Dr. Richard L. Strauss
August 18, 1991
Purpose: To encourage us to be submissive to our government and respectful toward our leaders.
Have you been following the controversy over the National Endowment for the Arts, the government agency that assists artists financially in order to advance the arts? Some of their money, our tax dollars, have been going to fund pornography--things like pictures of male homosexual activity, and a picture of a cross in a jar of urine--the title of which I wouldn't even say publically. I don't want my money spent for that. Do you?
And then there are things like the government funding of abortion. Think of it--they've spent Christians' money to kill human beings. And I've heard of condoms being distributed to high school students, paid for by tax money--Christians' money being used to promote immorality. We can't tolerate that sort of thing, can we? Maybe we just shouldn't file our income tax returns next year in protest. That would show them, wouldn't it? Should we disobey the government because it is doing things that are contrary to our beliefs as Christians? Should we break the law in order to take our stand for Biblical morality?
How about the Operation Rescue people who, in violation of the law, block the entrances to abortion clinics in order to save human lives? Some of them say that those of us who don't participate in that kind of activity are not being faithful to their Christian commitment. Are they right? Should we break the law to stop the slaughter of innocent children? How do we decide? Paul is about to deal with those very kinds of issues here in Romans 13.
He's been talking about our relationship with the world around us as Christians, and he's told us that we need to love others, even our enemies who persecute us. Don't get overpowered by their evil, but overcome evil by doing good. The good is loving them.
But how do we relate to the world's institutions, particularly those which have authority over us? Some of the Christians in Rome were probably wondering about that. You see, when the Christian church was first born, it was viewed by the Roman government as a sect within Judaism, and as such it enjoyed protection as a legal religion. But when Christianity assumed a character of its own, and began to attack Roman idolatry and challenge Roman emperor worship, it lost that protection. Now Christians were facing a more hostile government. How were they supposed to handle it?
The Jewish Zealots had a strong opinion about human government. They insisted that there was no king but God, and that no tribute should be paid to anyone but God. Furthermore, they believed that the Roman government was so corrupt that it should be overthrown. They were committed to disrupt Rome's ability to rule by engaging in terrorist activity. Is that the path God wants Christians to follow? If our government doesn't do what we think it should do, should we try to topple it?
On the contrary, the one key word that sums up a Christian's responsibility to his government is the word submission! Follow Paul's thought here, which begins with an exhortation to submit.
The Exhortation to Submit
Romans 13:1. "Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God."
To be subject is to take a proper rank or place under authority. That doesn't necessarily mean unquestioning obedience to any command that the civil authorities may arbitrarily decide to issue (as we shall see), but rather a recognition that we have been placed under the authority of civil government by God. Those in government have been placed over us--whether federal, state or local--and we need to acknowledge that and live in a manner that reflects our understanding of it. And that goes for all of us--"every soul." No Christian should ever consider himself to be above the law. Every Christian should submit. But why? Paul suggests three reasons.
Submit to Acknowledge Their Appointment by God (Romans 13:1-2)
He wants to be absolutely sure we understand that, so he says it first negatively--"for there is no authority except from God;" then he repeats it positively--"and the authorities that exist are appointed by God." That is a truth found all through the Bible. Whatever process is followed to choose human rulers, they are ultimately placed in their positions by God. That goes for the vilest of them as well as the most virtuous.
The prophet Daniel made that very clear--"He [God] removes kings and raises up kings" (Daniel 2:21). And God Himself reinforced the same truth to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon: "...the Most High rules in the kingdom of men, Gives it to whomever He will, And sets over it the lowest of men" (Daniel 4:17). There is no question about it--the powers that be are ordained of God.
And it doesn't matter what kind of government we're referring to. Contrary to what many Christians think, the Bible does not espouse any one form of human government above others. Most of us are convinced that democracy allows for the greatest human freedom and best protection of human dignity and human rights. And we may be correct about that. But the Bible nowhere establishes democracy as the one God-ordained system of government. Nor does it favor communism, or socialism, or monarchy, or oligarchy (which is rule by a few), or any other one system of government.
Whatever government is in power is appointed by God. Therefore, to resist the government is to resist God.
Romans 13:2. "Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves."
The punishment they bring on themselves may be inflicted by the government, or by the Lord, or both. But resistance will not go unpunished. You can be sure of that. Because the authorities that exist, whoever they may be, are appointed by God.
