How Should I Respond to Politics?

| Romans 13:1-10

Week of July 19, 2020

The Point:  Reflect Christ in how you interact with politics and government.

Submission to the Authorities: Romans 13:1-10.

[1] Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. [2] Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. [3] For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, [4] for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. [5] Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. [6] For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. [7] Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. [8] Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. [9] For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” [10] Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.  [ESV]

“Authority [13:1]. What is the role of the state in human affairs? How is the state to relate to the church of Jesus Christ? How are Christian people to relate to the government’s authority? It is these questions that Paul raises and answers in the first seven verses of Romans 13. The starting point of Paul’s argument is found in the reason he gives for his categorical opening statement that every person, not only Christians, must be subject to the governing authorities. Why? The answer is not that you will get into trouble if you don’t, or even that obedience is necessary for maintaining social order. Those are excellent pragmatic reasons that Paul understands and will bring into the discussion in due time, but they are not the reasons he gives at the beginning. What he says in verse 1 is that we must obey the authorities because there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. In other words, the starting point for Paul’s argument is the doctrine of the sovereignty of God, in this case in regard to human rulers. God is sovereign. Therefore, those who exercise authority do so because God has established them in their positions. We have to take this sovereignty seriously, because it is easy for us to accept God’s being sovereign when we are given Christian rulers or when people of high moral character are elevated to positions of responsibility. But what about evil rulers? What about rulers who persecuted the church? Romans 13:1 tells us that even these authorities have been established by God, and that we have a legitimate (though not unlimited) responsibility to obey even them. Of course, the problem for us is not so much that God has established whatever rulers there may be. We can believe that abstractly, and either like and approve of our rulers, or not like them and disapprove of them, or perhaps even reject them. The problem is that we are told that it is the duty of Christians to obey those who exercise such authority, and that includes all authorities. There are many obvious problems at this point. First, Paul does not answer a lot of our questions. For example, when is a government a legitimate government, and when isn’t it? When is it right to rebel against an unjust or tyrannical government, or isn’t it permitted at all? Or what about limits. Paul says we are to obey the governing authorities. But does this mean that we are to obey everything they command? What about unjust acts commanded by an evil government? Are there no limits to what must be obeyed? There are limits, of course, but the place to begin is not with the limits, but by trying to understand the nature of the authority that has been given to civil rulers. The key word is authority, which occurs six times in these verses. The Greek word Paul uses in these verses refers to a delegated power, power that is given to a person or group of persons by another. Paul uses it in Romans 13 because he wants to make explicit that the authority of the governing powers is from God. Nevertheless, they are responsible for how they exercise it. That is the important thing. They are responsible to God, precisely because God has given them the power. So here in one word is both the legitimacy and the necessary accountability of human government.

Must Caesar Always Be Obeyed? [13:2]. Having been told that we must obey the authorities, the next two verses of Romans 13 give us reasons why we should. First, if we disobey the state we will be disobeying God, and God will punish us [2]. Second, the government will also punish us [3]. Verse 2 raises some important questions. For example, are there no conditions under which rebellion against the existing authority is justified? Or demanded? Suppose the state is tyrannical. Suppose it is violating human rights. And what about obedience itself? Must obedience be absolute, or are there limits? Can we obey in some areas and not others? Must Caesar always be obeyed? That question alludes to Jesus’ celebrated response to the question his enemies raised about taxes, and is one of two classic texts for helping us understand the God-given role of government and our rightful relationship to it. The first text is Jesus’ reply to Pilate at his trial [John 19:11]. Jesus said that although Pilate had a true authority, that authority had been given to him by God and he was therefore responsible to God for how he used it. This verse lays the groundwork for the limitations of the state’s authority. The setting for the second classic text is this. Jesus’ enemies had come to him with a trick question: “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” [Matt. 22:17]. Jesus asked for a coin. When they produced it, he asked whose portrait was on it and whose inscription. “Caesar’s,” they replied. “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” Jesus said thus laying the basis for the exact teaching Paul gives in Romans 13:7, when he says, “Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes.” However, at this point, Jesus continued, making the contrast, “and to God what is God’s” [Matt. 22:21]. The first part of Jesus’ answer reinforced Caesar’s authority, even in such an unpopular matter as taxes. His second part drew limits. Although the state had a God-given, and therefore legitimate authority, the authority of God is greater. Therefore, those who know God must worship and obey him, even if it means disobeying Caesar. Because Christians recognize the authority of the state, they are (or should be) the very best of citizens, in two ways. First, they should obey the state in all areas of its legitimate authority. However, the other way Christians should be the very best of citizens is by opposing the state verbally and by acts of noncompliance whenever the government strays from its legitimate God-given function or transgresses the moral law of God. The first area in which Christians cannot recognize the authority of the government and must therefore disobey it is whenever the state forbids the preaching of the gospel or evangelism. This is because Christians have a God-given duty to evangelize. What must happen when the authorities demand differently is illustrated in Acts 4 and 5. When commanded to keep silent, Peter and John replied, “We must obey God rather than men” [Acts 5:29]. This incident makes clear that Christians are to give preference to the preaching of the gospel and are not to cease from it even though commanded to do so by the civil authorities. They may suffer for it. Many of the early preachers were arrested and beaten. Some were killed. But they evangelized anyway. We need to remember this in our age, which is becoming increasingly intolerant of any public articulation of Christian faith and truth. A second biblical limit on obedience to human authorities is in moral areas affecting Christian conduct. No government has the right to command Christians to perform immoral or non-Christian acts.

