Lisa Sheffler, author
This week we’re considering one of the New Testament’s seminal passages on Christians and government, Romans 13:1–7. On its surface, this is should be a fairly easy passage to understand: Submit to your government and obey your leaders because they have been established by God.
Yet from the early church fathers to the Protestant reformers to modern theologians, Christians have pondered this passage, because it’s easier to understand than to know how to apply. What do you do if you live under a corrupt or tyrannical government? What if your nation promotes evil, instead of what is good? We’ll consider these questions as we look at the passage one more time.
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.
In Romans 13, Paul tells us to submit to the governing authorities. Human governments are instituted by God to restrain evil. The best governments will imitate the righteous reign of God. They will ensure the safety of citizens, protect the vulnerable, pursue justice for all, and create environments where people can flourish. Of course even the most well intentioned leaders will make mistakes, and in a fallen world, not all are well intentioned. Power can have a corruptive influence. With authority comes the possibility of abuse. Human beings will never create a perfectly just government, and sometimes, they won’t even try.
So what do we do when human governments fail to live up to the parameters set by Romans 13? When they fail to punish the wrong doer? Or they terrorize those who are actually doing right? What if a government is perpetrating evil rather than checking it? What should a Christian’s response be then?
Throughout the centuries, corrupt leaders have used Romans 13:1–7 to silence opposition and compel compliance with laws that defy the ways of God. Churches in the America defended slavery with these verses. Churches in Nazi Germany preached Romans 13 in support of the Third Reich.
Historian Thomas Weber tells the story of Protestant theologian Otto Dibelius’ sermon to the German people on March 21, 1933. Already in turmoil and just two months after the Nazi’s seized of power, Germans were concerned about the extreme measures being taken by the new regime. Dibelius preached on Romans 13 and insisted that citizens must support their government even when it acts “hard and ruthlessly.” The official ministers of the German church would continue to send this message even as “the Nazi regime imprisoned its opponents and wrought havoc across the world. Romans 13 became one of the glues that held the Third Reich together.”
Theologians Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer opposed both Nazi rule and the use of Romans 13 to support an evil regime. They believed that when a government becomes a source of injustice, Christians must hold it accountable, even when it costs them to stand for what is right. Bonhoeffer was eventually executed in a concentration camp for his stand.
New Testament scholar Esau McCaulley notes that we find ample evidence in the Bible of God bringing judgment against corrupt rulers and institutions through human action. We see resistance to unjust decrees from the Hebrew midwives who saved babies instead of drowning them, from Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who refused to worship the Babylonian king’s idol, and from John the Baptist who dared to criticize Herod’s immorality. These people chose to obey God, and challenged the authority of their rulers.
According to McCaulley, “The state has duties, and we can hold them accountable even if it means that we suffer for doing so peacefully. This suffering is only futile if the resurrection is a lie. If the resurrection is true, and the Christian stakes his or her entire existence on its truthfulness, then our peaceful witness testifies to a new and better way of being human that transcends the endless cycle of violence.”
In a complex political system, discerning whether a policy or law is unjust and then knowing how to respond requires the Spirit’s wisdom in light of all that the Bible commands. Can change be enacted through the system? Can pressure be brought on the system? Or is Christian resistance and defiance required?
If we must defy our government to obey God, we will have to pay the price. Obedience to God can be costly, at least in the short term. You only have to scan through Acts to see the price the early church paid. Yet in the long term, the eternal gains are beyond imagining. Loving our neighbors by standing for justice and righteousness brings glory and honor to God and eternal rewards to those who choose that path.
 Thomas Weber, Becoming Hitler: The Making of a Nazi (Basic Books, 2017).
 Esau McCaulley, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope, (Downers Grove IL, IVP) 2020, 33.
 McCaulley, 34.
Under what circumstances could you imagine resisting a government decree? How could that resistance be peaceful and Christ-honoring?