That's hard for most of us to swallow. Does that include rulers like Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Saddam Hussein? May I remind you of the government that was in power when Paul wrote this? It was a cruel dictatorship, ruled for the benefit of the elite in Rome. Most of the people throughout the empire lived in conquered nations occupied by Roman troops. Soldiers were constantly being sent off to fight foreign wars primarily for the glory of the emperor and his generals. Sixty million human beings were held in slavery and could be treated in any way their masters chose to treat them.
The emperors themselves were no model of morality and righteousness. Their courts were famous for gluttony, drunkenness, adultery, incest, homosexuality, murder and intrigue. And one of the worst was Nero, who ruled even as Paul wrote these words. When fire swept Rome just a few years later, Nero accused the Christians of starting it, and that led to an outbreak of persecution in which Paul himself was eventually killed. The government Paul was talking about in this passage was tyrannical, immoral and unjust. And yet he says, "Submit to it, because it was appointed by God." That would certainly not let any of the rest of us off the hook, whatever injustice we may suffer at the hands of government authorities. Our submission is intended to acknowledge their appointment by God.
Submit to Avoid Their Punishment of Wrong-Doers (Romans 13:3-4)
Romans 13:3a. "For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil."
That certainly doesn't cover all the possibilities, like madmen who exterminate innocent people. Some rulers may be a terror to people who do good. But the norm is for rulers to maintain law and order and to punish evildoers. Even the worst of the Roman emperors tried to do that. I think we would all agree that the worst governments in existence today are still better than total anarchy.
So...read Romans 13:3b-c. "Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same."
That makes sense. The way to eliminate fear of that flashing light and siren behind you is to obey the traffic laws. The way to eliminate fear of a letter from the IRS is to fill out your tax forms properly and pay the tax you owe. The way to eliminate fear of the guard at the mall is not to walk off with merchandise that you haven't paid for. If you keep the law, you have no reason to be afraid of the person in authority.
Romans 13:4a. "For he is God's minister to you for good."
Interesting! Government is called God's servant for good. Rulers are tools of God to accomplish things that He wants done. And they are basically good things. Paul saw the positive benefits of government, even bad government. For one thing, government protects us and our property. The Romans had eliminated most of the bandits from the hills and the pirates from the seas so that Paul could travel freely to preach the gospel.
Furthermore, government arbitrates when there are disputes. Paul had seen that work for his good as well when a Roman official named Gallio dismissed a case that the Jews brought against him (Acts 18:12-17). And in addition to that, government provides services that benefit us all. Roman roads and ships had aided the advance of the gospel throughout the known world.
We may not be happy with everything our government does, but we benefit from the good it does--like the fire and police protection we enjoy, and the power, water and sewage service to our homes, as well as roads, parks, schools, mail service, relief agencies, courts and judges to hear our grievances, a military to guard us from outside threats, and so much more. We can understand what Paul is saying. Our government, with all its faults, is God's servant to us for good. And if we do what is right, we have nothing to fear from it.
Romans 13:4b. "But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God's minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil."
The sword may refer simply to government's right to bear arms, or it may be a reference to capital punishment. But in either case, we have nothing to fear if we submit to properly constituted authority and do what's right. And that's the second reason for submitting. But there is a third.
Submit to Enjoy a Clear Conscience (Romans 13:5)
Romans 13:5. "Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience' sake."
The unbeliever may obey simply for fear of punishment, and possibly because he appreciates the benefits he enjoys. But the Christian has this further reason. He knows the Scripture. He understands the place of government in God's sovereign purposes. And he knows that he must submit in order to maintain a clear conscience before God.
Most of us know what Paul is talking about. We may park in a handicapped space once in awhile, but we feel guilty about it. If we fudge on our tax return, our conscience bothers us. If we get stopped for speeding, we look around to see if anybody we know is watching. But the Lord knows, and He sees. And we are aware of that. So we do what we're supposed to do, because we want to be able to look Him in the eye without shame.
Well that's the exhortation to submit and the reasons for it. But what does submission involve? What specifically does it mean to submit? Paul wants to help us understand it a little better with examples.
The Examples of Submission
There are two examples of submission.
Submit by Paying the Required Taxes (Romans 13:6)
Romans 13:6. "For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God's ministers attending continually to this very thing."
