Does God authorize governments? (Romans 13:1-7)

We can’t talk about the kingdom of God without considering how the power of the church relates to the power of the state.

Open Romans 13:1-7.

Does Romans 13 decree the divine right of kings? It has been used that way for centuries. Even today, the royal coat of arms of the UK rests on such a claim: Dieu et mon droit, literally God and my right!

Does Romans 13 authorize war? Many interpreters have claimed that it does, so we’ll address this question in our next post.

Good exegesis starts with Paul’s context, not ours. The power claims in Romans 13 do not originate with Paul. He knew that Roman emperors laid claim to divine right to rule. This tradition dates way back to previous pagan empires, and is found all over the world.

But Paul was a Jew, writing from a Hebrew worldview. In that framework, Paul’s words in Romans 13 are not strange at all. In Romans 9:17, he quotes the Hebrew claim that God raised up even the Pharaoh of the exodus for his purposes.

In fact, a case can be made that Romans is a new Exodus story — a story of God liberating the earth from its oppressive rulers:

  • The whole world is enslaved under evil (Rom 1–3).
  • Faithfully fulfilling his promise to Abraham (Rom 4), God’s new Man has freed all of humanity from our slavery to sin and death (Rom 5).
  • Completing Israel’s journey, God’s people pass through the Sea, out of slavery (Rom 6), to Sinai where God gave the Law (Rom 7), with the Spirit leading his sons onward to the ultimate goal: restored creation (Rom 8).
  • Those from Israel and the nations who recognize the Messiah must therefore live together as the expression of life under our faithful sovereign (Rom 9 – 11).
  • Consequently, we’re called to do what Israel had to do the time of the exile: to offer our bodies as living sacrifices for the transformation of the world (12:1-2), not being overcome by evil but overcoming evil with good (12:21).
  • That’s why we must live in submission to authorities (Rom 13) and to each other (Rom 14), for that’s how the nations will come under Messiah’s kingship (Rom 15 – 16).

The entire epistle to the Romans is framed within the good news of the nations coming into obedience to God’s appointed ruler — bookended by 1:1-5 and 16:25-27.

So Paul’s goal was not to affirm the validity of Roman emperors’ rule, and he was certainly not authorizing them to conduct wars. Twisting the text for that purpose constitutes ignorance of the gospel.

Paul wants his hearers to see the current powers as merely servants of the true sovereign. A greater hand is shepherding history towards his goal. The present problematic powers are not an enemy that must be resisted; they are a God-ordained stop-gap measure to help restrict violence until the earth is back under divine rule.

This is the same attitude Daniel expressed towards Nebuchadnezzar, the beastly Babylonian king who terminated the Davidic kingship and wrecked God’s dwelling place. But Daniel did not treat Nebuchadnezzar as the enemy. Daniel helped him to see himself as the servant of the hand that guides history: “Your Majesty, you are the king of kings. The God of heaven has given you dominion and power and might and glory” (Daniel 2:37).

Like Nebuchadnezzar, the Roman Caesars destroyed Jerusalem. They executed Paul, and Peter, just as their consul had killed Jesus. But for all their dangerous power, the Caesars of this world do not write history. They’re just servants of the higher power, the one that is the true source of every form of power found on earth.

We acknowledge the resurrected Messiah as God’s appointed ruler (Romans 10:9), but that doesn’t mean viewing our existing rulers as threats to be removed. Rather, we view them as an interim measure, authorized by God to restrain evil in the short term, until our true ruler appears and all nations give him allegiance.

In our next post, we’ll address the question of whether this text authorizes the state to conduct war.

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

2 thoughts on “Does God authorize governments? (Romans 13:1-7)”

  1. “Alex” submitted this question:
    What are your thoughts in the context of democracy where the system of government is (supposed) to operate through the whole population?

    Great question, Alex.
    Romans 13 is about the office, not the individual who holds it. It makes no difference how the individual came to power: by democratic election, descendancy, appointment, assassination, revolution, or invasion. The fact is that we need to view the person who holds the office as a servant answerable to the highest authority.
    It’s not that God deposed Malcolm Turnbull and chose Scott Morrison as his representative instead. Rather, it’s that now Scott is PM (as a consequence of whatever political conniving went on behind the scenes), he now carries the weight of responsibility to function as God’s servant, i.e. to limit violence and injustice in Australia. That’s true whether he understands it or not, but Christians who acknowledge God as the source of all authority need to view him that way.
    That’s how the Genesis story works: God permitted human authority in Genesis 9, and the nations could then develop in Genesis 10. The Hebrews didn’t think that God appointed the individual leader for each of the 70 nations; they thought that God was the sovereign over all these nations, so each nation’s ruler was a servant of the true sovereign (whether he knew it or not).
    In summary, Romans 13 says God authorizes the office to restrain violence. It doesn’t say God chooses the individual as his servant.


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