Episode #37: Romans 13 and the Role of Government, Part 1

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In this two-part podcast, pastors Derek Brown and Cliff McManis examine Romans 13:1-7 in order to help listeners understand the role of government and how Christians should respond to national and local governing authorities.


Derek: Welcome to With All Wisdom, where we are applying biblical truth to everyday life. My name is Derek Brown and I’m here today with Cliff McManis. We are both pastors and elders at Creekside Bible Church in Cupertino, California, and professors at the Cornerstone Bible College and Seminary in Vallejo, California. And today we want to talk about a proper view of the government. But before we get to our topic, I want to point your attention to WithAllWisdom.org, where you will find a large and growing collection of resources on various theological, cultural, and practical topics that are all rooted in God’s Word and aimed to help you make genuine progress in your walk with the Lord. 

Now onto our topic. I recently was having a conversation with someone about how Christians are to obey the government. And they were pointing back to the Bible, saying that that is the call of the Christian – to obey the government. And they’re really making just kind of a blanket statement – not really qualifying it too much. And I’ve had conversations about this topic with this person in the past, and that is their basic approach – that we are to obey the government, and that’s what Romans 13 says. And so that is not an isolated incident. However, I have found that to be the understanding of a lot of people. A lot of Christians, as I’ve talked to them and read their articles, [I’ve found that] their approach to Romans 13 is basically this: that Christians are to obey the government, and there’s very little qualification after that basic premise. And we will, of course, affirm that Romans 13 does say to be subject to governing authorities. But we want to actually go through Romans 13 in some detail to see that it doesn’t teach merely that Christians are to obey the government. 

There is more to it. There is more qualification that needs to be made – important qualifications that Paul himself makes in the text. And so we’re just going to take some time today to walk through this text and hopefully bring some insight – some much needed insight – into this topic. And so if you are joining with us and you have an opportunity to open your Bibles on your iPhone or your smartphone or just your physical Bibles, just go ahead and open up to Romans 13. We want to walk through that passage of Scripture together. I’m going to go ahead and read it, and then Cliff and I will talk about it. This is verses one through seven of Romans, chapter 13. I’m reading out of the ESV: “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. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 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, 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. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath, but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 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.”

Cliff, how would you like to open up our study of Romans 13? What are some first principles that we need to notice?

Cliff: Yeah, I’d like to just offer a couple of big picture observations just to set the context for Romans 13:1-7. One is just the overall theme of the seven verses you just read. Paul’s talking to believers in Rome. Maybe many of them were relatively new believers because the gospel in the church was fresh. Maybe they grew up in pagan homes and got saved. So maybe a lot of them didn’t grow up with a Christian worldview or a biblical worldview from the Old Testament. So for many of them, maybe this was new information, and it was giving them a proper worldview of how to perceive and think about the secular governing authorities in the midst of where they lived – who could tend to be maybe oppressive, especially towards them now that they are Christians and don’t bow the knee to Caesar.

So Paul’s saying, “No, you don’t just turn up your nose at pagan rulers,” right? Because they hate God or whatever. As a matter of fact, Christians are supposed to honor the government universally. So that’s kind of the main theme – honor governing authorities. So that may have been new information and it may have been a startling challenge for several of those Christians, too. Then in the context of Romans, it’s kind of interesting. This is really specific about how Christians should think about pagan governing authorities and governments, yet for twelve chapters, Paul’s been talking about the gospel – gospel implications on a very personal level. It’s like, what in the world? And then he’s talking about the gospel and the church relative to Israel in chapters nine through eleven, and then all of a sudden, out of nowhere: “Hey, by the way, Christians, you need to honor the government.”

Derek: Right. 

Cliff: How in the world does that fit into Paul’s flow? Well, I think it does, because on the heels of Romans 12, which, right before this section that we just read – right at the end of chapter twelve – Paul’s talking to Christians in verse nineteen. He says, “Never take your own revenge.” Do not retaliate against godless, sinful behavior. So you know, don’t go out there and take things, like a vigilante, into your own hands, as though you’re the independent law. You’re not, Christian. So, never take your own revenge, beloved. Verse nineteen, chapter twelve: “But leave room for the wrath of God. For it is written: ‘Vengeance is mine. I will repay,’ says the Lord.” Verse twenty-one: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” 

So Paul recognizes there, for the Christian – in terms of your Christian worldview, your daily life, your Christian ethic – you’re not supposed to be a person given to retaliation, as a Christian. And if Paul stopped his letter there, they might be thinking, “Oh, so we’re just supposed to let evil just run roughshod over us as Christians? And the bad people always get away with everything? And we just let ’em do whatever they want, with no recourse whatsoever?”

