Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. (Romans 13:1-6 NASB)
Romans 13:1-6 seems to describe really awesome governments. Not the kind of oppressive regimes that pervade the earth since the Fall. When Paul wrote this, what was the current government?
If all existing governments are allowed and thereby “instituted” by God to be His servants/ministers, it begs the question: Are evil governments then ministers of God gone rogue?
I think so.
But the more pressing question is one of application: How should the church relate to evil governments God has allowed to reign over us?
What did Bonhoeffer do under Germany and Hitler?
What did the believers in the thirteen colonies do under Great Britain and King George III?
What should we do?
The All-important Context of Rom. 13:1-6
The post-context (what follows after the passage in view) is a call to know and understand the times, that “the day is near” (13:11-14, cf. Dan. 2:21). In other words, the Messianic Kingdom, the fixed Day when God changes the times and restores the kingdom to Israel (Acts 1:6, 3:20-21, 17:31; Dan. 2:21), is soon to be established. I believe this context is key to understanding ‘how in the world’ submission can be okay in such circumstances. In fact, more than it simply being a valid action, it is actually a combative one (and our sense of justice needs to understand this).
In line with the post and pre-context (Chapter 12), I believe this passage would say: Don’t overthrow wicked governments, but wait and leave room for the wrath of God (12:19). Contextually, it also seems that paying taxes (13:6-7) to a wicked government is comparable to giving food and drink to your hungry enemy (12:20-21). But again, this kind of submission is not just valid, it’s violent. It’s a call to “overcome evil with good”, not overthrow evil with sword (cf. Rev. 13:7, 12:11). It’s a violent denial of evil in your response to evil, typified in the Cross (Lk. 9:23). Mirroring this war-type language of chapter 12, chapter 13 concludes with a call to take up the weapons/armor of light, that is, putting on the character of Christ (vs. 12-14), the faithful witness “who testified the good confession before Pontius Pilate” (1 Tim. 6:13), the Roman prefect.
So Pilate said to Him, “You do not speak to me? Do You not know that I have authority to release You, and I have authority to crucify You?” Jesus answered, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above; for this reason he who delivered Me to you has the greater sin.” (John 19:10-11 NASB).
5 Observations From Romans 12 and 13
- All governments have been established by God (presumably by Him simply allowing them to rule) and were meant to be submitted to Him as ‘servants of God’ (cf. Ps. 22:27-28; Ps. 86:9; Ps. 138:4-5; Is. 2:2-4; Is. 45:23-24; Zech. 14:9,16; Rev. 15:4).
- We are to submit to the government He has established, though not in ways where it requires us to disobey God (Acts 5:29).
- The Lord will avenge you from evil governments, even though they were intended to defend good and avenge evil.
- You can’t really do #2 without radically believing #3.
- When we submit to evil governments as Christians, we act as a faithful witness testifying of God’s authority over them and His power to overthrow what He has established.
Daniel said, “Let the name of God be blessed forever and ever, For wisdom and power belong to Him. “It is He who changes the times and the epochs (seasons); He removes kings and establishes kings; He gives wisdom to wise men and knowledge to men of understanding. (Daniel 2:20-21 NASB cf. Acts 1:6-7; 1 Thess. 5:1-2)
The Day is Near
In light of the imminent Day, when all earthly governments will be judged and governed by Jesus’ globally-extending kingdom, we should wait patiently, warn solemnly, and submit peaceably to the current authorities as a witness of our assurance.
And that Day is really coming.
I’m reminding you again (Heb. 10:23-25; 2 Pet. 3:1-2).