Romans 13 is often misunderstood. It does not ask you to submit unconditionally to government. It does tell you that God has established a citizen & government relationship that is required for harmony to happen in any good society. It requires both citizen and government to fulfill their duty! If one side does not fulfill their duty, you will have chaos.
The Role of the Citizen
Romans is written to a church made up of Roman citizens and slaves who had been trafficked to Rome from all over the world. The author of Romans first tells the church that citizens are to embrace the authority structure they find themselves in (v1-2)
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted(arranged) by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed(ordained), and those who resist will incur judgment.Romans 13:1-2
Here is what he is saying. First, each of us finds ourselves in an authority structure. We must realize the structure is ordained by God and so is the person in the position of authority. The citizen’s role is to “be subject” or hypotassō (greek word) no matter the type of government.
Hypotassō does not mean unconditional surrender. It means active engagement in a relationship. This is the same word that is used in Ephesians 5 in the marriage relationship between husband and wife. As wives are to “be subject” to their husbands, so are citizens to “be subject” to government. Submission is active “Be subject” hypotassō = know your role in the relationship and be engaged. As wives are to submit to their husbands, so citizens are to submit to government.
Does this mean “at all costs, embrace cruelty, endure torture”? Does this mean that government has no responsibility? Quite the Opposite.
Government is God’s servant to champion moral behaviour (v.3-6)
3 For rulers are not a terror to good (moral) conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is (morally) good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good (morals). 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.Romans 13:3-4
This overlooked passage establishes the purpose of government. It tells us that God establishes government as His servant to champion moral behavior in society. Government is an external means to champion moral behavior in our personal life.
As indicated above, word good is agathos ἀγαθός in greek and best translated “morals / moral behavior / Godly behavior.” The word is not translated “happiness” or “a good life.” We know this because the same word is used in other similar passages.
- Romans 16:19 but I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil.
- Matthew 19:17 Rich man – “good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life…Jesus “no one is good but god alone”
This passage has been misquoted to justify slavery and segregation in the United States, Naziism in Germany, Communism in the USSR, apartheid in South Africa.
This passage does not say – “do whatever the government tells you to do. Do not question anything they do. They are there to give you a happy life. The government is justified in whatever they do because God puts them in power. If you question them, you are being rebellious”
It in fact says something different. God has established authority to advance a moral society. As citizens we need to submit to government as the external means God uses to have us walk morally.
What do you do when government does not fulfill its purpose?
Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscienceRomans 13:5
For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; 11 for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess[a] to God.” So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.Romans 14:11-12
The precedence of scripture is that believers are called to put their trust in God and obey Him first. While we have an obligation to obey government, we should never go against our God given conscious to do what is right. There are several examples in scripture where individuals are considered hero’s for not obeying ungodly government decrees. We find several in the Hebrews 11 hall of faith.
One example we can give is Moses’ parents who hid their son when the government wanted to destroy Jewish children under 1 years old. V. 23 By faith Moses’ parents hid him for three months after he was born, because they saw he was no ordinary child, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict.
There are several other examples in the last half of the Old Testament prophets who spoke truth to power when government led people immorally. We know that Daniel and his three friends did not bow down to the idol and were thrown into a furnace, and later Daniel was also thrown into a lions den after praying.
In the New Testament, we see in Acts 5:29, that Peter and Jon refused to listen to the political and religious leaders who ordered them not to preach about Jesus. Their response to these leaders was this: “it’s better to obey God rather than men…”
The government citizen relationship in Romans 13 was in the context of authoritarian government structure. Today, those of us who live in democracies or constitutional republics with representational government have a greater opportunity to be involved in the leadership that affect our families and our communities.
We have an obligation to be involved but to live in light of who God is first and leaders second.