The limits of civil obedience: the meaning of Romans 13

15 December 2021

Our Wilberforce Academy Director Rev. Dr Joe Boot explores the meaning of Romans 13 in the context of Covid restrictions.

“Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake.” (Rom. 13:1-5, NKJV)

Romans 13 has long been a controversial and greatly misunderstood passage. It is also a passage that has been often referred to in the last few years in light of mandates, lockdowns and coercion – often invoked to require an almost unquestioning subservience and submission to the state.

The non-Christian, secular-pagan person has no specific reason to obey the state except that the state has a monopoly on the means of force and the financial resources through coercive taxation. There is no basis or reason in a chance-originating world without God to obey civil authority except the force, guns and patronage belonging to the state.

That is not the case for the Christian. Here, we will consider the core teaching of the first five verses of Romans 13 and their implications for Christians, with specific attention given to the limits of our obedience.

1. The general obligation to obey civil authority (v. 1)

Paul says every person is to be subject to governing authorities. This is a general term that can denote various authorities (parents, church leaders etc.), but here has special reference to civil power. This authority is empowered to govern by enacting and administering law.

In this first instance, government is referred to in the abstract. It is not a reference to particular persons or magistrates but to the institution of civil rule itself.

Paul therefore calls every person to be subject to God’s institution of civil government, in the same way that he calls everyone to be subject to family instituted authority exercised through parents (Eph. 6:1-3), and institutional church authority through elders (Heb. 13:17) – because the family and church are also spheres of authority ordained by God. We are likewise to be subject to God’s laws and norms for the state. That there are cruel and unjust parents, apostate and wicked church leaders, or evil and lawless civil governments – the reality of which necessarily puts limits around our obedience in all these institutions – is obvious, but is not Paul’s particular concern here.

However, it is clear that Paul does not have a slavish submission in view, but an orderly and due submission. Paul does not digress to address the rights of the oppressed or abused in this passage, for we can consult God’s law on such matters. He is dealing in this text solely with the character and duties of civil government and our responsibility to this God-ordained sphere of authority.

Francis Schaeffer poses the critical question that arises here:

Has God set up an authority in the state that is autonomous from himself? Are we to obey the state no matter what? … In this one area is indeed man the measure of all things?[i]

Clearly not! Because authority is from God and exists because of Him, we are immediately alerted to the fact that in this teaching, Paul is radically altering the pagan political understanding of his Gentile readers. He is placing all authority under the triune God in its operation – it is therefore delimited immediately by God and his law-Word. This gives the Christian a positive duty to obey civil authority in things lawful that the unbeliever does not have.

Schaeffer answers his own question in this way:

“The civil government, as all of life, stands under the law of God. In this fallen world God has given us certain offices to protect us from the chaos which is the natural result of that fallenness. But when any office commands what is contrary to the Word of God, those who hold that office abrogate their authority and they are not to be obeyed and that includes the state.”[ii]

So, in the general calling to be subject to authority instituted by God, we are not confronted with an unqualified requirement of subservience to all human governments – we will address this further shortly. Neither is Paul dealing with church-state relations here, least of all demanding the church institute and its leadership acquiesce to all requirements of civil governments. As James M. Willson writes in his brilliant commentary on Romans 13:

“The church is an independent society. Her constitution, her doctrines, her laws, her administration, all are from Christ. To him alone is she subject.”[iii]

2. The enforcement of civil authority (v. 1-2)

Since all spheres of authority are established by God and instituted by him, to resist proper subjection to authority is to oppose God’s ordinances. To reject the role of civil authority in human society is therefore an act of rebellion against God. To ‘resist’ implies a root and branch defiance of authority – it does not refer to resistance to immoral laws, injustice or oppression. Rather we are called to respect and honor duly constituted authority.

Now, in the providence of God and by His permission, kings reign and various governments come to power. Jesus told even Pontius Pilate he would have no authority unless it had been given to him from above (John 19:11). In this sense even the devil is granted power and authority from God in the world. However, the simple possession of power is not sufficient reason to obey a given authority. That would imply the unacceptable idea that a man stolen and enslaved to a master would be duty bound to obey and submit to this vicious and lawless power (Ex. 21:16) and that to escape and seek freedom would violate Romans 13!

