Scripture calls on us Christians to submit to those who govern us, but this directive is often misunderstood. I suggest that Romans 13:1–7 calls us to take note of at least four factors in our Christian responsibilities (whether as pastor or layperson) toward our governing officials. To give proper emphasis to the import of what the Apostle Paul wrote, I will use the present tense rather than the past tense, lest we ease our consciences that the tyranny of the Roman Empire belongs in the past.
1. Ministers Are Not to be Silent: They are to Follow Paul’s Example by Speaking Clearly and Biblically to Political Issues
Paul wrote the letter of Romans to Christians who lived in Rome, the capital of the Roman Empire. We Christians are not exempt from being influenced to read Scripture from our contemporary situation and thus impose our perspective onto the text. Of course, the Apostle Paul does not write his directives from the relative freedom we Americans have. He writes as a first-century citizen residing within the Roman Empire, not as one who lives within our Democratic Republic. The apostle writes these directives to Christians who reside in the capital of the Empire, and we see his courage when he restricts and defines the authority of the world’s superpower. The fact that he writes these directives concerning how Christians are obliged to relate to those in human government indicates that ministers of the gospel are obligated to provide preaching that imitates this prophetic teaching concerning cultural-social-political-moral-ethical issues. Many ministers of the gospel refuse to address political issues because they lack the requisite knowledge, wisdom, and courage to do so. Lamentably, many who do attempt to speak on these matters do it so poorly and superficially that it becomes manifestly transparent that they do not think deeply about the gospel and its ramifications at the level of comprehensive worldview thinking.
2. Submission Does Not Mean Silence
The fact that the apostle Paul calls on Christians to be subject to governing authorities and tells us that to rebel against governing authorities is to rebel against God hardly suggests that Christians are to adopt a posture of simpering pawns and obeisant sycophants. It does not suggest adopting the martyr’s complex and never defending themselves against false accusations and never speaking on public policy issues. If that is Paul’s objective, why does he even bother writing these things to the Christians in Rome? No! We must understand this blanket command in light of Paul’s actions elsewhere. What might submission to the governing authorities look like? Here are three things:
(1) The Apostle Paul appealed to his Roman citizenship to avert flogging (Acts 16:35–37; 22:25–29).
(2) He called on Roman officials to protect his life when his fellow Jewish countrymen arrested him and conspired how they might put him to death (Acts 23:12–35).
(3) He also appealed to Caesar for justice rather than leave his case in the hands of wicked Jews who were determined to carry out their injustice to terminate his life (Acts 25:10–11).
Because the apostle knows and understands that human governments are ordained by God, he is neither timid to appeal to governing officials to preserve his life from jackals and wolves who would devour him, nor bureaucrats in high positions who think that they would be doing God a favor. Nor is he afraid to include in his letter to Christians in the empire’s capital city directives to Caesar that he is subject to God and that as God’s subject, he is, like all other governing authorities, obligated to punish evildoers and to reward doers of good.
3. The Role of Governing Officials Is Not to Do Whatever They please, But to Commend Doers of Good and to Be a Terror to Evildoers
In his commentary on Romans 13, John Calvin makes an apt observation that is worth quoting in full:
Magistrates may hence learn what their vocation is, for they are not to rule for their own interest, but for the public good; nor are they endued with unbridled power, but what is restricted to the wellbeing of their subjects; in short, they are responsible to God and to men in the exercise of their power. For as they are deputed by God and do his business, they must give an account to him: and then the ministration which God has committed to them has a regard to the subjects, they are therefore debtors also to them. And private men are reminded, that it is through the divine goodness that they are defended by the sword of princes against injuries done by the wicked. . . . It is another part of the office of magistrates, that they ought forcibly to repress the waywardness of evil men, who do not willingly suffer themselves to be governed by laws, and to inflict such punishment on their offenses as God’s judgment requires; for he expressly declares, that they are armed with the sword, not for an empty show, but that they may smite evil-doers.
1. John Calvin, Commentary on Romans, [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979], 481.
As Calvin states, we are obligated “to obey kings and governors, whoever they may be, not because we are constrained, but because it is a service acceptable to God; for he will have them not only to be feared, but also honored by a voluntary respect.” Yet, is there not more here than directives to Christians concerning how we should submit to our governors? Yes, surely there is.
2. Calvin, Commentary on Romans, 481.
4. All Christians Are Obligated to Remind Governing Officials of Their God-Appointed Role.
By virtue of their leadership roles in Christ’s church, ministers of the gospel generally have greater opportunities and frequency to apply publicly the teachings of Scripture on state and national issues. This, however, does not alleviate lay Christians from actively participating in doing the same within their own individual spheres of influence. Hence, ministers are obligated to lead them by example and to admonish them to live fully in keeping with their Christian confession: “Jesus is Lord!” The Apostle Paul sends his letter containing a ruler’s obligations not to the emperor’s palace, but to Christians in Rome. By doing this, the Apostle Paul is instructing us that we Christians have an obligation to teach our own families and our neighbors concerning our roles as citizens but also to remind those who govern us:
(1) that God appointed them to their seats of governance;
(2) that they are ministers of God for the well being of those whom they govern;
(3) that justice—punishing evildoers and rewarding doers of good—is their primary role; and
(4) that they are in positions of authority not to serve themselves but to serve those for whom they are entrusted with governing.
The apostle’s admonitions forbid us from engaging in activist rioting, insurrection, and disorder. But his words do not keep us from peaceful protestations, the kind that have gathered on the National Mall in our Capitol such as the March on Washington led by Martin Luther King Jr. We do, however, need to observe that Paul’s directives also restrain us from retreating from public life with a safe Christian cloister hermetically sealed from the wicked influences around us, including evil-doing elected officials, magistrates, and bureaucrats who become tyrants. Rather, the Apostle Paul obligates us Christians to confront evil governing officials with holy rebukes to remind them of their God-appointed calling.
The gospel Paul preaches and which we Christians embrace with joy obligates us to confess, “Jesus is Lord” (Rom. 10:9)! This confession is all-inclusive. It is hardly serendipitous that the Apostle writes these words, “Jesus is Lord,” in his letter to Rome, where worship is reverently bestowed on the emperor with bowed heads, raised arm, and with the mouth affirming, “Ave, Caesar!” The gospel’s affirmation, “Jesus is Lord” is subversive to every human governing official who demands allegiance. Our confession obligates us to denounce ultimate allegiance to governing officials and to announce to the world that Jesus Christ is Lord over every realm, over every domain, over every place, and over every person, including vaunted kings, braggart or doddering presidents, tyrannical magistrates, self-appointed messianic figures, and even Caesars who call themselves gods. Governance and public policy issues do not fall beyond the reach of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
If our confession, “Jesus is Lord,” is true, he is Lord over all. All political theories and implementations are under Christ’s dominion. This reminder is fitting. Ponder again Abraham Kuyper’s response to the notion that Christianity is to be hermetically sealed off from public life: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!”