Our Relationship to Civil Authorities: Obligations of a Dual Citizenship – Romans 13:1-7
Pastor Mark Hardy December 1, 2013
Although the Pharisees, who were extremely religious, anti-Caesar, and loathed paying taxes, hated the Jewish political party of the Herodians, they conspired together with them to entrap Jesus because they hated Him more. Together, they asked Jesus the question recorded in Matthew 22:17, “Tell us then, what do You think? Is it lawful to give a poll-tax to Caesar, or not?”
They were sure they had finally outsmarted Jesus. For if He answered “No” to their question the Herodians would charge Him with treason against Rome; and if He answered “Yes” the Pharisees would accuse Him of being anti-patriotic and disloyal to the Jewish nation, which would discredit His ministry. However, in vv. 18-22 we read: But Jesus perceived their malice, and said, “Why are you testing Me, you hypocrites? Show Me the coin used for the poll-tax.” And they brought Him a denarius (e.g. a silver coin, the value of a day’s wage for a Roman soldier). And He said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to Him, “Caesar’s.” Then He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And hearing this, they were amazed, and leaving Him, they went away.
Here we see the obligations of dual citizenship that every believer has both to government (as a citizen of his country) and to God (as a citizen of the kingdom of heaven (Phil. 3:20). This is what we will be looking at this morning as we continue on in our study of Romans. We will see how these obligations are interrelated in Romans 13:1-7. These seven verses contain the clearest and most specific New Testament teaching on the Christians responsibility to civil authority. Turn in your Bible to Romans 13.
In Romans 13:1-7 we see three aspects concerning how believers who are totally committed to Christ are to relate to the governing authorities in their lives.
The first aspect is this:
I. The Requirement to Submit to governing Authorities
A. Look at the first part of v. 13: Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities.
1. Although “every person” here applies to every human being since the principle stated here reflects God’s universal plan for mankind, Paul is speaking specifically here to Christians and showing that Christianity and good citizenship should go together.
2. Therefore, without exception every believer “…is to be in subjection to the governing authorities.” Now these “governing authorities” (exousiais huperechousais) refer to human government, government officials, civil authorities, and “rulers” (v.3).
3. The word “subjection” (hupotassestho) is a military term referring to soldiers who were placed or ranked under the authority of a superior officer. Every believer is commanded or required to willingly submit to the governing authorities in our lives, whether they are local, state, or national. This command is repeated in vv. 5 and 7.
4. Paul said a similar thing to Titus in Titus 3:1, “Remind them to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good deed.”
5. And Peter declared in 1 Peter 2:13-15, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men.”
6. John Murray was right when he said, “The obligations incident to our subjection to civil authorities belong to “the good and acceptable and perfect will of God (12:2).” (pg. 145)
7. Notice here that in this command or requirement to submit to governing authorities Paul gives no qualifications or conditions. Every believer is to submit to governing authorities regardless of the form of government or the politics, competence, or morality of the one in office.
8. We see why in the second aspect concerning how believers are to relate to civil authorities, which is this:
II. The Reasons for Submitting to human Government
A. In vv. 1b-5 Paul gives seven reasons submitting to human government: First, because human government is ordained by God. Look at the end of v. 1: For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.
1. Here we see that all governing authority or human government derives its origin, right, and power from God alone. Government (Gen. 9:1-17), along with marriage (Gen. 2:18-25) and the church (Acts 2), are the only three institutions that have been universally “established” (tetagmenai) or ordained by God.
2. Human government, regardless of the form of rule, exists only by the sovereign will and determination of God. Although this does not mean that He is responsible for the sins of tyrants.
3. Psalm 62:11 declares that all “power belongs to God.” Therefore, absolutely no one wields authority or power over others except through God’s appointment.
4. Daniel 2:21 says that God is the One who “removes kings and establishes kings.” And Daniel 4:17 states that “…the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind, and bestows it on whom He wishes and sets over it the lowliest of men.” (vv. 25, 32-35; 5:21).