The Power of the Sword [13:3-4]. A second reason why Christians should submit to the secular authorities is that the state will judge us. That is, we will get in trouble because the state has power to enforce its decrees and laws. In verses 3 and 4 the power of government is expressed by the symbol of a sword. Power of the sword means force. This is what the state has been given by God, and it is the very basis for how the state conducts its affairs. When we say that the power of the sword has been given to the state, we do not mean that this power can be exercised in any way whatsoever, or that the state can do by the exercise of power what the church alone is able to do by its proclamation of the gospel and the truth. (1) The state’s power, however legitimate it may be when used in the areas for which God has given it, cannot be exercised in any way whatsoever. The state has no right to use its power to advance evil. Paul makes this clear in verses 3 and 4, when he speaks repeatedly of those who do good and those who do evil, and of the state’s exercise of its power to reward those who do the one and punish those who do the other. How, then, is the power of the sword to be used? First, the state is given power to defend its citizens from both enemies outside the state and evildoers within. It has power to wage war, including all necessary powers that go with it. The state also has power to defend its citizens from evildoers within. That is, it has been given responsibility to provide and maintain social order. Social order is good by itself, but it is particularly good for Christians because it gives us an opportunity to advance the gospel. The second area in which government has been given power by God is in establishing, exercising, and maintaining justice – that is, in rewarding good behavior and punishing bad behavior. This is what Paul chiefly has in mind in these verses. There are two matters here, each enormously important now. First, a conviction that there are such things as good and evil is critical. For when Paul says that the state has been given power to punish evil, he is assuming a moral standard to which not only the individual citizen but also the state must conform. In other words, the state should reward what is good and punish what is evil, but in order to do that the state must know what the good is, and for that there must be an objective moral standard outside itself, either discovered by it or given to it. (2) The state cannot reform evildoers by power. The power of the sword has been given to the state to defend its citizens and to punish wrongdoing only. Or, to put it in other words, the state has a God-given responsibility to punish bad or evil behavior, but it has no authority – and even less power – to actually change or reform the evildoer. What Romans 13 is saying is that the state has no business trying to cure people, only that it is mandated by God to punish bad behavior and reward good actions. Therefore, the state must have a standard of right and wrong, and it must administer that standard impartially. That is all government really can do in the long run. Two final points are needed to round out this picture of government and its proper use of power. (1) Government cannot develop morality. Government can only punish; it cannot develop morality in its citizens. The important word in that statement is develop, of course. For I am not saying that government is not to be concerned with morality. On the contrary, morality is precisely what it is to be concerned with, for morality is the only true basis for law. Government can proscribe penalties. It can enforce them and thus perhaps also restrain evil somewhat. But it cannot change the people involved. (2) Morality comes from revealed religion. If government cannot develop morality in its citizens, then morality must come in another way and from another source. What can that source be? Where can morality come from? There is only one answer. It comes from revealed religion, and it must work its way into national life through those citizens who know and sincerely desire to please God.

Because of Conscience [13:5]. Paul is writing about the proper function of government and why Christians should be exemplary in their submission to its legitimate authority. There are two reasons, and they are both powerful. First, we should submit to the governing authorities because they have been established by God. If we resist the state, we are resisting God and God will judge us. The second reason is that the state will judge us too. The state will insist that we obey it and will punish us if we do not. In verse 5, Paul adds another reason: but also for the sake of conscience. Conscience involves our sense of what is right and wrong and, even more importantly, our awareness that we ought to do what is right. In other words, when Paul speaks of conscience, he suddenly lifts the discussion of submission to the governing authorities from what we might call a merely pragmatic level to the highest possible plane, our sense of what is right. Conscience has to do with knowledge of one’s heart or inner motivations as contrasted with one’s actions. But what is the role of conscience as it applies to the Christian’s relationship to civil government? Paul’s main point in this section is that Christians are to obey the secular authorities, and the first reason he has given is that God has established human governments. That is something that Christians can alone fully appreciate. When Paul brings in the matter of the conscience, he is saying also that we must obey because obedience is right and because, being responsible moral agents, we ought to do the right thing. In adding this standard Paul also raises our significance as responsible agents and tells us that what we do really matters. It matters to God. He cares whether or not you obey him. But it also matters to society. By obeying the laws of the land, you will be contributing to society by helping to sustain a stable and liberty-respecting government. One of the great tragedies of our country today is that many people have little or no respect for authority and therefore feel free to break any laws that seem inconvenient to them. So civil disorder is rising.

