Governing Authorities – Romans 13

Submitting to governing authorities is submitting to God.

Resistance to governing authorities is rebellion against God.

These two biblical truths may sometimes be difficult to swallow on the surface. Let’s acknowledge right now that God does not approve of oppression, racism, sexism, or any type of injustice, so please don’t give up on this study yet. There’s more to come. 

There is great freedom when we realize and have faith in the fact that God is the ultimate authority. And if God is the ultimate authority who ordains lesser authorities, we can joyfully serve and submit to any lesser authority as unto the Lord. This is a part of our Christian ministry, and there is a blessing attached to it.

In order to better understand why God has ordained governing/civil authorities, it’s important to begin by examining other institutions given by God for the restraining of evil and the good of mankind.

Scripture informs us of three important things God has put in place to restrain evil. 

  1. The moral conscience given to each of us by God 
  2. The family unit 
  3. Governing authorities

Mankind is born into sinfulness. Sin causes us to commit atrocious acts towards our fellow humans. These restraints on sin are a common-graces given by God to the entire world—every tribe, every tongue—since the beginning. They are a blessing. Stewarding them well produces a blessing. Disregarding them produces chaos.

The gift of conscience carries the power of guilt.

The gift of family carries the power of the rod.

The gift of governments carry the power of the sword.

There is also the Holy Spirit in God’s church. Believers are and always have been salt and light to a dark world. The Holy Spirit is in and interfaces with each of the three graces above. This study will briefly cover the first two restraints in order to set up the third: governing authorities.

The Moral Law of Conscience. 

When Adam and Eve ate of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and evil they received, well, the “knowledge of good and evil.” They immediately felt guilt for what they had done. Next, they felt guilty about being naked. This knowledge of good and evil that produces a guilty conscience was passed down to every human born after. 

There was no law written on stone saying “Thou shalt not murder” when Cain slew Abel, yet he still instinctively felt guilt and tried to hide the murder from God. This basic moral law written in our hearts is why man feels guilt and shame where animals do not.

This conscience is a good thing. All people possess it, whether believers or not. Scripture states that those who don’t have the written law have the moral law of God written in their hearts so they will be “without excuse” on the day of judgment (Rom 1:18-20). Also:

14 for when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, 15 who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves [their] thoughts accusing or else excusing [them])” (Rom 2:14-15 NKJV)

Unfortunately, this moral conscience can be twisted when society repeatedly calls what is evil good, and what is good evil. Bible teacher John MacArthur states:

“The conscience is only a mechanism that responds to your belief system.  And when your belief system is perverted, your conscience is totally confused.  Then people do things that we say are unconscionable because conscience doesn’t know when to convict and when to affirm.”

John MacArthur

This detrimental and systematic downfall caused by bad belief can be seen here:

[Rom 1:20-23 NKJV] 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible [attributes] are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, [even] His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, 21 because, although they knew God, they did not glorify [Him] as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man–and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things.

Their beliefs became corrupted, and their conscience perverted:

[Rom 1:24-32 NKJV] 24 Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, 25 who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. 26 For this reason God gave them up to vile passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature. 27 Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due. 28 And even as they did not like to retain God in [their] knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting; 29 being filled with all unrighteousness, sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil-mindedness; [they are] whisperers, 30 backbiters, haters of God, violent, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, 31 undiscerning, untrustworthy, unloving, unforgiving, unmerciful; 32 who, knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them.

Perhaps it seems strange to see “disobedient to parents” on this list among fornication and murder. But scripture indicates that a consistent rebellion against parents is a serious offense, which sets up the next thing God has put in place to restrain evil:

The Family Unit

In the book of beginnings, we also see God commanding one man and one woman to be fruitful and multiply (Gen 1:28). God commanded parents to teach the law to their children and grandchildren (Deut 4:9): 

[Deu 6:7 NKJV] 7 “You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up.

Out of the ten commandments, the only one with a direct promise attached to it is to honor your father and mother “so that it will go well with you, and you may live long on the earth.”

[Eph 6:2-3 NKJV] 2 “Honor your father and mother,” which is the first commandment with promise: 3 “that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.”

It is the job of the family to raise children up to follow the moral law. This requires love and discipline. Part of love is not sparing the rod.

[Pro 13:24 NKJV] 24 He who spares his rod hates his son, But he who loves him disciplines him promptly.

It is natural for a child to be completely dependent on her parents for many years. This is by God’s design. Most animals are more or less good-to-go shortly after being born. Some will stay with their parent for a while until their physical size is built up. Human parents do much more than just feed their children until they are big enough to feed themselves. They must teach them God’s moral law. How they are taught to interact with others will have a tremendous impact on society.

