Lisa Sheffler, author
From classics like Lord of the Flies to dystopian movies like Mad Max or The Purge, artists have imagined what life would be like if societal order completely broke down. It’s never pretty. Anarchy inevitably results in injustice, violence, and mayhem. Unchecked, those who are strong, powerful, and manipulative would get to make all the rules. Might would determine “right.”
The Bible tells us that God institutes human governments to restrain evil and promote good. The first hint of human government comes in Genesis 9 after the flood. God re-establishes his covenant with humanity through Noah’s family, and sets his expectations for human justice, “And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being. Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind” (Genesis 9:5b–6). According to God himself, every person has value, because he or she is made in his image, and therefore every person is deserving of justice.
Romans 13:1–7 explains that it is the responsibility of human government to see that justice is served.
13 Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
Summarize Romans 13:1–7. What are the responsibilities of human government?
As we saw last week, in the first century there were Jewish zealots who objected to paying taxes to the Empire. Judea was an occupied land, and the Jewish people longed to be free of Rome and have their nation restored. A series of would-be “messiahs” came and went, each hoping to inspire a revolt.
Yet Paul had the opposite advice for the Christians who lived in the shadow of the mighty Roman empire: submit to the governing authorities. Yet, Paul did not give Caesar too much credit. By insisting that there was an authority higher than the emperor, Paul was once again announcing the supremacy of God.
According to Paul, because the government is “God’s servant,” it is ultimately accountable to God. “The real power to be respected is God’s. Government therefore has God-given responsibility for the good.” In nations where citizens have a say in their own governance, Christians have been given the privilege and obligation to encourage that good.
We have a responsibility to influence our government to do what Romans 13:3 describes, “hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong.” We should insist that the guilty are held accountable and those who are doing right are commended and live “free from fear of the one in authority.” We must work for a just system — from laws to courts to law enforcement. When we participate in the political process, we should do so to promote the ultimate Christian value — loving our neighbors as ourselves.
Christians obey their government, not just to avoid punishment, but also “as a matter of conscience” (13:5). This submission includes paying the taxes that support those who govern. The rightful rule of governing authorities ensures that chaos is not allowed to reign and good is not overcome by evil (Romans 12:21) — not just for believers, but for all their neighbors as well.
Paul doesn’t treat government as the enemy. We would do well to remember that we have Christian brothers and sisters serving in governments all over the world. God has always installed his people in secular governments. Joseph became second in command in Egypt and saved many lives during a famine. Daniel represented God and gave his counsel to the king of Babylon. Likewise, in America there are Christian men and women serving at every level of government. We should be grateful to them and pray for them. We owe them, and all who serve with them, respect and honor.
Yet, because this is a fallen world, we know that human governments will often fail in their responsibilities to render justice and promote what is good. What should a Christian’s response be then? We’ll discuss that more tomorrow, but consider that even Daniel, who served the Babylonian empire with honor, refused to obey a law that prevented him from praying. He was thrown into the lion’s den for his defiance. Christian obedience to government ends at the point where disobedience to God is required.
In instructing the Roman Christians to submit to governing authorities, Paul is not being naïve. He knows that the Roman government is not a reliable source for justice, so his unwavering faith is in God because God is the only one who truly “deposes kings and raises up others” (Daniel 2:21).
Yet Paul recognizes the positive role earthly authorities can play in containing evil and promoting the good, and so should we. And because we are the Spirit-filled people of God, and live in a country where we can influence those authorities, we should insist that our government act for the good of all its people.
 Thomas Hoyt, “Romans,” True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary, Edited by Blount, B. et al (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007), 271.
Do you obey the laws of your government? Do you give to the government what you owe in taxes? Respect? Honor? Pray over your answers.
Are there ways that we can we encourage our government, from local to state to federal, to do what is described in Romans 13:3, to “hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong”?