Taxes are the means the government has for carrying out its responsibilities. As much as we hate to admit it, the state cannot function without them. Since government authorities are God's servants, and since they give their full time to the work of governing, we must support them with our taxes.
Incidentally, the word minister or servant in verse 6 (leitourgos) is different from the one used twice in verse 4 (diakonos). The first word referred to any lowly service. This one usually refers to priestly service, the service of God. When we pay our taxes, it would be like giving a gift to God's priests. And to withhold our taxes would be like an ancient worshipper refusing to give what was due the priests in worship. In other words, if we don't pay our taxes, we're robbing God.
And if God wants us to pay our taxes, He obviously wants us to do it without grumbling and complaining. Can we remember that next April? Paying the required taxes is one way we submit to our government.
Submit by Giving the Proper Respect (Romans 13:7)
Romans 13:7. "Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor."
It isn't enough just to pay what we owe and say, "Now you've got your money; get off my case." God wants us to respect them and honor them--not because they are wealthy or powerful, but because of the position they hold as God's ministers. We may not agree with everything they do, and we can tell them so, in gracious ways, through the channels made available to us in our society. But we have no right to belittle them with sarcasm and put-downs and make them the butt of cutting humor (as so many in our culture are prone to do, particularly in the entertainment industry). Giving the proper respect is another way we submit.
Well, it's beginning to look as though I better file my income tax next year, even if I don't like the way the government is spending my money. But wait just a minute. Things aren't always quite that simple. Jesus said that we're supposed to give to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's (Mark 12:17). But suppose Caesar tries to overstep his bounds and meddle in the things that are God's. Paul doesn't deal with that problem here, but there are other Scriptures which do address the problem. Maybe we should say a word about that.
The Exceptions to Submission
When does God approve of us disobeying our government? The answer is simply when our government tries to make us disobey God's clearly revealed Word. And there are a number of Biblical illustrations of that. They relate to three general areas.
Matters of Worship
Daniel and his three friends obeyed the king of Babylon until he tried to make them eat food that had been dedicated to idols (Daniel 1), and bow down before a gold image (Daniel 2), and stop praying to the God of heaven (Daniel 6). Then God's laws took precedence over man's laws. And we as believers today must obey those in authority over us until their laws forbid us to worship the one true God or require us to worship some other god. When the law says we cannot gather to worship our God, then we will refuse to obey.
Matters of Witness
When the Jewish religious authorities called the apostles on the carpet for teaching in the name of Jesus after they had been told not to, they answered, "We ought to obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29). And we as believers today must obey those in authority over us until they try to tell us that we cannot talk about our faith in Jesus. That's where we draw the line. Matters of worship, matters of witness, and thirdly, matters of morality.
Matters of Morality
When Pharaoh of Egypt commanded his midwives to kill all the Hebrew boys that they delivered, they disobeyed, and rightly so (Exodus 1:15-17). When the king of Jericho tried to find the Jewish spies and kill them, Rahab the harlot disobeyed her king and hid them, and God blessed her for it (Hebrews 11:31). When King Saul commanded his son Jonathan to kill David, Jonathan disobeyed and helped David (1 Samuel 19). It was the right thing to do. And we as believers today must obey those in authority over us until they tell us that we must violate Biblical morality. Like a teacher insisting that his students view a pornographic film. Or a boss insisting that his secretary lie on the phone, or alter the company's records. Then we refuse to submit.
We have an advantage that people in Biblical times did not have. We have legal means to influence our government in matters of justice and righteousness, and we need to take advantage of that privilege that has been made available to us.
A good illustration of that has been in the bulletin for the last two weeks about California law AB101. I mean, we have an obligation as believers to take a stand on that. When was the last time you wrote or called a Congressman, or a Senator, or an Assemblyman and expressed your opinion about a moral question facing them--a moral decision they had to make. If they knew a vote was at stake in the next election, they might listen. You see, there is nothing against the law in doing that. In fact, we might see that as an obligation.
But what if those methods don't work? All of our letter writing campaigns and our boycotts of sponsors--what if it doesn't work? What should we do then? Should a Christian then resort to non-violent illegal means of stopping injustice and standing for righteousness, like blocking the entrances to abortion clinics illegally?
