Do What is Good–A Simple Thought about Romans 13 and Christian Submission to Government

How does a Christian respond to government? Do we always, unquestioningly do what the government says? How do we know when it is time to respectfully refuse an order? There was a time when it seemed like those questions were merely theoretical, at least for the most part. But in our present situation, questions about how to react when the government and the church appear at odds are very much a part of living in the here and now.

If you know your Bible, you know that Romans 13 is a primary place to look to see how to respond to authorities over you. And a simple reading of that chapter tells us that Christians are supposed to submit to the government. At the same time, we know that there must be limits, nuances to that command. And I think we can see one such limit embedded in the command as God gives it to us.

Romans 13:3 – 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,

In this section of Scripture, Paul is calling on the church to be submissive to the governmental leaders over them. This command is perfectly in keeping with the pattern of New Testament teaching that believers should pray for their leaders particularly so that the Christian might be free to live a peaceful and quiet life in obedience to the Lord (cf. 1 Timothy 2:1-2). Paul emphasizes the sovereignty of God over all kings and authorities. The Lord places leaders in seats of power, and Christians should be appropriately subject to those in authority.

What does subjection to a leader look like? What does Christian living look like? We see it in verse 3 with the simple call for a Christian to do what is good. That little phrase appropriately lays a boundary for the Christian to know what is righteous and what is ungodly submission to a leader. We submit to our earthly leaders so long as that submission is in keeping with what is good. And what is good is determined by the infallible word of Almighty God.

Thus, as we attempt to live as Christians in a difficult age, we obey our governmental leaders as far as the word of God and goodness will allow. We do what is good. When doing what is good in accord with Scripture is not violated by the expression of governmental authority, we happily follow and do not make waves. WE want, after all, to live peacefully in the land and to honor the Lord. Part of honoring the Lord is to show that we know how to follow one in authority over us.

However, when the commands of a leader call us not to do what is good, when the leader commands us to disobey the word of God, we cannot in biblical conscience obey. We must instead obey God rather than man (cf. Acts 5:29).

As believers, we have to be careful. It is easy for us to assume that every opinion we have about what is right and wrong is something to elevate to a level of civil disobedience. We do not see such a call in the word of God here. The call to obey must include the call to submit to things to which we would prefer not to submit. Otherwise, what is the purpose of using the term submit? Submission is not simply doing what somebody says when we like it. Submission necessarily includes obedience when that obedience is at times difficult.

What then is the standard? The standard is faithful obedience to the word of God. We follow governmental leaders by doing what is good. If doing what is good in accord with Scripture is not in accord with the law of the land or the impulse of the leader, then we must obey God rather than man. Thus, when doing what is good is sharing the gospel when it is banned, we share. When doing what is good is speaking truth about justice, we speak. When doing what is good includes telling only the truth about gender, we tell the truth. When doing what is good includes gathering for worship, we gather. When doing what is good includes protecting human life, even the lives of the unborn, we protect life.

Doing what is good must include following the commands of God. So, if the government commands us not to do that which God commands, we must disobey. Following God also includes not doing what the Lord forbids. Thus, if the government commands us to do that which God forbids, we must disobey. And the word of God lets us know that there are areas of our lives where the government has no right to speak. Thus, when the government seeks to assert authority into areas of life where clearly the Lord asserts another authority—e.g. the ordering of the family, the ordering of the church, the shaping of our beliefs or prayer lives, etc.—we must not allow this usurpation of power.

Christians, may we be faithful enough to the Lord to do what is good. Let us pray that doing good will not oppose our government. Instead, let us pray that our government will, as the word proclaims, punish evil. But let us know that, even as the Romans to whom Paul wrote would have understood, sometimes doing good, sometimes obeying the word, will bring down upon us the wrath of evil people in power. And when that occurs, may we choose to still do good, still be faithful to the Lord, still obey Scripture regardless of the physical and civil consequences.

There is Another King, Jesus

Acts 17:6-9 – 6 And when they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some of the brothers before the city authorities, shouting, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, 7 and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.” 8 And the people and the city authorities were disturbed when they heard these things. 9 And when they had taken money as security from Jason and the rest, they let them go.

Here during Paul’s second missionary journey, we see Paul’s experience in Thessalonica. Many believe. Many are jealous. And those who oppose the word of God use government to persecute the church. The argument is simple. They suggest that to accept Christ as King necessarily makes the earthly government secondary.

