Civil government is always the subject of debate. There are different types of governments—monarchy, democracy, republic, etc. And there are advantages and disadvantages to each. However, all forms of government can at times become oppressive, and the modern state is no exception to this. This raises the question—how should the Christian relate to government?
In order to answer this question, we will begin by examining the text of Romans 13:1-7, the foundational passage on civil government. Then we will ask three questions:
Does Paul’s command to “submit” apply to all civil governments?
Does Romans 13 ever allow for civil disobedience?
Does Romans 13 ever allow for rebellion against government?
We will then close by making the case that Romans 13 teaches that God has designed civil government to have a limited role in society (and therefore should have limited taxes).
Romans 13 and Submission to Governing Authority
Romans 13:1-7 is the locus classicus on civil government. For context, we shall quote it in full:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except by God, and those that exist have been appointed by God. Thus the one resisting the authority resists the decree of God, and those resisting will receive judgment. For rulers are not a [cause of] fear to good work but to evil. Do you want to not fear the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from it. For it is the servant of God to you for good. But if you do evil, fear. For it does not bear the sword in vain. For it is a servant of God, an avenger unto wrath to the one doing evil. Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are ministers of God devoted to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed—tax to whom tax [is owed], revenue to whom revenue [is owed], fear to whom fear [is owed], honor to whom honor [is owed] (Romans 13:1-7, author’s translation).
Paul commands Christians to “be subject” to the “authorities” (ἐξουσίαις, exousiais). Why? Because (“for”) every governing authority has been appointed by God (Romans 13:1). This leads Paul to conclude that whoever resists “the authority” resists “the decree of God” and will receive judgment (Romans 13:2).
Paul gives a further basis for obeying authorities—“For rulers are not a [cause of] fear to good work but to evil” (Romans 13:3). The “authority” is God’s “servant/minister” (διάκονός, diakonos) “for your good” and an “avenger” (ἔκδικος, ekdikos) unto wrath on the evildoer (Romans 13:4). The authority bears the “sword” (μάχαιραν, machairan), which refers to government’s right to use force to punish lawbreakers (which would include the death penalty).
Paul’s conclusion from all this (“therefore”) reaffirms his opening line that a person must be in “subjection” to the authority because of “wrath” and “conscience” (Romans 13:5). The ESV translates this as “God’s wrath” in verses 4-5. However, “God” is not in the Greek, and it probably refers to the wrath of the authorities—just as “judgment” in 13:2 refers to that of the authorities as God’s servant. (Though “wrath” and “judgment” may refer to both, as God exercises wrath against evil through the wrath of the civil authorities.)
Paul adds that this is also why we pay taxes, because “they” (referring to the authorities) are “ministers” (λειτουργοὶ, leitourgoi) of God “devoted to this very thing” (Romans 13:6). Paul commands Christians give to all what is owed to them, whether taxes, revenue, respect, or honor (Romans 13:7).
It should be noted that Paul’s command to obey civil authorities in Romans 13 ties back to his command in Romans 12:17-21 for Christians to never practice vengeance. Christians are not to repay “evil for evil” (κακὸν) (Romans 12:17) because civil government is to take care of “evil” (κακῷ) (Romans 13:3).
Christians are to leave “vengeance” to God’s “wrath” (here again “God” is not in the Greek) (Romans 12:19) because the governing authority is an “avenger unto wrath to the one doing evil” (ἔκδικος εἰς ὀργὴν τῷ τὸ κακὸν πράσσοντι) (Romans 13:4). In summary, Christians should leave punishment for evil to God—who uses civil authorities to carry out wrath in this life (though reserving ultimate wrath on Judgment Day).
Does Romans 13 Apply to All Governments?
Romans 13 becomes a challenging passage when we consider that many governments in history have done great evil, killing innocent people and even persecuting Christians (e.g. ancient Rome, Stalinist Russia). Yet Paul says that government is instituted by God and punishes evil, and we must therefore submit. How are we to reconcile these things?
There are at least three possible ways of interpreting Paul’s teaching on “submission” to civil government in Romans 13:1-7:
Submission to government authority applied only to the immediate circumstance of Roman Christians.
Submission to government authority applies only if government functions as it should (rewarding good and punishing evil).
Submission to government authority applies to all governments, though this is not universal because there are occasional requirements at odds with God’s commands.
