We have previously seen that the king is set up by both the will of God and the will of the people. This concept is explicit in Deut. 17 and is seen in the way kings are coronated in the OT, how they covenant with the people whom they govern, and how they are held accountable by the people when they fail to uphold their end of the covenant. Nevertheless, in the minds of some, Paul's instruction in Rom. 13 settles the question of how the people should relate to their government in terms of near absolute submission. Our task today is to consider Paul’s words and meaning in this most important text.
1a Let every soul be subject to higher authorities. b For there is no authority except by God, and c those that exist have been appointed by God. 2a Therefore, the one who opposes the authority resists the ordinance of God, b and those who resist will receive judgment for themselves. 3a For rulers are not a terror to good behavior, but to bad. b Do you not want to fear the authority? c Do good and you will have praise from the same. 4a For it is God’s servant to you for good. b But if you do bad, be afraid, c for it does not bear the sword in vain. d For it is God’s avenging servant for wrath to the one who does bad. 5a Therefore, it is necessary to be subject, b not only because of wrath, but also because of conscience. 6a For because of this you also pay taxes, b for they are God’s ministers, c attending to this very thing.
The Apostle uses very strong language here and leaves little room for exceptions. He seems to be saying we must give complete submission to the government. One recognized exception that Paul does not entertain here is one where obedience to a magistrate would require a Christian to sin. In that case, the Christian must “obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29), but that does not seem to be the situation under consideration in Rom. 13. The problem is that taking Paul’s words as absolute puts us in a difficult position. In v. 3a we read, “For rulers are not a terror to good behavior, but to bad.” What is immediately striking about that statement is that, on its face, it appears to be false! There most certainly do seem to be rulers who are terrors to good behavior! Is Paul saying there are no authorities who cause their citizens to fear doing good and be praised for doing evil (3b-c)? Were murderous tyrants like Joseph Stalin and Pol Pot God's servants for the good of their people, including Christians (4a)? Under such regimes, doing evil could keep the sword at bay, while doing good could bring wrath (contra 4b-d). These difficulties and others like them necessarily arise if we take Paul to mean, absolutely, that no ruler is a terror to good conduct, but only to bad, etc. Obviously, I don’t believe Paul is wrong, so is there a better way to look at what he is saying?
Office of Authority vs. Person in Authority in Rom. 13
Two popular modern translations, the NIV and ESV (along with the KJV), are suggestive in their translation of verses 3-4. Whereas the original Greek keeps the attention on “the authority,” these versions consistently shift the focus to the person in the office rather than keeping it on the office or authority itself. This gives a misleading impression. A closer and less interpretive translation of the Greek (as I have given above) emphasizes submission to the authority, not explicitly to the person. This distinction may initially seem somewhat artificial, but I hope to show that it is real and very significant.
Verse 3b-c reads, literally, “Do you not want to fear the authority? Do good and you will have praise from the same.” The ESV translates “the authority” as “the one who is in authority” (likewise the NIV: “the one in authority.”), shifting the attention to the person occupying the office of authority and away from the office itself. Likewise at the end of the verse, the ESV takes the original “praise from the same” (i.e., from the authority) to mean “his approval” (i.e., the approval of the person). In contrast to this, the NASB and NET both translate literally, as I have done. The NET reads, “Do you desire not to fear authority? Do good and you will receive its commendation.” The NASB has, “Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same.”
A similar thing happens in v. 4. To grasp the significance, though, we must understand something about NT Greek verbs and personal pronouns. In Greek, verbs often appear without an explicit subject. In that case, the subject is a pronoun implied by the form of the verb itself. When that happens, the translator has to make clear in English what is implied in the Greek. Verse 4 has three third person singular verbs with no specified subject. No problem. We simply choose whether to supply “he,” “she,” or “it” in our translation. We decide that by looking for the word in the immediately preceding context that the writer has in mind as the subject of our verb. What singular noun do we have in v. 3 that should guide our translation of v. 4? The nearest candidate is “authority” (as in, “Do you not want to fear the authority?”). “Authority” is a feminine word in Greek, so we should supply “she” (or “it,” since authority is an abstract concept). The ESV and KJV (the NIV goes its own way) three times take the implied pronouns of v. 4 as “he,” though I can find no grammatical or syntactical reason for doing so. The ESV, NIV, and KJV consistently and unnecessarily draw attention to the person in the office, rather than the office itself, as in the NASB and NET.