Paul is clearly not teaching that every despot, tyrant, or wicked dictator rules by divine sanction. Such an interpretation would bind people, society, and nations to surrender to tyranny and do so in the name of divine support and approval. This absurd view fails to distinguish divine providence from a scriptural principle of action. In the divine ways of providence, there are times when an evil ruler is allowed to come to power, but no one can claim divine sanction for evil, injustice, oppression, and sin. The counsels of God are always righteousness and justice.

It is vital to keep in mind that Paul in verses 1-2 is referring to the institution of government, not specific actors. He maintains a clear distinction between the ‘authority’ and the ‘ordinance,’ between the sphere of government as a societal institution, and the particular president, magistrate or prime minister in whose hands the reins of civil authority are found at any particular moment. He is asserting that no authority can be properly exercised over people except that which God has established. He goes on to show the kind of power and authority that does have God’s sanction – which is not any old government but only those that are subject to his norms (ordinances) which delimit the role and function of the institution of the state.

When people advocate for an almost blind or unquestioning obedience to the state in current cultural circumstances, appealing to Romans 13 and saying that ‘the government is established by God,’ they reveal a serious error of interpretation in assuming that by this expression Paul means any and all existing governments. Such a view contradicts the clear teaching of the Bible and so cannot be Paul’s perspective.

For example, regarding Israel, when they set up an independent government with ten tribes under Jeroboam, God says through Hosea, “They set up kings, but not by me. They made princes, but I did not acknowledge them” (Hosea 8:4). God permitted this in his providence, but he clearly did not sanction it. Likewise, both the prophet Daniel and the apostle John refer to the Roman Empire as a multi-headed beast whose heads are full of blasphemous names (Dan. 7:11; Rev. 17:1-3).

Such governments cannot lay claim to being ordained or sanctioned by God in any sense other than the way in which God permits judgment and disease to come upon people for their sins – judgments to be removed as soon as possible by repentance, faith, and a right attitude toward God. In fact, the gospel of Christ is proclaimed for that very purpose, that the stone not cut with human hands would smash to pieces the great image of rebellious and evil governments seen by Daniel in his vision (Dan. 2).

It follows that in placing all government specifically under God, Paul shows that government was not left to human arbitrariness, ambition, pride and violence but is ordained by God with prescribed limitations, functions and duties.

The confession of the early church led by Paul in the Gentile world was “Jesus Christ is Lord” (or sovereign) which ran counter to the claims of Caesar in Rome (Acts 17: 1-7). And power not derived from God is always an illegitimate usurpation.

This obviously means there are times when illegitimate (lit. lawless) authority must be resisted – most especially when it intrudes into the life of God’s people, the worship of God, and the government and ordinances of the church. Consider Azariah, the High Priest, withstanding Uzziah, the king of Judah who tried to overreach his sphere of authority into the priestly office. Recall what the High Priest said:

“They took their stand against King Uzziah and said, ‘Uzziah, you have no right to offer incense to the Lord—only the consecrated priests, the descendants of Aaron, have the right to offer incense. Leave the sanctuary, for you have acted unfaithfully! You will not receive honor from the Lord God’.” (2 Chron. 26:18)

Likewise, what of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and then later Daniel, all of whom refused to comply with specific laws enacted by the supreme king of Babylon – whose very Word was considered irrevocable (Dan. 3:1-12; 6:4-12)? They took their stand in terms of law of God. The pagan officials knew that the only way to bring a charge against just and righteous men like Daniel and his friends was by enacting something contradicting the law of God. Consider also the Hebrew midwives. They refused to obey the command of the Egyptian government to kill the Hebrew baby boys and then lied to Pharaoh in order to obey God and so God blessed them (Ex. 1:15-23).

If this basis of resistance in the sovereignty and law of God is removed, then all law and morality is simply resolved into the absolute will of the legislature. In Canada, Bill C-4 (anti ‘conversion therapy’ legislation) has just sailed through the House of Commons and Senate, criminalising anyone – parent, pastor, or therapist – who would dare counsel anybody to obey God’s law with regard to human identity and sexuality. I will not comply with this law as a Christian leader, I cannot comply! This is surely godly resistance.

