Christians and the Civil Government (Romans 13:1-7)
Sermon for May 31, 2020
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Dear New Cut Church and friends,
Our Scripture reading today is Romans 13:1-7. In this passage, Paul shows that a part of being a Christian is obedience to the civil government. The Word of God reads in Romans 13:1-7:
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. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 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. 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. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 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.
“Authority.” A lot of times, when the word “authority” is used, people baulk at the sound of it. After all, authority carries the idea of enforcing certain behaviors. However, submission to human authority is a key part of living the Christian life. Romans 13:1 says, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.” The authority referred to here is the authority of the civil government. For us, this means that, as Christians in the United States, we are to be submissive to the national, state, and local governments.
Let me tell you a short story. I was talking with another sailor one day. This particular sailor had a lot of thoughts and questions about Christianity. I think that over several years and several different Christians that he met in the Navy, God worked in his heart to bring him to faith. He was struck, though, by another sailor he knew of. This sailor was a Christian. This sailor believed that since he was a Christian, he could only obey God. Therefore, he could not be ordered by anyone to do anything. He asked his supervisor to ask or request instead of ordering or telling. In this instance, the supervisor unfortunately obliged, and simply made requests to the sailor instead of ordering. Hopefully this situation did not continue for long.
When my friend asked me what I thought, I said that this sailor’s viewpoint didn’t make sense in the context of Christian obedience. I referred to Romans chapter 13. I pointed out that a part of Christian obedience is submission to governing authorities. To not be submissive towards government authorities is to not be submissive towards God.
As we have started working through the last section of Romans, chapters 12-16, we have been seeing that Christian obedience does not happen in a vacuum. Christian obedience is more than saying an occasional personal prayer. It’s more than cracking the Bible open every now and then. It is more than occasionally showing up to church. Chapters 12-16 start out with Paul writing in chapter 12 verse 1, “Therefore, I urge you , brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship.” In view of God’s mercy, we are to have total obedience and commitment towards God.
Again, this obedience towards God is not in a vacuum. Our obedience towards God is not isolated from how we live our lives in the world. Our obedience towards God has very much to do with how we live our lives among other people in this world.
We have been seeing what Christian obedience looks like in previous sections of Romans. In Romans 12:3-8, we saw that obedience towards God means using our spiritual gifts to serve one another in the church. In verses 9-21, we saw that obedience towards God means having sincere love towards one another. We are to have this sincere love towards Christians. We are also to have this sincere love towards those who are not believers. Now, in chapter 13 verses 1-7, we see that obedience towards God means obedience towards the governing authorities. To disobey the governing authorities is to disobey God.
So, verse 1 of chapter 13 instructs Christians to obey the governing authorities. This verse also gives the reason why we are to be subject to the governing authorities. Verse 1 reads, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.” The reason why we are to be subject, to be submissive to the governing authorities, is because God has established those authorities. Again, to disobey the governing authorities is to disobey God.
Now, when it comes to Romans chapter 13, the question of civil disobedience sometimes comes up. The question goes like this, “Wait, aren’t we supposed to disobey the civil authorities so that we can obey God?” There is certainly a legitimate question. There are times when it is appropriate to disobey the civil authorities. Here in verse 1, it says that “there is no authority except that which God has established.” It follows that, if God has established that authority, then that authority answers ultimately to God as the higher authority. If that authority demands that you do something which is disobedient to God, then you should obey God rather than obey that authority.
In Acts chapter 4, Peter and John were boldly proclaiming the gospel. They were told by those in authority to stop teaching about Jesus. Acts 4:18 says, “Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.” But these apostles knew that they had a duty to God to speak and teach in the name of Jesus. So, in verses 19-20, Peter and John replied, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judge. As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” Peter and John made the point that it was more important to obey God than human authorities.
Then it happened again in Acts chapter 5. The High Priest said in v. 28, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name.” But then Peter and the other apostles replied in v. 29, “We must obey God rather than human beings!” Acts chapters 4 and 5 gives us a framework for knowing when it is necessary to disobey the governing authorities. It is necessary to disobey the governing authorities when those authorities demand something that causes us to disobey God. If the governing authorities demand that you do something that violates your obedience to God, then you should obey God instead. If the governing authorities make demands that prevent you following God, you should follow God instead.
