The Christian Submission to the Civil Magistrate

OUESTION: How does Paul describe the Christian’s relationship to the Government (c.f. Romans 13)?  Compare to Jesus’ statements regarding one’s responsibility to government. What is the precedent of the early church in the book of Acts in regard to obedience to government?  How do we apply these biblical principles today?

Paul in consistency with the teaching of the Lord Jesus taught that the Christian was to be in submission to the hierarchical authority that God has placed within the Christians human experience. In chapter 13 of Romans, Paul makes in clear that all authority is ordained by God (v. 1) and that judgment would result if one did not submit to the authority that God has appointed (v. 2). Moo proclaims that Paul’s words refer to the “upholding” of government (Moo, pg. 184) and that; “God Himself ordains authorities and that they have the right to punish people who do evil, or who do not submit” (pg. 185). Moo’s view of Paul’s understanding of the Christians relation to the civil magistrate is consistent with the words of the Apostle himself when he states;

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.2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.3 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,4 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.5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.7 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. (Romans 13:1-7, ESV)

God’s ordained authority of Government means that the authority is to act in accordance with the will of God and is to “bare the sword” not in vain (v. 4), and the Christian is to respect this authority in submission in all facets of life to include the paying of taxes (v. 6-7). This teaching is consistent with the Lord Jesus’ statement in Matthew 22 where the Lord tells those present that an individual is to be in submission to those governing over them; “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matt. 22:21, ESV).

However, one must also recognize that the Government authorities are to act in accordance with God’s law and are to implement and adhere to God’s will in all aspects of governing. Noting this, it is correct to say that all human authority and all of human experience in general must be in submission to God’s word as the ultimate, governing authority over all aspects of life; personal, corporate, spiritual and political. Note the words of Gregg Singer;

the ultimate source of authority is not the state itself~ as in Hegel and contemporary absolutist philosopher, nor in the people, as in modern democratic though~ nor in a classless society, as Marx taught~ but in the will of the triune God. It is God who ordains the state, confers upon it its legitimate powers, and sets limits upon its actions. The state is not the source of law, nor of the concepts of right and wrong, or of justice and equity. (Singer, pg, 33-34)

Hence, God’s immutable law trumps man’s law as the overriding principle of true and perfect justice. Note this lengthy yet magnificent passage from Dr. Greg L. Bahnsen on the use of God’s law and government;

Over and over again the Old Testament associated the sword of judgment with God, who brought historical punishment upon the rebellion of men. Even Israel was threatened with the judgment of the sword if she broke the law- of the Lord- (for example, Lev. 26:25, 33, 36-37)—a threat carried out in its climax when Jerusalem fell by the edge of the sword according to the word of Christ (Luke 21:24). The sword of vengeance belongs to God. And yet the sword is repeatedly associated with God’s will for civil rule as well. Human government is symbolized by the sword, whether it is wielded by Pharaoh (Ex. 18:4) or by Saul (2 Sam. 1:22). The sword’s proper function is that of executing criminal violators of God’s law (for example, 1 Kings 1:51; 2:8; etc.). Whenever the sword is used autonomously—whenever men use political power and punishment as a law unto themselves—it is used in a sinful manner (for example, 1 Sam. 22:19). The wielding of the sword is accordingly vain if it is not used in conformity to God’s law. The magistrate in Israel had no right to slay men independent of God’s guidance and word. (Bahnsen, 2008)

Thus, when the ordained governmental authority is in conflict with God’s superior and overriding commands, the Christian is to follow the words of the living God in humble obedience. As Bahnsen correctly proclaims, the civil magistrate is not to act “autonomously” from God’s immutable law, and the leaders in government are not to be a “law upon themselves.” Hence, when the Civil Magistrate acts in rebellion or against God’s commands, the Christian has the right to resist this authority. This is what the reader finds in Acts chapter 4 when the Apostles Peter and John are brought before the leaders in judgment;

But in order that it may spread no further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.”18 So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.19 But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge,20 for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard. (Acts 4:17-20, ESV)

After stern warning, the Apostles are released and subsequently, they continue to preach God’s word in chapter 5 (Acts 5:12-16). Subsequently, the Apostles are once again arrested and put in jail, only to be released to proclaim the word once again where an “angle of the Lord” commands them to; “Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life.”And when they heard this, they entered the temple at daybreak and began to teach.” (Acts 5:20-21, ESV). Thus, the Christian is to adhere to the commands of God as found in His holy word, despite the civil magistrates attempt to suppress or halt the work of God in pushing forth His will and plan. However, resistance is never to be done in a manner of warfare or physical rebellion; as seen with Peter in John 18:10-11. Rather, the Christian is to fight and resist with the “sword of the Spirit” (Eph. 6:17), the “shield of faith” (Eph. 6:16) all the while having fastened to themselves the “breastplate of righteousness” (Eph. 6:14) in proclamation of the “Gospel of peace” (Eph. 6:15).

In conclusion, the Christian is to submit to the civil magistrate as an institution ordained and set in place by God. Likewise, the civil magistrate is to act in accordance with God’s revealed will and law so they “bare the sword” in a proper manner as related to God’s will and command. However, if the civil magistrate acts in ways opposed to the revealed will of God per His revelation, then the Christian must resist this autonomy in faithful submission to the God and ultimate governor of the creation itself; all the while keeping in mind that the Christian does not fight with the weapons of this world and is not to act in a manner contrary to the Lord Jesus whom they represent.


Works Cited

Bahnsen, Greg L. By This Standard. Powder Springs, GA. American Vision Press. 2008

English Standard Version (2001). Thomas Nelson (Ed.), Wheaton, IL: Good News Publishing.

Moo, Douglas J. Encountering the Book of Romans. Grand Rapids, MI. Baker Academic. 2002

C. Gregg Singer. John Calvin: His Roots and Fruits. Nutley. NJ Presbyterian and Reformed, 1977