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What Romans 13 says about submission to government authority

Categories Biblical Studies Commentaries (NT)

A lot of people have questions about Romans 13 verses one to seven, which tells Christians to submit to the governing authorities and that God has put the governing authorities in place basically to keep order in the world and to keep evil at bay and to reward those who do what is good.

Now we all know and Paul certainly knew that not all governments are good. In fact there are many governments in the world today that are quite bad. The question down through Christian history for Christians who consider scripture to be authoritative is, "how could I obey this particular passage, Romans 13, one to seven and yet also obey the many, many parts of scripture that talk about not oppressing the poor? That talk about reaching out to the disenfranchised and the marginalized to welcoming and showing hospitality to the stranger? How can I obey all the many passages of scripture that speak of extending love and kindness to others, especially those who are not like me when my government may be putting laws into place that say I should not show that love and kindness to people?"

How are we to interpret this?

Well, this is not the first time in history that people have asked that question. In fact, the earliest commentary on Romans was by an early church father named Origen who lived in the mid-first century. And Origen lost his life because he was a Christian. He was killed specifically by the government because he was a Christian. He was terribly persecuted.

When he commented on this passage he reminded us that there are other parts of scripture that lay things out this way. When Peter and John were arrested by the governing authorities according to the early chapters of the book of Acts, and were told to preach no longer in Jesus's name, their response was that they could not do that because it was their responsibility to obey God rather than human beings.

Traditionally the way people have interpreted Romans 13, one to seven is that we should obey the government in so far as we can and not disobey God. That we should not be troublemakers for the government in any kind of unnecessary sense.

But when God calls upon us as He does so often in the scriptures to love our neighbors as ourselves and the government for example might say that we should not do that, it is our duty according to the apostle Peter to obey God rather than human beings. We know the apostle Paul agreed. He often found himself in prison because he too preached the gospel and created a stir and got on the wrong side of the governing authorities.

I think Paul would shake hands with Peter over this and fully agree with him. And this is often the pattern that we should go to when we find difficult passages of scripture. Scripture interprets scripture. And we need to read the bible from beginning to end. Genesis to Revelation to see the big themes and what God is focused on. And then to interpret the more difficult passages in light of those big themes.

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This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity.

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