Children are human, so they will grow up with a desire to love, be loved, but also possess an innate sinful nature. The rod, born in love, will manage this sinful nature until the child can manage himself.

When the family unit is hindered, when marriage between one man and one woman is attacked, when sexual promiscuity and absent fathers produce difficult environments for our children, people often find themselves subject to punishment of the third restraint God has given us to hold back evil.

Governing Authorities (KJV – “Higher Powers”)

Our conscience bears guilt, our families bear the rod, and governing authorities bear the sword. 

Governments have been ordained by God to punish wrongdoers and to commend those who do right (Romans 13:3-4; 1 Peter 2:14).

[Rom 13:4 NKJV] 4 For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to [execute] wrath on him who practices evil.

If we listen to our moral conscience—of which being raised properly plays a significant role—the sword of the governing authorities will not be against us for any legitimate purpose.

After all, the law is not for those who do what is right, but for “the lawless and disobedient (1 Tim 1:9a)

For some who have given their minds over to sin, the only thing stopping them from stealing, injuring, raping or kidnapping is that the potential punishment from getting caught outweighs doing the act.

This is why higher powers are so important. Satan may be the prince of this fallen world, but God has still given society these common graces to restrain evil.

The forces of darkness will attack all three of these areas. 

  • By causing us to focus on creation rather than creator-God, the moral conscience will be perverted.
  • By distorting and devaluting sexuality and the family unit, children will not receive the proper love and discipline from a full functioning family.
  • And by creating disrespect and animosity towards governing authorities, there will no longer be a balanced distribution of justice.

Our Attitude Towards Civil Authorities

Submitting to governing authority is a part of our ministry.

Submitting to authorities is a part of submitting to God.

Resistance to governing authorities is rebellion against God.

Both Paul and Peter elevate following our rulers to following God

[Rom 13:1-4 NKJV] 1 Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. 4 For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to [execute] wrath on him who practices evil.

 The word for “governing authorities” is also used in 1 Peter 2:13 when speaking of the leaders as “supreme”.

[1Pe 2:13 NKJV] 13 Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme,

Both Paul and Peter use this term to imply that governing authorities (and their ordinances) are high in power. Paul immediately clarifies that God is the only true high power, the only true supreme. “For this is no power….”. Paul does not say “But there is no power…”. He uses “for” because he is connecting the two sentences. There are higher powers that we must be subject to because there is no power but God… Basically, because there is no power but God, we know that God has ordained all current governing authorities. It is because God is in charge that we can be subject to those he has put in charge.

And perhaps if we meditate on this truth, we’ll find a certain freedom in knowing that our authorities are God’s authorities. There is also a Godly fear that should be had, which Paul will discuss shortly.

Does this mean we obey everything a public authority figure tells us to do? No, because “we ought to obey God rather than man”. Daniel “submitted” to the King, but he could not obey the king when he was ordered to cease praying  to God. We submit to the authorities, but can only obey them up to the point where it’s not sinning against God. We are to live peaceably with all men as much as is possible (Rom 12:18). The word “be subject” here implies putting ourselves under someone and submitting to their authority.

Both Daniel and three Hebrew children had to disobey the ordinance of the king at some point, but this was the exception. And because they had spent their lives honoring the king and his government, when they did have to disobey on behalf of their faith, their testimony was all the stronger. The king immediately knew who to give glory to.

13:2 Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.

If governing authorities are God’s powers, then if we resist them, we are resisting the ordinance (or command) of God. Let’s think about that for a moment. We are resisting God’s ordinance, his command, his law, when we resist governing authorities.

The consequence of such a resistance is damnation.

13:3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. 

Rulers are God’s arm to avenge evil and disseminate justice. They are a terror to the works of evil. Historically, God has even used other governments to overthrow ones who practiced evil. And in the Bible, God used other governments to punish Israel with the sword.

4 For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to [execute] wrath on him who practices evil.

Certain Christian leaders are called ministers in scripture. The only other people called “minister” is here: governing authorities. Police, mayors, congressmen, presidents, prime ministers, supreme leaders, kings, dictators, chancellors, emperors, these are God’s ministers to you and me. They are here for our well being. 

We’ll spend more time on this next week, but there is an important distinction between a person bearing the sword and the government bearing the sword. Vengeance does not belong to us, but to God. And God will use his authorities to exact vengeance on evil-doers. Jesus told Peter that if he lived by the sword, he would die by the sword. When justice is to be served, we do not personally take an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth, we take such things to God’s governing officials when necessary.

Unfortunately, not all leaders practice the righteousness of God. Are we still to honor them.

Peter writes:

[1Pe 2:12-17 NKJV] 12 having your conduct honorable among the Gentiles, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by [your] good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation. 13 Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, 14 or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and [for the] praise of those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men– 16 as free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God. 17 Honor all [people]. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king.

