WE ARE TO SERVE GOD BY SUBMITTING TO CIVIL GOVERNMENT WHICH USES ITS DELEGATED POWER TO PROMOTE GOOD AND RESTRAIN EVIL
Michael Bird: Government is a form of common grace instituted by God where God uses human rulers to provide justice, order, and civility for the peoples governed. As Moo comments: “Government is more than a nuisance to be put up with; it is an institution established by God to accomplish some of his purposes on earth.” Thus, Paul acquiesces to political submission for the sake of respecting God’s appointed servants who genuinely benefit its citizens with the exercise of their authority.
Douglas Moo: From the beginning of the church the radical demands of the gospel to avoid conformity to this world were taken too far by some overly enthusiastic believers. They thought that the coming of the new age meant that everything in the world was under judgment and to be avoided by truly “spiritual” Christians. They included in “the world” such institutions as marriage (see 1 Cor. 7; 1 Tim. 4:3), sex (1 Cor. 7 again), and the government (see, e.g., 1 Tim. 2:2; Titus 3:1; 1 Peter 2:13–14).
Thus, the apostles had to combat this kind of extremism, pointing out that such activities were, in fact, appointed by God for the good of human beings. Christians should not think their faith requires them to consider these institutions as evil. This helps us understand why Paul felt it necessary to balance his demand that believers not “conform [to] this world” (12:2) with a reminder that governmental authorities were not of the world in this sense, but were, in fact, servants of God, doing his will.
Juliany Gonzalez Nieves: We are not called to blind submission, but to what I have called subversive submission. We are dual-citizens of our country and of the Kingdom of Heaven. We honor God and those around us by submitting to authority and cultivating an environment conducive to human flourishing. However, when there is a clash of kingdoms, we are called to be faithful first and foremost to the Kingdom of Heaven and its King
Grant Osborne: Paul urges believers to be careful in their relationships with the governing authorities. There would come enough persecution without them bringing it on themselves by rebelling against authorities who could just as well serve them.
In addition, modern-day readers must take special note of what life in the Roman empire was like. The political powers were there by birth, connection, wealth, or ruthlessness. The masses had no power, could never expect to have any power, and could never think that they could change the status quo. Their best strategy was to live within the structure and take advantage of the protection offered by it. Because people still believed in “the divine right of kings,” most authority went unquestioned. And those in authority usually had a well-developed system of spies and informers who would not hesitate, in the name of good citizenship, to turn in anyone who complained or rebelled. It may be difficult for us to understand the political realities in ancient Rome, but the mind-set of the times caused Paul to exhort believers to be careful. Christians were not to rebel against godless Rome—Roman law was the only restraint against the lawless.
R. Kent Hughes: 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. . .
In conclusion, it is the Christian’s duty to obey those in political authority because:
- government is divinely appointed,
- it is a deacon to meet our needs, and
- we see it for what it is.
Steven Cole: The Government and You
- First (13:1) Paul states that every person is to be subject to the governing authorities, because God is the sovereign who ordains all human governments.
- Then (13:2) he draws the implication: If you resist government authority, which God has established, you are opposing God Himself and you’ll come under judgment.
- Then (13:3-4) Paul explains that the purpose of civil government is to protect law-abiding citizens and punish law-breakers. As such, the government is acting as a minister of God in avenging wrong.
- Thus (13:5) there are two reasons to be in subjection to the government:
- Fear of punishment and
- conscience before God, who has ordained the government.
- Finally (13:6-7), Paul applies it by showing why we should pay taxes, namely, because government officials are servants of God. Thus they deserve our taxes as well as our respect.
I. (:1-2) POWER OF CIVIL AUTHORITY REQUIRES SUBMISSION
A. (:1a) Power that Demands Submission
“Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities.”
