The Command to “Be Subject”
At the time of Paul’s writing, there was growing discontent with rising taxes. there were strong political feelings among the Christian community in Rome. Some believers reasoned that, since their citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20), it exempted them from the obligation to Rome.
But Paul corrects that attitude - Romans 13:1b. The clear point: no ruler wields power outside of God’s appointment. No leader anywhere in the world and throughout history has arisen to power outside of God’s ultimate sovereign will. Behind every election, every revolution, and every transition of human government, the hand of God moves… regardless of their policies or character. It all somehow fits into His plan for human history.
The Consequences of Resistance
When Paul refers to judgment, it’s really on 2 levels. On the highest level, anyone who rebels will eventually stand accountable before God. On another level, there is accountability to government itself. Romans 13:3–4 God has entrusted to governing authorities the maintenance of order, without which there would be chaos (Judges 21:25).
Paul summarizes his argument in Romans 13:5 (Peter makes a similar point 1 Peter 2:13–14.)
“Conscience” here refers to the awareness that when we violate civil laws we violate God’s purposes. God has providentially ordered human history, and part of that is the government. We are as Christians to walk lawfully, respectfully, and prayerfully.
Romans 13:6 - Secular rulers, even if they’re unaware of it, function in a role assigned by God. To “be subject to the governing authorities,” is to recognize a subordinate place in an authority structure. It in no way indicates inferiority. Rather it describes an order that God has established.
Romans 13:7 - “Revenue” refers to things like tolls, and other consumption taxes similar to what we pay in our culture (gas tax). We are also to respect and honor those who occupy office, regardless of party, policy, and personality. Paul goes even further in urging prayer for them…
1 Timothy 2:1–2.
The Limits of Our Subjection
- The example of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Daniel 3)
In Babylon, King Nebuchadnezzar set up a giant image that he required the people to worship. To disobey was to invite judgment. Shad, Mesh, and Gbed – godly Jews – refused to bow.
- The Example of Daniel (Daniel 6)
The government and King Darius decreed that for 30 days no one was to pray to God. Daniel, being a devout Jew, continued to pray openly. He disobeyed the government God had put in place, and he was thrown into a den of lions to be torn apart. God miraculously spared him, too.
- The apostles Peter and John famously stood before the Jewish High Court (Acts 5), which ordered them to stop preaching in Jesus’ Name. Their response…Acts 5:29 “We must obey God rather than men.”
There is a line we must not cross. Our subjection to the human government must never put in jeopardy our subjection to Jesus Christ. When obedience to government competes with God’s Word, we draw the line that says “This far, and no farther.” The government that rewards good and punishes evil deserves Christian obedience. But believers are also obligated to disobey laws that violate God’s laws. Government does not have the absolute rights over the believer, for governments, like every human institution, is subject ultimately to God himself.