When Peter commanded the churches to submit to the King and governments for the Lord’s sake, here is what was going on (or what had gone on shortly prior) under the rule of Nero:

“Tacitus emphasises the fact that the Christians were guilty and deserved to suffer the last penalty of the law. Public feeling condemned them as enemies of civilised society; but the outrageous mockery with which Nero had them executed, and the common suspicion that the alleged arson was a mere pretence produced a revulsion in their favour. The bare punishments—crucifixion, burning at the stake, and death by wild beasts—were right and proper. But the people to whom Nero threw open his gardens, in order that they might witness such sights, found Nero himself among them dressed in the garb of a charioteer2—the ancient equivalent of a jockey. If the Christians were really magrcians, as their punishments implied, and their stories of healings may have suggested, the situation was too serious for such buffoonery. Nero’s conduct was enough to discredit his plea of reasons of state.”

“It is clear, then, that Christians, who confessed their Christianity or were denounced as Christians by such confessors, were put to death by Nero after the great fire of Rome in a.d. 64. It was alleged that they were incendiaries or magicians, but these allegations were not proven. The reference to the execution of the founder of the sect suggests that they were, in accordance with that precedent, liable to capital punishment in Rome or in the provinces.”

“Suetonius records that under Nero many practices were severely punished and prohibited and many others set up. No food was henceforth to be sold in the cook-shops (for example) except vegetables; and punishments were inflicted upon the Christians—a kind of men who embraced a new and maleficent superstition.”

“The natural inference that Nero’s action in the matter of the Christians formed a precedent which was followed generally and in the provinces unless further regulations were introduced by himself or his successors, is probable in the nature of the case, and it is expressly asserted by Sulpicius Severus, who follows Tacitus, and may have known parts of his Annals which are no longer extant. This, he says, was the beginning of the savage treatment of the Christians. Afterwards also laws were laid down by which the religion was proscribed and edicts were issued by which it was publicly declared illegal to be a Christian. Then Paul and Peter were condemned to death.”

J.H.A. Hart, “The First Epistle General of Peter,” in The Expositor’s Greek Testament: Commentary, vol. 5 (New York: George H. Doran Company, n.d.), 26–28.

The above implies that when it was discovered that the founder of this sect (Jesus) was crucified legally under the Roman governor Pontious Pilot via capital punishment, there should be little reason why his followers should be fit to receive the same punishment. They were falsely accused of committing awful crimes against the city

If this wasn’t bad enough Nero made a particularly vicious example of Christians by turning their public executions into drawn-out public exhibitions. Additionally, there is evidence that Christians were accused of such things as cannibalism, forms of evil magic, being anti-family, and promoting insurrection against the government. One can look at just these four examples and see the good Christian practice underneath that had been twisted by the enemies of the church.

  • Cannibalism = The practice of the Lord’s Supper
  • Magic/Witchcraft = Belief in the miraculous/prayer
  • Anti-family = A family member getting saved and no longer following idol worship
  • Insurrection = Confessing no other Lord but Jesus.

So they weren’t just being physically abused. They were being shamefully slandered and made out to be something they were not by their king.

It was under this sanctioned governmental persecution that Peter insisted believers submit themselves to the king and governors. Peter told his persecuted brothers and sisters that this test of their faith was “more precious than gold which perishes (1 Pet 1:7)”. 

So if any governing authorities come against us, let it not be for any sinful behaviour, let it only be on account of our faith. Peter writes in closing:

[1Pe 2:19-23 NKJV] 19 For this [is] commendable, if because of conscience toward God one endures grief, suffering wrongfully. 20 For what credit [is it] if, when you are beaten for your faults, you take it patiently? But when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this [is] commendable before God. 21 For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps: 22 “Who committed no sin, Nor was deceit found in His mouth”; 23 who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed [Himself] to Him who judges righteously;

This was the will of God, that by submitting, Christians would put these false accusation to silence.

For when we submit to kings and governors—even those, especially those who oppose our beliefs and Christian lifestyle—we are submitting to God. And whether we live or die, our good works in this matter would lead others to “glorify God on the day of their visitation”.

Next Steps

Week 2: The Sword. How Christians Interact with War and Punishment.

Hand out Prayer Guide “Praying for Governing Authorities”

Week 3: Paying Tribute/Taxes. How to Pray for World Leaders. Prayer Time

Discussion Questions

  1. Find some additional stories in scripture of when God’s people chose to honor authority.
  2. Read 1Pe 2:12-17, what are two important benefits listed from maintaining good behaviour? 
  3. Why did God establish governments (Romans 13:1-7)?
  4. How do we get rid of our fear of the governmental authorities (Romans 13:3)?
  5. What are some prayer from the Bible that we can pray over our leaders?