The Christian's Relationship to Government
Everyone has a rebellious streak. We do not like being told what to do and how to do it.
Do you remember the days before seat belt laws and child safety seats? Laws vary by state, but in 1984, New York was the first state to make wearing seat belts mandatory.
This means that when I was growing up, seat belts were not required. From 1968, seat belts were required equipment on all cars in the United States, and I remember being fascinated with the sturdy nylon straps. However, we did not use them.
I remember one day mom was driving us home from school. This was an unusual treat because we usually rode the school bus. At the time, the freeway was being built along the route between our home and the school. So, the unbelievable happened in our little rural community, a traffic tie-up. Usually, traffic delays were only in spring and fall when the sheep were moved between the river valley and their summer grazing in the mountains.
Anyway, on this beautiful Idaho afternoon, my mom was driving us home. Mind you now, in those days the speed limit was 70 miles per hour. So, we came upon the traffic tie-up rather quickly. Now, my mom, bless her heart, wasted a lot of rubber getting the car from 70 to zero in just a few seconds. However, the law of inertia, while being overcome at the cost of rubber for the car, was not overcome for us occupants of the vehicle until we met with the solid parts of the interior of the vehicle. For us backseat occupants, this meant that we got up close and personal with the back of the front seat, but for the front seat occupants, this meant hitting the dashboard and it was rather solid.
We were fortunate that day. We came away with a few bruises, but we did not learn from the incident. One would think that after experiencing what happens just by hitting the brakes that we would start wearing our seatbelts. On the contrary, you should have heard the complaints and outright rebellion when seat belts became mandatory. Many treated the new law like it was a violation of our freedom.
There are many issues big and small where laws impact our daily lives. Some regulations are annoying, and other laws are more serious in their consequences. I have heard arguments that taxes are unconstitutional and that we should not pay them. Wouldn't we all love it if this was a legitimate argument! But, unless you wish to spend some time in jail, I would not push this one too far. There are other issues such as gun control and immigration that people are very passionate about. I have even heard the comment, "The only way they are taking my gun from me is from my cold dead hands." While that may be true, the government has the power and authority to make that happen as well.
What should the Christian's attitude be toward government? We live in and serve Jesus in a world controlled by government. We cannot avoid it. We cannot ignore it. Whenever we perform a wedding, feed the homeless, help the needy or preach the gospel, our lives and ministries are affected by laws. So, what should our attitude be?
Romans 13:1-7 addresses the Christian's attitude toward government. In these verses, we will see three things the Christian should do in relation to government. These three things are:
1. Be subject vs. 1-2
2. Do good vs. 3-5
3. Pay taxes vs. 6-7
We will address each of these in turn.
First, Romans 13:1-2 tells us that we are to be subject to the governing authorities.
Romans 13:1 says:
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. ()
This verse addresses us in a unique way. Up to this point, the letter has been affectionately calling us "brothers and sisters." However, on this issue, the text literally says, "Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities."
This brings home the significance of the principle involved. The principle involved is the principle of government. The principle of government applies to everyone equally. It makes no difference whether one is a Christian, Jew, Muslim, pagan, or atheist. Everyone is subject to government. At least, everyone is expected to be subject to government.
Romans 13:1 teaches us that God has established governing authority. While governments take on different forms, the principle of government or governing authority has been established by God. Whether that authority is wielded by a monarch or an elected legislature varies with the people involved.
Jesus recognized this principle at work when He said to Pilate, "You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above." (John 19:11, ESV)
This principle cuts both ways. Jesus remained in subjection even though wrong was being done, but Pilate would have to answer to God for the injustice being done. This being the case, it is awesome to realize that Pilate will stand before Jesus to be judged in the final judgment. It was Pilate who said to Jesus, "Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?" (John 19:10, ESV) Oh Pilate, did you not know who you were talking to?
Jesus remained in subjection even though He was being treated unjustly. The Bible tells us in 1 Peter 3:13-14 that we are blessed if we suffer for doing what is right. It says:
Now, who will want to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you suffer for doing what is right, God will reward you for it. So don’t worry or be afraid of their threats. ()
Romans 12:2 recaps the necessity for our subjection to the governing authorities when it says:
Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. ()
Even in cases where the law of God supersedes the law of man, the Christian will incur judgment for breaking the laws of man. For example, where it is against the law to name the name of Christ, many of our brothers and sisters suffer the consequences, as did the Apostle Paul, who suffered for the sake of Christ.
We are talking about being subject to the governing authority, and this is an obligation we share with all mankind. Now we need to consider what this subjection looks like. This brings us to our second point. We are to do good.
I Peter 3:13 asked the question, "Now, who will want to harm you if you are eager to do good?"
Romans 13:3 addresses this same question saying:
For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, ()
The first reason given for doing good is fear. It is necessary for us to do good if we would live without fear. 1 Timothy 2:1-2 carries this a step further when it instructs us to pray for those in authority. Verse 2 says:
Pray this way for kings and all who are in authority so that we can live peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity. ()
Living peaceful and quiet lives lends itself to the spreading of the gospel. It is much easier to share the gospel with our neighbors if we are not living in fear of the law, or in trouble with the law. This is consistent with Romans 12:18 that instructs us, “Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone.” (NLT)
Living a life free of fear and in peace with one’s neighbors is one benefit of doing good, and Romans 13:4 gives another reason for doing good. It says:
...for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. ()
This verse makes it clear that governing authorities exist in part to punish or restrain wrongdoing. The statement “he does not bear the sword in vain” points out the fact that the governing authority has the power of life and death over us. This is why it is never a good idea to be belligerent or aggressive when dealing with the police. So, the second reason given for doing good is the avoidance of punishment.
Romans 13:5 recaps the idea of doing good by saying:
Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. ()
In this verse, the idea of conscience is introduced. This is another reason for doing good. Having a good conscience is invaluable. In speaking to his young protégé, Timothy, Paul gave these instructions:
...holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith, ()
Keeping a good conscience is so important that not doing it can lead to the shipwreck of one’s faith.
Doing good is necessary then for three reasons: 1) freedom from fear, 2) avoiding punishment, and 3) keeping a good conscience.
So far we have seen that the Christian is to be in subjection and do good. Now, we have only to look at the issue of taxes. Romans 13:6-7 says:
For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. ()
Verse 6 begins “For because of this...” indicating that it is for the reasons already listed that one should pay their taxes. So, one should pay their taxes to be free of fear, avoid punishment and keep a good conscience. However, there is one more reason given, and that is because the authorities are the servants of God.
Whether they acknowledge God or not, those in authority answer to God for their conduct. As believers, we are ambassadors for Christ, and we serve this function under the governing authorities of the world. The Bible is full of examples of men and women of God who participated in government to the glory of God even when those governments were ungodly. Daniel served in the courts of three pagan kings. Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther all served God in governments that did not fear God. God used these people in miraculous ways to accomplish His purposes.
On the other hand, we have many examples in Scripture of those who suffered persecution at the hands of the governing authorities. God used their suffering in miraculous ways to accomplish His purposes.
Romans 13:1-7 shows us that whether we are in government, persecuted by government or just putting up with the necessity of government, as believers we are to be subject to government, do good and pay our taxes.