Submit to the Civil Authorities – the Duty

In a Brief Survey of the Epistle of Paul to the Romans 

Based on sermons preached in PCC Worship Services, July 2003 to Sep 2005 

Part 69a of 83 

1 Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God:  the powers that be are ordained of God.  2 Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: 4 For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. 5 Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. 6 For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing”.

Romans 13:1-6

Anyone who has read the letter of Paul to the Romans conscientiously will not fail to notice how the apostle, as it were, refrains from giving any practical applications for his doctrinal exposition for the first eleven chapters. Then at chapter 12, it is as if the dam is breached and a torrent of applicatory instructions is unleashed. Thus, we were compelled to use more than 20 studies to do a measure of justice to what Paul is exhorting us to do immediately—in view of the great work of redemption that God Triune has planned, execute and bestow upon us. 

But now that the pressure has been, as it were, released, Paul can slow down considerably to deal more exhaustively on a few salient matters related to Christian living in the world. 

In chapter 13, he teaches us three things, namely: (1) the need to submit to the civil authority (v. 1-6); (2) our debt of love to our neighbour (v. 7-10) and (3) the urgent need to be sober and godly in ourselves (v. 11-14).   

In the present study, we shall consider only the first lesson, namely the need to submit to the civil authority (v. 1-6). We will do so under three heads: (1) the Duty; (2) the Reasons; and (3) the Obligations. 

1. The Duty 

Paul Says: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers.” “Every soul” means everyone. No one is exempted. What are higher powers? They are those who have been appointed to have authority over us. 

God has appointed two main authorities over us outside our homes. One is the ecclesiastical authority, or church authorities. The other is the civil authority.  

For the orderly function of the church, God has instituted church governments. For the orderly function of the society, God has instituted civil governments. Both of these are higher powers over us. We have a duty and responsibility toward both of these authorities. 

But now, in our present text, the apostle is clearly referring to the civil government. 

So when Paul says, “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers,” he is telling us that every one of us must submit to all authorities over us, especially the civil authority. 

When this letter was first written, in A.D. 58, it was addressed to the Christians at Rome. Rome was the imperial capital of the great Roman Empire. And the wicked Emperor Nero was on the throne. He had not begun overtly to persecute the Christians when the letter was written, but He was quite notorious for his immorality, madness and cruelty. He even murdered his own mother about a year after this letter was written. The Christians of Rome therefore knew the glory as well as the shame of the civil government over them. 

Do Christians need to submit to such a godless and wicked government? Do they need to submit, seeing that they are first the citizens of the Kingdom of Christ (cf. Phil 3:20; Col 1:13)? This must have been a particularly temptation facing the early Christians. They must have often wished that they need not submit to the civil authorities. 

But Paul teaches them otherwise. No one is exempted from submission and obedience to the civil government set over us. “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers.” No matter how wicked the civil government may be, we must submit to them. We must obey their laws. We must honour them for their office over us. We must honour them in our heart (cf. 1 Pet 2:17); we must honour them in our speech and actions.  

We must speak respectfully to them and about them. We must not despise them by refusing to acknowledge their authority over us. We must obey their commands in all things lawful and honest, and we must humbly submit to any penalty that they may impose for our failures to obey them as we should (cf. Tit 3:1). 

The apostle Peter who wrote round about the time when Emperor Nero began his cruel campaign against Christians agrees with Paul. He says in 1 Peter 2:13— 

13  Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; 14 Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well.”  

Can you see how both apostles agree in this regard? Can you see how they agree that we must not rebel against the civil government even if we disagree with them? 

Paul does not give any limit or qualification for our submission to the civil authority. But of course that does not mean that we must submit to the authority blindly in all areas and all circumstances.  

There is always a universal limitation to our submission to any human authority, which we must bear in mind.  

What is this limitation? It is that we must never submit to any human authority to the point that we sin against God: for God is the highest authority. 

Thus, when the apostles Peter and John were commanded by the Jewish Sanhedrin not to preach in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, they refused to obey. They answered instead: 

“Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye.” 

Acts 4:19

And later, they add: 

“We ought to obey God rather than men.” 

Acts 5:29

This, then, is the limit that we must put on our obedience to the civil authority set over us. We must submit to them and obey them in all areas and all circumstances so long as we are not required to disobey God or violate our conscience in the process.  

What should we do, if the government passes a law that forbids parents from using the rod to chastise their children? Should we cease to use the rod? No, no; we must never be cruel with the rod. But we must obey God rather than man. 

And what should we do, if the government were to restrict our ability to worship God with a clear conscience? Should we cease to worship? No, no; I’ll say, we should seek as far as possible to do all things right in the eyes of the law. We must provide things honest in the sight of all men. But when we have to choose between obeying God and obeying man, then we must always obey God. 

This is the universal qualification in regard to submission to the civil authority. And this is the only qualification given in the Word of God. Therefore, so long as we are not required to sin against God, we must submit and obey the government.  

We must submit and obey even if the government is godless and even anti-Christian. We must submit and obey even if the government is incompetent and corrupt. We must submit and obey the laws that they have been set even though we find them inconvenient and silly.  

So long as the laws do not require us to sin against God, we must submit. 

The speed limits on many stretches of Singapore roads may be quite ridiculous in your opinion, but you must still submit to them. You must submit whether or not there is a speed camera or a highway patrol in sight. 

The law on jaywalking and pedestrian crossings maybe very inconvenient, but you must still obey them. Therefore we cross at the zebra crossing when we are getting to the carpark after church because it is illegal to cross between the two crossings. We will do so whether or not we think it is really safe to cross between the two crossings. We will do so whether or not a traffic police is stationed there. We will do so whether or not people think we are being silly and unnecessarily scrupulous. 

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers.” God has commanded. We must obey. 

But why? Why must we submit to the civil government? What is the rationale?  

…to be Continued Next Issue 

—JJ Lim 

“The reason why we ought to be subject to magistrates is, because they are constituted by God’s ordination. For since it pleases God thus to govern the world, he who attempts to invert the order of God, and thus to resist God himself, despises his power; since to despise the providence of him who is the founder of civil power, is to carry on war with him.”

Calvin, Comm. in loc