Lesson 50: Romans 13:1-7
Who Is In Charge Here?
by Bob Burridge ©2012
Some people are just plain bossy. I remember kids like that in our neighborhood when I was growing up. On the playground, along the streets going to and from school, and when we got together after school the same kids always seemed to take control. When somebody had enough of the self-appointed bosses they’d ask, “Who put you in charge, anyway?” The answer was obvious — no body did. They were self-appointed.
There were exceptions though. Some had real authority given to them. The most trusted kids were picked by the teachers to be on the Safety Patrol. They were helpers to the crossing guard. They would stand at the street crossings, hold out their arms, and keep kids from crossing until the adult guard blew the whistle and waved for us to cross. The Safety Patrol got to wear a fancy white belt with a shoulder strap that bore a genuine shiny silver badge.
But there was more to it than that. They were enforcers of the law. If someone stepped off the curb too soon or pushed someone toward the street the Safety Patrol kid was expected to report them. So you learned to honor the Safety Patrol. They may have been just kids like all the rest of us, but unlike the self-made bosses of the neighborhood, these kids had authority behind them. They represented the school’s Principal, the highest power we knew in our lives back then. If you gave the badged students a hard time you would be called into the Principal’s office, and probably have your parents called in too. Nobody wanted that. So the Safety Patrol was obeyed and respected. To disobey the one delegated by the Principal, was like disobeying the Principal.
This is a principle that God built into his universe. All real human authority is delegated by God himself. To disobey those he puts in charge, is to disobey God himself.
The last part of Chapter 12 teaches that we should never take our own revenge. Vengeance belongs to the Lord. Now in Chapter 13 we see one way in which the Lord’s vengeance was to be carried out.
God delegates the exercise of his temporal vengeance
upon law breakers through rightful authorities.
Romans 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.”
Paul begins with a general principle. God has ordained that there would be some who govern, and others who are governed. The existence of authority structures at every level reflects the relationship of God as King over all of his creation.
Here Paul uses a very general term, exousiais huperechousais (εξουσίαις ὑπερεχουσαις), which means “Governing authorities” or “higher powers”. This principle applies to all types of governments. At various times God has granted the power of rule to monarchies, empires, republics, social democracies, tribal systems, and dictatorships. Their hold on power was not an endorsement of their methods or standards. God uses all that comes to pass to advance his plan. God has empowered imperfect civil governments to limit dangerous social behaviors, and to ensure a common peace and safety for his people.
All authority is from God alone, and is established by him. This means that God alone defines the powers and limitations at each level of authority. Charles Hodge put it this way, “All human power is delegated and ministerial.”
Human authority does not come from the consent of the people, from social contracts, from traditions, or from the power of the military. It comes from God who sovereignly appoints every human to his place of power. Even the wicked King Jeroboam is said to have been appointed by God over the Ten Tribes.
The Bible speaks of four primary areas of human authority. Each is there to administer order in a specific way, and over specific people. Those who are under that authority are to respect the office of those in headship over them in that limited sense. It is their God-given responsibility.
In the home God holds husbands responsible for providing for their families, for protecting them, and for helping them grow spiritually. Both parents are to care for their children and oversee all that promotes their well-being. The wives are to help their husbands carry out their responsibilities and honor the covenant God established between them in marriage. Children are to honor their parents as those God has put over them for their good. It is a horrible perversion of authority for husbands to degrade their wives, make them serve their personal mandates, or to do harm to their wives in any way. Likewise Parents do not have authority to harm their children or to abuse them.
In the work place employers, business owners, and managers are to oversee the work of those they employ to make sure they both do the work they are paid to do, and to ensure that every worker is properly compensated for his time and talents. The workers are to honor what their masters at work expect of them. They should honestly do the work with such diligence that it will be pleasing to God.
In the church, God has called and ordained Elders to oversee their congregations spiritually. They are to guard the purity of worship and the administration of the Sacraments. The Elders are responsible for teaching and shepherding all those under their care. Discipline is to be carried out justly within the boundaries of authority God grants to the church. Those in the church are to honor the offices of leadership, and show respect for the Elders as long as what they do and teach is not in conflict with the instructions God has given us in his word.
Likewise in civil societies, leaders are held responsible for keeping peace and order within the boundaries of the territory God places under their authority. Our respect is to be directed to their office, not to their personal merit, or power to subjugate others.
When Paul wrote this epistle, pagan Rome ruled the civilized world. Some Emperors came to power by violence, some by the vote of the senate, some by the power of an army, and others were illegal successors to the throne. No Roman Caesar in that era honored Christ or viewed the Scriptures as God’s law. Yet Paul said that all existing governing authorities are established by God.
God establishes different governments to accomplish different purposes. The civil leaders may be a blessing or a curse. They may bring honor or dishonor, but always by God’s wise providence. Wicked governors are appointed by God as a just reward and to execute judgments. He raised up Babylon to judge Israel when that nation wandered from him. He raised up the Pharaoh of Egypt to reveal his power to deliver, and to show his justice toward those who defy him. God said about the Pharaoh in Exodus 9:16 “… indeed for this purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth.”