Is this a distinction without a difference? No, I believe it is crucial to understanding what Paul means and does not mean to say in Rom. 13. He presents “the authority” in vv. 3-4 as an ideal. In other words, he describes what true authority is like and how it behaves. Christians are to subject themselves to that kind of authority. After all, true authority of the type Paul describes is “not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil.” If you do what is good, “you will have praise from the same” (v. 3) since “it is a minister of God to you for good.” Only if you do what is evil should you “be afraid; for it is an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil” (v. 4). Christians should praise God for such authorities and joyfully submit to them!
The question remains, though, what if the person holding the office is “a cause of fear for good behavior”? What if he praises the one who does evil and does not act as “a minister of God to you for good”? What if he is the kind of ruler who makes you afraid to do good because he “brings wrath on the person who practices” good? In other words, what about those cases where the decrees of the person in office does not line up with the ideals of the authority? Must we render total submission in such cases?
Considering Other Realms of Submission
"Submission" is a common biblical concept. The Bible exhorts us to be submissive in several relationships, two of which are particularly significant for our discussion.
First, Christians are to be submissive to their elders and church leaders (Heb. 13:17; 1 Pet. 5:5). The question is, to what extent do we submit to them? For example, what if the elders of a church begin to require all adult males to wear ties to church and all adult females to have at least shoulder-length hair? Do members have to submit to such requirements handed down by their elders? If elders decide that all their members must sign a paper every week confirming their regular Bible reading, must the members obey? What if church leadership declares that only they can decide who is allowed to marry whom within the congregation, or how many children they must have once married? The Bible tells us to submit to church elders, but how do we understand cases like these?
The authority of elders does not extend to such areas because it is not absolute; it pertains only within certain bounds. I also propose that, where church leaders move beyond their purview, members are free to disobey if they so choose. Elders simply do not govern church members in those areas. What’s more, in areas where they do legitimately have oversight but lead contrary to the Bible, members are likewise free to disobey. If such bad leadership persists and worsens, members could rightfully seek to remove the offending leaders from office and replace them with men who will rule biblically.
A second important sphere of submission we need to consider is marriage. Wives are clearly told to submit to their husbands (Eph. 5:24; Col. 3:18; Titus 2:5; 1 Pet. 3:1). However, what shall we recommend to the wife whose husband requires her to wear a niqab, so that only her eyes will be visible? Does the command to submit mean she must obey in this area? What if he forbids unmonitored contact with other adults? Would that be something she must subject herself to? What if a husband requires his wife to ask permission before eating, or exercising, or bathing, or using the phone, or seeing friends? Does she have to submit to these demands? Certainly not! I am sure most would probably view such a relationship as very controlling, damaging, and abusive.
The Bible commands wives to submit to their husbands, but we see limits and boundaries to that submission. The authority of a husband is broad, but not absolute. When a husband steps out of his area of authority, a wife is not bound to obey in that area. Further, in the areas where he does hold sway, if he leads contrary to the Bible, his wife is not bound to obey.
Most will recognize there are limits to submission in church and marriage relationships. The above hypothetical demands are obvious overreaches and can justly be disobeyed. Likewise, when governing officials overreach their boundaries, their unreasonable demands may rightfully be disobeyed.
Back to Romans 13
The distinction between the office of the authority vs. the person in the office is an important one. Paul is describing the excellencies of the office, the ideal of the authority. True, biblical authority is such that, when a person under it does good, he has no fear of punishment. Instead, he receives praise! True authority is God's servant for the good of those served. True authority is God’s avenger for wrath toward the evildoer, punishing evil (and not good) with the sword. To such authority, we should always be subject. However, for governing officials, as with elders or husbands, there are limits to the submission due them.
Government authority is not absolute. As with any earthly authority, it has boundaries. When the person in office moves beyond the reach of his legitimate purview, the people are not bound to obey in that area. They have the right to call out overreach and render submission only as far as his authority properly extends.
Brennen Behimer (BA, Moody Bible Institute; MA, Wheaton College) is a pastor at Parkside Bible Fellowship in Fallon, NV. He is husband to Stephanie and father of six.
Note: The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of other contributors on this site