God and government is a huge and tangled subject, and Romans 13:1-7 is a fairly small paragraph comparatively. These verses include some foundational principles, and for Christian citizens in the current (covidian) climate, it has pushed its way into the spotlight.
We desire to understand Romans 13, and to apply it, almost two-thousand years after Paul wrote it. That requires some thoughtfulness. What's also relevant, is that much of (or at least much of the remnants of) our ideas about government in Western Civilization have been built on Romans 13. That requires our thankfulness. Rights as God-givens rather than state-givens, checks-and-balances among men, legislation for maximum liberty, these are not the fruit of idolatry or atheism, humanism or secularism.
Whether you are blue pill, red pill, black pill, white pill, you need God over the system. If all we have is what's under the sun, if there is no God over the state, then the state becomes god.
The eternal God says earthly, temporal government is good, though obviously not every governor governs in a godly or good way. God says authorities, hierarchy, structures, powers, force, and taxes are good. God says individualism, anarchy, rebellion and revolution are bad. God is sovereign over all, God sets up kings and kingdoms and nations and boundaries and God tears them down (Psalm 75:7; Daniel 2:21). God will take account from every official, and every citizen. It is part of the human condition.
I've read men who’ve argued that there would be no need for government apart from the fall (Abraham Kuyper is one example). It's speculation either way, but had mankind not sinned I'm not convinced that some kind of political organization would not have happened. There wouldn't be a need for laws and punishments, but there could have been leaders and followers among fathers, just as there was organization and hierarchy in the household. As they filled the earth, a collection of households might have decided to do things one way in one place, and another collection differently, both good and not resulting in conflict.
I say that to emphasize the fact that authority is *good*. Abuse of authority is obviously not, whether by self-interest or indolence or ignorance, and we have seen that all over. When men have power over men to their hurt (Ecclesiastes 8:9), it is a heavy trouble and grievous evil.
But good authorities are like the dawn.
> The God of Israel has spoken;
> the Rock of Israel has said to me:
> When one rules justly over men,
> ruling in the fear of God,
> he dawns on them like the morning light,
> like the sun shining forth on a cloudless morning,
> like rain that makes grass to sprout from the earth.
> (2 Samuel 23:3–4 ESV)
Righteous rulers are a blessing to a nation and cause the people to rejoice, though they groan when the wicked rule (Proverbs 29:2, see also Proverbs 14:34). Part of how we know that our rulers are bad is not just because of pain we experience, but because our consciences tell us that something else is better. We know there is a better pattern, and that's because God has built it into us.
As I said, there has been renewed interest in Romans 13 since 2020, and these verses are like a step-stool for living sacrifices as they get up on the altar in public. So many sermons, podcasts, books, Twitter threads, memes. Here is another.
A good look at this paragraph will show that "Shut up and submit no matter what" is *not* what Paul required, of the mid-first-century Romans, or of us two millennium later. Paul was arrested/beaten for disobeying the government multiple times. He also avoided death and got to Rome itself on the government dime. But Paul does help us see that our default attitude should be toward law and order, and to see our opportunity to serve God as we submit to our governors.
Sure it's worthwhile to take a couple Sundays to consider this Scripture, unique in the Pauline epistles. Today verses 1-2, digging out the foundation.
# The Origin and Scope of Government (verse 1)
This is an exhaustive-exhaustive, a two-fold fullness.
> 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. (Romans 13:1)
We're talking about **every person** and every **authority**, stated as **there is no authority except**, a universal affirmative (All persons are required-to-submit-to-authorities-persons) and a universal negative (No authority-person is a non-God-appointed-person). Put that on your square of opposition.
Let's not let it go without saying that Paul is writing to the Roman *Christians*, those who had been saved by the mercies of God. But let's also observe that Paul doesn't limit his target to living sacrifices, though living sacrifices are included. There aren't any escape clauses. Every *soul*, Christian and non-Christian, means that there is no entirely private person; no one is above the law.
