The Difficulty of Romans 13:1-7

There is no question that we are living in some strange times. Just twenty years ago…just twenty years ago…things looked much different here in the United States than they do now. I’m not speaking about the technological changes, but the overall mindset of our society in general. It is as if someone has turned on the spotlight in a very dark room and now all the little creepy crawlies, that we were blissfully unaware of, are seen scurrying this way and that. That is to say, things that were once considered gross or vile are now being paraded by the highest levels of our society. Our civil government not only applauds such behaviors, but now seeks to make them legitimate.

At the moment one begins to suggest it is the right and responsibility of the believer in Jesus Christ (a.k.a., Christians) to stand against those violations, those perversions of justice found committed in the civil arena, numerous objections are raised. These objections find their footing in light of a particular understanding of Romans 13:1-7. The difficulty here is that there is an air of truth to the initial claims being made.

First, you have the famed, “You cannot legislate morality” argument. Second, you run into the, “It is wrong to disobey or rebel against the authorities over you.” It is the latter that appears to be the stronger of the two, because of what is stated in Romans 13:1-2:

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. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”1

The apostle’s argument is pretty straightforward. All governments exist because God, the sovereign Creator, established them. Thus, to refuse to be humble before your leaders in the civil arena is to invite God’s negative judgment against you. The only caveat forthcoming from this second objection is whether or not the ruling government in question commands something that might be deemed sinful. In other words, humble Christians that are truly striving to serve the Lord in their day-to-day life are not permitted to rebel, unless it may be proved that the edict in question is antagonist to the worship of our Lord.

A requested consideration…

In what follows, I will offer a response to each objection offered.

You Cannot Legislate Morality

All law, stated and established, is a legislation of someone’s morality. To say, “this is good and that is not,” and then to codify those beliefs into law is a form of legislative morality. Any comment and commitment to right or wrong, regardless of the source claimed, is an attempt to curb the thinking and behavior of the populace in question. In short, all codified law is legislation of a particular moral bent. There is no way to avoid this conclusion.

Obedience is Required to Civil Government; unless, Sin is being Commanded

The preferred thesis “obey…unless sin is being commanded” is a loose and narrowly focused interpretation of Scripture. Rather than observe all that the Bible has to say on the given topic, only a few choice passages are chosen for consideration. For example, when the question of civil disobedience is entertained by various Christians a reference will be made to the apostles response in the book of Acts when they were commanded to stop speaking in Jesus’ name (cf. Acts 4.18-20; 5.27-29). Is this all that the Bible has to say regarding “civil disobedience?” Have we reached the limitation on where and when a man or woman of God might disregard and even challenge those that rule over them in the civil sphere?

I realize that this, in and of itself, does not prove that the person who offers this second objection is wrong, it does highlight the fact that only a small portion of God’s Word is being utilized in order to draw such a conclusion. In light of this, a few things need to be considered.

  • (1) What constitutes sin?
  • (2) Is civil government an unlimited power, unregulated by God who ordained it?

In reference to Question 1…

Scripture explains that all sin is a violation of God’s revealed law. To sin is to strike out in rebellion against the two tables of the Law (i.e., the Decalogue; ten words). And so, for any governing body to assume to deface God’s Name (1st table) or to assault His creatures (2nd table), is a clear violation of this principle. While this generalized statement is true, it does not bring with it much clarity in the form of understanding without fleshing out the specifics.

For example, “Thou shall not steal,” or “murder,” or “bear false witness,” or “commit adultery” are on the surface fairly clear statements of right or wrong.

If I rob my neighbor, then I am liable for my actions. After I am found guilty in a court of law, I will be held accountable and punished accordingly. The same would be true for any other violation of the previously stated laws above. In this fashion, the civil governing authorities bear the sword (a symbol of punitive justice) “to carry out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom 13.4).

Worldview perspectives…

On the surface such truths will suffice to illustrate my point, but I believe it is necessary to point out to the reader that a person’s conviction on what constitutes theft, murder, lying and adultery will vary. Such things are determined by the worldview held by the individual(s) in question. Thus, the reason why people argue over the nature of killing an unborn baby in the womb:

Some call it choicenot really murder; others, call it murdera wicked choice.

And yet, there will others who acknowledge that a young life has been snuffed out, but steer clear of designating it murder perpetrated by a mother’s whim.