5. This is why after Pilate told Jesus that he had authority to crucify Him in John 19:10, Jesus replied in v. 11, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above…”
6. From our human perspective, rulers come to power through succession, election, appointment or by force. But behind the scenes God is always in sovereign control establishing all human governments to accomplish His intended purposes (Acts 17:24-28).
B. Second, because resisting government is rebelling against God. Look at the first part of v. 2: Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God;
1. Since all human government is ordained by God to “resist” (antitassomenos) or arrange oneself opposite or against it is to be “opposed” to or rebel against the “ordinance of God”—that which He has sovereignly ordained.
2. Since all men instinctively know right from wrong (Rom. 2:14-15), even unregenerate rulers and their oppressive governments realize that basic morality is essential to a workable and lasting society, and so seek to prevent the evils of indiscriminate murder, riot, thievery, as well as, general instability and chaos.
3. The worst government is better than no government at all, because there is some semblance of order instead of anarchy and chaos. Without government, society self-destructs.
4. The darkest days in Israel’s history were those described in Judges 17:6, “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.”
C. Third, because to resist civil authority brings punishment. The end of v. 2 states: and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.
1. Here we see the consequences of resisting civil authority or breaking the laws of the land. Those who do “…will receive condemnation upon themselves.”
2. The word “condemnation” (krima) here means judgment or punishment. And this punishment upon the offender is executed by the governing authorities.
3. This can take many different forms depending on the extent of the violation—from a speeding ticket, to community service, to time in jail or prison, to the death penalty.
D. Fourth, because government serves to restrain wicked behavior. Look at the first part of v. 3: For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil.
1. Of course, throughout history there have been many wicked “rulers” (archontes) or governing authorities who have punished godly believers for good behavior. But as a general rule, when civil official are just and the people are law-abiding citizens, there is no “cause for fear” (phobos) of punishment by these rulers.
2. Human government is intended by God to be feared only by evildoers. It is in this way a means to restrain wicked behavior.
3. There are in every community people who live in constant fear of civil authority because they are intent on breaking the law. But no Christian should be in that position!
E. Fifth, because government serves to promote good behavior. Look at vv. 3b-4a: Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good.
1. Human government has been established by God to not only restrain evil, but also to promote good. As I said before, generally speaking, peaceful and law-abiding citizens will have “no fear of authority.”
2. This is because they are doing “what is good” or right according to the law. And when we are doing this, we “will have praise from the same.” In other words, the governing authorities will have a favorable opinion of us and give us their approval.
3. Now even though these civil authorities are unbelievers, notice that they are still called “ministers of God.” Whether they realize it or not, they are God’s servants in representing His purposes on the civil scene to do us “good” by promoting peace and safety in society.
4. They not only serve by God’s sovereign appointment, but they will also be held accountable by Him for serving responsibly on behalf of society.
5. Therefore, human government serves to promote good behavior. And it is intended by God to provide protection of life and property.
6. Even Paul at different times took advantage of his Roman citizenship by appealing to the courts and even to Caesar to find protection and to secure justice from the wicked people who tried to do him harm (Acts 19:38-39; 25:11).
F. Sixth, because God empowered the government to punish. Look at the last part of v. 4: But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.
1. This is an elaboration of what Paul has already said vv. 2-3. Paul makes it very clear that civil authorities have the God-given right to punish all evildoers, for this is what maintains order in society.
2. God created government to have “teeth” and those who break the law and “do what is evil” need to “be afraid” because government “does not bear the sword for nothing” or for no purpose.
3. The word “sword” (machairan) symbolizes the right of civil government to enforce justice and inflict punishment, which includes the ultimate penalty of death for crimes that deserve it (Matt. 26:52; Lk. 21:24; Acts 12:2; 16:27; Heb. 11:34; Rev. 13:10).