Frank Thielman: The term “authority” (ἐξουσία) was a natural term to use for an “office” or “magistracy” that carried with it the exercise of political or judicial power (e.g., Dan 7:27 LXX). . . Here, as the talk of submission and payment of taxes shows (Rom 13:5–7), he has in mind the earthly magistrates who presided over the Roman system of justice.
Douglas Moo: First, “governing authorities,” as the translation suggests, refers to any person who represents the power of the state: from the local bureaucrat right up to the emperor, president, or prime minister. . .
The second key word is “submit” (hypotasso). What is important to understand is that this word is broader in its scope than “obey.” It calls on believers to recognize that they “stand under” government in the scheme that God has instituted for ruling the world.
Bruce Hurt: Believers then (when Rome ruled with an iron fist) and now might be tempted to feel that since we are “aliens and strangers” (1Pe 2:11) in this present world and are citizens of the Kingdom of God, we do not need to submit to wicked rulers. We are citizens of heaven, journeying through time on earth. So although heaven is our home, Spirit filled (controlled) believers must be subject to authorities.. Why? Paul says because that authority is established by God. . .
Hupotasso focuses on function, not essence. In non-military use, it was “a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden”. The central idea is to be under the authority of some authority.
Stated another way submission means to voluntarily follow the direction of those in authority over you. Submission is not the same as obedience, though the two are related. Obedience relates to outward performance, while submission touches the attitude of the heart toward those who are over you. This distinction is critical because you may not always be able to obey those who are over you, but you can always have a heart attitude of submission.
Submission is believing that God is able to accomplish His will in your life through those He has placed in authority over you. This definition focuses the attention on God, not on the person over you.
B. (:1b) Power that Is Delegated from God
“For there is no authority except from God,
and those which exist are established by God.”
C. (:2) Power that Is Directed against All Resistance and Opposition
- Resisting Authority = Opposing God
“Therefore he who resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God;”
- Opposing Authority Brings Harmful Judgment
“and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.”
II. (:3-5) PURPOSE OF CIVIL AUTHORITY REQUIRES SUBMISSION
A. (:3-4) External Motivation to Submit = Avoidance of Wrath
- (:3-4a) Civil Authority Benefits Those Who Do Good
“For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil.
Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same; 4 for it is a minister of God to you for good.”
Steven Cole: the government must legislate morality. You often hear that we should not legislate morality, but that is absurd. . . If God’s purpose for civil governments is to protect law-abiding citizens and punish law-breakers, then it follows that we should use civil authorities for protection and due process. Paul himself did this in Philippi, where he was unjustly beaten and imprisoned without a trial, although he was a Roman citizen. When the authorities realized their error and wanted to quietly usher him out of town, Paul wouldn’t stand for it (Acts 16:35-40). He also invoked his Roman citizenship to avoid a scouring and to appeal to Caesar rather than face a kangaroo court (Acts 22:25; 25:11).
- (:4b) Civil Authority Punishes Those Who Do Evil
“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 upon the one who practices evil.”
Frank Thielman: Paul’s audience should voluntarily submit to the government not because of any intrinsic worth that the authorities themselves possessed but because God used them to provide social order, and this social order was a good thing that God desired (cf. Rom 13:3–4).
Thomas Schreiner: The reference instead is to the broader judicial function of the state, particularly its right to deprive of life those who had committed crimes worthy of death, though fines, arrest, imprisonment, other corporal punishment, and exile are also included (see Schnabel 2016: 686). Paul would not have flinched in endorsing the right of ruling authorities to practice capital punishment, since Gen. 9:6 supports it by appealing to the fact that human beings are made in God’s image. Precisely because human beings are so valuable as God’s image bearers, it follows that one who intentionally takes the life of another should also be deprived of life. Governing authorities are to mete out wrath to vindicate justice (ἔκδικος εἰς ὀργὴν τῷ τὸ κακὸν πράσσοντι, ekdikos eis orgēn tō to kakon prassonti, an avenger for wrath to the one practicing evil) in the case of the one who flouts the law and does what is evil.