View one is unlikely because Paul speaks broadly—“there is no authority except by God, and those that exist have been appointed by God” (Romans 13:1). The challenge for view two is that Paul does not place conditions on submission to government authority. However, his reasoning for submission does assume that rulers punish bad conduct and not good conduct— “For rulers are not a [cause of] fear to good work but to evil. Do you want to not fear the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from it” (Romans 13:3). Of course, Paul made this statement in the context of a Roman government that persecuted Christians. So Paul’s statements about punishing evil are likely to be understood as a broad reference to punishing criminal behavior (e.g. theft and murder).
This leaves view three as the best understanding of the passage. (It is also the most common.) In this case, Paul is giving Christians principles for submission to all civil governments, as God has instituted them for civil order. However, this view must be qualified because governments occasionally make requirements directly at odds with God’s law.
Other New Testament passages seem to support this view. In Titus 3:1, Paul says, “Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities.” Again, this is a broad statement about obedience to government. The Apostle Peter also speaks on the subject and echoes Paul:
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor (1 Peter 2:13-17).
Like Paul in Romans 13, Peter says that government is there to punish those who do evil and praise those who do good. Christians are first and foremost to “fear God.” But in doing so, we are also to “honor” those in civil authority, whether an emperor, president, or governor.
Does Romans 13 Allow for Civil Disobedience?
The universal application of Romans 13 raises questions regarding civil disobedience. While Paul does not address this issue in Romans 13, the rest of Scripture makes clear that there are situations where Christians should disobey the government. The Bible does not teach that we should disobey every unjust law (and there are many such laws in the world), but it does teach that we must disobey government when it requires us to sin.
There are several examples of civil disobedience in Scripture. The Hebrew midwives disobeyed Pharaoh’s wicked command to kill newborn boys (Exodus 1:17; cf. Hebrews 11:23). Queen Esther broke the Persian law by going to King Ahasuerus to plead for the Jews (Esther 4:16).
The prophet Daniel’s three friends (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) disobeyed Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, when he commanded them to worship his golden image. Nebuchadnezzar threw them into the fiery furnace, and God rescued them (Daniel 3:1-30). Daniel himself disobeyed King Darius’ injunction on prayer to anyone except the king (Daniel 6:7-10).
In the New Testament, Peter and John disobeyed the Jewish authorities when they told them to stop preaching Jesus. Peter and John said, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heart” (Acts 4:18-19).
Similarly in Acts 5:29, Peter and the apostles said, “We must obey God rather than men.” Also the Book of Revelation shows throughout that keeping God’s commands is required even when faced with government pressure to disobey.
The point is that God’s authority is greater than government’s authority. While we are to obey government, we are also to obey God. And His authority trumps government authority. In fact, it is God who gives government authority. As Jesus told the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11).
Does Romans 13 Allow for Rebellion Against Government?
Civil disobedience is a much simpler question than rebellion. In general, it seems obvious that Christians should not revolt in an attempt to overthrow government. Christians can and should work within the legal means available. But there are situations, such as in Stalinist Russia, where a government becomes so wicked that it would seem wrong for individual Christians to stand there and do nothing. If Christians could institute a better government, why would they not?
Let us consider a real example of so-called “rebellion” from the past, the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783). This war is better termed the American War for Independence. Without getting too deep in the weeds, a strong argument in support of the American colonists was that the act of secession from Britain was legal. The American colonies were under British authority, and the king had a duty to protect the colonies. Since British Parliament was abusing the colonies by legislating for them without providing representation, the king should have stepped in to protect the colonies from this unconstitutional usurpation.
When the king did not intercede at their appeal, he violated his legal duty, and the American colonies had no other choice than to declare independence. (The Declaration of Independence lists the failures of the king as the basis for secession.) Thus, the legal argument is that the Americans had the right to secede under British law. In this case, this was no “revolution” but simply secession—and legal secession at that. So the American act of declaring independence and the ensuing war to fight off the British attempt to prevent secession were legal and therefore morally permissible.
A similar argument was made by the Confederate States of America in seceding from the United States. The states ratified a Constitution that created the federal government, and thus the states had the right to rescind this ratification. Secession was nowhere prohibited by the Constitution, and the Southern states were merely exercising their legal right. Of course, the North did not want to allow secession, and a war ensued.
Thus, the question of “rebellion” is more complex than following a simple command to “submit” to the government that is in power. There are legal and ethical duties that government officials have towards the people. Further, there are different structures of government. In a federal republic like the United States, there are both states and a federal government (which is a creation of the states). If the federal government oversteps its bounds and violates the Constitution, the states have a duty to check the federal government. Apart from voting representatives out of office, the only legal recourse is state nullification or secession.
