Scripture Reading: Romans 13:1-14, Daniel 2:19-23, Hebrews 11:32-40
The Bible is filled with the stories of people who have defied authority. Moses stood up to Pharaoh then led the Israelites out of Egypt. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego all refused to worship any other god but Yahweh—and were then thrown into the lions’ den and fiery furnace, respectively. (Spoiler alert: God saved them all, and for His glory.)
Stephen defied the ruling Jewish Council, preached the gospel of Jesus, and was stoned to death for it. Paul and other apostles were martyred by the Roman government during the persecution of Christians.
And yet this same Paul, who likely later died at the hands of his government, urges believers to honor and respect those in authority. Paul—who knew many examples throughout Jewish history of standing up to corrupt rulers—says to obey, seemingly without question. What are we to make of this?
Of course, it’s natural to wonder, What if the government was urging murder, stealing, or some other form of not loving one’s neighbor? What if the ruling authorities were, as Nebuchadnezzar did, asking their people to bow down to another god? Or no god at all?
Scripture has given us plenty of evidence that Christ is the ultimate authority in heaven and on earth. Paul isn’t contradicting that here. What he is doing in Romans 13, is laying down a foundation for Christian living—reminding us that our ultimate authority is Jesus. Our first and truest loyalty is to Him.
Peter gives a similar exhortation in 1 Peter 2. After telling the people, “you are a chosen race, a holy priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (v. 9), he says:
Submit to every human authority because of the Lord, whether to the emperor as the supreme authority or to governors as those sent out by him to punish those who do what is evil and to praise those who do what is good… Honor everyone. Love the brothers and sisters. Fear God. Honor the emperor (vv. 13-14,17).
Peter starts by reminding believers of who they are: the body of Christ, a holy nation of God that extends beyond borders. This is a beautiful truth for us to cling to as well, especially in times of deep confusion, national partisanship, and turmoil within our own institutions.
Both Peter and Paul tell early Christians to honor their government, but they do so in the context of the whole story of Scripture (and their own writings), affirming that Jesus is Lord over all. Therefore, we obey the government when it doesn’t contradict God’s commands—and we do it joyfully, as a way of honoring God.
John Piper says it this way: “And it is very important to stress that, just as we may have to disobey the civil authorities for Christ’s sake, so all our obedience should be for His sake as well. We never have two masters … Every time we say yes to any law, it should be a yes to Jesus.”
Our every action should be motivated by our identity as followers of Christ and citizens of God’s kingdom:
The night is nearly over, and the day is near; so let us discard the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk with decency, as in the daytime: not in carousing and drunkenness; not in sexual impurity and promiscuity; not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and don’t make plans to gratify the desires of the flesh (Romans 13:12-14).
The Bible offers many examples of what godly citizenship looks like in an earthly kingdom. Let us pray continually that we will seek first God’s Kingdom, listening to the promptings of the Holy Spirit as we engage thoughtfully with our own earthly governments.
Melanie Rainer is the director of content for JellyTelly, where she writes and edits family spiritual formation resources. She is a graduate of Covenant Theological Seminary, a passionate home baker, and makes her always-messy home with her husband, Price, and their delightful daughter, Ellie, near historic downtown Franklin, Tennessee.