The apostle Paul wrote the epistle we call Romans to house churches in Rome around the year AD 56. Nero had recently become emperor after his predecessor, Claudius, was killed. Paul told Christians in Rome to be “subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1). Christians today, however, do not live under Roman rule and those of us in the United States live in a democratic republic. So, how does Romans 13 apply to Christians today? Does God expect American Christians to be “subject” to our government?
Interpreting and Applying Scripture
When we are reading the New Testament, we are essentially reading someone else’s mail. The apostles were writing to people in a different culture, using a different language, and facing different struggles and controversies than our own. But there are still a lot of similarities. Some things about the nature of humans beings, the nature of power, the nature of evil, and the nature of God do not change. Furthermore, the words of Scripture have God’s breath in them and are useful and applicable to God’s people in every context (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
We must, therefore, avoid interpreting Romans 13 in such a way that it doesn’t actually apply to the original audience, but I believe we must also avoid the convenient excuse, “That doesn’t apply to us today.” It may apply to us differently than it did to the original audience, but we should still be able to make some application of these God-breathed instructions.
How Can an Evil Government be God’s Servant?
Paul says that governing authorities are God’s “servant” (Romans 13:4) and “ministers” (vs. 6). But how could these statements apply to Roman governing authorities? How could God’s purposes be served by those who do such evil? It sounds self-contradictory, doesn’t it?
To reconcile this paradox, many have tried to interpret Paul as essentially saying, “When governments do good things, they are God’s servants; but when they do bad things, they are not God’s servants.” And we could certainly pick a few sentences out of Romans 13 to make that case. After all, Paul says, “Rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.” Some have even gone so far as to conclude that governments who do evil are illegitimate governments.
However, doesn’t this ignore Paul’s original context? Paul knew the Roman government did plenty of evil things. He experienced Rome’s cruelty and injustice firsthand. Paul was not writing a treatise about legitimate and illegitimate forms of government. He was telling Christians to submit, because God was using the ruling authorities to accomplish his own purposes.
Paul is well familiar with all the ways God used empires, nations, rulers, and powers throughout history to accomplish his will. God used the fierce, cruel, and godless rulers of Assyria, Babylon, and Persia to discipline his people and bring about good (those rulers were God’s ministers as well). And if this offends our sensibilities, we are in good company. The prophet Habakuk was also shocked that a holy God would appoint a wicked nation to discipline God’s people; but that is exactly what God did.
The patriarch Joseph could see how God used evil to bring about good. His brothers wickedly conspired against him, sold him into slavery, and covered up their treachery with a lie. But Joseph concluded, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20). Just because rulers, authorities, and powers intend to do evil, it does not mean God cannot use their efforts for good. An evil government may be serving as God’s servant, even though they are intending to do evil.
So, a government that does evil things is NOT an illegitimate government that God’s people can freely rebel against. If doing something evil made a government illegitimate, then no government in history has been legitimate and Paul’s instructions to “be subject” would have no application to anyone ever (including his original audience).
Can Christians Disobey the Government?
All of this is NOT to say Paul was telling the Roman church that they should do evil if the government told them to do so. In fact, his whole point was that Christians should be people of “good conduct” (Romans 13:3). There is a huge difference between telling Christians not to be rebellious and telling them to obey evil things they are commanded to do.
Just because Rome did evil things did not mean Rome was telling Christians they must participate in doing evil things. Paul’s hope for Christians across the Roman empire was that they could fly under Rome’s radar for as long as possible, everyone leading “a peaceful and quiet life” (1 Timothy 2:2). He didn’t want Christians to be seen as troublemakers or rabble-rousers.
Of course, soon after this letter was written, Christians did make it on Rome’s radar and many were commanded to worship Caesar and the Roman gods or face martyrdom. Faithful Christians chose to die rather than dishonor the Lord. So, there are certainly times when Christians must disobey the governing authorities; but only if obeying them would mean disobeying God.