The kind of resistance Paul is condemning and damning in Romans 13 is clearly not resistance to lawless commands, but a brazen opposition to the rightful and wholesome exercise of civil authority and the attempt to overthrow it.

3. Civil authority as a ministry of justice (v. 3-4)

Paul now moves from a description of God’s power and authority in the institution of government, to his prescription for the function of government. Reformed scholar and theologian Charles Hodge wrote of this passage:

“All authority is of God. No man has any rightful power over other men which is not derived from God. All human power is delegated and ministerial. This is true of parents, of magistrates, and of church officers … this passage, therefore, affords a very slight foundation for the doctrine of passive obedience.”[iv]

Scripture is crystal clear about this ministerial role and the accountability of civil authority as a ministry of justice. God in fact pronounces his woe upon authorities that violate God’s laws and norms regarding the jural function of civil government:

“Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness and his chambers by injustice.” (Jer. 22:13)

“Woe to those who decree unrighteous decrees, who write misfortune, which they have prescribed to rob the needy of justice.”  (Is. 10:1-2)

The Psalmist rightly asks:

“Shall the throne of iniquity, which devises evil by law, have fellowship with You?” (Ps. 94:20)

The question is rhetorical because the answer is obvious biblically. The apostle Paul reinforces this biblical truth by asserting that the civil government is to be God’s servant as an avenger of wrath. Schaeffer correctly grasps the meaning of these verses:

“God has ordained the state as a delegated authority; it is not autonomous. The state is to be an agent of justice, to restrain evil by punishing the wrongdoer and to protect the good in society. When it does the reverse, it has no proper authority. It is then a usurped authority and as such it becomes lawless and is tyranny.”[v]

Paul teaches that rulers are not to be a cause of fear for good behaviour or good works, but only to those who do evil.

In these verses we now encounter for the first time a specific magistrate, legislator, or executive officer. This reminds us again of the vital distinction between the institution of government (dealt with in verses 1-2) and particular governors themselves – like the distinction between the office of the president or prime minister and a given person occupying the office at any particular time.

We are to study and understand and honour God’s norms for the institution of civil government, and we are to obey rulers but also test them for conformity to God’s norms. That is why the king of Israel was required by God to read the law himself and study it so as not to be haughty and prideful, raised above the people (Deut. 17:14-20). And it is also why God sent his prophets to kings and rulers, addressing even pagan lands. For both ruler and governed are subject to the law of God (c.f. Jonah; Amos).

The kind of ruler to whom Paul’s injunction (Romans 13:1-5) to the Christian actually applies are thus not a cause for fear for good behavior, but evildoers. Without doubt, the works or behaviour to which Paul refers are works in conformity with the truth of the gospel of the kingdom, the law of God and purposes of God. It is impossible to think that Paul suddenly, in this chapter of Romans, now refers to some other standard of good than that laid down in the law-Word of God, than the kind of works we were created in Christ Jesus to do (Eph. 2:10). This same principle is behind the apostle Peters teaching:

“Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men— as free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God. Honour all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king.” (1 Pt. 2:13-17)

God is to be feared and the civil authority honoured in its calling to punish those that do wrong and commend those who do what is right. As such, the rulers to which Paul and Peter refer are to judge and apply law in a manner that will not hinder either the spread of the gospel, faithfulness to God’s law or works of righteousness among the people. Rather, they will only be a cause for fear for those that do evil and violate God’s justice (1 Tim. 1:9-10).

To this end, Paul points out that the civil authority is to be literally God’s servant (lit. deacon) for good, bearing the sword – a symbol of power and authority to bring punishment on evildoers. In God’s norms for the jural function of the state, the law is armed with penal sanctions made for the unrighteous (1 Tim. 1:9). As such, it both protects and advances the righteous, orderly and peaceful members of society. So, with the royal law in hand, the magistrate is to execute justice.