Every once in a while I get a reputation as being a fence sitter and this probably why, because I am solidly on the fence this morning. Solidly on the fence. Each individual Christian has to be given the freedom to decide what is appropriate for him or her in each of those instances, without being manipulated or coerced into participating in any particular form of civil disobedience that he's not comfortable with based on his understanding of Scripture. Some people feel no obligation to be involved certain kinds of protest activity since they personally are not being forced to disobey God's Word. If they were being forced to disobey, they would take a stand. They're not being forced, so they don't take a stand. Others feel that it is their responsibility to take a stand against immorality wherever it appears. And they are willing to pay the consequences for their law breaking, but they feel like it's necessary to change the law, and they feel that only law breaking will change it.
So who's right? I plead what Paul says about another issue which we'll get to in the next chapter. In Romans 14:5 he says, "Let each one be fully convinced in his own mind." Make up your own mind. Be sure you're doing what you believe God wants you to do.
And he also says in that chapter, "Let's not judge one another anymore either." If I decide to throw my body across the entrance to an abortion clinic against the law, don't judge me for it. And if I decide that's not my responsibility to do that and I choose not to, please don't judge me for that either. And I won't judge you. You make up your mind before God, because you and I each answer to Him in these matters, not to each other.
But before you disobey the law, please be sure it is a valid Biblical exception. Because one thing is abundantly clear from this passage of Scripture: The general rule is submission. Submission.
The man who wrote this and told us this by inspiration from God's Spirit, saw his tax money being used to finance cruel foreign wars, murderous gladiatorial games, and lavish and immoral banquets in the imperial court. And he said, "Pay your taxes and respect your leaders."
So I've decided to file next year!! And beyond that, I've decided to do my best to be a law-abiding citizen in the meantime. I hope you will do the same because that's the Word of God.
Trusting Jesus as Your Savior
Now I have to say before I close that you can count on God to obey His own laws. You see, God has some laws of justice and righteousness and holiness. He's a holy God, and when His holiness is offended, He is bound by His own character to punish that sin and to separate it from His presence eternally. He must follow through on His own character and His own laws. You can count on Him to do it.
And that is why, we who are born sinners, experience the condemnation of our sin--the just condemnation--and that is eternal separation from God.
But, you see, God is also love. In addition to being righteous and holy, He is love. And in His love, He sent His Son to Calvary's cross to bear in His own body the guilt and the punishment that our sins deserved. So now, if we're willing to trust in Him, He can forgive us and accept us eternally into His heaven and still maintain His own justice because the Law has been fulfilled, the penalty has been paid.
That doesn't mean that everybody's going to be in heaven, unfortunately. I wish it did mean that, but it doesn't, because God isn't going to force anybody to accept His provision. He made the provision; He reveals it to us in His Word; He holds it out to us in grace and asks, "Will you receive my gift of forgiveness and eternal life?"
There are some who reject His gift. They say, "I can make it on my own. I can do enough to merit God's salvation." No! No, you can't! Please don't try to offer that to God. How could any finite human deeds ever satisfy an infinitely holy God? That's why He had to do it for us. Will you accept His love gift to you? It's eternal salvation in the Person of His Son. Will you trust Christ as your Savior today?
Let's bow before Him in prayer. Bowed prayerfully before Him right now, let me ask you whether you've made this decision and put your faith in Christ as your Savior from sin. If you're not sure you have, would you make sure today? It would be nice if there was some other way, but Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me."
And if He is who He claimed to be--and the evidence is all there--we have to accept that and come His way by faith in Him, who died for our sins and rose again to make us right with God. Will you accept His offer of salvation today? If you will, I'd like to suggest that you settle it right now, quietly where you sit, in prayer. Just in the silence of your own soul, you tell Him so, will you?
"Lord, I'm a sinner. I need Your salvation. Thank You for providing it at Calvary. And now, Lord Jesus, I'm putting my faith in You. I receive You into my life right now, as my Savior and Lord."
Will you do that?
Maybe you've settled that issue. You are a true child of God and you know that. But there have been some areas of disobedience in your life--not related to any Biblical principle, just selfishness and sin. Would you confess that sin to God right now and covenant with Him that by His grace you're going to obey Him and bring your life into conformity with God's Word?
Lord, You know our hearts. Help us to be honest with you and not try to hide things from You. Thank you for your willingness to forgive and to cleanse, and then, to enable and strengthen us to live in a way that honors You. Thank You. In Jesus' name, amen.
Continue to ROM 29: Our Outstanding Debt