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. – Romans 13:1
Before we really get moving into the meat of the matter, I have to make a frank admission. I’m a bit nervous to write about this subject—and not just for today, but for the whole series. The reason is simple. The Christian’s relationship with the government is an emotionally supercharged topic in our culture. And when any subject is so charged with biased emotion, it can be incredibly difficult to get past the walls of a certain frame of mind that has been built, not over weeks or months or even years—but usually for decades. When the worldview that sits comfortably within that frame feels threatened, it almost immediately goes on the defensive. “Somebody is laying siege to my little castle!” that worldview cries out, and so it sets to launching its defense with burning pitch and archers and whatever else it can find.
The problem is not in having a certain frame of mind or worldview. The trouble is when that frame of mind is askew, off-kilter, and not lining up with God’s frame of mind, with his view that he reveals to us in the Bible.
So if you’re here because you think I might validate you as a Republican or Democrat, you’re in for disappointment. If you’re here because you think I’m going to explain why Donald Trump is an idiot or why Hillary Clinton is completely inept, you’ve come to the wrong place. You may read some things which maybe even seem unpatriotic or un-American at first glance—not that they are, but simply because they might grate against that aforementioned worldview.
What I want to look at is this:
- How does the Bible describe the relationship between the Christian and the government?
- How does the Christian respond when the government seems to be usurping control or even begins to oppress them?
- When is it appropriate for the Christian to disobey the laws of the government?
- What is the proper perspective through which the Christian views patriotism and subjection to the government?
The first question is what we seek to answer today: “How does the Bible describe the relationship between the Christian and the government?”
In 1849, the early American thinker named Henry David Thoreau penned a brief tract called Resistance to the Civil Government. Today this is more commonly known as Civil Disobedience. In it he airs his ideas about the government’s place in the lives of its citizens—namely, that it should, as much as possible, keep out. He believed that the government ought not interfere with unnecessary taxes, supervisions, or infrastructures. Thoreau even believed that America ought to have no standing army! (You can imagine how well that one would work in today’s global political scene.) But Thoreau wasn’t just a big talker. He put his money where his mouth was by refusing to pay the poll-tax—that is, a tax requisitioned from every able-bodied male of voting age. His refusal led to a brief incarceration—one for which he was very proud. He had looked the beast of government square in the eye, said “no,” and suffered the consequences for his actions.
So … was Thoreau a hero? Or a moral and civil criminal?
I believe that among those who would label themselves Christians in our country, I would find large contingents for either answer. I also believe that I would find a large contingent who both believed that Thoreau was both morally wrong and yet still a hero.
Let’s look back at our passage. Paul writes: “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.” Here Paul reveals primarily two things.
First, the Christian is to submit to the government under whose authority he or she lives. When one is “subject” to another, this means that they follow the leadership with obedience.
Second, God has established every governing authority. He is the one who has set them up, put them in their places, and given them charge over the kingdom or country—both over Christians and non-Christians alike. The government has headship over its citizens—a headship which God himself has established.
Just in this verse we get the simplest form of the relationship. The Christian is beneath the government, and as such is to be a dutiful and obedient citizen.
Paul goes on: “Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves” (Romans 13:2). This verse adds a bit of gravity to the situation. When one rebels against the government, he or she is not rebelling only against an earthly power. They are rebelling against God himself who has instituted it.
Let’s jump back to Thoreau’s refusal to pay the poll-tax. As a citizen of the country, perhaps he felt he was doing his civic duty to make a statement about a policy that he found dumb, overreaching, and even marginally oppressive.
Here’s where using Mr. Thoreau breaks down, because he was not a Christian. He was a Deist who believed that God existed but that such a god was impersonal and unknowable. But for the sake of our purposes, let’s imagine that he was a Christian. As a Christian citizen, Thoreau would not only have been in rebellion against the state. He would have been in rebellion against God who established the state.
The Christian’s duty toward the state is to be dutiful and obedient—not a revolutionary or rebel.
We jump ahead to verse 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.” Here we see the duty of the governing authorities. They exist for the good of their subjects—both Christian and non-Christian. For those who are living in peace, this means peace. For those who are living as law-breakers, this means fear and punishment.
Verse 5: “Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.” There is certainly the negative motivation, namely, that we don’t want to be punished for breaking the law!
But then there is the other motivation, the motivation that comes from knowing Christ and from having a conscience made clean by his blood. We remember how Jesus submitted himself to the governing authorities. He submitted himself to the Jewish ruling body, which beat him, spat upon him, and mocked him. He submitted to the higher Roman authority, a spineless governor who was willing to do anything to save his own hide—even condemn an innocent man to the cruelest of deaths. Most importantly, though, Christ submitted himself to the authority of his Father in heaven. Though his submission to authority cost him his whole life, he did so faithfully, dutifully, and obediently.
Ultimately, that submission to the governing authorities paved the way to the cross. That submission ultimately paved the way of Jesus saving me and all the world from the price of sin. He paid the price for us. He submitted himself to do so. Now we are new creations, Christian citizens who likewise submit in the same manner as Christ himself.
What did that look like for the Roman Christians to whom Paul was writing this letter? He breaks down the practical application for them—and all of this is still entirely relatable to us today. In verses 6 & 7 he writes: “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.” Essentially, whatever the government decides that we owe them, we owe them, and God himself backs them up on that.
Does that mean we have to like what they decide we owe? No. But this matter of obedience to the government is not ruled by my opinion. It is ruled by Christ, who set the example for us to live as his people in this world of governments, presidents, kings, parents, and every other authority above us.
What happens, though, when the government ceases to hold up its end of the relationship? How do Christians respond when the government stops looking out for the good of its citizens and only looks out for its own good? What do we do when the government even oppresses its own subjects?
This will form the content of the next few lessons. For now, thank God that you do live in a country where you are allowed to live as free Christians. Ask that he would continue to empower you to do your duty in this country dutifully, obediently, and with respectful words and attitudes for those in authority over you.
May our service to country be to God’s glory!