So, there are instances in which disobeying the governing authorities is the right thing to do in order to follow God. It’s necessary for us to address this topic because of the whole teaching of Scripture. However, Paul does not make the civil disobedience exception in Romans chapter 13. Paul makes the point that Christians are to be subject to the governing authorities, and then supports that point for the next seven verses. While there is a time and place for you as a Christian to follow God rather than human authority, you ought not to be anti-authoritarian. Even when there is a time that you need to disobey the civil government, you ought not to do so in a way that undermines the overall authority of the government. You still acknowledge the government’s rightful, God-given, place of authority over you. And if you are faced with a situation that requires you to follow God instead civil governing authority, how you disobey matters a lot. It should be clear that you are not anti-authoritarian, not disrespectful towards authorities, but that as a matter of conscience, you must follow God instead.
What might this submission to civil authorities look like in day-to-day life? The most obvious starting point is not breaking the law. Christians shouldn’t be criminals or anti-authoritarian. Rather, Christians should be known as good citizens. This submission to civil authorities also means showing proper respect towards those authorities. These authorities might be law makers, police officers, judges, or other sorts of government officials. Show respect towards them. They are authorities established by God. This respect towards authorities in the civil government means not speaking of those authorities with disdain. Submission and respect towards governing authorities means not slamming those authorities on social media.
Right now, we are seeing civil authority playing out in new ways in our country because of the pandemic. Our government has reached and exercised authority in new ways that it has never before. What does submitting to the governing authorities look like in the current context? The federal government, state governments, and local governments are frequently giving different guidance. Who should you listen to? Does the government have the right to reach as far as it has? Maybe that’s a reason for civil disobedience? Do I need to listen to the government if it changed its guidance on critical issues? Do I need to listen to the government if it has legitimately violated my trust in the past? Does the government have the right to say that churches are not essential? Has the government acted within the bounds of the 1st Amendment? People can land in different places on these questions. It is not in scope of Romans 13 to flesh out a definite answer to all these questions of political philosophy. However, Romans 13 still speaks to these issues.
Whenever you flesh out your views of political philosophy, the legitimate reach of the government, and so-on, Romans 13 doesn’t go away. Let’s say, for example, that in the current crisis, you really view state rights as important and overriding of federal directives or guidance. Perhaps you view that the federal government has gone beyond its legitimate reach. That’s fine. But don’t act in a way towards the federal government that is rebellious, anti-authoritarian, or disrespectful. Remember that God put that government in place. Or say that you think all the states should just listen to the federal government on a particular issue. That’s fine. But remember that state and local governments were established by God. Don’t act in rebellious, anti-authoritarian, or disrespectful ways to those governments. Remember that your submission to the government is a reflection of your submission towards God. And yes, this includes respect towards both Democrats and Republican leaders.
Maybe you think, “But wait! I know better! Those guys are crooks in that political party!” or “Who do those guys think they are?! Their policies clearly show their ignorance and tyranny!” Let me suggest, that the “I know better!” attitude is anti-authoritarian. Isn’t that how anti-authoritarianism frequently starts? I know better, therefore I will disobey. That’s what happened in the Garden of Eden. Eve came to a point that she knew better than God’s simple guidance, so she disobeyed God’s authority. Now, I’m not saying to let go of your political convictions. What I am saying is that, regardless of your political convictions, you still owe respect and submission to those who God has placed in authority over you. Maybe you disagree with a leader or group of leaders. Maybe a group of leaders did something that was clearly wrong. You still owe submission to the current government. When Paul wrote Romans 13, he was not naïve that governments can act immorally and wrongly. Yet he still directed Christians to be submissive to the government.