All law making is an identification of a particular acts morality. In a sense then, laws label things sin if the act violates what has been established as a moral good.

In reference to Question 2…

Which, brings us to the second question: Is the civil government an unlimited power, unregulated by God who ordained it? Earlier I mentioned that sin is defined by the two tables of the Law of God. From that point, I then spent a little time focusing on the 2nd table. There was a reason for this. We shall address it now.

You see, those that claim that we must obey civil authorities because they are established by God, except in the case of those leaders commanding us to sin, tend to forget the 1st table of God’s Law. Some who attempt to teach in light of God’s law are really ignorant of it. This ignorance may be in total—not knowing the 7th from the 1st commandment. Or, this ignorance may be partial—knowing the material aspects of the law (i.e., their content), but not the depth to which it applies (cf. 1Tim 1.6-7).

Dear reader,

You may have heard and bought into the idea that it is wrong to legislate morality. Or, you may be convinced that it is morally wrong to oppose civil government unless it may be proved that what the government commands is sinful—i.e., opposing the worship of God. Perhaps, you have stated and attempted to defend one or both of these positions. In what follows, I offer my challenge for you to thoughtfully consider.

The Challenge Given

You say, “you cannot legislate morality,” but what you mean (at least in part) is that “you can’t make people holy, good, acceptable before God, just because you legislate against this or that sin as illegal.

I agree. But, the Law of God was never given to make people holy, good or acceptable. The Law of God is given to expose, curb and eliminate evil (bad behavior) from our society. Good laws are written to give society peace from the wicked, for it will be the wicked that will be purged from society (driven to the shadows) if we enact and uphold just laws.

You say, “We must obey all governing authorities over us unless they command us to sin.” What you mean to say, however, is that “you cannot resist the authorities over you unless they command you not to worship God” (e.g., Acts 4.12).

I agree (in principle), but I also disagree (in the particulars). Any government that neglects their purpose—whether acknowledged by others or not—is to serve God’s ends (1st) and then their citizens (2nd). All governing officials are servants of their Creator and their people. To ignore this truth leads to tyranny, the rule of despots as seen in socialistic and communistic countries. History stands as a witness against anyone who would deny this truth!

Moreover, the fact that Christians will cite Romans 13 as a rule of thumb to say “You must obey them, for God has ordained them,” they prove their case too far. You are right in that you say “they exist because of God,” but in so doing you (perhaps unknowingly) help my case when I argue that they should not always be obeyed.

How so? Because to be “ordained by God” means that they are “bound to God.” To what end? To serve His purpose and not their own. They do not represent themselves, they represent Him. To fail to do so is a clear violation of the 1st table of the Law.

Any government (regardless of its size and scope) that refuses to acknowledge God above them, preferring their own subjective standard of morality—declaring good what the Creator has deemed bad and vice-versa—as a means of legislating the activities (and thoughts) of their citizens, is in clear violation of crossing the boundary of their prescribed domain.

For such a tyrant government calls themselves god, erecting an idol to be bowed down to by the populace, and in so doing blasphemy the sovereign name of God, pretending they alone can give the people rest. Such a government is not only guilty of sin, but also legislating (legalizing) sin, and therefore, must be resisted at all costs. Lest, you as a populace are intent on inviting God’s wrath not only upon your nation, but upon your person.

This is the strangeness of the times in which we live. Not that governments grow corrupt, but that God’s people are blind to their own responsibilities. For it is not only the government that is called to represent God, but the citizens that make up the nation in question. If the citizenry fails to do what is right (in the eyes of their Creator), then the civil government is authorized the use of the sword; “a terror…to bad [conduct]” (Rom 13.3). But if the government is the one who fails to “do what is good…for he is God’s servant for your good” (Rom 13.4), then we are commanded to give what is owed (Rom 13.7). Obedience? Nay, civil disobedience. We are not only to stand on the truth in our personal lives, but we are called to speak the truth into the lives who refuse to do it. For, we represent God, our Creator, through Jesus Christ our Lord first and foremost. How well do you suppose you represent Him when you give approval (through your silence) to what you know is evil (Rom 1.32)? Hmmm….

The difficulty of Romans 13: 1-7 is not the passage, but our failure to make the necessary connections from God’s Word on what our actual calling and responsibility is.


1All Scripture unless otherwise noted shall be of the English Standard Version (ESV).