Must Christians submit to and respect human governments?

January 29, 2012

The Sunday Epistle reading from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer is from Romans 13. This is a challenging passage concerning our obligations as citizens. It raises all sorts of questions for the modern American. If you surmise that my intention here is to point fingers at people of any particular political persuasion, you are very mistaken. I have a lot of trouble with Paul’s instructions and I have surely failed to respond as one who is attentive to the word of God. I have broken the text down into principle phrases and supporting phrases just to make it easier to see how the thoughts are organized.

Paul is drawing our attention to the obligations of Christians toward civil government. The writer of Acts informs us that Paul is one who respects the functions of human government even while his eyes are firmly fixed on the last things and the Second Coming of Christ. When Paul was about to be flogged by the Romans at Jerusalem (Acts 22:25), he was quick to claim his rights as a Roman citizen. Facing accusations from the Jews of Jerusalem, Paul appeals to Cesar (Acts 25:11). He is a “law and order” kind of guy and calls on each of us to submit to lawful secular authorities.

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.

For there is no authority except from God,

and those that exist have been instituted by God.

Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed,

and those who resist will incur judgment.


The biblical idea of “authority” deals with self-determination, powers, influence, or judicial decisions. In Ephesians, Paul uses the same language to reference the activities of spiritual beings. Every person is to be subject to the government because God sets up and tears down. We might logically presume that good and wise leaders are a kind gift from a loving God and that evil and corrupt officials are for punishment and a trial for the faithful. So far so good. No problem here.

But seriously folks, anti-abortion protesters staged a major march on the central government to protest the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision. Certainly they are willing to resist the authorities as Daniel struggled with the frequently intolerable demands of his lawful rulers. This seeming conflict is worth developing because those who resist the government will be facing divine judgment. Make a note of this. Paul did not say that you will be punished for resisting good government. Any human government has imperfections. The passage states that opposition to government is worthy of God’s just correction.

Paul goes on to discuss those who hold the reins of government.

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,

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,

This is really most perplexing. Just be a good boy and nothing bad will happen? This could really shake up American politics if anybody took it seriously.Human governments are set up by God and public officials are his servants. That places quite a responsibility on officials, but this text is dealing with “the rest of us.” Daniel, recently taken off to exile, observes, “He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings; he gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding” (Dan 2:21). Tyrants may be used by God to conquer and punish other nations. This is the case of Assyria in Isiah 10. The long and the short of it is that God claims to be in control of worldly governments.

Human government is good. I know that notion is a bitter pill for many Americans (myself included!) who love to criticize those in authority.I have been known to do that professionally. Our situation is a bit different from the people in the Bible in that we elect our leaders and they (presumably) do what we want. So when those who supposedly serve us come up short, what is a Christian to do? How does this all fit together? Stay with me.

Paul is not accepting any opposition in his insistence that Christians live in subjection to human authorities.

Therefore one must be in subjection,

not only to avoid God’s wrath

but also for the sake of conscience.

Paul has no intention of easing up. He is talking about subjection; obedience. The Torah has a bit to say about government, and there are instances where the people of God disobey the immoral directives of government. When the people of Israel were in Egypt, we are told that the authorities “ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field. In all their work they ruthlessly made them work as slaves” (Exodus 1:13-14). That is certainly a picture of authoritarian government. The officials were not satisfied with merely stealing their labor.

Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live.
(Exodus 1:15-17)

The midwives disobeyed the king’s direct order. This leaves us to wonder whether Paul actually knows what he is talking about, or is the Bible confused? If we are to trust, as we must, that the Exodus account of the midwives is an example of an occasion where Christians may ignore the law, then we must also take Paul’s directive into account. As a highly educated Jew, Paul was well aware of the Exodus episode and the other Old Testament instances of government oppressing God’s people, and we also should remember that Paul lived under the thumb of Roman dictators. Paul was not stupid and he certainly had to contend with a lot of very bad human government.

While we try to apply this text to our lives, let us not rob this important passage of its meaning and intention. If the implications of Paul’s instructions do not make you uncomfortable, you are not paying attention.

The midwives did not simply obey an immoral order to commit genocide. Because of this, the women were called to account. “So the king of Egypt called the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and let the male children live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them” (Exodus 1:18-19).It was a clever answer. In fact, probably a bit too clever, but it put the Pharaoh on notice that his evil decree would not be tolerated.

In the Exodus narrative, Moses interacts several times with the Pharaoh before permission is given to leave. God could have staged a sudden unannounced mass departure, but the larger purpose of the Israelite escape from bondage was to deliver a witness against the oppressive authorities. There is a similar pattern with Jeremiah and Daniel.