Dr. Robert Haldane wisely said, “No tyrant ever seized power till God gave it him.” The Bible is filled with absolutely clear statements of that fact. For example, Psalm 75:7 says, “But God is the Judge: He puts down one, And exalts another.”
Even the sufferings of societies justly show us God’s rule. Daniel wrote from captivity in Daniel 4:17, “This decision is by the decree of the watchers, And the sentence by the word of the holy ones, In order that the living may know That the Most High rules in the kingdom of men, Gives it to whomever He will, And sets over it the lowest of men.”
The prophet Jeremiah records God’s words in Jeremiah 27:5, “I have made the earth, the man and the beast that are on the ground, by My great power and by My outstretched arm, and have given it to whom it seemed proper to Me.”
We should keep this in mind even while we pray for some who undergo persecutions. Sometimes even the church has defied rightful government and brought God’s wrath upon them. Haldane warns, “When the ignorance of God’s people is punished for any offense against the government of their country, their chastisement should be looked on as a chastisement from God”
There is only one biblical limit — we ought to obey God, rather than men (Acts 5:29). If governing authorities force us to defy God we are duty bound to disobey, but respectfully and humbly.
There is a grave danger that comes
from insubordination to governing authorities.
Romans 13:2, “Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.”
Since God appoints every power, good or evil, to resist them is to resist God. It deserves to be condemned. It is very serious when we break a civil law. The danger is not just that we may get caught by police, fined, or put in jail. It is not that our reputation might be damaged, or our social status might be brought down. It is that breaking civil law is disobedience of this ordinance of God.
We easily get discouraged about government corruption when we lose sight of this. No matter who wins an election, or what disgraces are done by our leaders, or what turmoil and damage their rule might bring about, we need to remember the words of Proverbs 21:1, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD, Like the rivers of water; He turns it wherever He wishes.” We also should remember Psalm 9:20 “Put them in fear, O LORD, That the nations may know themselves to be but men.” Pagan King Nebuchadnezzar learned, “the Most High rules in the kingdom of men, Gives it to whomever He will, And sets over it the lowest of men” (Daniel 4:17). This passage puts an awesome price upon this disobedience. It brings God’s condemnation.
As startling as it may seem, even evil governments serve God’s purpose. No human government is ever perfect. They all enforce some wrong laws. There is no greater abuse of authority imaginable, than the crucifying of Jesus Christ. The Roman authorities and the Jewish Elder/Priests put to death the one who appointed them. Hellenistic paganism was a state religion. The Roman Empire was oppressive to God’s people. The Jews, even the faithful ones, were restricted. The early church became its target, and after Nero many were tortured and put to death. Yet it was to this oppressive Empire of lustful, egocentric pagan rulers, that Paul called his readers to civil obedience. Even though they would jail him, and later execute him. This totalitarian state of Rome was to be honored and obeyed in the civil realm as God’s appointed servants.
This in no way implies that God sanctioned their evil. God uses such imperfect states to restrict evil to the degree that it serves his purposes. This protects us against the outbreak of total chaos, mass murders, lootings, and against large scale brutality of the church to take its property, or to kill and defile its people. Even poor courts limit the flow of oppression, though they may be motivated in their judgments by power and greed.
Sometimes corrupt governors were used to show God’s people their own failures, and to provoke them to repentance and renewed obedience. In times of martyrdom the church often grew in strength even though its numbers were diminished. God used the pagan Roman Empire, Egypt, Babylon, Syria, Canaan, Philistia, and many more. God’s people under oppression were not directed to overthrow the governments, or to provoke dissent. They were to live responsible godly lives under that which was instituted by the authority of God.
Even in captivity under Babylon, the captured Jews were told to pray for the cities. Jeremiah 29:7, “And seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the LORD for it; for in its peace you will have peace.”
The duty of civil governments is stated in God’s word.
Romans 13:3-4, “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.”
Since civil leaders are ministers of God for good, there should be no fear in the hearts of those who obey rightful laws. However, for those who do evil, who defy the laws God gave governments the authority to enforce, they have reason for fear. Their fear should not be only the threat of jail or fines, but also and more so the wrath of God.
The word translated here as “minister” is diakonos (διακονος). This is the same word meaning “servant” which was used for the office of Deacon in the church. Government’s job is to administer good in our communities, to keep the civil order for all who obey the civil laws. Good governments are called upon to preserve and protect our creation rights of life, work (which implies earnings and ownership), marriage and family, and liberty of conscience to obey God. Civil leaders are not to control our lives, work, families, and conscience. They are to ensure that these rights are secured for their citizens.
These ministers of the civil order do not bear the sword in vain. That is, they do not bear the instruments of force for no purpose. Governments have a right to use physical force against criminals. “Bearing the sword” is most often connected with the execution of capital punishment. It is not murder when the state executes a properly convicted murderer. God’s word makes this a capital crime because of the absolute dignity of human life.