There is much to this issue in the history of the church. John Calvin and later Reformed thinkers developed the doctrine of the lesser magistrates, which holds that lesser magistrates have the duty to interpose on behalf of the people before tyrannical government. Thus, a prince should resist a tyrannical king. And in the modern United States, a state governor should resist a tyrannical federal official—whether president, Congress, or the Supreme Court. The historical precedent for this in the United States is called nullification (or interposition). Thomas Jefferson and James Madison advocated this practice, and it was carried out by South Carolina in the Nullification Crisis of the 1830s.
While this discussion focused on internal rebellion against government, there is biblical precedent for rebellion against foreign oppressors. The judges delivered Israel from their plunderers (Judges 2:16), and David and others joined in putting foreign armies to flight (Hebrews 11:32-34).
The Limited Role of Civil Government
Though Romans 13 focuses on the Christian’s relationship to civil government, we do learn something about the role of civil government in Paul’s reasoning in the passage. One of the reasons we are told to submit to government is that government punishes evil conduct and praises good conduct. The government uses force (“bears the sword”) and carries out wrath on wrongdoers. Thus government has a role in punishing crime. And civil government is good in so far as it does what God intended it to do, namely punish evil.
Civil government has a legitimate role in society. However, civil government has a limited role in society. Paul says nothing about government providing charity or education or any sort of welfare program. God instituted civil government to restrain evil, not to usurp the roles of other institutions such as the church or family.
Thus, Romans 13 supports what some call the “protectionist” view of government, in contrast to the “perfectionist” view of government. Civil government is to protect people’s basic rights (life, liberty, property), which are rights that crime interferes with. Therefore, government should step in and punish crime. In this regard, Romans 13:1-7 is consistent with Genesis 9:4-6, where God instituted the death penalty as a means of dealing with murder in a society.
What About Taxes?
Paul concludes his teaching on government in Romans 13 with a command to pay taxes. We want to avoid the wrath of government and also maintain a clean conscience. So we pay taxes to civil government because “they are ministers of God” (Romans 13:6). We are to pay “taxes” to whom taxes are owed and “revenue” to whom revenue is owed (Romans 13:7). “Tax” (φόρος, phoros) was a direct tribute tax (Luke 20:22), whereas “revenue” (τέλος, telos) was an indirect tax, such as a custom (Matthew 17:25).
Of course, Paul ties taxes here to a civil government that punishes crime. This means that taxes should go to fund the criminal justice system—namely police, judges, governors, and the like (and implicitly military, which protects citizens from wicked foreign invaders). However, Paul says nothing about taxes for food stamps, welfare, Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, and any other government program. While Christians should pay taxes so that they are not dragged off to prison, they should voice opposition to the current tax scheme. The concept of a government redistributory scheme is entirely foreign to Scripture.
Some Christians cite Jesus’ words to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” as an all-out endorsement of government and taxation (Matthew 22:21; Mark 12:17; Luke 20:25). However, Jesus says no such thing. The Jewish leaders were seeking to trap Jesus among the Romans (who required the tax) and the Jews (who opposed Roman taxation). Jesus outsmarted His opponents by making reference to Caesar’s picture on the coins—“Whose likeness and inscription is this?” (Matthew 22:20). The answer was “Caesar’s.” So Jesus responded, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21).
This was not a wholesale endorsement of Roman government, nor was this a discourse on the morality of taxation. (Elsewhere the Bible indicates that taxation above 10% is oppressive; cf. 1 Samuel 8:14, 17.) Jesus was simply instructing His followers to pay taxes. This is fully in agreement with Paul’s words in Romans 13:1-7. The government may do wrong, and we may work to change this. But Christians are to stay out of trouble. Pay taxes to the government, and obey God’s commands.
Paul in Romans 13 commands Christians to submit to governing authorities. God is sovereign over government and instituted the one we live under. We are to pay taxes and do good so as to avoid punishment and keep a clean conscience. However, there may be times where we must disobey government because it requires something at odds with God’s law or persecutes believers. In Paul’s reasoning on civil government, we learn that the purpose of government is to punish wicked conduct. Thus civil government is legitimate, but it should have a limited role in accordance with God’s design.
Of course, Romans 13 does not prohibit Christians from influencing civil government. Rather, it is expected that when the church grows in a society, the government of that society will increasingly reflect God’s design for government outlined by Paul—namely that civil rulers are to punish wicked behavior. The church that does not seek to influence all aspects of a society, including civil government, is ignoring an important task. Christ was given all authority over the earth, and He has commanded the church to disciple the nations (Matthew 28:18-19). A nation under the authority of Christ will carry out civil government in accordance with the teachings of Christ.