Because of jealousy and fear of the Jewish authorities, Jesus is falsely accused of sedition and brought before Pilate. Of course, the charges are trumped-up, the witnesses false, and Jesus has done nothing but good during his earthly ministry. Nonetheless, he is crosswise with the Roman rulers.

He entered his headquarters again and said to Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. So Pilate said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin” (John 19:9-11).

On trial for his life, Jesus is silent before Pilate, except to clearly state that the vacillating Roman governor has no authority except what is given him from God. Jesus humbly accepts a wrongful conviction and horrendous public execution as a satisfaction for our sins. He was the respectful subject of a brutal occupying army. Remember  the hardball question about paying taxes to the Romans (Matt 22:15-22, Mark 12:13-17, Luke 20:20-26)? Jesus’ answer was to give Cesar his due, and Cesar was not a nice man.

This submission to human authority does not mean that we, as American Christians, must meekly accept injustice. We supposedly have a say in our own government. “We the people” are the Sovereign, at least in theory. There are, however, limitations on what can be done about human government. The Great Commission is to make disciples of all nations, not to set up new human jurisdictions. We are always to be anxiously awaiting the establishment of perfect government by the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.

There are, as we can see from scripture, exceptions to Paul’s principle of subjection to earthly authority for important moral cause, but the general rule is that we are to be subject to human government. It is established and approved by God, who uses it as his tool for reward and punishment. Paul understands that it costs something to provide government services and Christians must pay their taxes.

For because of this you also pay taxes,

for the authorities are ministers of God,

attending to this very thing.

Pay to all what is owed to them:

taxes to whom taxes are owed,

revenue to whom revenue is owed,

respect to whom respect is owed,

honor to whom honor is owed. (Romans 13:1-7).

Ouch!

This is not an easy pill. How are we to reconcile this text with the time-honored American practice of “tax avoidance?” The only possible solution lies with common sense and reason. Christians pay what the law demands, and in the United States we try to change the law if taxes seem too high. If, however, one does not recognize the human tendency to shift responsibility for funding civic obligations, like the maintenance of public facilities, we are not paying attention to the scriptures. These verses in Romans are not kindly suggestions but divinely inspired guidelines for how we are to order our Christian lives. The requirement is for much more than the “letter of the law.” We are called on to develop a true, deep, heart felt sense of civic responsibility.

The ESV translates phobos as “respect,” while “fear,” “dread” or “terror” might also be a possibility. That is strong language for a culture which exalts the individual and frequently derides and insults those who hold a public trust. Of this I am most grievously at fault. Christians must show deference to those of high rank and show them “honor.” They received an earthly office and authority from the hand of God. i know. I have such a hard time with this idea.

The principle of respect for human rulers certainly puts a little crimp in one’s political activities, especially if that consists of sending out hate-filled emails full of personal insults directed at public officials. That is a grave personal sin. God has in mind that his people are to be at work changing the attitude of society by behaving in a way very much different from the world’s way. Jesus welcomes those into his kingdom who care for the hungry, thirsty, unclothed, prisoners and outcasts.  In the chapter just previous to this directive, Paul tells his readers to set a proper tone in their lives.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)

The world’s values of getting, controlling, and consuming are not God’s values and Christians are not to be “conformed” to such things, but rather we are to be “transformed” by the renewal of our minds. To concentrate mainly on worldly ideas is, first, prideful and, secondly, idolatrous. God is in charge of the world’s governments. We must be good citizens, and in America that means voting and participating in public affairs. That is our witness and a necessary contribution to a society that needs the sensible input of Godly men and women. There must also be a public demonstration of what it means to be a good citizen of the heavenly kingdom. That is made known by honesty and purity. Our interaction must be firm but respectful. After all, we are the followers of Christ. The lure of worldly political power is an idol, and our God will have nothing to do with idols or those who worship them.

Paul, if you wrap it up in a neat bundle,calls us to put aside personal pride and privilege. This passage is a call to humbly accept God’s authority on earth and to exercise a cautious use of our divine gift of intelligence and speech. It is very hard to put aside personal presumptions about how things ought to go and trust divine wisdom. It takes spiritual awareness and insight to know when to act, when to confront, or when to defer. That does not come in books or political pep talks. It is something we receive through God’s hand when we approach the throne of grace.

Christian citizens are consciously distinct from worldly political power brokers. Trusting God to protect us from the wickedness of earthly tyrants, we pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” That is deliberately naive. Christians must look to Jesus Christ as the only completely dependable and entirely honest world leader.

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