Summary: This is a study of what the Scriptures teach about the origin and purpose of civil government. We also briefly examine both the Christian’s responsibilities and rights in relation to civil government.
We Christians have many relationships in our lives. We have a relationship with God through Christ. We have relationships with those who are in the Church. We have relationships within marriage and family. We have relationships with our neighbors or society. We have relationships with our employers or employees.
In this passage in Romans 13, Paul addresses another relationship which we have - that with civil authority or government.
When one thinks about the original recipients of this Letter, one can certainly understand the importance of the Apostle to touch on this subject. For, the Christians in Rome lived in the Capitol of the World, the seat of civil authority and power. In their midst lived and ruled the Emperor and the Senate.
The civil government of Rome had brought great blessings to the portion of the world that it ruled. It brought order, it brought security, it brought civilization, it brought trade and prosperity, it brought architectural, scientific and technological advancement. On the other hand, there were many who decried that Roman rule brought curses - cruel subjugation, blasphemous emperor worship, oppressive taxation, etc.
How was the Christian to regard and interact with Rome’s civil authority and power?
Interestingly, Paul chooses not to address Imperial Rome and the Emperor. In describing civil government and those in positions of authority, Paul uses the most general of terms. He neither discusses any specific form of government nor any particular type of civil office. This is purposeful.
The truths brought to us in this passage pertain to all forms of government and every type of office of civil authority. It applied to the Roman Empire with its Emperor, Consuls, Senators, Tribunes, Praetors and governors of Paul’s day as it does the democratic republic with its President, Vice President, Congress, Governor, Legislature, Councilman and Mayor of our Nation in our day.
In verse 1, Paul states that "there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God."
God is the Ruler of the Universe. He possesses all power and authority. He is Lord of lords and King of kings. Whatever civil authority or power one may have in this world, it is a delegated authority and power from God the Sovereign (Jn.19:10-11). Therefore, no governing institution of civil authority exists without God having established it. Whether it be an autocracy or democracy, or monarchy, or oligarchy, or plutocracy or a republic God has established it and its offices.
What is the primary purpose of civil government? Paul teaches us, in verses 3 and 4, that civil authority is to "praise" or promote the righteous and to act as "an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil."
Here, we see that it is God’s intent that government be just and righteous. It is His will that government leaders promote righteous and suppress wickedness in society.
God’s Will for the civil authority towards the righteous is that they are to allow the follower of God, according to 1 Timothy 2:2, to "lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity."
In punishing the criminal, Paul says the civil authority - "a minister of God" - "does not bear the sword for nothing." Interestingly, there are many different Greek words used to refer to the many different kinds of swords. Here, Paul uses the word which specifically refers to the executioner’s broadsword used in beheading the evildoer. Thus, Scripture does sanction capital punishment.
Since God is the establisher of all civil authority and that those who hold civil offices are ministers of God, Paul and Peter instruct us saying that Christians have four major responsibilities toward civil government:
We are to subject ourselves to governing authorities being ready to obey civil laws and statutes -
Romans 13:1, 2, "Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities.... he who resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God."
Titus 3:1, "Remind them to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient..."
1 Peter 2:13-15, "Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For this is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men."
The only occasion when we can justify disobedience to civil authorities is when their laws or statutes violate those of the holy Scriptures -
Acts 5:29, "We must obey God rather than man."
2) Payment of taxes and customs.
Romans 13:6-7, "For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due, custom to whom custom."