God-given Government

A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on June 26, 2022.

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. 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, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed (Romans 13:1–7).[1]

As Presbyterians, we believe that the Old and New Testament Scriptures “are given by God to be the rule of faith and life.”[2] We also believe that the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, though not Scripture, serve as excellent summaries of Scripture. The Westminster standards have served as our doctrinal standards since 1647, well before the founding of this country. That we hold to the same doctrinal standards as our forefathers provides not only a beautiful picture of historical integrity but also a sense of their interpretive accuracy. As Presbyterians, we enjoy a rich theological history in the Reformed Christian tradition.

It may then surprise some American Presbyterians to learn that our version of the Confession varies slightly from the original and even from the British version today. In our version, chapters 20, 23, and 31 were revised in 1788 when the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America was officially formed. Minor changes were made in the decades that followed, but the first ones were the most significant. But the question for us is: why was the American church compelled to revise a brilliantly-crafted confession that remained unchanged for over a century? The short answer is an expression we are familiar with as Americans: separation of church and state.

For example, in the original confession, the power to carryout church discipline charged the civil magistrate with not only preserving peace and unity in the church but “that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses of worship and discipline prevented or reformed, and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administered, and observed.”[3] The civil magistrate even had authority to call church councils and insure they were governed properly.[4] Imagine our county sheriff tracking your church attendance and calling our next congregational meeting!

This of course sounds so foreign to American ears, which should give us pause. On the one hand, it should lead us to gratitude for our country and our form of government. But it should also remind us that the lens through which we see and understand things is impacted by the era and country in which we live. As we come to our passage today, we must be careful to approach it humbly and honestly. As one commentator cautions, “It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the history of the interpretation of Rom. 13:1-7 is the history of attempts to avoid what seems to be its plain meaning.”[5]

As a people who fought a revolutionary war and founded a country from it, we seem to have an inherent distrust of government. This hasn’t changed over time but has become a sort of defining characteristic of what it means to be American. There can be, of course, a healthy aspect to this, but there is a darker side too. Consider that in the era in which we live hooligans stormed our Capitol, decent people believe weird conspiracy theories, and respect for civil authority falls diametrically along party lines. Such is the temporal age in which we live, but God’s Word is eternal. So, let us look to God’s Word, not jaded by the temporality of our day, but humbly seeking to know the will of God, and specifically considering our God-given government: our subjection to it, our protection by it, our obligation to it.

Subjection to Civil Authority

Paul’s command is clear: “Let every person [literally “soul”] be subject to the governing authorities.” While Paul writes to the church, his scope is likely comprehensive: every human being, no less every Christian. Also comprehensive is “the governing authorities,” referring to every form of legitimate civil authority. But it is the verb that challenges our understanding (and application!): “be subject” or “be submissive” or simply “submit.” To be subject to means that we consciously submit under authority, in this case to the governing authorities. The verb carries the connotation of obedience.

And here is the struggle: we don’t like to submit to authority. Of course, it’s not just civil authority, but our flesh is repulsed by all authority, especially God’s authority, which is why Paul confronts our flesh with this truth: “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” Yes, God is sovereign, and in his sovereign care he establishes and empowers government and punishes those who resist it: “Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist it will incur judgment.”

We may be quick to push back against this, to offer exceptions, to argue for alternatives, but Paul offers none. Paul’s direction is not to the civil authority but the citizen. And what we are to hear loud and clear is that our subjection to the governing authorities is ultimately to God. Civil authority is God’s authority.

Although rare, there can come a time when we should not, we must not submit to the governing authorities. The holocaust under Nazi German authority is a prime example. So, how do we discern the time? Daniel serves as an excellent example of the balance, as he submitted in loyal service to a pagan king and yet refused to obey when the king’s law contradicted God’s law. Most of Daniel’s life was lived in subjection to his pagan king; we read only of the few exceptions. The distinction, however, must be made carefully and prayerfully, trusting the Lord to guide us. For, let us remember that even Nebuchadnezzar ultimately confessed,

[God’s] dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his or say to him, ‘What have you done?’…for all his works are right and his ways are just; and those who walk in pride he is able to humble (Dan. 4:34-35, 37).

Let us attend to this king’s counsel, walking not in pride but in humility submitting to the governing authorities.

Protection by Civil Authority

There are many reasons government exists, but one of the primary reasons is protection. While the cynic argues that we need protection from the government, Paul explains that God establishes and empowers the civil authorities to protect us, specifically from the bad behavior of our neighbor. To state it positively, God-given government promotes the welfare of its people. The problem more often than not then is not government but those who are to be governed. Since fallen human beings do what we do best, that is sin, and since our sin often involves our neighbor, government serves to protect us…from each other.

To explain what is seemingly obvious, Paul uses fearsome language to make his point: Rulers are a “terror” to bad behavior. Terror implies fierce judgment, to be avoided by good behavior, law-abiding conduct, behaving for the welfare of our neighbor. In other words, it is logical that we would fear the judgment of the civil authority if we break the law, but if we live obediently we have nothing to fear. But here’s the funny thing about fear, and it’s nothing new: We often fear what we shouldn’t, and we don’t fear what we should.

