Romans 13:1-7 is Paul’s exposition of Jesus’ remarkable saying: “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (see Matt. 22:17-21). In fact verse 7 bears some resemblance to it, beginning with, “pay to all what is owed to them.”

We must keep several things in mind as we move through this passage. First, the political situation in Rome was explosive for the Early Church. Paul was afraid some of the revolutionary attitudes of Jerusalem’s Zealots might influence the Church. So Paul wrote to instruct the Church on how to behave properly toward the state. What he writes is not ivory-tower theory, but practical directions on how to live under an unfriendly government. Second, we must realize what the passage does not tell us. It does not directly say what we ought to do when our government is committing moral wrong. Lastly, we must keep in mind that understanding and living by what is taught here will not relieve the tension Jesus gave us when He said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21).

Paul begins by giving the basic rationale for a Christian’s submission to human government (vv. 1-2). The apostle gives us what we might call “the divine right of state” as he says in the last half of verse 1, “for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” Despite the fact that almost every time we pick up a newspaper we read of corruption in government, we must still recognize the state as an essentially divine and moral institution. The Scriptures testify that it is God who sets up governments – even bad ones – and He takes them down as well.

Seeing that human government is created by God and that He takes and active interest in it, many Christians do not take it seriously enough. Christians too often ignore government or participate as little as possible in government affairs. Perhaps this tendency comes from the mistaken belief that when we become members of the Kingdom of Heaven we cease to be members of the secular community. This falsehood, coupled with the revulsion toward the corruption that permeates so much of government, wrongly leads believers to adopt a non-participatory mind-set. This should not be! God is the originator of government, and to ignore it is to dishonor Him. Christians ought to be the best citizens.

The Christian’s obedience to the state is always conditional, and sometimes disobedience is a duty. There are at least three areas in which a Christian should resist authority. First, if he is asked to violate a command of God. The classic example of this is found in Acts 4 & 5. The command of God always takes precedence over the command of government. There are no exceptions. Secondly, Christians must resist when asked to do an immoral act. The sexual applications are obvious, but this also extends to ethical areas in which many are constantly asked to compromise – for example, falsifying records for “security reasons,” perjury for the sake of the department, covering for subordinates by means of falsehood. Christians must never think it’s okay to commit immoral or unethical acts simply because the state has requested it. Thirdly, believers must never go against their Christian conscience in order to obey the government. This could involve such diverse things as participation in licentious entertainment, or working in institutions that perform wholesale abortions, or working or not on nuclear weapons. Believers must never sin against their conscience.

The conclusion is this: a Christian must disobey his government when it asks him to 1) violate a commandment of God 2) commit and immoral or unethical act, or 3) go against his Christian conscience (a conscience that is informed by Scripture and is in submission to the Spirit of God). Verses 1-2 are a call to profound obedience. A profound subjection to the state is rooted in the realization of its “divine right.” With right understanding and attitude, believers should be the best citizens. This requires a profound submission to God, which may involve obedience or disobedience to the state. The committed Christian will continually experience tension in this matter.

Verses 3-4 begin a new section that portrays the basic role of government. The essential role of government is twice given in verse 4: God’s servant or deacon. Government is the deacon of God, and as with any deacon, its job is to humbly serve. The teaching here, then, is that government either wittingly or unwittingly serves God. Notice that the servant function of government is to do good – “God’s servant for your good” (v. 4a) – and that is what government does, even the worst government. At the end of verse 4 the apostle is most explicit about government’s beneficial function: “He is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” The state is given the responsibility of vengeance, a responsibility that is explicitly forbidden to the individual Christian (12:19). God’s way of dealing with evil is not by personal vengeance, but through justice dispensed by the state. As the state is faithful to its function, it does “good” to us (v. 4a). We should be thankful that it “does not bear the sword in vain,” even though it bears it imperfectly.

Thus far Paul has shown us that we are called to a profound, intelligent obedience to government (vv. 1-2) and that government is meant to serve us and do us good (vv. 3-4). Now in verses 5-7 he describes the kind of obedience to which we are called.

Verse 5 indicates the depth of obedience that is required of us. We are to be in subjection not just because we are afraid of being punished, but because, unlike the world, we understand that the state is divinely instituted and that rulers are wittingly or unwittingly God’s ministers. Christians are able to see the big picture, and thus through their informed consciences they are able to live in profound subjection. Verses 6-7 tell us how this works out practically. This is where the rubber meets the road for modern American Christians. And it was the same for the Romans. Taxes were exorbitant then too and were sometimes misspent. But the Roman Christians were to pay their taxes, understanding that government authorities are God’s servants. That is, they were to pay them with a good attitude.

Verse 7 ties the bow on this matter of obligation. As Christians we may deplore the politics of a particular person in office. We may be repelled by his scandalous conduct. But that does not disallow us from respecting the office. The person is just a human, but the office exists at the discretion of God. Even in our dissent we must always be Christian gentlemen and gentlewomen.

In conclusion, it is the Christian’s duty to obey those in political authority because: 1) government is divinely appointed, 2) it is a deacon to meet our needs, and 3) we see it for what it is. The question is, is it possible to obey in this way? Through Jesus Christ we can live out our duty to obey as described in the Word of God. We can also fulfill our duty to disobey when it is the will of God to do so.

When it became clear that the Nazis were pursuing their terrible racist policies, Pastor Martin Niemoller continued to preach the truth and as a result was thrown into prison. The prison chaplain upon visiting Niemoller asked somewhat foolishly, “What brings you here? Why are you in prison?” To which Niemoller replied angrily, “And, brother, why are you not in prison?” Jesus said: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21). This is a divine calling.

Romans 13:1-7 Reflection Questions:

What happens in a society when there are no properly accredited and generally recognized rulers? What examples can you give?

According to Paul in verses 1-5, what is to be the role of government? Paul describes the “ruling power” as “God’s servant” twice in these verses. How can government be a servant of God?

Read Acts 16:35-40 and 23:1-3. How can what Paul says in verses 1-7 regarding government be reconciled with Paul having no hesitation in telling authorities they are acting illegally or unjustly?

At this point in history, the Christians in Rome were considered very problematic by the Roman authorities. Why would Paul’s exhortations to the believers in verses 1-7 be important in this cultural context?


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