Derek: Some do suggest that is the Christian ethic. 

Cliff: Exactly. And it’s called passivism, or ultimate passivism. And there’s never a counterbalance to that ethic. And yet Paul gives the beautiful balance here. He says literally in verse 19: “Leave room for the wrath of God.” Well, where is the wrath of God? Some might be thinking, “Oh, that’s the end of the age with eternal hell when they die.” Or, “At the end of the age, when Jesus returns again, you have to wait till then.” So in the meantime, we’re just doormats, right? No, there’s a wrath of God going on right now in our midst, and he actually uses that word “wrath” in our passage here in Romans 13:1-7 – that governing authorities wield and execute the wrath of God on bad people. So there’s the balance. So this passage definitely is right in the flow of practical exhortation of how Christians should live in the world.

Derek: Yep. Another thing I’d like to point out as well – I hope I’m not jumping ahead too far here – but one of the things that came up a lot, I think, in the last two years was in relation to COVID restrictions and rules and mandates. The question was, “How do Christians appropriate Romans 13 in light of these restrictions?” and so on. And one of the responses was, “You do everything the government tells you because that’s what Romans 13 teaches.”

Cliff: Yep.

Derek: And in response to that – and this has come up more recently – obviously we’re coming on the (hopefully) backside here of COVID and those sorts of things. But, nevertheless, it seems like the last two years were kind of a test case for how people understood Romans 13 and how they understood it was played out. 

Cliff: Right. 

Derek: And one thing I’d want to point out as a big picture item as well, is Paul, even in this text here – because sometimes people would respond to that kind of idea by saying, “Well, let’s go to Acts chapter five where the apostles are clearly resisting governing authority because they’re being told they can’t preach the gospel.” Well I say, even in Romans 13, Paul is qualifying that kind of attitude. He’s not saying just obey the government, as though you do everything they tell you to do.

We’re to honor them. We’re to be subject to them. But Paul has something specific in mind about the kinds of things that the government’s supposed to be doing. He puts a parameter around their function. He’s not just talking about the function, he’s putting parameters around it. Because he says that they are rulers, and the rulers are not a terror for good conduct, but to bad. And that is a text that you have to focus on here, because Paul is defining precisely what governments are to be doing. They’re supposed to be promoting the good and putting down or restraining the bad. And then he’ll go on to talk about the sword. The sword is actually one of the means of curtailing the bad or curtailing the evil. Well, the question that Christians have to ask is, how do you think Paul is defining good and bad in his own mind?

Is he leaving good and bad up to how to define good and bad, good conduct and evil conduct? Is he leaving that to be defined by the government so that whatever the government says is good will uphold that? And whatever the government says is evil will discipline or punish that? And the government determines that, and then they implement their various punishments or rewards and Christians are to yield to all of that? Or does Paul have in mind God’s standard of what is good and what is evil? And I would argue that Paul, being a Jew and writing from his knowledge of the Old Testament and his knowledge of God, would say, no, God defines what is good. And what is evil in terms of conduct? So even in the text itself, Paul is not saying that Christians obey the government absolutely. He’s defining the parameters of governmental function, and it’s to uphold the good and curtail the evil or punish the evil. And that is determined ethically by what God says is good and evil.

Cliff: Yeah. That’s good. There are qualifiers there that are very specific, talking about the expectation God has for governing authorities. There it is in verse three, very explicitly. What are government officials, government leaders, and government authorities supposed to be doing? They’re supposed to be doing what is good and praising those who do what is good. Going to church is good. 

Derek: Right.

Cliff: And then what else? They’re supposed to be punishing those who do evil. Going to church is not evil.

Derek: That’s right.

Cliff: So the practical application of this is – if they’re doing their job, because they got their authority from God and it’s delegated from God – they’re supposed to be supporting and protecting what is good and right. Believers who go to church and do those kinds of things should be assisted and protected in that endeavor, right there in the text. Also, in addition to what you were saying about how this text does give parameters very clearly about what the government’s supposed to be doing, it’s not open-ended. We don’t just support everything the government’s doing, even wrong things the government’s doing or oppressive things the government’s doing. They’re supposed to be, according to Paul in verse four, “ministers of God.” He calls them that three times, right? They are ministers of God. They’re representatives of God. They’re servants of God. They’re assistants, literally, to God. And then also in verse six, they are “servants for God,” where we get the word “liturgy.” That word in verse six – servants of God – is used specifically regarding angels who represent God or priests who represent God and serve God, apostles who serve God, and Jesus Christ himself as the high priest who serves and represents God. That’s their calling. That’s what they’re supposed to do. Those are the kinds of government leaders we’re supposed to submit to. The ones who do God’s bidding. 

