“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities …”
In Romans chapter thirteen, Paul commands all Christians to subject themselves to the supreme powers of the state government. What Paul is requiring from every believer is to “submit” to those who rule over us. Submission means placing oneself under someone else. While Christians have citizenship in heaven[i], they are not exempt from responsibility to acknowledge the state as possessing authority from God to govern them.
The apostle’s strong language is intended to take away the frivolous questioning inquired by unruly citizens who ask, “By what claim do they have over us? And where did they obtain their authority?” Men do rule over us, and they did not climb to their positions by their own power but have been placed there by the hand of Almighty God[ii].
The reason Christians ought to subject themselves to government is because it is created by God’s ordination. Those who refuse to submit to civil authority are rebelling against what God has established[iii]. He who seeks to reverse the order of God has resisted, not the man, but God, and he has done so scorning His power and His providence. God is Himself the founder of civil authority, both establishing civil leaders and removing them at His will[iv]. He chooses to rule the world through earthly men.
Civil government is intended for the welfare of its citizens. Governments are installed by God to fend off wars, crime, punish criminals, and to seek solutions for other evils. Hence the Apostle commands us to willingly and cheerfully respect and honor the right and authority of government. Governments are the means by which He preserves civil order.
No one can resist God apart from to his own ruin. Paul threatens those who wrongfully oppose government with the promise that they will not go unpunished[v]. Let us think twice before breaking any law that we might incur this condemnation.
Rulers and governors are not a cause for fear, but for the tranquility of those who are good citizens. He established civil authority to restrain the wicked, and by this means the safety of mankind is secured. Unless we wish to confirm ourselves as workers against God’s civil order, we should carefully obey those He has established with authority. Christians should be the best behaved and loyal citizens of any society.
If indeed we are good citizens, we have no reason to fear civil authority; but if we are afraid, the Apostle implies that this is proof that we have a guilty conscience[vi]. The civil authority is the Lord’s avenger used to punish the sins of the citizens[vii].
Policemen, judges, city mayors, governors and Presidents can learn in these passages to what end is their occupation. They are not to rule for their own interest, but for the public good. Nor are they to assume that they are endowed with unbridled power, but only what is restricted to the security of their people. They are responsible to God and to their residents in the exercise of their power. They are appointed by God to do His business, and they must give an account to Him for their actions if they neglect their duties. Citizens are reminded by Paul that they are defended by the sword of the civil government against the injustices done by the wicked.
The office of civil authority is designed that civil servants should use their God-given powers to forcibly repress evil men. Using the laws of government they are to inflict severe punishment on wicked criminals. Paul expressly declares that they are armed with the sword, not for an empty show, but that they would hew down dangerous criminals[viii].
Paul calls the civil authorities “avengers.” They are called to execute wrath. The image portrayed in this verse is that they are standing by with blade in hand by which the civil authority is to visit the guilty with death. This is a remarkable passage for the purpose of proving the design and role of capital punishment in society.
Yet, the state must not be thought of as an infallible in its decisions. When justice collapses, the Christian community is obliged to voice its criticism of the state’s failure and deviation from its divinely ordained responsibilities. This does not entitle Christians to disobey the state’s authority when decisions are not to their liking either.
Paul’s caution to believers to avoid all sorts of evil carries with it a forewarning that if this threat is neglected, “terror” will be in order because the civil government rightly has the power and the authority to use the sword. The charge is to live in harmony with everyone to the best of their ability.
Don’t forget to pay your taxes[ix].
[i] Philippians 3:20
[ii] Rom. 13:1
[iii] Rom. 13:2
[iv] Daniel 2:21
[v] Rom. 13:4
[vi] Rom. 13:4-5
[vii] Rom. 13:4
[viii] Rom. 13:4
[ix] Rom. 13:6