The **governing authorities** are *human* beings in positions of power. There is another use of the word “authorities,” even by Paul, to refer to supernatural, angelic beings “in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:10, 6:12). But in none of those passages do we *submit* to angels, we submit to men.
That is the command here: **be subject**. It means to submit, follow, do what someone else wills.
The reason is built in: God is the one who put these people in place. “*The powers that be* are ordained of God” (Tyndale/KJV). Paul says it twice, the first that eliminates alternatives and the second that emphasizes God's appointment. Where there is authority, it's **from God**; God **instituted**, He “established” (NASB), put in place, all those powers. This does *not* mean that the authorities realize how they got/hold their seat, and so problems arise when they fail to recognize their authority is only delegated, not absolute. But *we* know the origin of civil authorities-God Himself, and the scope of civil authorities—every person.
# Resistance to Government and Its Result (verse 2)
The reality is so inescapable that God installs government/governors that disobeying the human authority is disobeying God.
> Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. (Romans 13:2)
**Therefore**, here's the conclusion based on the divine origin and ordination of authorities. "The one resisting," is the opposite of submitting; there's a play on words, submit is *hupotasso* - get under, and resist is *antitasso* - go against. To **resist** is to go against the force.
Opposition to the authority is opposition to what God ordained. One example, as when Moses told the Israelites in the desert, “Your grumbling is not against us but against the LORD” (Exodus 16:8).
There is a synonym for the anti-arranging in the last part of verse 2, the anti-stander. The ESV uses **those who resist** again, and it's another way to refer to those who stand-against, who oppose.
What about when the apostles said that they had to obey God rather than man (Acts 5:29)? And if Paul wasn’t a hypocrite to his own instruction, why was he in prison so often? These are good questions, but they are good *second* questions, after we acknowledge the default of divine authority in the affairs of nations.
Verse 5 makes clear that we are to submit not just because we might be punished, "but also for the sake of conscience." This is higher than any human authority can accomplish, even if they do “want to know what we think” and convict us of thoughtcrime. We submit directly to God while we submit indirectly but more intimately to the governing authorities.
What about when those rulers are illegitimate; what if power was seized through a coup, or a stolen election? What about when those rulers are unjust? Do we submit to the powers that be *de facto* (according to what is in fact), or just to those *de jure* (according to what is right by law)? Again, all really relevant questions.
We are commanded to recognize that civil government is God-ordained, even as we would recognize that family/household government and church governments are God-ordained. These are *all* subject to God, whether they realize it or not. As such, each sphere of authority can function as checks-and-balances to each other. But fathers are not the boss of everything, though they are first-responsible at home. Elders/pastors are not presidents, and Health Department directors can't prohibit Christian communion.
Paul himself was imprisoned *wrongly* by the government, he used the government to keep himself from death, and he deliberately disobeyed the government when it came to proclaiming the gospel. Before that, Paul himself had used power to cause the unjust suffering/death of Christians.
Government is given by God, government that does not acknowledge God will give account for that, will inevitably move toward taking on god-like ego, and Christians are *not* allowed to serve two gods. But we also must take care not to qualify ourselves out of anything that looks like submission. The results are never good when every man does what is right in his own eyes, and professing Christians are no less susceptible to that temptation.
And while we pray for kings/presidents/governors and all who are in high positions (1 Timothy 2:2), we also know that apart from repentance (cf. Isaiah 46) and submission to Jesus as Lord, we deserve all the judgment *of* wicked rulers we receive.
There is more in the paragraph, more principles, more unanswered but relevant questions, more about God’s rules for submissive and tax-paying citizens.
In _Mere Christianity_ C.S. Lewis noted:
> “If you read history, you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.”
Be occupied with God and presenting your body as a living sacrifice to God. Thank Him for blessing you with fruit here because your hope is in Christ’s forever kingdom.
> Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire. (Hebrews 12:28–29, ESV)