Why Does Paul Say It's Important to Submit to Authorities?
- Jessica Udall Contributing Writer
- 2021 21 Apr
"Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God." - Romans 13:1
"Submit to authorities." When the topic of “government” is brought up, people often have an antagonistic response, including Christians. Anger, disgust, rebellion, and despair can often characterize our response to those who rule over us. But Scripture shows us a better way of relating to the government that is guided by love at all times whether upholding the law (as much as possible) or peacefully resisting ungodly commands (when we must).
What Does Paul Mean by 'Submit to Authorities'?
In the book of Romans, Paul lays out a gloriously robust articulation of the gospel, which he describes as “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). Astonishingly, this salvation involves being “justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28). In saying this, however, Paul realizes his disciples might be tempted to become rebellious and antinomian (anti-law), so he immediately adds: “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law” (Romans 3:31).
After writing for eleven chapters about what justification by faith is, Paul turns his attention to how it transforms the lives of believers. This transformation is multifaceted and all-encompassing: it involves many things, but common threads of what the conduct of Christians is to look like include humility (Romans 12:3, 16), honoring and blessing others (Romans 12:10, 13, 17), seeking harmony and peace and the good of all (Romans 12:16, 18-21). The way these traits look in the lives of Christians is brought to bear practically in Chapter 13:1-7 when Paul says:
“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. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.”
What Authorities Have Been Instituted by God and How Should We Honor Those?
The concept of “authority” is commonly talked about in Scripture, often referring to Jesus, who shocked many of the leaders of the day by seeming to act with an authority that he had not been granted by earthly officials (Luke 4:32-36). And Jesus did indeed have authority given by God (John 17:2), but he did not use this authority to set up the political kingdom that many of his disciples expected (John 6:14-15). When on trial, Jesus was asked by Pilate “Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” (John 19:10), and Jesus answered, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11).
This exchange reveals in narrative form what Romans 13:1-7 is explaining in detail: “[the authorities] that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:2). Functioning rightly, a governing official is “God’s servant for your good”: supporting what is good and punishing what is evil (Romans 13:3-4). In essence, Paul is saying that our identity as believers leads us naturally to good citizenship because we look to God as our ultimate authority and he instructs us to be peace-loving, humble people known for honorable character and good works. Our submission is to the earthly authorities in one sense, but in another more ultimate sense it is to God Himself, as evidenced by the reasons Paul gives for this subjection: “Therefore, one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience” (Romans 13:5). Conscience is “the soul as distinguishing between what is morally good and bad, prompting to do the former and shun the latter, commending one, condemning the other.” This comports with instructions for Christian behavior in the previous chapter, which encourages those who follow God to “abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good” (Romans 12:9).
Why Does Paul Address 'Submit to Authorities' and Paying the Laws of the Land (Paying Taxes to the Romans)?
Believers are supposed to pay their taxes, Paul says we are to “pay to all what is owed to them” (Romans 13:7). Taxes come up in the Gospels, too, with Jesus shedding more light on the issue and surprising his critics when they tried to trap him, saying:
“Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar's.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.”
Jesus further explained his actions regarding the tax to Peter privately, saying:
“What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?” And when he said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.”
What If a Governing Authority or Law Goes against God's Word?
While it may at first glance seem that Paul is being idealistic in his description of “governing authorities,” in reality he was no stranger to authority being wielded wrongly. Before his conversion, he himself “locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests” (Acts 26:10). And after his conversion, he found himself many times being persecuted by government officials who opposed the Gospel message. In these instances, Paul practiced what he preached, seeking to live in peace and integrity while holding on to the truth. Standing before those who would have him punished for preaching the Gospel, “looking intently at the council, Paul said, ‘Brothers, I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day’” (Acts 23:1). And he continued to witness and live with a humble, non-antagonistic boldness throughout the book of Acts (for example, in Acts 23-28).
Paul’s example, as well as the examples of other disciples such as Peter and John (Acts 3-6) and Stephen (Acts 6-8), shows us how to proceed when a governing authority goes against God’s Word and orders us to do something wrong, such as be silent about the Good News about Jesus. In Acts 4:18-20, Peter and John are ordered to do exactly that:
Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John replied, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
They were released with threats, and then they immediately rejoined their fellow believers and prayed fervently for boldness and power to continue to preach despite the opposition they were facing. Yet they accompanied this preaching with impeccable character and lives that were marked by love for one another and for all people. In the same chapter talking about submitting to governing officials and paying taxes, Paul gives clarity on what law-following really means: simply loving people.
“For the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:1-10).
Whenever possible, we are to simply obey governing officials without a fuss, following the example of Jesus, Paul, and many others in Scripture. We are to seek to make their jobs easy, knowing that authorities have been given to us by God and are good for society. When the authorities give instructions that force us to sin, however, we are to “obey God rather than men,” but to do so in a way that is not antagonistic but loving even to the people who are against us, following Paul’s exhortation in Romans 12:14, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/artisteer
Jessica Udall holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Bible and a Master of Arts degree in Intercultural Studies. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Intercultural Studies and writes on the Christian life and intercultural communication at lovingthestrangerblog.com.
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