Steven Cole: My understanding is that capital punishment is still fitting for first degree murder. It upholds the sanctity of human life to impose the penalty of life for life. But the way that our government practices capital punishment is inept. Murderers are allowed to live on death row for decades while they file appeal after appeal, often on technicalities. My view is that if a criminal is guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt, he should be executed immediately after his trial. Ecclesiastes 8:11 states, “Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed quickly, therefore the hearts of the sons of men among them are given fully to do evil.” To argue that a criminal should not be executed because he is insane is insane. To insist that we must execute him as painlessly as possible is insane. The issue is that he ruthlessly murdered innocent people. The punishment for that crime should be quick, painful death. Anything else cheapens the lives that he slaughtered.
B. (:5) Internal Motivation to Submit = Consciousness of God’s Will
“Wherefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath,
but also for conscience’ sake.
Thomas Schreiner: When Paul says that one must be subject “because of wrath” (διὰ τὴν ὀργήν, dia tēn orgēn), the wrath is identical with the wrath that the government exercises in verse 4, and Paul exhorts believers to submit to the government because of “wrath” and “conscience.” The term “wrath” hooks up with verses 3–4, where Paul calls on believers to submit to avoid the punishment of the state. The term “conscience” also reverts back to verses 1b–4 and to the God-ordained authority of the state and the idea that the state is God’s “minister.” Believers should obey the state because they know in their conscience that God has established the state as mediators of his rule. When Paul says that one must be subject “because of wrath” (διὰ τὴν ὀργήν, dia tēn orgēn), the wrath is identical with the wrath that the government exercises in verse 4 (though it also points to God’s final judgment) and the judicial function of the government in verse 2. Thus verse 5 simply restates the main thesis of verses 1–4, but it elaborates on what is implicit in those verses in saying that one should also be subject “because of conscience” (διὰ τὴν συνείδησιν, dia tēn syneidēsin). One should submit to government not only because it punishes wrongdoing but also because it is right and good to submit to its authority.
Douglas Moo: The word “conscience” (syneidesis) usually refers to that faculty within human beings that informs us of the morality of our actions after they have taken place. But the word can be used more broadly, and this seems to be the case here. Syneidesis here refers to our consciousness of God and of his will for us. Because we understand that God has appointed secular rulers, we must submit to them.
Michael Bird: This “conscience” (syneidēsis) refers to an inner moral compass that points people to a manner of life recognized as right by both God and people (see Acts 23:1, 16; Rom 2:15; 9:1; 1 Cor 8:7, 10, 12).
John Toews: The word conscience refers to the ability to reflect critically on what is appropriate. While it usually refers to past action, here it clearly refers to future action. If one thinks critically about the state of affairs in the world in light of God’s ordering of governing structures, Paul says, it is wise and prudent to submit to the governing powers.
III. (:6-7) PRACTICAL APPLICATION (EXAMPLES) OF SUBMISSION TO GOVERNING AUTHORITIES
A. (:6) Specific Example: Paying Taxes
“For because of this you also pay taxes,
for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing.”
B. (:7) General Examples: Render What Is Due
“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.”
Frank Thielman: Paul speaks of four obligations to “everyone” (πᾶσιν), although the context shows that he is talking about all civil authorities (13:1, 3–4, 6). His list distinguishes between the tribute (φόρος) paid by subject peoples and the wide variety of taxes (τέλη) on property, merchandise, and activities in the Roman world. The language of obligation was common in descriptions of such payments. Paul also reflects the cultural context of Rome in speaking of an obligation to repay with “fear” (φόβος) and “honor” (τιμή) the various officials who supervised the social order. The functionaries of Roman government from the emperor down viewed the honor they were accorded as a critical part of their compensation for serving. “The duty of respect,” said Cicero, “requires us to reverence and cherish those outstanding because of age or wisdom or office, or any other claim to prestige.”