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. (Romans 13:1-5, NKJV)
The classic New Testament passage on human government is in Romans 13; few texts have been studied and debated over the years more than Romans 13:1-5. The passage is probably a reflection of Christ’s famous words: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Mt. 22:21). While it is clear the Apostle Paul desired to set forth an ethic of government in his letter to the Romans, it is not an exhaustive treatment on the subject. For this reason, Romans 13 should not be the only passage consulted when studying God’s purpose for government. (Other important passages to consider include 1 Peter 2:13-17 and Acts 4:18-20.)
However, Romans 13 is very important because the Apostle Paul answers two major questions: What is the purpose of government and why should Christians obey authorities?
While the passage shows that all authority is from God, it also gives the primary functions of a civil government that does not usurp the authority of God. Every government is to restrict evil and promote righteousness. Also, Paul offers four reasons for being subject to the authorities: (1) Out of respect for God’s authority (vv. 1-2); (2) in order to not be punished by the authorities that execute the wrath of God (vv. 2b-5); (3) for the sake of one’s conscience (v. 5b); (4) and to promote good within the society (v. 4).
The passage does not advocate any particular type of government that Christians should submit to, but rather leaves it open-ended, implying that Christians are to submit under every type of government as long as it does not directly command the Christian to disregard the authority of God.
Other Scripture on the Purpose of Government
Scripture repeatedly acknowledges that God “reigns over the nations” (Psalm 47:8a) and “removes kings and establishes kings” (Daniel 2:21). All authority is derived from God and will return to him. Even Christ acknowledged the principle of God’s sovereignty over rulers of the earth. While being questioned by Pilate at his trial, Christ reminded him, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11).
Peter also acknowledged the two purposes of government about which Paul wrote in his letter: “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right” (1 Peter 2:13-14).
1 Timothy 2:1-2 instructs Christians to take interest in government: “First of all, then, I urge that entreaties, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.”
Even though all governments are divinely instituted by God, they do not have unrestrained power when they mandate disobedience to the authority of God. Christians should take comfort in the knowledge that even the most unjust and oppressive regimes have no power but that which God has given to them (John 19:11). Even though our rulers may ignore Him and reject Him, God is the ultimate Sovereign from Whom their authority is derived. Whether a government submits to God’s purposes for government is temporal; all men will still be held eternally accountable for their deeds. The law of God can be removed from a nation’s courts and law books, but it cannot be removed from man’s conscience (Romans 1:20).
(Read God’s Politics: The Biblical Purpose for Government, Part 2 here.)