How We Relate to Government

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. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. (Romans 13:1-4)

In his commentary on Romans 13:1, John Calvin writes that

There are indeed always some tumultuous spirits who believe that the kingdom of Christ cannot be sufficiently elevated, unless all earthly powers be abolished, and that they cannot enjoy the liberty given by him, except they shake off every yoke of human subjection.

This is the very attitude that many of the Jews in Jesus’ day, including the Pharisees, had. They believed that they could not fully worship God or enjoy his blessings as long as the yoke of the Romans was still upon them. Independence and national sovereignty was a vital part of how they viewed themselves as a nation and a people of God, and they were waiting for a Messiah to come and free them from their oppressors. Calvin theorizes that this view was carried over into the early Church, that Jewish and Gentile believers alike struggled with having to submit to a pagan government that was antagonistic to their belief system, especially when the Messiah had already come, and that this was what caused Paul to write these instructions in Romans 13.

But in answering the question about paying taxes to Caesar in Matthew 22, Jesus didn’t take the Pharisees side that it was unlawful to pay taxes to the emperor because his authority was illegitimate. Instead, he simply said to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mt. 22:21). He acknowledges Caesar’s limited authority, but also reasserts God’s supreme authority.

What’s interesting is that “governing authorities” in Romans 13:1 could also be translated as “higher powers.” Calvin writes that Paul

calls them the higher powers, not the supreme, who possess the chief authority, but such as excel other men. … And it seems indeed to me, that the Apostle intended by this word to take away the frivolous curiosity of men, who are wont often to inquire by what right they who rule have obtained their authority; but it ought to be enough for us, that they do rule; for they have not ascended by their own power into this high station, but have been placed there by the Lord’s hand. And by mentioning every soul, he removes every exception, lest any one should claim an immunity from the common duty of obedience.

The Pharisees worried about whether paying taxes to Caesar offended God, but they didn’t even realize that Jesus overturned the tables in the temple court because that was offensive to God. I think what Paul is saying in Romans 13 is that we don’t need to worry so much about the government. Be good citizens, submit to authority, do what is right, keep a clear conscience before God, and let God handle the rest. Calvin goes so far as to say that “since a wicked prince is the Lord’s scourge to punish the sins of the people, let us remember, that it happens through our fault that this excellent blessing of God is turned into a curse.” In other words, if a good government goes bad, instead of wondering whether we still need to submit to it or not, the church should look inward and seek to eradicate any sin that might be causing God to judge the nation.

Things to Reflect on in Light of this Passage:

1. Am I submitting to the governing authorities?

2. Do I recognize that all earthly authority is appointed by the supreme Authority? Do I take comfort in that fact?

3. Am I more concerned with what may be offensive to God in my own life and in the Church or with what may be offensive to God in the government?

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