An important distinction to make here is the difference between rebelling as an individual and legitimately attempting a revolution. The Revolutionary War and Civil War in our country was led civil magistrates. Christians generally agree that resisting the government is legitimate when that resistance is led by a civil magistrate. A Christian in those situations still gave their submission to a governing authority, even during a revolutionary war. However, Christians as individuals, without the leadership of a civil magistrate, do not have the place to rebel against the government. When that happens, a Christian is simply being rebellious against what God has established.
Maybe this obedience to the civil government doesn’t seem like a big deal you. If it doesn’t seem important, Paul gives you a reason why it is important in verse 2. Romans 13:2 reads, “Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.” If you rebel against the civil authority, you only brings God’s judgment on yourself. Since God instituted that authority, you are rebelling against God.
This judgement of God also plays out in this world and is executed by the civil government. Verses 3-4 say,
For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from the fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 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.
It’s no surprise when one rebels against the civil authority and suffers for it. It’s God’s judgement working out in the structures of the world that he created. If you don’t want to suffer terror, then don’t rebel against the governing authorities.
Now, let’s say that in some way you have not submitted to the civil authority. Does this mean that you are under God’s judgement? Yes, but remember that there is grace. If you find yourself in disobedience of the civil government in some way, then cast yourself on the grace of Christ. Ask God for forgiveness. God is a forgiving God. And if there is something you need to make right, make it right.
Or maybe you reject the authority of the civil government outright, explicitly or implicitly. Maybe you’re best described as someone who is always sticking it to the man. If that’s you, then you should still cast yourself on the grace of Christ. There is forgiveness if you turn towards him in faith and repentance. But if you generally reject authority, if you are someone who is always sticking it to the man, and you think that you are right with God, you’re not. You can’t rebel against the authority that God has instituted without rebelling against God. Your anti-authoritarianism is a reflection of your rejection of God’s authority. And anyone who outright rejects God’s authority is not right with God. The true and living God does not accept rebellion. A god that accepts rebellion against authority is an idol of the imagination. But again, if you outright reject the civil authority that God has established, there is still forgiveness to be found in Christ.
So, it’s not in your best interest to rebel against the civil government. However, while there is a curse for rebellion against the government, there is also a benefit for submission to the authority that God has established. Verse 3 refers to a commendation from the governing authorities for doing good. It’s unclear what exactly that commendation was. However, it’s clear that there is a benefit.
Another benefit is that, if you submit to the governing authorities, then you have the benefit of not having reason to live in fear of the authorities. I remember when I first moved here to South Carolina. I took some wrong turns here and there while I was learning the area. My car looked suspicious because it didn’t have rims and had a South Dakota license plate. In my first week, I was pulled over, followed, and checked out. It put me a little on edge. However, I knew that I didn’t have reason to fear because I wasn’t in fundamental rebellion. Even though my vehicle was a suspicious vehicle, I knew I wasn’t doing anything wrong, and had no reason to fear the governing authorities. Legitimate Christian submission to the civil government brings the blessing and benefit of not having to live in fear of the civil government and its authority to punish.
Verse 5 shows another benefit of submission to the civil government. Verse 5 says, “Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.” An even greater blessing and benefit of submission to the governing authorities than avoiding punishment and fear of punishment is a clear conscience. A person’s conscience is their sense having done right or wrong. When Paul uses the word “conscience” he especially means a sense of having done right or wrong in regard to your relationship with God. A benefit of obeying the civil government is that you obey God in the process. God is pleased by that obedience. And you have a clear conscience before God. If your conscience isn’t clear, come to Christ for cleansing. Hebrews 10:22 says, “Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed in pure water.” We should submit to the civil authority as a matter of submitting to what God has instituted. When we submit to the civil authority, we have the blessing of a clear conscience before God.
We frequently hear the word “authority” and think it’s a bad thing. We balk at the word. But we see here in Romans 13 that the civil authority is for our good. There is a blessing for submission to the civil authority. When we obey authority within the context of reasonable Christian obedience, we are obeying God. On the other hand, when we reject authority, we disobey God and bring hardship on ourselves. Submission to the civil authority isn’t an optional add on in the Christian life. Being a good citizen is part of being a Christian. Endeavor to walk with God in this area of your life.