Relationship To Government
“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.” (Romans 13:1)
Romans 12 concluded with how the Christian is to relate to non-Christians. The focus was on how the believer is to conduct themselves on a personal, one-on-one basis with their neighbors. Now, the subject turns to how we are to interact with human, secular government under whose rule we find ourselves. Verse 1 of Romans 13 immediately makes two things very clear: 1.) The Christian (as well as everyone else) is to be subject to the governing powers, submitting themselves to their authority and, 2.) No power or governing authority exists which has not been instituted and ordained by God.
Government itself is an institution first established by God immediately following the Great Flood. For the first time, the Lord delegated a portion of His authority to humanity for the enforcement of law and the protection of human life. God decreed:
“Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.” (Genesis 9:6)
This one basic function is fundamental to all human government (or at least it should be). The most sacred duty of government is to protect the sanctity of human life. Though the individual Christian is prohibited from taking the law into his own hands by seeking personal retribution (Romans 12:17-20), a government, on the other hand, is expected to enforce law and order by punishing wrongdoers and holding its citizens accountable for criminal acts. We live in a day and age where capital punishment is controversial and more and more lawmakers and judges are finding it distasteful or even immoral. It is the opinion of some that we live in far too sophisticated of a society for capital punishment and the “death penalty” is seen as a barbaric remnant of a less enlightened, bygone era.
Nevertheless, as Christians, we must acknowledge that it was God Who first legislated the practice and, according to Romans 13:4, God has never repealed it — even under the New Testament. Rulers are described as “bearing the sword“ as agents of God, executing the wrath (judgment) of the Lord upon the evildoer. Apparently, God still expects governments to carry out the responsibility of requiring murderers to pay the just penalty for their crimes.
A society does not show how civilized it is in “respecting the dignity of life” by allowing murderers to escape their deserved punishment, no, it shows its disdain for human life by refusing to dignify the value of the life of the victim who has been murdered. What a horrific tragedy it is when a family is robbed of a loved and then sees the person who took their loved one away receive a light punishment for their crime. Vicious killers who have murdered in cold blood are sometimes free from prison in a matter of a few years while the families of their victims will never see their loved one again.
Government Is To Be Submitted To
Government, as a whole, is to be submitted to by the Christian and we are to be law-abiding citizens within our communities. Generally, the function of governments is to maintain law and order and to protect its people from being harmed by others. Therefore, we are to respect this authority and obey the law of the land.
“For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same:” (Romans 13:3)
The Christian has no reason to resist or disrespect his government because the Christian should not be seeking to do anything illegal or immoral. Although there may at times be exceptions, governments are typically only interested in prosecuting those who commit evil works, not good. If we go about the business of living according to the statutes and commands of God, few governments or law enforcement agents are going to take issue with our behavior. Being an obedient Christian, that is, living according to the principles laid out here in Romans 12 and 13, means that we are automatically being obedient citizens. If we are loving our neighbors, living at peace with them, and trusting in the Lord, we are not normally going to have any problems with our government.
“Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.” (Romans 13:5-7)
Our consciences should be the driving factor in whether or not we obey the laws of man, not just our fear of consequence. As Christians, we are to view secular, civil authority as an extension of God’s Divine authority in the enforcement of law and the agents of human government as His ministers, commissioned to administer justice on His behalf. Government should not be viewed as an enemy of the Christian, but as a protector against those who would harm us.
Government Is Ordained By God
Now, most of us must admit that we do not usually think of the typical leaders in government as being “God ordained.” From corrupt politicians to crooked police officers, most of us can readily point out many examples of less than exemplary government agents. Even so, we must recognize that, good or bad, nobody occupies a position of power on this Earth unless God has either directly placed them there or has at least allowed them to occupy the office. Nobody. Even the worst of tyrants or the most blood-thirsty of dictators have all ruled at the discretion of our Lord and Savior. Consider that one of the most wicked emperors ever to rule over the Romans Empire occupied the throne when Paul wrote the Epistle to the Romans. The people to whom Paul was directly addressing Romans 13:1-7 lived in the very same city as Nero, the man who would persecute the Church with a ferocity never to be matched again until the rise of antichrist in the last days. Yet Paul did not recommend that they hold protests or marches, resisting the Roman authority. No, he directed them to submit to the authority of Rome, even as corrupt as it was.
“This matter is by the decree of the watchers, and the demand by the word of the holy ones: to the intent that the living may know that the most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will, and setteth up over it the basest of men.” (Daniel 4:17)
The truth is that most rulers will be poor leaders and the majority of those in government will, to one degree or another, be corrupt and incompetent. This is the way it always has been and the way it always will be until the Lord Jesus Christ sets up His reign during the Millennium (Revelation 20:1-6). Jesus will be the first perfect Leader ever to rule on this Earth. In the meantime, God will typically choose to set the basest of men over the affairs of government.
The Christian’s Purpose
Perhaps more than any other passage of Scripture, Romans 13:1-7 reminds us that our purpose is not to change the world, but to testify to the grace and mercy of the One Who changes hearts and minds. Though much good has been done for society in the name of Jesus Christ, ultimately, ours is not a “Social Gospel” but a personal one. The leaders who crossed paths with Jesus during His earthly ministry feared that His goal was to overthrow their governments and take their thrones for His own. But insurrection and rebellion was never our Lord’s mission, neither is it ours. When Pilate pressed the Lord over whether or not He had declared Himself King over Israel, He answered that His Kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36). Jesus had not come to dethrone Pilate, Herod, or Caesar; He had come to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10). Even so, the Lord reminded Pilate that no power or authority exists which has not been ordained by God (John 19:11).
Whatever governmental administration we find ourselves under, good or bad, we must remember that our purpose in this life is to preach the Gospel to a lost and dying world; not to try to make that lost and dying world better. One day, Jesus will take His rightful place as Ruler over this Earth and, in that day, we shall have a perfect and righteous government. Not until then. In the meantime, we are instructed to obey and submit to the governing authorities, not to oppose them. Whether we live in a democracy, republic, communist state, or under a despotic tyrant, we are not to seek to overthrow any government. Can we choose to flee from oppressive conditions? Of course. Christians are not prohibited from seeking a better life by going elsewhere. If we have sought the will of the Lord in prayer and He has not directed us otherwise, then there is certainly nothing wrong with moving to a less oppressive location. Particularly where we are in danger or our ability to spread the Gospel is greatly compromised, moving out from under a tyranny may be what is needed (though not always). Additionally, if the laws of a government conflict with the laws of God, then our first loyalty lies with our Lord (cf. Acts 4:19-20, 5:29). The Christian is not to do anything which defies the commandments of God even when governing authorities command him to do so (see also Daniel 6:4-15).
So long as we live on this Earth, God expects us, under normal circumstances, to obey and respect the governments He has set over us. We are to obey the laws, pay our taxes, and be good citizens. When we do so, we will have the praise of both God and the government (Rom. 13:3).
To God goes all glory. In service to Him,