To apply this to Christians today, we may have times when we are told to do something evil or face serious consequences from the governing authorities. In that case, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). But Christians can be submissive to the governing authorities, even when disobeying, by submitting to the consequences for disobedience. This is exactly what Jesus did when he went to the cross.
What About America’s Unique Form of Government?
But the United States of America does not have a king or a dictator. We have a Constitution with a Bill of Rights and our government derives its power from our consent. Some even go so far as to say that the Constitution is our “governing authority” and the only thing to which American Christians should submit.
First, the Constitution is not our governing authority. It is, as I understand it, the document that governs our governing authorities. It establishes the process by which the federal government is granted authority and how much authority they are granted. The same is true on the state level, each state has a constitution that outlines the authority of the state government. Our Constitution limits the authority of the government, but it also empowers the government as well.
If we believe the state or federal government has exceeded their Constitutional authority, there are legal, peaceful, and even submissive means by which we can hold the government accountable to the documents that govern the government. It may surprise you, but the governing authorities of Rome had similar limits and Paul leveraged those laws for the sake of his missionary efforts (see Acts 16:35-40; Acts 22:25-29; Acts 25:10-12).
Second, the authority to govern is granted through a democratic process, but that does not mean our officials are any less “governing authorities.” Police officers, judges, governors, senators, presidents, etc. all have authority to govern; that’s what “government” means. A democratic republic may have a different form of government, but it still has governing authorities.
If the American people elect representatives, create laws, and impose taxes that you or I do not like, it doesn’t change the fact that we are told to, “be subject to the governing authorities.” Again, we have the right to peacefully appeal to our Constitutional rights, but the courts (not us) are the ones who get to decide if our rights are actually being violated. And, of course, we should never do evil even if we are commanded to do so by the government. But American Christians must “be subject” to the elected representatives of the American people as a whole, not just to the ones we voted for, agree with, and like.
Third, some say the United States of America was founded as a Christian nation and because of that, we only have to submit to the government if they continue to function in a way that reflects Christian values. They justify insubordination because they see it as the right (and even responsibility) of Christians to “take back” the government if it begins to stray from its perceived Christian values.
This is what many refer to as “Christian nationalism” and there are several problems with this idea. The United States is not a theocracy, but a democratic republic. Which means those in power are supposed to function as representatives of the electorate. If the majority of the people are Christians, then it would stand to reason their representatives would likely reflect Christian values. But if the majority of the people are not Christians, that will be represented as well.
If we want our government to reflect Christian values, we must love and share the Good News of Jesus with our neighbors. A representative democracy will only reflect Christian values as long as the church continues to make disciples of Jesus in that nation.
I am incredibly thankful to live in this country. It is my home and I love it here. I’m thankful our state and federal governments have limits to their authority. I’m thankful our Constitution guarantees basic human rights to everyone. I’m thankful there is legal recourse when someone’s basic human rights are denied. I’m thankful there are peaceful and legal means by which Christians can advocate for good and help seek the welfare of our neighbors. I’m thankful for the good this country has done and the potential for good that it has.
However, for all of its unique goodness, the American form of government shares similarities with other forms of government. And unfortunately, like every other form of government, this nation has perpetrated much evil (mistreatment of indigenous people, slavery, internment, segregation, abortion, etc.). The American people and their government representatives have reflected the sort of evil that Roman and Babylonian governments reflected. Why? Because that is the nature of humanity and the nature of earthly kingdoms.
But this nation’s evils do not make me want to rebel or tear it down and start over. It makes me want to live out the Gospel. It makes me want to be subject to governing authorities (even the ones with whom I disagree), pray for them, share the Good News of Jesus with my neighbors, do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God, and anticipate the Lord’s appearing.
I love you and God loves you,
Note: I wrote this article after some questions arose from articles I wrote back in 2018: Romans 13 Re-Examined: Obey the Government and Romans 13 Re-Examined: When To Disobey the Government