 70 a.d., was only a decade away from the time Paul wrote this letter. In the sixties Christians were shielded under a law originally promulgated by Julius Caesar, but turmoil was coming. Were the followers of Christ to align themselves with the coming revolution, or were they to be loyal citizens of the all-encompassing Roman empire? If so, what about the lordship of Jesus Christ? Was he King, or was he not? If they were not to be loyal citizens, what was their position regarding Rome to be?
The Starting Point: God Is Sovereign
The starting point of Paul’s argument is found in the reason he gives for his categorical opening statement that “everyone,” not only Christians, “must submit himself to the governing authorities” (Rom. 13:1). Why? The answer is not that you will get into trouble if you don’t, or even that obedience is necessary for maintaining social order. Those are excellent pragmatic reasons that Paul understands and will bring into the discussion in due time, but they are not the reasons he gives at the beginning. What he says in verse 1 is that we must obey the authorities because “there is no authority except that which God has established” and “the authorities that exist have been established by God.”
In other words, the starting point for Paul’s argument is the doctrine of the sovereignty of God, in this case in regard to human rulers. God is sovereign. Therefore, those who exercise authority do so because God has established them in their positions.
We have to take this sovereignty seriously, because it is easy for us to accept God’s being sovereign when we are given Christian rulers or when people of high moral character are elevated to positions of responsibility. But what about evil rulers? What about Nero, the corrupt emperor who was reigning in Rome at the very time Paul was writing this letter? What about rulers who persecuted the church? Or, for that matter, what about such evil leaders as Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Idi Amin, or even elected officials like Richard Nixon, who betrayed our trust and disappointed us?
Romans 13:1 tells us that even these authorities have been established by God, and that we have a legitimate (though not unlimited) responsibility to obey even them.
We have already come across one example of an evil but nevertheless God-established ruler in Romans, though Paul was not specifically thinking about the role of the state when he brought him into his discussion. This example is Pharaoh, the oppressor of the Jews. He worked them as slaves and arrogantly resisted Moses’ demand that he let God’s people go. God judged this arrogance. Egypt was ruined by a series of ten plagues, culminating in the death of all the firstborn children of the country. In the end Pharaoh and his armies were destroyed by drowning in the Red Sea. But evil as this man was, he had nevertheless been put into his position by God, which Paul clearly says.
That is the teaching of Romans 9:17, where Paul quotes God as telling Pharaoh, “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth” (quoting Exod. 9:16). God raised Pharaoh up so that he might display his wrath in judging him. It was not a desirable appointment, but still it was God who had raised him up simply because God is sovereign in all things.
A second example is Nebuchadnezzar, another arrogant ruler. He thought he was superior to Jehovah because he had been able to conquer Jerusalem, raze the temple, and carry off to Babylon the gold and silver objects that had been used by the Jewish priests in their worship. The first four chapters of Daniel are a record of the struggle that took place as Nebuchadnezzar contended for sovereignty and God worked to humble him and show him that God alone, not Nebuchadnezzar, is the Most High God and ruler of all.
Three times in Daniel 4 the text says that “the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes” (vv. 17, 25, 32): (1) Nebuchadnezzar heard these words in his dream; (2) Daniel recited them to him as the words of God; (3) Nebuchadnezzar heard them from heaven when God uttered his important, symbolic judgment of insanity upon the stiff-necked ruler. This is an important truth, and in the end Nebuchadnezzar seems to have gotten the message, for he confessed:
I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever.
His dominion is an eternal dominion;
his kingdom endures from generation to generation.
All the peoples of the earth
are regarded as nothing.
He does as he pleases
with the powers of heaven
and the peoples of the earth.
No one can hold back his hand
or say to him: “What have you done?” …
Everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble.
Daniel 4:34–35, 37
Another example is Cyrus the Persian, who is also mentioned in Daniel (1:21; 6:28; 10:1). He was an unusually humane ruler, whom God used to bring the Jews back to Jerusalem from Babylon. In Isaiah 45:1 this pagan king is even called the Lord’s “anointed,” which means messiah, the very title given to Jesus as the Messiah of God.
These rulers—Nero, Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus—and all others have been set in their places by God, simply because God is sovereign and, as the Westminster Confession of Faith says, “God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass” (III, 1). There is no ruler anywhere or from any time in history who was not set in his exalted position by God.
Obeying the Sovereign
Of course, the problem for us is not so much that God has established whatever rulers there may be. We can believe that abstractly and either like and approve of our rulers, or not like them and disapprove of them, or perhaps even reject them. The problem is that we are told that it is the duty of Christians to obey those who exercise such authority, and that includes all authorities, not just kings and presidents but also policemen, judges, schoolteachers, bosses, and other such “governing authorities.” We do not want to do that.
Paul is writing about the civil government in Romans 13, but these other authorities come into the picture tangentially because they have governing roles and have been set in place by God.
There are many obvious problems at this point. First, Paul does not answer a lot of our questions. For example, when is a government a legitimate government, and when isn’t it? When is it right to rebel against an unjust or tyrannical government, or isn’t it permitted at all? What about our own American War of Independence? If we had been living then, what side should we have been on, with England or with the colonists? What are we to do when there are rival claimants to the throne? Which one should we obey? Again, at what point does an unjust ruler become legitimate?
Or what about limits? Paul says we are to obey the governing authorities. But does this mean that we are to obey everything they command? What about unjust acts commanded by an evil government? Killing civilians? Lying? Clandestine operations even for such an important branch of government as the CIA? Are there no limits to what must be obeyed?