To Each His Due [13:6-7]. When we analyze these two verses we find that Paul’s teaching about the Christian and his or her relationship to civil government have two parts. The first part says we need to pay taxes. The second part is about showing respect and giving honor to those who deserve respect and who should be shown honor. Paul joins with Jesus in saying that paying taxes is one important responsibility of a Christian. A Christian is to support his government by paying taxes. The reason, of course, is that government is expensive and we benefit by it in countless ways, even if we have a bad government. But although the state’s authority and power are from God and are therefore to be respected, the state is nevertheless responsible to God for what it does with that power. This is true in the area of taxation also. One limitation on government in the areas of taxation is that taxes are not to be used merely to increase the luxury and elevate the lifestyle of our governors. This is clear from the way Paul sets down these verses. For when he says that the authorities are ministers of God, he is saying that government officials are to use our taxes to serve the people and not to enrich themselves. The second abuse about which the government needs to be especially on guard is confiscatory taxation, which means making taxes so high that the government is, in effect, stealing from its people and thus eventually ruining both itself and the country. How government should conduct itself in the area of taxation was not Paul’s concern, of course. He was concerned about how Christians are to function. So at this point he broadens his words from taxes to talk about proper respect and honor. Pay to all what is owed to them … respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. We honor the king and those who are over us by refusing to speak of them disrespectfully, and we exercise a genuinely Christian responsibility toward them by praying for them. There are a number of verses that tell us to honor those who have been given authority in the churches [1 Tim. 5:17; Heb. 13:17]. The Ten Commandments contain another verse about those we are to honor, our parents. If we are called to honor people who are in authority over us, we obviously also need to respect and honor God. How do we honor God? We do it by studying his Word that we may come to know him. When we discover something in his Word that he requires of us, we honor him by doing what he has commanded. We honor him by thanking him for all he has given and by praising him for all he is in and of himself. We honor God by trusting him through all the many trials and disappointments of life. We honor him by praising him as the source of whatever good may be found in us or whatever good we may do in this life. It is only as Christian people capture the high ground of doing what they do for the honor and glory of God that they can be used of God to elevate society to where those who deserve honor are given honor and those who deserve respect are given respect. And it is only when that happens that a nation becomes morally strong and justice becomes a reality and not just a hollow word. In other words, a nation does not become strong by laws but by the character of its citizens.

The Debt of Love [13:8-10]. Romans 13:8-10 deals with a permanent obligation. We can never say that we have satisfied our obligations in this area. In Paul’s writings the words “one another” usually refer to Christians. But in this case they surely refer to all people. This is because immediately after this Paul begins to discuss the moral law, which is binding upon all and is for all, indicating that love for others is the fulfillment of this law, and also because he immediately broadens the statement about loving each other (one another) by adding, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. This is in line with Jesus’ teaching about love. In the parable of the Good Samaritan [Luke 10:30-35] Jesus taught that the neighbor was the Samaritan, though he was of a different race than the man who had been robbed. He was a neighbor simply because he had acted to help the unfortunate victim. Jesus taught that anyone who wanted to follow after him and be his disciple would have to show that love to everyone. Paul speaks only of love for our fellowman, but that is what the context demands since he is writing about how Christians are to act toward others in this world. It can hardly fail to strike anyone who reads these verses carefully that the examples Paul offers in the form of samples from the moral law are all negative. This is important, because we are hardly in position to do good to another person until we are ready at least to stop doing him or her harm. Still, we must know that real love is also positive. It “does” for the other. This is involved in the very first thing Paul says, for he writes of the continuing debt to love one another. Let’s think about this continuing debt positively, and ask, What does it mean to discharge this debt honestly? Here are some extremely simple but important and often neglected ways. (1) Listen to one another. (2) Share with one another. (3) Forgive one another. (4) Serve one another. What the world needs is the sincere, selfless, sacrificial, serving love of God displayed in those who know him and are determined to obey him faithfully. If you know Jesus, you will not follow after the world’s selfish ways but instead will love as God loves. You will keep the law: Love is the fulfillment of the law. But you will also go out of your way to listen to, share with, forgive, and serve all other people.” [Boice, pp. 1639-1696].

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Why does Paul instruct us to be subject to the governing authorities? What is the role of the state in human affairs? How is the state to relate to the church of Jesus Christ? How are Christian people to relate to the government’s authority? When must a Christian resist and disobey their government?
  2. What is the role of conscience as it applies to the Christian’s relationship to civil government? What are the ways Boice tells us that we can honor God?
  3. How does loving one another fulfill God’s law? Why is love a debt that cannot be fully paid? How can you put this commandment to love each other into action in your life?


Romans, vol. 4, James Boice, Baker.

The Epistle to the Romans, Leon Morris, InterVarsity.

Romans, Thomas Schreiner, ECNT, Baker.

Romans, John Stott, InterVarsity.

The purpose of this article is to provide additional reference resources for those Sunday School teachers who use Lifeway’s Bible Studies for Life material.