Civil authority is therefore maintained by sword power. It does not bear this power in vain but is called to be God’s minister of wrath on those who practice what is evil. Imagine a world without such a ministry. Wickedness would be left unrestrained and unchecked by any civil power. But God will not allow those that do evil to escape with impunity. The state is required to exercise the power God has invested in it, but justly and faithfully.

4. The place of conscience (v. 5)

According to Paul, the legitimate function of the state is to be a ministry of justice, under God in obedience to his standards of good and evil, righteousness and justice. As such, the Christian obeys, not simply out of fear of punishment for doing what is wrong, but because of a higher principle – our conscience before God.

Our conscience before God, saturated in the Word of God and governed by the Holy Spirit, is therefore a critical arbiter in determining when we must disobey the state for violating God’s norms or abandoning its legitimate function.

Sometimes we may hear people say that “you don’t see the disciples or early church resisting government or exercising civil disobedience.” This is simply ignorance. Paul and several other apostles were repeatedly on trial both for disobeying civil authorities and because they had appealed their case to higher authorities with regards to charges laid against them. Consequently, Paul spent a lot of time in prison!

Even a cursory reading of church history reveals the early Christians were persecuted and thrown to the lions because the Roman state considered their claims seditious and treasonous and as such many were executed as rebels. Their crime? Declaring that Jesus is Lord over Caesar.

By refusing to participate in the emperor cult and sacrifice to the genius of the emperor, they were regarded as political offenders and were often martyred. The Romans didn’t care which gods you worshipped. You could get a license to worship anyone so long as you acknowledged the ultimate authority of Caesar over your cult. A reading of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs reveals some of the suffering Christians have endured for insisting on the Lordship of Christ.[vi]

From the early church on, Christians have both obeyed and disobeyed civil government for the sake of conscience before God. When the state has departed from its God-prescribed role (aka, Rom. 13), when unrighteous rulers have enacted what is contrary to God’s law, Christians have frequently been ready to give their lives. As just one example, when William Tyndale (1490-1536), the man who translated the Bible into English, advocated the ultimate authority of God’s Word over the state and Roman church, he was eventually tried and executed.

In fact, wherever the Reformation penetrated, God and his law-Word were placed above the ruler or king, and this often led to severe persecution. The puritan Samuel Rutherford held that oppressive political power was not from God but a “licentious deviation of power and is no more from God … that a license to sin.” As such Francis Schaeffer correctly noted, “In almost every place the Reformation had success there was some form of civil disobedience.”[vii]

It takes a biblically informed conscience to not only know when to submit but also when to disobey. Christ is Lord of our conscience. The Christ who is Lord and is establishing his kingdom would not have us bow and scrape before a lower law that opposes him and his purposes. For what are states without justice, as St. Augustine once remarked, by gangs of thieves?

If a civil authority begins to attack the law of God or fundamental structure of the norms for a just society, the Christian must stand with Christ and work for his kingdom against injustice and labour for such rulers to be relieved of their position of authority. Only those who serve God in this way are the true friends of civil government and biblical social order.

As James Willson puts it:

“They alone are the friends of civil law and social order who vindicate the paramount claims of the Supreme Potentate and maintain the rights of an enlightened conscience… it will be well with the world when civil government shall be avowedly restored to the domain of conscience – conscience toward God, His law, His Christ and His gospel.”[viii]


[i] Francis A. Schaeffer, A Christian Manifesto (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1981), 90

[ii] Francis A. Schaeffer, A Christian Manifesto, 90-91

[iii] James M. Willson, The Establishment and Limits of Civil Government: An Exposition of Romans 13: 1-7 (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision Press, 2009, originally published in 1853), 16

[iv] Charles Hodge, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (New York: A. C. Armstrong, 1883), 639

[v] Francis A. Schaeffer, A Christian Manifesto, 91

[vi] See, Foxes Book of Martyrs: Complete and Unabridged (Belfast: Ambassador, (1563) 1998).

[vii] Francis A. Schaeffer, A Christian Manifesto, 93

[viii] James M. Willson, The Establishment and Limits of Civil Government: An Exposition of Romans 13: 1-7, 78-79

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