From a sermon preached by Ryan Fullerton, God and Government, on 4/19/20

We’re all feeling the restrictions of government right now. We cannot gather together as a church, many of us have had to work from home, and we’re having to stand in line to enter the stores. We’re all feeling the effects of the power that government has, and God in the Scriptures has instructed us how we should think about the government rightly.

Before you can do calculus, you need algebra. Before you can run a marathon, you need to be able to tie your shoes. And before you think about all the exceptional circumstances—when can we disobey the government?—it’s important that you have the basics clear about what God says about government.

So, here are ten points on God and Government from Romans 13.

1. Worship

present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship (Romans 12:1)

Romans 13 should be understood in light of Romans 12. When we get to Romans 13, Paul is not giving an ethic of government but a worshipful response to government. How we relate to government is a matter of how we honor God with our everyday lives. Obedience to the government is a key aspect of offering your body as a pleasing sacrifice to God.

2. Submission

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities (Romans 13:1)

The central command in Romans 13 is that we be in subjection to the government. We ought to come under the governing authorities as citizens. Sometimes we have the idea that as Christians we are just to obey Jesus. But Jesus calls us to obey him under human authorities, such as fathers, mothers, elders, and governments.

3. Authority

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities (Romans 13:1)

God is a God who loves to delegate authority. This happens from the very beginning of the Bible. God made Adam and Eve like a king and a queen and then told them to rule over the earth (Genesis 1:26-28). God delegated his authority of ruling creation to humans. God delegates the authority of the chief shepherd over His church to human elders (1 Peter 5:1-4). God delegates authority to husbands in the home, under the Lord (1 Corinthians 11:3). And God, likewise, delegates a particular authority to the government. 

4. Legitimacy

For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. (Romans 13:1)

The government—whether it is over North Korea, Saudi Arabia, or the Congo—is a legitimate authority instituted by God. These governments are not ultimately in place because of historical happenings, such as a war, but because God has sovereignly put them in place. 

We often hear things like: the US government is iligitimte because it got its money from the slavetrade, or permits abortion, or rules over stolen Indian land. But, in Romans 13, the government that Paul is speaking about is the one that killed  Jesus, kicked Jews out of Rome, regularly imprisoned Paul, and ruled over territory won through war. Paul has no delusion about the perfection or the beauty of the Roman government. A government is not made legitimate by its morality but because God installs them, and we are expected to submit whether to Nero, Caesar, or Trump.

5. Judgement

Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment….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. (Romans 13:2-4)

Government has a life and death power. Within different authorities there are different responsibilities. As a husband I am to lead and cherish my wife, but I have no authority to arrest her. As an elder I am to lead a congregation including disciplining Christians, but I have no authority to fine or incarcerate any member. To the government, however, the authority to execute judgement of the most severe kind has been given. And therefore, resisting the authorities will incur this judgement, including penalties even up until death.

When I was a new Christian I was told there was a difference between personal ethics—what you are supposed to do as an individual—and social ethics—what is required of every citizen. And I thought that was just some made up category that people invented to get themselves off the hook. However, the longer I’ve read my Bible I’ve learned that those folks from church history had something to teach me. The Bible does teach a difference between personal and social ethics. 

Earlier in Romans, Paul says: Never avenge yourselves (Rom 12:19-20), do not get your gun out to execute wrath, but pray for your enemies. It is true that on the last day God will execute his vengeance and Christians are not to avenge themselves. But God has also delegated his vengeance to an authority to execute his judgement now on earth: the government.

But what happens when a Christian is a member of the government? This is where the distinction between personal and social ethics is helpful. As a Christian I am not to execute vengeance on anyone who harms me. But as a Christian police officer I might be called on to execute that vengeance. As a Christian I do not have authority to put anyone behind bars, but as a Christian governor I have the right and responsibility to lock people up. As a Christian I am not to play judge and jury over another, but as a Christian judge I am called to execute that very judgement over individuals.

See part two on God and Government here.