Why this is worth taking note for us today is also simple. The church must understand both that Christ is King and that this belief of ours will always and in every way be unacceptable to the lost world. Communist rulers and Marxist philosophers hate the notion of any power beyond that of the party, the rulers in government. Though they may claim that their goal is a totally equal society, their actual practice will always be to have a class of powerful rulers in the government, rulers whose power cannot be made subject to another authority, especially not God.

Even today in the United States, we have people appointed and elected to offices who are making it clear that they demand that the church bow to their authority. In a land where freedom of religion and freedom of assembly is enshrined in the constitution, these folks will use any crisis they can to reshape society so that the government is seen as a higher authority than is the church of the Lord Jesus. Like the Thessalonians, many in America are shocked that we would claim that there is a greater King than Caesar.

What then do we do? We keep on serving Jesus. We keep on preaching. We keep on obeying God’s commands. We keep on gathering. We keep on fellowshipping. We keep on battling to save the lives of unborn babies. We keep on declaring that God created humanity in his image, making us male or female, and that this fact matters. We live boldly while we are free. And we live boldly when it brings us persecution. May we keep, as the Thessalonians said, turning the world upside-down and declaring that Jesus is King.

A Trite Accusation

The strategies of the enemies of God against the church of the Lord Jesus Christ have not changed much. The devil and his minions have a fairly thin playbook. Sadly, humanity is often so blinded to history and logic that the old plays work time and time again.

Consider the way that the people of God have faced destruction and persecution in times past. In Exodus, the Pharaoh ordered the murder of Hebrew infants in order to keep his government from being threatened by the people of God. In Daniel, a faithful man was throne into a den of lions for praying, because some wicked men convinced an emperor that prayer was a threat to his governmental power. When the Jews clamored for Jesus’ crucifixion before Pilate, they argued that Jesus was a subversive even as they declared, “We have no king but Caesar.”

We see the same strategy used in the book of Acts as Paul has preached the gospel in the city of Thessalonica.

Acts 17:5-9 – 5 But the Jews were jealous, and taking some wicked men of the rabble, they formed a mob, set the city in an uproar, and attacked the house of Jason, seeking to bring them out to the crowd. 6 And when they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some of the brothers before the city authorities, shouting, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, 7 and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.” 8 And the people and the city authorities were disturbed when they heard these things. 9 And when they had taken money as security from Jason and the rest, they let them go.

See the same accusation. When the people of the city could not get hold of Paul, they dragged some of his friends before the authorities. And what words did they use as a weapon? They said of the Christians, “They are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.” The Jews claimed that the Christians were subversives because of the authority of Jesus.

It is worth recognizing that this move is the very same play in the enemy’s playbook that we have seen used time and time again for thousands of years. Why? Because he will use it again. Look at our present culture. Watch the way that political winds are blowing. Watch for an Orwellian move in our government to strip people of their rights, to persecute, to punish, to imprison, to shame people based on our thoughts. The secularizing forces in our government cannot abide a genuine freedom of religion. There will be, if the Lord does not move in a massive way, a stripping away of the freedom of Americans to live as genuine Christians. And the argument that will be used will look like the one in Thessalonica, Jerusalem, Persia, and Egypt. It will be an argument that says that a devotion to the Lord is dangerous for society, because followers of God value their relationship with God more than they value the political leadership of the day.

The funny thing is, in all of these cases, the argument, besides failing to actually work, is patently false. Daniel was a faithful servant of the king. Jesus did not intend to threaten Pilate or any Roman government. Paul even wrote to the church in Romans 13 to submit to government and in 1 Timothy 2 to pray for all our leaders. In general, followers of Jesus are faithful citizens of the countries where we live. There are, of course, certain commands we cannot obey, commands that violate the law of God. But unlike people without a clear moral compass, Christians recognize that we are under the authorities that the Lord has set over us and will follow their lead so long as their lead does not violate the higher authority of the word of God.

But, Christians, be aware of what the strategy is. You and I will be seen as dangerous, subversive, backward. And a large part of that argument will be that we are submitted, not to the atheistic worldview of our society, but to Jesus. The world hates the Savior. And the world will not tolerate his followers.

What then do we do? We remain faithful. We pray for the opportunity to live peaceful and quiet lives in Christ as Paul commanded: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Tim. 2:1-2). We trust our God. And we continue to take the gospel to the nation. Jesus has all authority. He has commanded us to make disciples. And that is what we do, even in the face of a false and trite accusation that we are somehow subversive elements in society.