“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.” (Romans 13:1-3a)
As we read these words we may wonder if Paul ever envisioned a world such as ours where violence and crime goes unchecked, good is bad, evil is redefined, sin is excused, ignored and legalized and Christians are vilified and condemned. But we must note that he wrote this about the Roman government which was far worse than our own government. Rome was noted for its corruption, slavery, cruelty, and violence on a par with Stalin’s Russia and was only getting worse.
Governments and kingdoms change, rise and fall, but God’s Kingdom is eternal. Therefore, His word is true always and does not change with the times, regimes, or public opinion. Thus what we find here constitutes a warning to modern Christians. The words are obvious and straightforward. There are no hidden meanings, no secret codes. Christians have an obligation to respect government and obey the law. Why?
First of all, governments are in power by the providence of God. They derive their authority from Him. Thus, obedience to them is obedience to God. Failure to obey the just laws of government shows disrespect for God’s authority. That is sin.
In addition, governments are ministers of God to punish evil doers. As long as we are good, do not break the law, we have nothing to fear. The law holds no terror for those who do good. Governments and laws can exact just punishment on the wicked as the sword of the Lord.
The final reason to do good and obey government is for the sake of our own conscience. Many like to disobey if they think they won’t get caught. Many cheat, lie, and steal when no one is looking or, nowadays, when everyone is looking. People may loot, assault others and pillage thinking they will suffer no punishment. And yet God sees all. He will judge. He will use the conscience to convict evildoers, or worse: He will condemn them, as He did Pharaoh, by hardening their conscience.
So as Christians we must subject ourselves to the law, surrender to its authority, and not seek to overthrow it by violence or illegal means or support those that do. This involves respecting those in authority, obeying just law, and paying taxes. What Paul does not tell us here is what to do if the government sanctions things that are evil, or commands us to do things that are sinful. Many people may use such as an excuse to actively break the law, claiming that they are protesting against the oppressive tyrannical policies of an evil government.
Jesus Himself said give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. By saying this, He upheld the authority of the government of Rome, an ungodly, cruel and oppressive power. Jesus maintained that government, even an evil power such as Rome, is also a force for good. Governments protect the rights, property and lives of private citizens from anarchy, violence, robbery, assault and murder, not perfectly, but they do. And so we must obey all those laws that are just and fair, but are not obliged to obey those that are sinful or opposed to the Kingdom of God. How? If we look at the behavior of Christ, Paul and our early Christian brethren, we see that they never engaged in violence or even organized protests. They went to their deaths willingly knowing they were in the Lord’s hands.