RPM, Volume 12, Number 16, April 18 to April 24 2010

A Romans 13 Exposition

on Church and State
for Such a Time as This

By Michael A. Milton, Ph.D.,

President and Professor of Practical Theology,
Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, North Carolina; Interim President,
Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, Florida

As our nation reels from the intrusive and questionable advances of the Federal government into the authority given to the State and to the individual ("Obama-care," the "Tea Party" movement), old questions arise once more about church and state. What are we to say about religion and politics? Does the Bible say anything? Did Jesus ever speak words to the government itself? What is the relationship, according to the Word of God, of the Church of Jesus Christ and earthly realms and governments? Is there any at all? Prior to the English Puritan revolution, and the American Revolution, the answer to that question would have been an unqualified "yes." Nevertheless, as old Christendom crossed into the New World, other ideas began to prevail that sometimes blur matters to this day. In this message, I hope to exposit what the Scriptures principally teach concerning the Christian and our government.

Without argument, one of the greatest trials in our nation's history was the American Civil War. It is true that Jefferson Davis, in his last years of life at Beauvoir, did not approve of the phrase, but preferred something closer to descriptions of the American Revolution. However, for most Americans then and now, it became the phrase to describe brother against brother on the bloodiest field of battle we have known as a country. Davis was the son of an American Revolutionary War soldier, an American war hero himself having distinguished himself in the Mexican American War at the Battle for Monterrey. He later became Secretary of War under Franklin Pierce, and eventually one of the most popular senators in that venerable chamber. His final speech on the floor has been tagged by William Safire as one of the greatest orations in American history. For those reasons William J. Cooper entitled his magisterial work on the Confederate president, Jefferson Davis: American. 1 The title reveals the deep, sense of internal struggle and strife in his subject's own life about the role relationships of duty, honor and country. But for many, most, in our beleaguered nation, his arguments, even appealing as they did to the founding fathers of our country, could not convince the majority in the United States of America that the line had been crossed between tyranny and liberty. And so his cause became lost, and his name tarnished, and even his faith questioned. 2

There is a relationship between faith and human government. And we risk great sorrow when we cross that line.

Rebellion is a grievous sin, since it is disobedience to God, and since it necessarily works such permanent physical ruin and social demoralization among our fellow-men. 3
So wrote A. A. Hodge (1823-1886), the "eminent son and successor to Charles Hodges" 4 of Princeton. His words were all the more poignant as he penned those words as the Civil War had ended and Reconstruction, a brutal time in itself, had begun.

The struggles of Jefferson Davis and A. A. Hodge over faith and government are struggles each successive generation must face. For most of our lives, the question has been mute. Some, in the 1930s and 40s, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, had to face those questions in a most personal and tragic way. Nevertheless, for many, now, the continual slide of Western nations towards Gomorrah, renewed questions among Christians about the founding principles of our nation and the present departure from those principles. American Christians of late have had to question the relationship of God and Government in a new way. 5 And that leads us to our Scripture today, which I pray brings answers.

As we come to Romans 13, we come to a section on civil government. However, as John Murray reminds us, in his fine commentary on Romans, St. Paul is not departing from his logical argument but rather (and I read):

This section is not a parenthesis in this part o the epistle extending from 12.1 through 15.13. The obligations incident to our subjection to civil authorities belong to ‘the good and acceptable and perfect will of God (12.1).' 1
Judaism was a problem for Rome. There were many seditious parties in the Jewish camp and since Christianity was associated with Judaism, this could be charged to Christians. Moreover, grace and the liberty and freedom that came from Christ did not give them license. We live free within spheres of authority, and the State is one of those.

Wherever Christianity has flourished there has followed patriotism; not patriotism without a voice, or without protest, or without necessary resistance if it became tyrannical, but a reverence for the Government. Why?

We get to Romans 13.1-7.

Romans 13.1-7

The overall theme of Romans 13.1-7 is that "every person [should] be subject to governing authorities" (verse 1).

What Paul did not say

  • Paul was not writing a theological treatise on the relationship of the Church and the State. Paul was providing rock solid yet simple spiritual principles (which again surely will have caveats for the magistrate may err) concerning the believer and the government.
  • Paul did not deal with the matter of resisting a tyrannical power that forced believers to violate God's law.
We know that Peter, upon being told to not preach, asked rhetorical questions, "Shall we obey God or Man?"
Acts 4.27-29 And when they had brought them, they set them before the council: and the high priest asked them, Saying, Did not we straitly command you that ye should not teach in this name? and, behold, ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this man's blood upon us. Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men.

Acts 5:40-42 And to him they agreed: and when they had called the apostles, and beaten them, they commanded that they should not speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. And they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name. And daily in the temple, and in every house, they ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ.

  • Paul did not deal with representative government and grievances of the people. His focus was on the response of believers to governments whose power in the passage is made clear.
Yet a question emerges (as it has been put by Seyoon Kim in his new book, Christ and Caesar):
Did Paul and other preachers of the gospel in the first century A.D. formulate their message in conscious reaction to the imperial cult and ideology of Rome? Did they present Christ as an antithesis to Caesar? 7
Or, did they call for submission to the Roman government?

I. This is what Romans 13.1-7 teaches about Government in relationship to Believers:

A. God instituted Human government and therefore it possesses a derived authority.

Civil government is a divine institution, and hence the duty of obedience to our legitimate rulers is a duty owed to God as well as to our fellow-man. 8

No government is a power unto itself. It exists, as A.A. Hodges commented, not only for the public good, but also for the "promotion of [God's] own glory." 9

The principles of government of our country are derived from the representative government shown in the Bible. For instance, in Acts 6 and the election of the deacons, or the representative government shown even in the Theocracy, where Moses chose men of every tribe to help him govern the people (i.e. Ex. 18). My British friends loyal to their sovereign may add that there is but one final government in the Word of God and that is monarchy. Indeed, they might argue that at least mixing the two, representation and monarchy, bring about a constitutional monarchy, might come closest to the divine revelation, but then we are in a discussion as much about church government, Presbyterian or hierarchical, as we are about human government.