Know this: Where there is fleshly fear you can be sure the evil one is lurking, encouraging an unhealthy fear in God’s provision. And yet, we often fear what God has given to protect us and we don’t fear ourselves and what we are capable of. Jesus said, “do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). He who is sovereign over soul and body establishes government, empowers the governing authority who bears the sword, avenges the just, carries out the wrath of God. We are all too often fearing what God gives and inadvertently rejecting his authority over us. God have mercy on his rebellious and stiff-necked people!

Likely for this reason, Paul couples our conscience with a healthy fear of God’s wrath: “one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.” Conscience here likely refers to the Christian’s conscience, which is directed by our knowledge of the “good and acceptable and perfect” will of God (Rom. 12:2). In other words, Christians know that lawbreakers will be punished, but our motivation comes not from fear of retribution but a right understanding of God and his providence. We know that government, like other common grace blessings from God, is for our good and God’s glory.

Obligation to Civil Authority

If government is established and empowered by God, if the civil authority is the servant of God, what then is our obligation? Clearly, we are to be subject to the governing authorities. We are to obey the laws, whether we like them or not. We are to pray “for kings and all who are in high positions” (1 Tim. 2:1). Subjection, obedience, and prayer are all obligations we have to our government.

But Paul includes a very tangible aspect of our submission and obedience (and perhaps an added reason for prayer!): paying taxes. Of course, a history of taxation is well beyond the scope of this sermon, but what we must remember is that the early mantra of our revolution, “No taxation without representation,” is a relatively modern concept. Taxation by the government is not. And while we may think of taxes, like government, as a necessary evil, Paul points us again to our conscience: “for the sake of conscience…pay taxes.” In other words, because God establishes, empowers, and works through government, we pay our taxes, with gratitude to God.

This conscience-directed motivation neither negates our responsibility as citizens nor the responsibility of our government. We are responsible to pay, and our government should use it responsibly. John Calvin strikes a healthy balance when he notes,

Paul takes the opportunity of mentioning tributes, and he bases his reason for paying taxes on the office of the magistrates. It is their responsibility to defend and preserve uninjured the peace of the upright and to resist the impious attempts of the wicked, they cannot do this unless they are assisted by force and strong protection. Tributes, therefore, are paid by law to support such necessities. …It is right, however, that they should remember that all that they receive from the people is public property, and not a means of satisfying private lust and luxury.”[6]

Some reject such a balanced perspective, especially if our tax dollars support things we oppose. This of course calls for wisdom, discernment, maturity, and engagement. As I understand it, we should stand against immorality, hold government to account, and “Pay all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.”

In case you haven’t realized it, Paul is far more concerned with your Christian conduct than he is the governing authority’s. I know the media tells you that the public servants in Washington D.C. are the most important people in your world, whose conduct you must scrutinize for added entertainment and angst. But Paul’s concern is my attitude and conduct and yours, because we are the body of Christ, and how we pay our taxes, respect our leaders, and honor our governing authorities tells far more about us than our government.

            Many a witness has been lost

            by not paying what is due;

            never a soul has been won

            from ranting over rule.

The Apostle Peter writes, “For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor” (1 Pet. 2:15-17).

Conveying this attitude, Paul employs the language of finance, “Pay to all what is owed.” He’s not talking about personal finance but implying we owe a debt we are obligated to pay. In other words, we must be diligent in our duty. Pay every tax due; pay every fee owed: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” But remember that we must also render “to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17), and because the governing authority is the servant of God, we pay respect and honor.

At varying times and conditions, these words are easier or harder to follow. And yes, sometimes that which is Caesar’s we cannot render, if it is found in direct violation of God’s Word. Rightly, and with respect and honor, did Peter and John stand against the Jewish council, saying, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19). But more often than not, this is not the case. More often than not, we must learn to humble ourselves “under the mighty hand of God” (1 Pet. 5:6), learning to submit for Christ’s sake.

In addressing the Church of Scotland, the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said,

The truths of the Judaic-Christian tradition are infinitely precious, not only, as I believe, because they are true, but also because they provide the moral impulse which alone can lead to that peace…for which we all long. …There is little hope for democracy if the hearts of men and women in democratic societies cannot be touched by a call to something greater than themselves. Political structures, state institutions, collective ideas are not enough. We parliamentarians can legislate for the rule of law. You, the church, can teach the life of faith.”[7]

And she’s right, but we do more than teach: we live out our faith in the public square, testifying that the Lord we serve is sovereign, not only over government but over the hearts and minds of those who believe.

[1] Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001).

[2] “The Westminster Confession of Faith” 1.2, in The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms (Lawrenceville: Christian Education & Publications, 2007), 3.

[3] Lee Irons, “The 1788 American Revision of the Westminster Standards,” The Upper Register, accessed June 16, 2022, http://www.upper-register.com/papers/1788_revision.pdf, XXIII.3, 10.

[4] Ibid., XXX1:1-2.

[5] Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996), 806.

[6] John Calvin quoted in James Montgomery Boice, The New Humanity: Romans 12-16 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1995), 4:1673.

[7] James Montgomery Boice, The New Humanity: Romans 12-16 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1995), 4:1678.

%d bloggers like this: