The authority of the State. 13:1-7


In our passage for study Paul continues to give practical advice to the believers in Rome. He now deals with a believer's duty to the civil authorities.

The passage

v1. Although the Roman state was a dictatorship, Paul calls on his readers to "submit" themselves to it. Some have understood this to mean "obey", but it means to "respect" the right of the State to govern and tax where it doesn't infringe God's rule. The reason for such respect rests with the truth that no authority can exist outside God's authority; the authority of the State is approved by God.

v2. Since all civil authority is ordained by God, to wilfully oppose that authority is to oppose God and come under his judgement.

v3. We are to respect the civil authority and this because their role is to "commend" what is right and good and punish what is evil. The problem here is that Paul doesn't seem to consider that an evil civil authority may do the opposite. The action of Pilate against Christ was certainly compromised, but he did attempt to be just. Calvin argues that Paul was speaking "of the true and natural duty of the magistrate" and this is probably the best way for us to understand this verse. It is possible, although unlikely, that Paul is speaking in eternal terms. Since the State is ultimately under God's rule, good will win out. The State will inevitably honor the good, even if initially it may punish the believer unjustly. Right will ultimately prevail, but this is not Paul's point here.

v4. The civil authority is God's servant for the believer's good, in fact, for human good. It does us "good" in the restraint of evil by the use of the sword - army/police, judiciary, etc. This is a "good", a benefit, for all considerate people. The particular advantage for believers is that the ensuing peace enables a free access of the gospel into the wider community. Peace, rather than chaos, enables us to effectively communicate the gospel.

v5. A person will submit to the State because they fear punishment, but also because they know that the maintenance of peace is a societal good. The believer knows also that behind the authority of the State lies the authority of God. A further good reason for submission.

v6. The administration of law and order is an expensive business and therefore, it is right for the State to levy taxes to fund its God-given role.

v7. Paul concludes with an exhortation to "respect" and "honor" ("respect" in the Greek is "fear") the State, and in particular, to pay taxes when and where they are due. These then are the practical responsibilities we owe the secular State.

The authority of the State

Jehovah's Witnesses have always rejected the authority of the State, even though by so doing they defy the clear teaching of Scripture. Although their view is extreme, even to the extent of defying the State on issues such as National Service, their point of view is reflected in conservative Christian circles. We tend to be suspicious of secular authorities, believing that little good can come out of Babel.

These words from Paul remind us that government is not a human invention, but is ordained by God and is to be respected by the followers of Christ. Government exists to restrain evil through the "sword" and to fund that role by taxation. Obviously, human society and the development of family and relationships will not proceed where there is no peace. So, government serves an essential good. In particular, the maintenance of order serves to provide for the free access of the gospel, and so believers are encouraged to pray for good government.

Kings, like James the first of England, argued for the divine right of kings from this passage. Many theologians have agreed with this approach. Even the Lutheran church, during the time of Nazi rule in Germany, had to wrestle with the issue. Should Hitler be obeyed on the basis of this passage? Both John Calvin and John Knox stressed the mutual obligations of the people and the government. As Peter put it, "we ought to obey God rather than man." A government that presses us to disobey God cannot be obeyed.

Thankfully, most often governing authorities tend to be a terror for those who do wrong and not for those who do right. Given that the institution has a divine origin, we will need to consider carefully any act of defiance against our government. "In all ordinary cases, and this is most of the time, a Christian should obey the law", Clark's commentary on Romans.

There is no divinely ordained form of government, but those of us who live under a democratic government can rightly feel blessed. In a democracy, submission to the State includes much more than just obedience to the laws of the land. So, let us remember that voting in elections, writing to parliamentarians, understanding current affairs, accepting the will of the majority, ...... are all elements of responsible citizenship. As believers we are to give respect to the divine institution of government.


Dietrich Bonhoeffer, along with some of his friends, defied the Nazi government during the Second World war. They paid with their life. How do you reconcile their act of defiance against the government of Germany with Paul's words in this passage?

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