4. This divine directive was established in Genesis 9:6, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man.”
5. Although last time in 12:19 we saw that God forbids believers from taking their own revenge and to leave vengeance to Him, here we see that God, through governing authorities, is even now inflicting some of His wrath on evildoers. This is true even though our justice system is often seriously lacking.
6. Thomas Schreiner accurately states, “The judgment of the state against evildoers in history anticipates the eschatological judgment of God at the end of history. . . . Although that judgment is provisional and earthly and cannot be identified absolutely with eschatological judgment, those who are judged by the state for evildoing in the present will also experience the full fury of God’s judgment on the last day if they do not repent.” (pg. 684)
7. And notice again that the civil official that carries out this punishment is called “…a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.”
8. The word “avenger” (ekdikos) means one who exacts a penalty. Civil authorities act as God’s servants in executing the appropriate punishment on those who practice evil.
G. Seventh, because our conscience bears witness its right. Look what Paul says in v. 5: Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake.
1. Again Paul requires submission to governing authorities by saying, “…it is necessary to be in subjection.” But the reason is not only to be because of the fear of the government’s “wrath” or punishment upon wrongdoing.
2. It is also to be “…for conscience’ sake.” The “conscience” (suneidesin) signifies a sense of moral responsibility and obligation to conform to what is required.
3. However, our conscience is only as reliable as it is informed and enlightened by the Word of God. Therefore, our highest motivation for submitting to governing authorities is because in recognizing that God has ordained human government to rule it is right thing to do.
4. According to God’s Word it is part of the “good and acceptable and perfect” will of God. So we submit to governing authorities in order to maintain a good conscience (1 Tim. 1:5, 19; 3:9; 4:2; Acts 24:16).
5. But it is this matter of conscience toward God that leaves open the possibility of resistance and even disobedience to government. However, there is but one limitation to the believer’s obligation to willing submission to civil authority, and it is this: any law or command that would require disobedience to God’s Word.
6. Whenever submission to man is inconsistent with obedience to God then civil disobedience becomes a duty. This is because obedience to the command of God always takes precedence over submission to the command of government.
7. There are a number of examples in Scripture of this kind of civil disobedience: The Jewish midwives refused to obey Pharaoh’s order to kill all of the newborn male babies (Ex. 1:17-20); Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego refused to obey King Nebuchadnezzar’s command to bow down and worship his gods and the golden image he had set up (Dan. 3:16-18); Daniel refused to obey the decree by King Darius to not pray “to any god or man” except himself (Dan. 6:7); and twice Peter and various apostles refused to obey the Jewish leaders when they ordered them not to continue teaching in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:18; 5:29).
8. The response of Peter and the apostles’ encapsulates this one limitation to the believer’s obligation to willing submission to civil authority and gives us a pattern to follow. They declared in Acts 5:29, “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 4:19-20)
9. Concerning the various examples in Scripture of what can be called “civil disobedience,” John Stott correctly observes, “In each case its purpose was ‘to demonstrate their submissiveness to God, not their defiance of government.’” (pg. 342)
10. In regard to civil disobedience, there are many difficult questions and conscientious Christians have been divided over this issue down through history. But it seems clear from this passage that Paul’s position on the relationship of the believer to the governing authorities is the same as that of Jesus—both are opposed to the zealot’s revolutionary concept.
11. Although I deeply love my country and am very patriotic, I personally agree with John MacArthur when he says, “Many evangelicals strongly believe that the American Revolution was wholly justified, not only politically but biblically. They believe that the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness not only are divinely endowed by that their attainment and defense somehow is Christian and thereby justified at whatever cost, including that of armed rebellion when necessary. Obviously, such action is forbidden by God, and, judged in light of our present text, it is equally obvious that the United States was born out of violation of Scripture. That does not mean that, in His grace, God has not bestowed great blessing on America, which He unquestionably has. It does mean, however, that His blessings have been in spite of the disobedience to His Word which was involved in the revolution bringing the nation into being.” (pp. 206-207)
12. Now this does not mean that we cannot be critical of certain governmental acts, policies, and politicians (Lk. 13:32; Jn. 18:23; Acts 23:1-5) and use whatever legal recourse available to change bad laws, bad government, and bad politicians and promote good ones. But when all legal appeals have been exhausted, we are obligated to submit to the civil authority, even if it is unjust or excessive.