We are going to explore the limits to the obedience Christians can give a civil government in the next study. But the point I am making here is that the matter of obedience to those in authority cannot be taken lightly, as we are so often inclined to do.
As far as Romans 13:1 is concerned, it would be difficult, probably impossible, for anyone to write a more all-encompassing, absolute, or utterly unqualified statement than the one Paul has given: “Everyone [literally, ‘every soul’] must submit himself to the governing authorities.”
This is written so strongly that Robert Haldane thinks that it requires an obedience to secular rulers that is almost absolute: “Everyone, without exception, is, by the command of God, to be subject to the existing powers, whatever were the means by which they became possessed of the situation in which they stand.… If God has appointed every government that exists in the world, his people are bound to submit to every government under which their lot has been cast.”
Power or Authority?
There are limits, of course, but the place to begin is not with the limits, but by trying to understand the nature of the authority that has been given to civil rulers. The key word is authority, which occurs six times in these verses.
Two Greek words are used of political power that are closely connected but need to be distinguished. The first is kratos, which refers to what we might call “the naked power of rule.” It can be legitimate or illegitimate, as in the case of the devil, who, we are told, has “the power of death” (Heb. 2:14) but who will lose it when Jesus returns. His power will be taken away, and he will be cast into the lake of fire. This word has proved useful in describing the various types of government. For example, we speak of democracy. Dêmos means people, crowd, or public assembly. Kratos means rule. So democracy means rule by the people (or by many people). A plutocracy is a system in which the rich (or aristocrats) rule, because ploutos means wealth.
So when we speak of power (kratos) we recognize that there can be both legitimate and illegitimate power. And, of course, Christians are under no obligation to obey a power that is illegitimate. Just because a man with a gun orders us to do something does not mean that we should do it necessarily. The man has power, but it is illegitimate. What we need is a legitimate power—a policeman—to subdue him.
The other word that is used of political as well as other kinds of power is exousia, which is the word Paul uses in Romans 13. Exousia is a delegated power, power that is given to a person or group of persons by another. Paul uses it in Romans 13 because he wants to make explicit that the authority of the governing powers is from God.
Nevertheless, they are responsible for how they exercise it. That is the important thing. They are responsible to God, precisely because God has given them the power. So here in one word is both the legitimacy and the necessary accountability of human government.
Jesus before Pilate
An important example is Jesus Christ’s trial before Pontius Pilate. Jesus was tried for treason because, as his accusers put it, he “claim[ed] to be a king” (John 19:12). It did not take Pilate long to discover that the kind of kingdom Jesus was talking about was no direct threat to Rome, because it was a kingdom of truth. Jesus told him, “I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me” (John 18:37). After he had heard that, Pilate knew that this was a religious matter and was of no concern to him.
Yet the leaders of the people were still clamoring for Jesus’ death, and it became clear that Pilate was soon going to bow to their wishes. He wanted to help Jesus, but Jesus was not speaking to him. “Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate said. “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” (John 19:10).
At this point Jesus replied with one of two classic texts for helping us understand the God-given role of civil government and the right relationship of the church to the state. He answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin” (John 19:11).
The word that is translated power in this verse is the same word that Paul uses in Romans 13, and it is used in exactly the same way. The authority that was given to Pilate was a delegated authority, because it had been given to him by God. It was a true authority. Pilate had the right to try Jesus and render judgment as he thought right. But he was responsible to God for what he did and for how he did it. That is why Jesus was able to remind him, “Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” The sin of the Jewish leaders was greater than the sin of Pilate, because they were sinning against the Scriptures, which pointed to Jesus and were fulfilled by Jesus, and against their consciences, as even Pilate recognized (“It was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him,” Matt. 27:18). Nevertheless, Pilate was also sinning by condemning an innocent man, and he would have to answer to God for it.
Pilate had authority in Christ’s trial. He could decide as he wished. He decided wrongly, but he had authority to make that decision even if it was wrong. This is because his authority was from God, and Jesus did not suggest that it be wrested from him even because he had made so great an error as condemning the Son of God. If nothing else, the example of Jesus before Pilate shows us that for Christians revolution for the sake of revolution alone (“I would rather be king than you”) is wrong.
Indeed, instead of being revolutionaries, Christians are obligated to be the very best citizens possible. We should obey speed limits, pay our taxes honestly, vote in elections, and in all other respects respond with respect and compliance to those who are over us.
To Tell the Truth
Yet this does not mean that Christians are merely to be pliant, lying down in the face of evil and doing nothing to oppose it. Again, we have the example of Jesus. Jesus did not show disrespect to Pilate. He did not warn him that if he failed to rule justly, Jesus’ followers would rise up and do their best to unseat him and the Roman government. Jesus knew what the governor would do, and he accepted it as from God, which it surely was. But Jesus was not silent. He spoke of the truth, which he had been sent to make known, and he reminded Pilate that Pilate was sinning and would therefore one day himself have to answer for it.
That is our role. We speak often today of the separation of church and state, and we should be thankful for that separation. It is a dearly won liberty to have a church free from government interference or control and to have a state free from clerical domination. But the separation of church and state does not mean the separation of God and state. And though we do not rule the state, nor should we, it is nevertheless our duty as Christians to speak out against the civil ruler’s sins and remind the governing authorities that they are ultimately accountable to him from whom their authority comes.
So we are accountable too! We are accountable to speak up. We do not have the power of the sword. That is reserved for the civil authorities, as Paul will show in Romans 13:4. Our weapon is truth, for we are a kingdom of the truth. The truth is stronger than the sword. But woe to us if we do not wield the sword of truth powerfully.
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