Romans 13:1—Submitting to government officials.
Followers of Jesus Christ have a dual citizenship, one eternal and one temporal. We are citizens of both heaven (Philippians 3:20) and whatever country in which we reside. Even though we are no longer of the world, we still live in the world and therefore we have a responsibility to participate wisely in its civil affairs. To be indifferent to government is to disregard an institution that God created for the benefit of human beings.
Charles Swindoll draws attention to wrong attitudes held by many Christians toward government. On the one hand, Swindoll observes, “Christians can become defiantly independent, nurturing a resentful animosity and even an antigovernment attitude.” Or they withdraw, thinking involvement in civil affairs is a waste of time or even sinful. I recall it being said that about 30 million evangelicals did not vote in the last presidential election. Elections matter in this nation, and those who refuse to participate bear some responsibility for the outcomes. To see why these attitudes violate Paul’s instruction in this section of Scripture, we begin with verse 1.
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. Paul addresses everyone, and he uses a verb, “be subject,” that means to voluntarily defer or submit to the wishes of another. This word takes on different meanings in different types of governmental systems. A person living in a totalitarian state can do little more than passively respond to the actions of a dictator. A person living in a republic or democracy, however, enjoys the privilege of casting ballots for governmental officials and, indirectly, for the policies those officials will enact.
So submission in a democracy has two dimensions. In a broad sense a person submits to the process of government and the responsibility of citizenship. This can involve running for local, state, or national office but at a minimum entails gathering information on candidates and issues and voting. Then, in the more common sense of the word, submission is owed to the officials themselves. We Christians must take this word submission seriously because in submitting to those officials we are respecting their office as a creation of God.
Submission to secular rulers is not without limits, however, and this may be why Paul avoids use of the stronger word obey. Peter and the apostles declared that they must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). Government has authority over us only to the extent our submission to it does not entail disobedience to God. We see an increasing number of instances where Christians as a matter of conscience rightly refuse to obey national, state, and local officials who stand in opposition to the righteousness of God. Sometimes units of government disagree with one another on matters of righteousness, as in this recent case where the Obama Administration is forcing a school district to allow a transgender boy to shower with girls. (Yes, elections matter.)
For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. In future messages we will explore God’s purposes for instituting government. In brief, secular authority is necessary in a fallen world for the preservation of life. Government is intended by God to be an instrument of justice that protects people from anarchy and restrains the power of the strong over the weak. In this light, government is a manifestation of God’s common grace, along with marriage and family, work, and commerce.
We can trace God’s institution of government all the way back to humanity’s initial rebellion. RC Sproul points out that “the first law enforcement officer who appears in Scripture is an angel, a minister of God, sent from heaven with an instrument of coercion, an instrument of force at his command, to enforce the barring of access into Eden.”
God ordains the powers that be, but this does not mean he approves of rulers’ actions. Human governments come in many forms, some better than others, but all are flawed institutions in a fallen world. Colin Kruse quotes an early church theologian: “for it is not the wickedness of individual rulers which comes from God but the establishment of the ruling power itself.… Since God wants sinners to be punished, he is prepared to tolerate even bad rulers.” Martin Luther said, “God’s way to control bad men is to put bad men in control.”
God sovereignly uses rulers to accomplish his purposes (see Isaiah 45:1, Jeremiah 25:9, Daniel 4:32), whether the rulers realize God’s purpose or not, and he will judge them for their actions. That their authority is delegated by God is apparent in what Jesus said to Pilate at his trial, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above” (John 19:11).
Knowing that God is in charge of human history, we should train ourselves to look for his hand behind even the most wicked deeds of rulers. At the same time, God’s sovereignty is no excuse to withdraw from public affairs. We too shall be held accountable and judged for how we pray and participate in those affairs.