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Governing Authorities (13:1-7)

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We serve a God who is loving, kind and merciful. The Old Testament writers repeatedly assure us that He does not treat us as our sins deserve. We see this most clearly in the fact that God sent Jesus Christ to redeem us from our sin. Jesus takes the penalty for sin upon Himself for those who choose to follow Him.

But the mercy of God also places an obligation upon us. It impels us to treat others with the same mercy God has shown us. In his inspired letter to the followers of Christ at Rome, the Apostle Paul writes that we should not take vengeance for ourselves on those who wrong us. Instead, we must show them kindness.

Something else the mercy of God impels us to do is respect His standards and the things He has instituted. In chapter 13, verse 1 through 7, Paul writes, “Let every soul be in subjection to the higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those who exist are ordained by God. Therefore he who resists the authority, withstands the ordinance of God; and those who withstand will receive to themselves judgment. For rulers are not a terror to the good work, but to the evil. Do you desire to have no fear of the authority? Do that which is good, and you will have praise from the same, for he is a servant of God to you for good. But if you do that which is evil, be afraid, for he doesn’t bear the sword in vain; for he is a servant of God, an avenger for wrath to him who does evil. Therefore you need to be in subjection, not only because of the wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For this reason you also pay taxes, for they are servants of God’s service, attending continually on this very thing. Give therefore to everyone what you owe: taxes to whom taxes are due; customs to whom customs; respect to whom respect; honor to whom honor.”

From what Paul writes we learn that the institution of government is not something arbitrary which mankind thought up on its own. The form of government may be different from place to place and at different times in history, but the idea of granting authority to certain individuals or institutions to bring order to society comes from God. There is no question that God is the supreme ruler. Nothing can take place and no one can do anything which God does not allow. Though this is the case, God delegates His power and authority to earthly rulers who govern, protect and administer justice. Since God has established the governing authorities, it follows that they are God’s representatives.

This has important implications. We must submit to the governing authorities just as we submit to God. We must obey them as we obey God. Paul writes that if we rebel against the authorities, then we are actually rebelling against what God has instituted. If we rebel against what God has established, we bring judgment on ourselves. In contrast, if we do what is right, we have no need to fear the government.

However, this raises an important question. We all know that governing authorities are not always righteous. They often do things which are evil. They sometimes require us to do things which are contrary to God’s standards. Are we obligated to obey the governing authorities when they tell us to do what is wrong?

Paul does not answer this question directly. Instead, he answers the question by telling us what the responsibility of governing authorities is. He says that one responsibility of government is to commend those who do what is right. Another responsibility of government is to do good to those under its authority. A third responsibility is to punish those who do wrong. In light of this we can say that we are not obligated to obey a governing authority when it tells us to do anything which violates these principles. For example, if a government requires us to condone or participate in an activity which God has declared wrong, or if a government forbids us from practicing something which God has commanded us to do, we are not obligated to obey.

Christ’s Apostles provide an excellent illustration of this. When the governing authorities in Jerusalem forbade them to speak or teach in Jesus’ name, “...Peter and John replied, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God.”” (Acts 4:19 NIV)

However, if there is no conflict between what the government requires and what God desires, we are obligated to submit to the government. Paul states that the governing authorities are God’s servants. To put it another way, the reason we ought to obey and submit to rulers is that they are acting on behalf of God. We obey not only from fear of incurring God’s wrath and punishment if we do not, but because we have submitted ourselves to God. To disobey God’s servants would violate our conscience.

It is obvious that someone cannot pursue a course of action unless he has the means to do so. Protecting the innocent and punishing wrongdoers is not without expense. Also, the authorities cannot do the work God has given them unless their own needs are met. Governing a city, a province or a nation is a full-time job. Since rulers give full time to governing, they do not have the ability to earn a living by doing something else. This is the purpose of taxes. They are to pay the costs of government and provide income for those who govern. No one likes to pay taxes, yet they are necessary. Instead of complaining about them, perhaps we should give thanks that our taxes enable the authorities to accomplish the work God has given them on our behalf.

Paul writes that we are not only obligated to pay taxes to whom they are due, we must give to everyone what we owe them whether it be revenue, honor or respect. Following Christ does not exempt us from giving respect and honor to others. We have a tendency to mock or ridicule leaders and government officials whom we dislike, or whose policies we disapprove of. This should not be. Whether we like them or not, they are God’s servants. We should treat them as such. If we cannot respect the person, we should at least pay him the honor due his position.

Submitting to rulers, paying taxes, respecting those to whom respect is due and giving honor to those deserving of honor are really just expressions of a greater principle. If you would like to know what that principle is and how it impacts our lives, be sure to listen to our next program.