This is how God ordains to carry out his wrath in this world. Government, through its courts and under the limits of due process and the laws of evidence, are the only rightful avengers in society. No one may take the law into his own hands.
Even the Apostle Paul when under arrest agreed with that principle in his own case. He said in Acts 25:11, “For if I am an offender, or have committed anything deserving of death, I do not object to dying; but if there is nothing in these things of which these men accuse me, no one can deliver me to them. I appeal to Caesar.”
As Christian citizens we have an absolute moral duty.
Romans 13:5, “Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake.”
Our subjection to civil rulers is mandated by God. Peter had learned a lot since that impetuous moment in Gethsemane when he drew his sword. Later in 1 Peter 2:13-17 he wrote, “Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men — as free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God. Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king.”
Later Paul wrote to Titus in Titus 3:1, “Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to obey, to be ready for every good work,”
Government has specific areas of proper God-given authority. For example, to ensure public safety and to protect life and property our governments enact laws such as those against robbery, theft, assault, murder, rape, incest, and perjury. For our safety against irresponsible citizens they regulate traffic with speed laws, issue licenses to qualified drivers, and register motor vehicles. If we think some laws are unwise, we can work to change them. But like it or not, we must obey them as long as they do not require us to disobey God’s own laws.
To provide for the national defense governments may prosecute people for treason, aggression, terrorism, and espionage. They can use military force to protect us against evil aggression from other nations. Just as personal self-defense is justified, so is international self-defense.
However, government may not intrude upon the rightful authority God gives to others. It cannot do the work of Elders by controlling church membership, worship, or doctrine. It cannot do the work of parents by taking over the education and discipline of children. They cannot do the work of our masters in the workplace by assuming control over industry or businesses.
When government officials show disregard for other authority structures, they too will answer to God for their disregard of his order. The tendency of the fallen arrogant heart is to presume that others are not smart enough to carry out the duties God has given them. Corrupt governments believe they can do better than parents in raising and teaching children, better than medical professionals in determining what medical procedures are to be employed, and better than the owners of businesses to determine how budgets, materials, properties, and employees are to be managed.
Many in government are intent upon taking control of these areas of life. Civil leaders may sincerely see businesses not making good choices, or parents not raising their children in ways that seems most wise. However, just as Paul was respectful to Rome in areas of the Empire’s legitimate authority, so also governments should respect the authority God assigns to the home, the church, and the work place.
There are times when an invasive or oppressive government is perhaps God’s judgment upon citizens who have neglected their own responsibilities. If civil leaders are immoral or corrupt it may bring God’s judgment. On the other hand, these abuses of government may already be God’s chastisement upon a lazy or immoral society.
Paul next adds that we are to be in subjection for important reasons. Our respect for authority is not only to avoid judicial wrath when we do wrong, it is also to ensure a clear conscience before God, that we have not defied the authority structures he instituted.
Government must be provided for
so that it can do its work effectively.
Romans 13:6-7, “For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.”
Government has a right to collect reasonable taxes. Funds are needed so that governments can carry out their duties of law enforcement and defense. Given our fallen nature, it is not surprising that taxation is often abused.
Under the economic system God set up for Ancient Israel during the Levitical Period, there was a single amount each household had to pay. The only percentage fee was the Tithe (one tenth of all income). However that was designated for the Priests and for the costs of worship, not for the costs of funding armies and keeping neighborhoods safe from criminals.
Often taxes are used for things which are in themselves evil, just as they were in ancient Rome. It is interesting that even with those abuses, Paul says we are to pay the taxes and fees anyway. Jesus said in Mark 12:17, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”
God charges the abuse of taxes against the corrupt governments. God does not hold the citizens guilty for what their leaders do with the tax money. We must not withhold taxes simply because we believe they are wrongly collected or improperly spent. We should work within the law to see that irresponsible tax laws are changed, but we do not have the authority to refuse to pay.
At times governments impose other fees to curtail unfair trade practices. When there are customs, the charges must also be paid. These are fees placed upon imports and exports, or taxes on items or services purchased or sold.
We are to render these payments with humble respect. They must be paid in fear of the awesome power God has entrusted to our leaders, and with the honor due to the office God has given them.
As we work to bring Christ’s lordship into every area of life committed and talented believers ought to get into government work. We need statesmen of integrity and principle rather than those who simply want fame, fortune, and power. This brings us to yet another duty which should be obeyed every day.
We are to pray for the civil authorities
God has placed over us.
Paul wrote to Timothy reminding him in 1 Timothy 2:1-2, “Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence.”
Just as the Safety Patrol kids represented the school’s Principal, so also the police, the sheriff’s deputies, the mayors, governors, congressmen, president, and all those in civil authority represent the kingship of God on earth. To disobey or to dishonor them is to defy God, and call down his judgment.
Our duty is to be responsible and godly citizens. We should elect leaders who will honor the boundaries and responsibilities God has placed upon civil authorities. We should pray for and encourage those who hold rightful offices, and we should honor their laws and leadership within the area of authority God has given to them.
(The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)