Derek: That’s right. And that’s vital. You brought up the issue of going to church. And I just remember early on, as some churches were refusing to close, they didn’t believe that they should based on what Scripture teaches. And some of those men were getting fined. As the churches were getting fined, they were getting fined for violating the mandates, and I couldn’t help, but think of Proverbs 17:26 that says to impose a fine on a righteous man is not good. 

Cliff: Can you read that again?

Derek: To impose a fine on a righteous man is not good, or to strike the noble for their uprightness.

Cliff: Wow.

Derek: And there you have just a small example of how Scripture is defining what is good and what isn’t.

Cliff: Another way to say that is this: to fine a godly man is bad. To fine a godly man is evil. To fine these faithful pastors for wanting to keep their churches open to meet the needs of God’s saints – to fine them, punish them, imprison them, shut them down – that’s bad. That’s evil.

Derek: Yeah. That’s right. So then a question I would have is, what is the evil that government should be curtailing or punishing?

Cliff: Well, yes. We only know what is evil because of what God defines as evil. So anything that has been revealed by God, in his Word, by his revelation, that he calls evil, is evil. And he’s made that known. Murder. Theft. Things like these that he’s made clear in his Word – these are the evil things that the government should be putting down. 

And these are universally understood and they have been understood throughout all time. It’s not difficult. And then God’s given us an internal barometer called the conscience for that very purpose. Every human being has a conscience, which is an internal moral law, according to Paul in Romans chapters one and two. And that internal moral barometer of the internal law – as we’re made in the image of God – it’s supposed to resonate with God’s revealed law in divine revelation and Scripture. And when those are in sync, even our internal barometer of what is evil should be known universally. And, for the most part, that’s been true throughout all human history. 

Derek: Well, it goes on to say this: “whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” And we’ve talked about what that looks like – judgment for what is evil and how that is defined and how God defines it in Scripture. And good conduct is defined by God as well. “Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, or he is God’s servant for your good.” What good is Paul talking about? Well, he has a Christian and biblical worldview. When he looks out across humanity, he has a specific definition of what good is, and it’s according to Scripture. So that’s what we have to take as our reference point when we are considering these laws that the government is proposing. Are they good? Do they correspond with God’s Word? And I think that was really kind of the wrestling point for a lot of Christians. Some people would say, well, during the COVID time, they were not telling us we can’t preach the gospel. So this doesn’t apply. But that’s kind of a narrow view, and a very, very narrow way of thinking about what Paul means here. God’s servant for your good is broader than just the ability to preach the gospel. 

Cliff: They’re just eliminating the definition there. It’s the same thing with evil. Good is what God has defined as good, and he’s given us a special revelation all throughout history to tell us what is good. And also, even if you’re an unbeliever, given the fact that you’re made in the image of God, you also have the law of God written on your heart. You have a conscience internally that God has given you. This is what we believe is the doctrine of common grace. 

Derek: Right.

Cliff: All people have access to this, even in creation, where God has revealed his very character and basic nature. These are all consistent and defined by what constitutes good as given in Scripture. So anything that is consistent with what Scripture says is good, is good. Even if it’s from a secular point of view. Again, history testifies that all throughout history and different nations – basic human goodness. What is good? What is just? What is basic, legitimate law has universally been accepted? And there are exceptions in that there are cultures who deviate from that, but that’s not the general picture. 

Derek: Do you wanna say anything about Paul’s statement here in verse four when he says, “Be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain.” What does Paul mean there?

Cliff: Yeah. Paul’s warning Christians again about the attitude that Christians need to have regarding the government. This applies 2,000 years later to us as well. We need to understand that the government was created by God. And as a matter of fact, that goes back to the beginning. So a good question is, when did government start? Is it a human creation? Is it, as some would say, a human convention? (Government anarchists). I know some so-called professing Christians who claim to be anarchists. I know them personally, and we’ve had some very strange conversations.

Derek: I bet. 

