Romans 13 | God and Government, Laws and Love

by | May 21, 2019

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” Romans 13:1

Wait. Our political leaders are ordained by God? Seriously? I know that is what Paul says, but it can’t be what he means, surely. Especially in this election year where all the bets are off and conventional wisdom is out the window – and most available candidates do not think like we do on moral issues. Surely this scripture cannot apply to us today.

Yes, it does.

Government is from God. Laws and governments maintain civil society. Without them there would be chaos, confusion and destruction. Our national, state and local laws help keep the order which is sorely needed because men are fallen and things will tend to disorder if not checked by laws and punishment. These laws protect the innocent and punish the evildoer. It would be great if people could govern themselves by the law that God has written into our conscience, but that is not possible, and therefore we must have laws.

Man, by nature, does not like authority. In our fallen state we are self-legislative, and authority challenges that. But living by the Bible means that we live in accordance with authority and play by the rules.

It is true, however, that depraved men also write laws. Are we supposed to obey laws that go against godly principles?  No. When authority stops being ethical, it stops being biblical and we must obey God, rather than men (Acts 5:29). In verse two, Paul deals with resistance to authority. If we set ourselves against authority, we incur judgment. The word ‘resists’ implies an across-the-board radical defiance of authority, not a moral stand on a particular point. Paul is not requiring an unquestioning submission to all authority.

The fundamental confession of a Christian in Paul’s day was “Jesus is Lord.” This, however, ran counter to the claim of Rome that Caesar was lord or sovereign. Paul answers the question, “can we obey Caesar, who claims to be our lord?”  Paul’s answer is that Caesar is the “minister of God,” i.e., servant. We obey Caesar as God’s servant, not as a sovereign. The state is not God, but God’s servant. As God’s servant, it should be a “terror to evil,” not a proponent of evil. Paul places all men and institutions under God, including the state. The real problem is in the fallen nature of man, and the remedy must begin there.

But there is a specific posture we are commanded to take concerning those who are in authority. First we pray for them. 1 Timothy 2:1-3 says, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior.”  Second, we honor them (Romans 13).

In verses 8-10, Paul introduces the key to the entire matter: “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”

Wow. The real issue is not the person in authority or the laws – the real issue is love.

There is a kingdom that is bigger than the laws of this age. There is a higher authority. And there is a higher law that we as followers of Christ should adhere to: the law of love. Paul points this out in the last part of chapter 13 and fleshes it out in a real life situation in chapter 14.

As Christians, we do what is right not because we are afraid of being punished, but because the people around us are precious and deserve to be treated accordingly. When I keep the law, I place a value on you. By honoring the king (living by the laws), we honor the people around us and we have the optimal chance to live in peace.

So what should our posture toward government be? Absolutely, we need to pay our taxes and adhere to the laws of the land in order to maintain civil peace and an orderly society. But, when the government oversteps its bounds, I believe we, as Christians and people who live in a republic, have the obligation to act against abuses of power.

Especially in a representative republic such as the United States, it can be argued that the people get the leaders that they deserve, for those in office are a reflection of the moral state of the people who put them there. The greatest thing we can do to change our country is not merely fight to change laws or leaders, but to shine as moral lights, affecting the darkness around us, and to work to change the hearts of individuals around us by sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ.