Church, State & Romans 13: Part 4

Guest post by Rev. Dr. David Smith, Covenant Fellowship ARP Church, Summerfield, NC; Adjunct Professor of Church History, Erskine Seminary

The Duty to Civil Authority

Of course, then, this raises some rather serious questions as to just what the Christian’s Duty is to Civil Authority, or the various authorities that comprise it. Obviously, as verses 1 and 5 indicate we are to be in subjection to them or submit to them. But the question is: What does this mean, especially in light of all that Paul affirms here?

The chief term that highlights the relationship of all people to civil authority is the Greek term translated subject in verse 1 and subjection in verse 5. It can also be translated submit. It is used by Paul numerous times in his NT letters. This verb in its various forms is used about 30 times in the New Testament. Some have translated the term “obey” but this is inaccurate and misses the full picture that is captured by the term. In all the instances in which it is used, it describes a relationship between two things in which one of those things is subordinated to the other’s authority. But the nature of that authority in each individual case governs how we are to think about that subordination or relationship of submissiveness. This is another way of saying that the term itself does not communicate the same identical features in every instance. Paul uses it, for instance, 1) to describe the relationship of creation to the covenant curse, 2) of wives to their own husbands, 3) of the incarnate Jesus to God the Father, and 4) of the boy Jesus to his parents, as well as 5) the church to the civil authorities. The point, then, is that when Paul says that every Christian is to be subject to the governing authorities, the exact features of our relationship to the governing authorities goes a long ways toward determining what it means for the Christian to be subject to those governing authorities.

John Calvin, in commenting on another passage in one of Paul’s letters where he used this term, has stated it well: “God has so bound us to each other, that no man ought to avoid subjection. And where love reigns there is a mutual servitude. I do not except kings and governors, for they rule that they may serve. Therefore, it is very right that he should exhort all to be subject to each other.” With respects to Paul’s words in Romans 13, John Murray, theology professor at Westminster Seminary in the mid-20th century stated: “Subjection indicates the recognition of our subordination in the whole realm of the magistrates’ jurisdiction and willing subservience to their authority.” The primary question to be answered in all this is: What precisely is the jurisdiction or authority that the civil magistrate possesses? Put another way: What is the realm of the magistrates authority?

Verse 7 summarizes it: Give to all of them what is obligated: taxes to whom taxes, revenue to whom revenue, respect to whom respect, honor to whom honor.The ESV begins verse 7 with “Pay,” which is not the primary definition of the Greek term. The term means give. Paul is telling us to do more than simply pay money. That is captured by the fact that we are to give respect and honor. We respect and honor them not because of their personal moral character but because of the position they hold by virtue of what God has ordained. But respect and honor can be given while still holding them accountable for how they exercise their authority. Indeed, one of the ways we respect and honor civil authorities or any authority is by holding them accountable for what they do with the authority God gave them.

Submissiveness, then, does not mean blind obedience. Between humans it means the one who is in subjection to the other participates with them in helping them carry out the authority they have been given. Helping obviously does not mean undermining that authority, but be clear, neither Daniel nor his three friends were undermining Nebuchadnezzar’s authority when they disobeyed him, because, catch this, he was not exercising the authority he had been given; he was taking upon himself an authority he did not have! This is the outworking of understanding that God has all authority, distributes authority and he and his word determine how everyone is to exercise the authority they have been given.

This is why at times God helped his people disobey the governing civil authorities. Moses and the whole covenant community coming out of Egypt, as I have already mentioned, is one instance, as are Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah in relation to Nebuchadnezzar. In Ezra 5 Zerubbabel and Jeshua eventually defied the order set down by King Artaxerxes for them to stop rebuilding the wall of the city of Jerusalem. Similar to these, although not identical, is King Uzziah’s failure to stay within the bounds of his proper authority when he went into the temple in order to burn incense on the altar of incense and God struck him with leprosy. His situation merely points out that even within God’s Covenant People there are distinct spheres of authority that allow some men to do some works but not others.

In the New Testament we have the example of Peter and John disobeying the authority of the Jewish religious leaders in Acts 4 in order to preach the gospel. Still further, we see God’s people confronting and working at cross purposes with particular civil authorities. Joseph’s taking Mary and fleeing from Herod, John the Baptist confronting Herod with his sin, Jesus not directly answering Pontius Pilate’s questions are some examples of this.

As we think about our giving the authorities in our life what is due them, as verse 7 indicates, let us first recognize that the governmental situation that Paul was in with the Roman Empire is a bit different from our own situation today. So, in some respects what precisely it meant for Paul’s original audience to be subject to the governing authorities is not the same as it is for us. We live in a democratic republic that gives us as citizens of the United States wonderfully powerful privileges, even rights. We are not resisting nor disrespecting the civil authorities when we point out to them what rights we actually have that they may in fact be violating. In actuality, when we do this, we are providing a service to the civil authorities because we are in essence helping them exercise the actual authority they have and helping protect them from going beyond their authority. The New Testament scholar C.E.B. Cranfield put it: “the final arbiter of what constitutes subjection in a particular situation is not the civil authority but God.” And how exactly is the civil authority supposed to know this, if not through God’s word that has been delivered to his Covenant People, the Church? We submit to the governing authorities not merely by not breaking the laws of the land, but by submitting our lives to the need that the governing authority has to know God’s Law.

Those who advocate a modern Two Kingdom approach that disconnects Christians and the church from the civil authorities and muzzles the gospel call to repentance are quite obviously nowhere close to faithfully representing what Paul wrote in Romans 13. All authority has been given to Jesus, and there is no separation of the physical material realm from the spiritual realm, and therefore there is no actual separation of the church from the state. A distinction? Yes. But not a disconnect. This is why we will only submit to the governing authorities when we understand the Origin of All Authority, the Ideal for Civil Authority and our Duty to Civil Authority.