Cliff: And they say they believe in the Bible and they try to point it out from Scripture. They call themselves anarchists in that we don’t need this man-made, fabricated government, because it is a human, artificial construction or a convention. We don’t need it. If everybody just obeyed God, we wouldn’t need government. But I would say, no, God created government, and it’s here to stay. It’s a part of the human fabric. It’s a part of human existence. It was actually established in Genesis chapter one, when God created Adam and Eve. The first thing he said to them, in addition to “be fruitful and multiply” was “rule the earth.” Subdue and subject on my behalf. That’s rule. That’s governing authority. It’s delegated authority, but it is authority to rule. 

It comes from God – that’s the source. It’s clearly defined. It is limited and it’s delegated, but it’s given to humans to enact here on the earth. That’s where government started. And then through time with progressive revelation, we see that that the government that man was entrusted to from God was developed, and it changed forms at different times. But a significant addition to governing authority that plays into verse four in Romans 13, where it says that governing authorities should wield the sword on behalf of God, as ministers of God, is when Noah got off the Ark in Genesis chapter nine. And there was a whole new world that God had established after the flood. And he gave some new decrees. One of those in Genesis 9:5-6 was where he gave the decree of governing authority in a way that he never had before. And he basically told Noah and his sons or their family that, from now on, you have the right to execute or kill those who are murderers. God delegated the authority basically of capital punishment, I think, to humanity from the days of Noah, which is 2,500 BC. 

Derek: The conditions of which was taking a life – not just for anything.

Cliff: Exactly. It was for murder. Illegitimate murder. You take a life – an innocent life – then you have forfeited your right to live, and God has ordained humans to execute his governing authority. We call it “civil magistrates” –  to take the life of a murderer. And then you move on from 2,500 BC in the days of Noah to Moses about 1,100 years later, under Moses and the 613 laws of the mosaic covenant. God delineates, in even greater detail, more laws that he delegates to humanity, including the death penalty that he gave to Noah. And he expands that and he extends the death penalty beyond the crime of murder. Now God is giving humans and civil magistrates, under the theocracy or the governance of Moses, [the authority] to execute the death penalty, not just for murder, but for rape and over twenty other crimes.

Derek: Wow. 

Cliff: I should say that some of those are even reiterated in the New Testament with the church. God didn’t abolish the death penalty as he instituted it. When Jesus came and started the church, the death penalty still stands from God’s point of view. The wages of sin is death, right? And God wants to protect life. So, getting back to verse four of Romans 13, when he says you need to understand, Christian, regarding the government and their authority and their power that comes from God, even the right to coercively execute certain sinners for crimes like murder. For they are ministers or servants of God to you for good. For if you do what is evil, then be afraid of the government. For the government does not bear the sword.

And that’s a metaphor or actual reference to an instrument to wield the death penalty. For death to kill. That’s what it means. God has given the government the ability to execute the death penalty for proper purposes, for it is a servant or minister of God, an Avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. So governing authorities are entrusted with the job of bringing God’s wrath to bear on sinful and wicked people to preserve society and so that we can have peace and civility in our society – so that we can live with one another.

Derek: Right. Which are good things. They are good things. And without that coercive placing of power – that ability to bear the sword, as Paul puts it here – we might even say today, you could translate that as to “wear the gun” or whatever. That to have this power to be able to curtail what is evil, what that does is not a bad thing. It’s a God-given thing to actually promote peace in societies so that people can live and work and so on. Without that, you have total instability and fear and so on.

Cliff: Yep.

Derek: Well, this has been an excellent discussion, Cliff. I’m sure we have more to say, but why don’t you take us down to verse seven as we close out and just say a few things about the last sentence there as Paul talks about owing certain things to whom they’re due.

Cliff: Yeah. It’s a summary statement in verse seven. He says, “Render” – so, Christian, that’s who he is talking to. If you’re a believer, this applies to you today just as it did 2,000 years ago. This needs to be added to our Christian ethic, our Christian worldview, our Christian morality, our frame of mind, and how we perceive and understand the world, especially those who are in charge and have authority over us in every domain, particularly in the area of government. And so he said, and this is a command; it’s not an option or a suggestion, “Render to all what is due them specifically. Tax to whom tax that…” That means pay your taxes, Christian. “Pay custom to whom custom.” Pay that toll bridge fee. And also, “Pay fear to whom fear, and give honor to whom honor is due.” And that’s just a great way to summarize what Paul’s saying here – that we have to have the right attitude and respect towards the very authorities that God has ordained on the earth.

Derek: Well, thanks, Cliff. That was a great conversation, and we hope it was very helpful for you. We’re going be picking it up here in a little bit, again, in a part two of this series. But until the next time, we just encourage you to check out WithAllWisdom.org, where you’ll find all of our audio and written resources. And until next time, keep seeking the Lord and his Word.

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