Submit to the Governing Authorities? Romans 13, Part 1

Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God.

Even when we’re reading a passage of Scripture devotionally, we need to remember that it was not written directly to us. Yes, yes, I do believe it is God’s Word for us. But the biblical text was, first of all, for another people in another time. If we forget this, we run the risk of misinterpreting Scripture, even in our personal devotions. For example, we might end up sacrificing animals on an altar when we’re working through Leviticus, forgetting that the sacrifice of Jesus has made that unnecessary.

Paul’s writing in Romans 13 was not intended to be his theological dissertation on the nature of government. Rather, he was offering divinely-inspired counsel to Christians living in Rome somewhere around 55 A.D. It’s quite likely that some of these Christians believed that their freedom in Christ meant they didn’t have to submit to civil authorities. In particular, they may have reasoned that if Jesus was Lord, and not Caesar, then they didn’t need to pay taxes to Caesar. How convenient! Moreover, it’s likely that the Roman Christians had a history of getting in trouble with the government. The Roman historian Suetonius suggests that such a thing happened in 49 AD under the emperor Claudius (Life of Claudius, 25.4). This surely made it difficult for believers in Jesus to live out their faith in Rome with effectiveness and impact.

Thus, Paul is not intending to deal with major questions of the nature of government or the appropriateness of civil disobedience in certain cases. Rather, he’s trying to make sure that the Romans don’t get into unnecessary trouble with the government. To do so would be dishonoring to God and a nagging distraction from their evangelistic mission in Rome.

Today, Paul’s basic counsel continues to guide us in our discipleship. We have seen what happens when prominent Christians break the law. The reputation of all believers plummets and our mission is made much more difficult. Though there might be occasions when we need to oppose unjust governments, in general, submitting to civil authority allows us to focus on being God’s servants in the world.

QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: Have you ever witnessed the unfortunate results of Christian lawbreaking? When? Have you ever been tempted to break the law? What happened? How does Romans 13 speak to those of us who live in a participatory democracy?

PRAYER: Dear Lord, sometimes your Word speaks to me as if it were a personal letter dictated today. I thank you for the immediacy of your Word as it’s made alive by your Spirit.

But I also know that neglect of the historical context for Scripture can sometimes lead to trouble. So I pray for discernment as I read, reflect, and pray. I don’t want to turn my devotional times with you into some major Bible study project. But, at the same time, I don’t want to misconstrue your truth, or to misapprehend your word to me.

Moreover, Lord, since you have given me a role as a teacher for others, I pray that you’ll help me to “rightly divide the word of truth” in my speaking and writing, especially in my work on these Daily Reflections. May what I write here be honoring to you. May it build up your people, leading them into a deeper relationship with you. Amen.
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This devotional comes from The High Calling: Everyday Conversations about Work, Life, and God (www.thehighcalling.org). You can read my Daily Reflections there, or sign up to have them sent to your email inbox each day. This website contains lots of encouragement for people who are trying to live out their faith in the workplace. The High Calling is associated with Laity Lodge, where I work.

  • Evan

    The reference to Suetonius was an unfamiliar one to me. This is what I found when I looked the reference up:
    “In The Life of Claudius 25.4, we find the statement, ‘As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.’” (http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/suetonius.html)
    To your point, I think the hinge for Romans 13:1 is found in two places. The first is Acts 4:19:
    >>But Peter and John replied, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you (the governing authority, in this case, the Sanhedrin) rather than God.” << They were ordered to stop preaching the name of Jesus, and they refused.
    When the orders of the governing authorities conflict with the orders of God, then the duty to obey the governing authorities is superseded.
    The second hinge is Jesus' well-documented rule to "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and render unto God what is God's." As far as I know, that settled the question about paying taxes (since that was the subject at hand) and any number of other questions. Again, the principal seems to be that if God has not claimed a duty but Caesar legitimately (by implication) has, then Caesar should be obeyed.
    All of this plays out in the refusal of the 3 Hebrews to bow down to Nebuchanezzer's idol as recounted in Daniel. That was an area in which the king's orders strayed into God's jurisdiction, and they could rightfully refuse to follow his orders.
    Paul would seem to be saying this, put in context of his actions as recorded in Acts and the rest of scripture. Christians should obey the secular authorities unless it contravenes their duty to God.
    I would also note that the Declaration of Independence pretty much sets out the case that the King of England had trespassed into God's authority in some instances and taken secular powers he was not entitled to take in others, thus justifying the dissolving of the political bonds. It certainly echoes all of the above themes.


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