Romans 13:1-7


The teachings of Paul regarding governmental authority were not given in a vacuum.  The world of the first century was characterized by:


           Slavery.  This was not a black versus white issue, but rather a brutal fact that slavery had been an established way of life for thousands of years.


           Dictatorship.  The Roman Republic had ended with Octavius Augustus in the years before the birth of Christ.  Even though the outward forms were followed, everyone knew that the emperor was a dictator (that was even one of his official titles).


           Taxation without representation.  The Romans believed that everyone should pay taxes except for Romans.  Thus, those who were citizens of Rome were exempt from paying most taxes while the crushing tax burden was passed on to the conquered peoples of the world.


           Religious persecution.  Within just a few years the Roman Emperor Nero would be coming to the throne of Rome.  He would initiate an intense persecution of Christians.


This was the world of the first century.  What had Jesus said to the people living under these conditions?  “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s” (Matthew 22:21).  This sets forth a principle of submission.





            Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except God, and those which exist are established by God. (Romans 13:1).


Paul begins this section with a command.  There are no qualifications, no limits, and no conditions.  It applies to everyone – literally to “every soul.”    All are to be in subjection.  To whom are we to be in subjection?  The governing authorities.  It does not say to be in subjection only to those governing authorities who are godly.  That was not the case in the situation to which Paul writes.


I said a moment ago that there were no limits to this command.  It is true that none are given here.  But I do think that one is given elsewhere in the Scriptures.  It is found in Acts 4:19-20 when Peter and John answered the command that they cease and desist from preaching Jesus and they answer, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; 20  for we cannot stop speaking what we have seen and heard.”


This is the exception to the rule.  It is when God’s people are commanded to perform an act that would be in disobedience to the Lord.  In this situation, they are called to disobey IN THAT SINGLE AREA.


Romans 12

Romans 13

Personal responsibility.

Government responsibility.

Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice (12:1-2).

Be in subjection to the governing authorities (13:1).

Never pay back evil for evil (12:17).


“Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord (12:19).

Government does not bear the sword for nothing; it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil (13:4).

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (12:21).

Rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil (13:3).


In the last chapter, we saw that vengeance belongs to the Lord and that we are to give up our desire for vengeance against those who do wrong against us.  How are we to do this?  One part of this is by being subject to the governing authorities whose duty it is to be an avenger against the evil-doer.





            Therefore he who resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves (13:2).


We have already seen that governmental authority is ordained by God.  This means that resisting governmental authority constitutes rebellion against God.


This was a difficult teaching to accept it Paul’s day.  Indeed, the Jews were noted for their past rebellions against authority.  They had revolved against Nebuchadnezzar and they would soon be revolting against the Roman empire.  Furthermore, their revolts were not justified by the Lord.  Jeremiah had repeatedly warned the Jews not to revolt against Nebuchadnezzar, but they had not listened.  Their rebellion had been against both Nebuchadnezzar as well as against the Lord.


What was true in those Old Testament times was also true in Paul’s day and is also true today.  The one who resists authority effectively sets himself up in opposition to the ordinance of God.


Resisting Authority


Resisting God





            For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same; 4 for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil (13:3-4).


The second reason we ought to obey governmental authorities is because they have the power to punish the one who disobeys.  We are not called to live in fear and, when it comes to dealing with legitimate authority, one of the ways you can avoid fear is by doing what is mandated by that authority.


Generally speaking, it is true that one who is being obedient to God and to the government has nothing to fear from that government.  When you are driving on the highway and you see a police car behind you, there is no fear if you know that you are driving within the speed limit and that your car and license and insurance are all according to the laws of the land.  When you are living obediently to authority, there is no reason to fear that authority.


No Fear of Authority

Fear of Authority

Do what is good

If you do what is evil

You will have praise from the same

Be afraid

Authority is a minister of God to you for good

Authority is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil


In verse 4, Paul says that government is given as a “minister.”  The Greek word used here is the same word that is normally translated as “deacon.”  Deacons are given in a church to serve and government is given to people for the same reason.

Notice that there are two attitudes one can normally have toward government.  The first is to have an attitude of security.  This is the kind of attitude of which Paul speaks when he asks, “Do you want to have no fear of authority?”  Government is given so that people will not have to fear for their own well-being.


The other attitude one can have regarding government is that of fearfulness.  You can legitimately fear government and authority if you are living in disobedience to that government and authority.  For example, when you exceed the speed limit, you should legitimately fear being pulled over and being forced to pay a traffic citation.


