Theological Reflections – Romans 13:1-2

The following is an excerpt from my second essay written for my summer theology class on Romans. I hope that by reading this, your knowledge of God would increase, and your faith would grow in His grace.

Links to the sources I used are at the end of the post.

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.

Context and Content

These two verses are Paul’s introduction to his fairly brief exhortation for Christians to remain subject to their government (13:1-14). This portion is part of what is commonly known as the “practical” portion of Romans (12-16), wherein Paul starts by urging Christians to live their lives in service to God. He states specifically in 12:1 – “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.” [NIV 2011] Panning, in his commentary on Romans, gives 13:1-14 the title “Obedience to authorities,” which is a subset of the larger portion spanning 12:1-15:13, entitled “Righteousness practiced.”[1] Paul wishes for the Christians in Rome to reflect on the grace of God written about in chapters 1-11, and to serve both God and men in light of God’s mercies.

Including an exhortation to submit to the government is not an uncommon theme throughout the Pauline Epistles[2], and must have been a point that he commonly wanted to emphasize. It is somewhat striking that Paul writes these words while underneath the rule of a government that was growing increasingly hostile to Christianity. Regarding the nature of Roman government during the writing of Romans, Panning notes:

In the context in which Paul is writing, his directives to the Romans especially include respect for secular government. That is perhaps the more remarkable when we realize that in Paul’s day the civil government of Rome was undoubtedly totally pagan. In fact, if we were right in assuming, as we did in the introduction to this commentary, that this letter to the Romans was written from Corinth in the winter of A.D. 58, then Nero would have been the Roman emperor—hardly a model of kind and benevolent leadership![3]

Paul wanted to make it clear that although all forms of human government are flawed, the ultimate purpose of rulers and authorities is to carry out God’s judgment.[4] Obedience to the authorities put in place by God is also necessary to maintain peace and order in society, something that Christians always strive for. From what scripture teaches about the Church and civil government, it is plainly seen that Christians are subject to two different “kingdoms” during their life on earth. The Church rules over spiritual matters concerning the gospel, and the government rules over civil matters by protecting its citizens and punishing those who do evil.[5] Much can be said about the nature of Church and government and the dangers when one institution assumes authority given only to the other. To put it simply, The Apology of the Augsburg Confession states:

[The distinction between the two kingdoms] can be easily explained if we keep this in mind: The Gospel does not introduce laws about the public state, but it is the forgiveness of sins and the beginning of a new life in the hearts of believers. Besides, the Gospel not only approves outward governments, but also subjects us to them (Romans 13:1).

There exists a fairly clear and obvious caveat in a Christian’s obedience to the government. When a Christian is asked by the authorities to act contrary to God’s Word, he must “obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). This calls to mind the noble and faithful actions of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego found in Daniel 3, who resisted the king’s command to bow down to a false idol, even though they knew their lives were in danger.

Reflection and Application
Obedience to governmental authorities has always been an issue of contention in the United States, going back to the very birth of our country. Regardless of whether or not the rebellion was justified, the United States of America was born from disobedience to England and rebellion against the instituted government. There is a residual spirit of resentment towards authority apparent in society today, where disobedience can often been seen as a noble cause. However, Christians are given a very clear command in Scripture to submit to the government, even to the laws and statutes we don’t necessarily agree with. Whether dealing with local authorities or the Federal Government, we must always remember that they were placed into that position of authority by God himself, and he will always see fit that they carry out his plans for the sake of the gospel. God speaks of his ultimate authority over all creation in Isaiah 55:8-11, emphasizing the point that the gospel will always prevail and accomplish its purpose:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. [ESV]

Christians must also keep in mind that God did not ordain the government to advance to gospel message, as Christians in some Evangelical circles may believe. It is true that the government’s purpose is to punish those who do evil, and we pray that the government’s definition of “evil” would be synonymous with God’s. Some Christians take this too far and advocate the establishment of a “Christian” government that subjects its citizens to certain Christian moral laws. Koehler states in A Summary of Christian Doctrine:

For as the power of the Word was not given to the state, so it the power of the sword not given to the church, papal claims notwithstanding. The church as such has not right to rule land and people, to enact and enforce laws, and to do any of the things that properly belong to the domain of civil government. Christ refused to act as judge and arbiter in a civil suit (Luke 12:13-14); His kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). There is no scriptural reason for a church state, even as there is no scriptural reason for a state church. Wherever a church state or a state church exists, they exist not by the will of God but by the will of people. It is the mark of the antichrist to claim supremacy over all civil authorities (2 Thessalonians 2:4).[6]

To briefly summarize this notion, we recognize that the government has been put in place to carry out justice in society, whose laws are often aligned with God’s moral law which has been instilled in the hearts of men. (Rom 2:15) It is good and right for the authorities to punish those who do evil and reward those who do good. It is not correct, however, for the government to have control over spiritual matters or the advancement of the gospel. While God certainly does use these human institutions for his purposes, he has solely commissioned his Church to make the gospel known to all nations. (Mt 28:19-20)

[1] Panning, Armin J. Romans. St. Louis: Concordia, 2000. 8-9.
[2] See Ti 3:1, 1 Tm 2:1-2
[3] Panning, Armin J. Romans. St. Louis: Concordia, 2000. 212.
[4] Hoerber, Robert G., ed. Concordia Self-Study Bible. New International Version. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Pub. House, 1986. 1737. (See notes for 13:1)
[5] McCain, Paul Timothy. Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions: A Reader’s Edition of the Book of Concord. 2nd ed. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Pub. House, 2006. 194-195. (Apology, Article XVI)
[6] Koehler, Edward W. A. A Summary of Christian Doctrine; a Popular Presentation of the Teachings of the Bible. 3rd Rev. ed. St. Louis: Concordia, 1971. 380-381.

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