13. We must remember that our priority as Christians is not to change society, but to worship and serve the Lord Jesus, to proclaim the life-saving and life-transforming gospel to the world (Mk. 16:15), and to live a holy life to demonstrate that our God is a saving God.
14. Therefore, whatever civil disobedience believers may choose to take toward governing authorities, it must be scripturally-based, done with a clear conscience before God, and the willingness to accept whatever consequences may result.
15. The third aspect concerning how believers are to relate to civil authorities is this:
III. The Responsibilities of Believers to civil Authorities
A. Look at vv. 6-7: For because of this (i.e. the truths of the previous five verses) you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.
1. Here Paul spells out two categories of responsibilities that believers owe to civil authorities. The first responsibility is to regularly pay taxes.
2. This is because for the third time these governing rulers are called “…servants of God.” Although the word “servants” (leitourgoi) is a different word than the previous two words “minister” (diakonos) here they essentially mean the same thing.
3. They are public servants of God, whose work is carried on under God’s scrutiny and to fulfill His will. And notice that they are “…devoting themselves to this very thing.”
4. How astonishing that Paul attributes to these civil officials a divine service in devoting themselves to collecting taxes.
5. Therefore, we are commanded in v. 7 to “Render to all what is due them.” The word “Render” (apodidomi) carries the idea of paying back something that is owed, and that meaning is reinforced by the phrase “what is due them.”
6. And the first thing here that we owe is to pay our taxes. The payment of taxes is our necessary and proper participation in the support of government.
7. The money received from taxes enables them to carry out their job in running the government, even if part of that money may be used for causes and activities we don’t agree with.
8. This command is reminiscent of what Jesus told His disciples in Matthew 22:21, “…render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” Even Jesus acknowledged Caesar’s right to assess and collect taxes, and thus He made it our duty as Christians to pay them.
9. Notice that Paul uses two different words for paying taxes—“tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom.”
10. The word “tax” (phoros) refers to the direct taxes levied on a person’s income and property (Lk. 20:22-25; 23:2). Roman citizens were exempt from this direct taxation.
11. And the word “custom” (telos) refers to the indirect taxes levied on goods that have been received by the consumer, like a sales tax (Matt. 17:25).
12. Now while it is appropriate to take advantage of every deduction, tax credit, and other benefit that the law provides, no citizen, especially a Christian, is ever justified in circumventing payment of taxes by any means that is illegal or unethical.
B. The second responsibility is to show proper respect. Paul says that we are also to render: “fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.”
1. Both of these words “fear” (phobos) and “honor” (time) in this context overlap and describe the proper respect and value that should be shown to those who have authoritative positions in government—whether they be national, state, or local leaders, judges, and police.
2. We may deplore the politics of certain people in office, and even be repelled by their scandalous conduct. But that does not disallow us from respecting the office, which has been established by God.
3. A good way to show proper respect for governing authorities is obey God’s command in 1 Timothy 2:1-2 to faithfully pray for “all those in authority.”
In closing, when it comes to how we are to relate to the governing authorities in our lives, we are required to submit to them, to regularly pay taxes and to show them proper respect. It is in fulfilling these obligations of our dual citizenship that we obey the Lord’s command in Matthew 22:21 to “…render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.”
John MacArthur summarizes this passage well saying, “We are to be model citizens, known as law abiding not rabble-rousing, obedient rather than rebellious, respectful of government rather than demeaning of it. We must speak against sin, against injustice, against immorality, and ungodliness with fearless dedication, but we must do it within the framework of civil law and with respect for civil authorities. We are to be a godly society, doing good and living peaceably within an ungodly society, manifesting our transformed lives so that the saving power of God is seen clearly.” (pg. 213)