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Christians and Government – Romans 13

Read the Passage: Romans 13

Submit to Authority (13:1–7)

In Rom. 12:17–21 Paul instructed the Roman believers about their duties toward their enemies, as he wrote that they were to live peaceably and not to avenge themselves. In their context, one of the biggest foes of the Roman church was the state, as the government was persecuting Christians. It must have been surprising for these believers to read, “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities” (Rom. 13:1). Observe that Paul’s teaching here about authority applies in many different contexts, including those between God and believer (cf. Exod. 20:3), state and citizen (cf. Rom. 13:1–7), judge and defendant (cf. Prov. 24:23), master and bond-servant (cf. Eph. 6:5–9), pastor and layperson (cf. 2 Tim. 5:17), teacher and student (cf. Jas. 3:1), husband and wife (cf. Eph. 5:22–33), and parent and child (cf. Eph. 6:1–4), among many other relationships.

As with all institutions in which humans participate, oftentimes those with governing power in a civil context will act sinfully, even persecuting Christians. Yet, such sin does not negate the principle that all men are to be subject to authorities. The only exception to this teaching is that there is no duty to submit to an authority if doing so will cause one to sin or keep one from righteousness (cf. Acts 4:19–20). In this passage Paul teaches that submission is required, for authorities have been “appointed by God” (Rom. 13:1) and the civil ruler is “God’s minister” (Rom. 13:4) whom we serve “because of wrath” (Rom. 13:5a) and “for conscience sake” (Rom. 13:5b). The idea here is that since all authority belongs to God (cf. Matt. 28:18), God’s sovereignty encompasses even secular rulers, and their power is ultimately derived from Him. Therefore, to rebel against the state is to rebel against God.

One of the areas where it is perhaps the most difficult to submit to unjust secular authorities is in regard to the payment of taxes. Yet, here in this passage Paul explains that because civil authorities have been established by God, and logically need to be financially supported, Christians are to pay taxes. In Rom. 13:6, for the third time in three verses, Paul refers to the civil authorities as “God’s ministers.” Paul then unambiguously writes, “Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor” (Rom. 13:7). Note that the term Paul uses here for “taxes” refers to all types of taxes, including income tax, property tax, and sales tax, as well as tolls. While Paul’s directive in this passage may surprise some, recall that Jesus had given a similar exhortation at Matt. 22:17–21 and had paid taxes Himself to Caesar (cf. Matt. 17:24–27).

Love your Neighbor (13:8–10)

Romans 13:8 reads, “Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law.” With this verse Paul is not saying that Christians cannot ever take on financial debt—such as a car loan or a home mortgage. Rather, Paul is saying that if one has a debt, which would include a tax bill or any type of financial loan, then Christians must pay their debts and not default. By way of transition, Paul points out that believers have a duty to love one another. Since this is an on-going duty, believers will never be out from under the debt to love other people. Next, in Rom. 13:9–10 Paul quotes the sixth through tenth commandments in the Decalogue noting, as did Jesus (cf. Matt. 22:39–40), that these moral laws are summed up in Lev. 19:18, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Put on Christ (13:11–14)

In Rom. 13:11–14 Paul exhorts his readers to Christian living, which he began discussing in Romans 12. Paul’s methodology here is to appeal to Jesus’ return, as he writes, “For now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand” (Rom. 13:11–12). The “day” that Paul refers to here is the day of Christ’s return, when salvation will be complete, sin will be no more, and all of God’s people will be glorified. Note the Bible often uses the return of Jesus to motivate believers to holy living (cf. Heb. 10:24–25; 1 Pet. 4:7; 2 Pet. 3:11–14). In Rom. 13:13 Paul describes the sinful works of darkness as revelry, drunkenness, lewdness, lusts, strife, and envy. In contrast, in Rom. 13:14 Paul teaches that the armor of light consists of putting on the Lord Jesus Christ in righteousness and making no provision to indulge the lusts of the flesh.

Application Questions:

  1. When Paul writes, “Own no one anything” (Rom. 13:8), is he prohibiting Christians from all types of financial loans and other debts?
  2. Does payment of taxes to secular authorities who use the money immorally render Christian citizens guilty of the sins of the state (cf. Deut. 24:16; Ezek. 18:20)?
  3. When, if ever, is it acceptable to rebel against authority? Is capital punishment a biblical concept? What crimes qualify as capital offenses?
  4. In what relationship context is it most difficult for you to submit to authority? Is the submission Paul calls for contingent upon the individuals in authority?
  5. Do you oftentimes think about the return of Jesus? How can Christ’s return a motivating factor towards right Christian living?

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