Those who disobey authority are supposed to be fearful because it does not bear the sword for nothing.  Authority is given by God and the sword which it wields is also authorized by God.


The reference to the sword brings up the question of war.  Is there ever a time when war is the right thing?  Theologians have wrestled with this question and have come up with a number of ideas that educate us as to when a country should or should not go to war.  This is a significant question for us today who live in a democratic republic because we have a say and a voice in the running of our country and in whether our country is involved in the pursuit of war.


1.         A Just Cause: This would involve defending either your own country or coming to the defense of someone else who was being attacked.  Thus there must be a wrong that is suffered in order for a war to take place.


2.         A Right Intention: The desire for peace should be the ultimate goal of war.  Furthermore, the peace that is established after the war ought to be better than the peace that would have prevailed had the war not been fought.


3.         A Reasonable Chance of Success: It is considered to be wrong to go to war when the result will be certain catastrophe.  Jesus alluded to this in Luke 14:31‑32 when he described a king preparing to meet another king in battle sits down and asks whether he is strong enough to win the battle.


4.         The End is Proportional to the Means used to achieve it: You don’t use a bazooka to swat a fly.


5.         A Last Resort: War should only be used when all other means have been exhausted.  We are to pursue peace will all men (Romans 14:19; Hebrews 12:14).


6.         A Legitimate Authority: I don’t have the option to decide to go to war with another person or a race or nation.  I am not a legitimate authority.  That authority has been given to leaders of nations.


7.         A Distinction between Combatants versus non-combatants.  Effort is to be taken to avoid killing civilians.  Their death is justified only if they are unavoidable victims rather than deliberate targets.





            Wherefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing (13:5-6).


The third reason we ought to be obedient and submissive to governing authorities is for the sake of personal peace of conscience.  Perhaps you’ve heard of the story of the letter that was received by the IRS.  It read, “Dear sirs, I’ve been unable to sleep lately because I cheated on the last three years of my income tax.  Enclosed you will find a check for $500.  If I still cannot sleep, I will send the rest of the money.”


One of the reasons you are to pay your taxes is that you understand they are ordained of God and therefore you can keep a clear conscience and not have to worry about having brought offense to both God and man.





            Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor (13:7).

The Greek phrase translated “custom to whom custom” is tw to teloV to teloV and points to the tax that would be taken at the end of a toll road.


We are to pay our debts.  One of the debts that we incur by living in a country is tax debt.  In the same way, if a certain honor is due to someone, then we are to show it. When we go into a courtroom where it is customary to address the judge as, “Your honor,” we are to use that appropriate address.  We are to show respect when a person’s position calls for that sort of respect.


Jesus said in Matthew 23:8 that we are not to seek to be called by such titles as “rabbi” or “teacher” or “leader.”  We are not to put on airs.  But He never said that we cannot use such titles of others. [1]


This brings up the question.  What about when government is evil?  This is no obscure hypothesis.  There was much about the Roman government in the days of Paul that was characterized by evil and anti-Christian.  Yet Paul gives these instructions in his own day.  We can summarize the Bible’s teaching to this question.


           Obey the laws that do not specifically contradict God’s law.

           Speak out against injustice.

           Do righteousness — do what we can to influence that government for righteousness.


Do you remember the actions of the apostles when they were specifically commanded to do that which was contrary to the command of God?  There are several such instances to be found in the Scriptures, but one is particularly striking.


            18 And when they had summoned them, they commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.  19 But Peter and John answered and said to them, "Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge;  20 for we cannot stop speaking what we have seen and heard." (Acts 4:18‑20).


The apostles were specifically forbidden to speak or to teach in the name of Jesus.  This was a command they could not obey.  They had been commanded by God to preach the gospel.  For them to obey the governing authorities in this matter would be to disobey the express command of God.  They could do nothing but disobey.  A similar example to this is seen in the case of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed‑nego who refused to bow down and worship a Babylonian idol (Daniel 3).


I am authorized in the Bible to disobey the government only when it orders me to do something that is contrary to the commands of God and then I am only authorized to disobey in that one area.  Furthermore, I am to be ready to suffer the consequences of that authorized disobedience.


In closing, we must admit that this sort of submission to governing authorities is no easy task.  How then are we to accomplish it?  It is by looking to the One who divested Himself of all heavenly prerogatives to take the role of a submissive servant and who humbled Himself, learning the obedience of the cross.  Jesus is both our motivation as well as our pattern for submission.  Because He submitted Himself, He calls us to do the same that we might be made like Him in all things.


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[1]  Jesus gave one interesting exception when He said, “Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven” ( Matthew 23:9).