The church, for instance, is based upon this. It is said that King George called the American Revolution a "Presbyterian parsons' war" because they aimed to set up government by representation rather than monarchy.

Nevertheless, all of this would miss the point of Paul. Paul was teaching that government existed because God exists. Government is God's institution and thus has its power, not first and finally from the people but from God.

B. God instituted Human government and therefore it has a derived power.

Their authority has power and that power is to use the sword. When used appropriately (see Augustine's just war theory still used), and used evenly (through police agencies and courts that are under the accountability and authority of Law) the government exercises the wrath of God against evil doers. This would provide protection for the people as well as prosecution of the guilty.

In Genesis, Noah receives a directive from God (Genesis 9.3-6), and this of course pre dates the Mosaic Law:

Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image (Gen. 9.6).
Now of course this is interpreted with other Scriptures. When we take this into account with the principles of Leviticus and with this teaching in Romans 13, one sees the justification for the use of the sword against evil-doers who plot and commit murder, which is murder in the first degree. But vigilantism is forbidden in the Word of God. For a single man does not have the moral authority from God to carry the mantle of civil government, with its various laws, punishments and penalties. This is the role alone of human government, with its derived authority and its derived power.

II. This is what Romans 13.1-7 teaches about Believers in relationship to Government:

Again, he dealt with bottom line principles that apply the new life in Christ (chapter 12) to our relationship with the government.

A. All believers (Jew and Gentile) should be subject to the governing authorities because we should be subject to God. (1.5)
The idea is here again that behind the authority and power of human government, instituted by God (1) is the authority and power of God himself. Therefore to withstand government is to withstand God.

Therefore, in the text we are subject to human government as unto God and we

  • Do not resist human government (at least one that is not tyrannical and it is to be admitted that some of the debate presently going on has to do with this very point, a point that was present at the American Revolution) (2)
  • Support human government in its role (3 "do what is good…for he is God's servant for your good" (4)
  • Pay taxes (7)
  • Show honor (7)
I will never forget getting my degree from the University of Wales. When we were in the ceremony, we were asked to stand for the playing of the British national anthem, "God Save the Queen." As the people stood and began to sing:
God save our gracious Queen, Long live our noble Queen, God save the Queen: Send her victorious, Happy and glorious, Long to reign over us: God save the Queen.
Several members of the faculty refused to stand. Later, I learned that they were a part of a Welsh Nationalist group who refused to recognize the authority of the British monarch. Since the Queen and the British government are hardly agents, these days, of tyranny (although Her Majesties Parliamentary members could back off a bit on their expense accounts, and the taxes are approaching extraordinary rates), not only did I find their behavior offensive, but also I prayed that God would indeed saved the Queen. And I stood and prayed as my British friends sang their anthem.

We are subject to the governing authorities because we are subject to God.

B. But also all believers should be subject to the governing authorities for our good and the good of the Gospel.
The Westminster Larger Catechism is an amazing document. Not only do we read a very careful statement about Civil Government in 23, 10 but also when you read the fifth commandment (the first commandment dealing with our relationship to each other), 11 we see that to honor and obey our parents is similar to every other form of authority in our lives. And let us say that a parent is an alcoholic. Let us say that both parents are alcoholics. Should the child then rebel against the parents?

I am reminded of the story of Ronald Reagan as a child, who came home, when he was but a lad, to find his alcoholic father passed out on the front porch of their rented house. The snow had gathered over him making his a ghastly and pathetic figure indeed. Reagan drugs his father, much larger than himself, into the house, got him into bed, and covered him up. And the boy never said another word. His life was lived, as a boy, under the authority of a most undesirable man. And yet, he submitted to his father. Later he bought the first house his father would ever own, in Hollywood near their son, who had become a movie star.

How shall we then live, to use Schaeffer's famous question? In relationship with our greater authorities, we are to be subjected to them for the glory of God.

We should not fear those rulers of government (when they are doing their God given job) because they are a terror to criminality. (3)

Government is God's servant (God's minister in verse 6) for

  • The Sword
  • God's vicar for carrying our God's wrath against the wrongdoer
Therefore since government is given by God for order and justice, we ought to recognize them for this and show the government and its leaders honor.

This, in Romans 13.7, is indicative of how we show honor to others.

III. Practical Application:

1. God is a God of order and this orderliness should permeate our lives and our institutions
A. And thus we seek out authority and accountability rather than independency and isolation from others; and

B. To form societies, organizations, ecclesiastical oversight, and civil oversight to govern our lives.

2. Believers are to seek the good of the civil government
A. And thus, we should seek to become better citizens in order to promote good government;

B. And to pray for our leaders (1 Tim. 2.1f);

C. And to speak out, lobby, protest if necessary, in order to bring about government that is increasingly reflective of God's desires for humanity.

D. To take a stand for life and liberty which are gifts of God to man, and which sacred gifts are not to be revoked by dictators or by socialistic governments that seek to supplant the family and/or the Church.

3. Believers must not obey tyrannical laws that require direct disobedience to the Law of God.
A. And thus, cannot obey an unlawful order that brings us into conflict with God's Word;

B. And have, not only the Biblical prerogative, but the Biblical duty to resist such magisterial interference with the work of the Lord, and to do so peaceably if possible;

C. But the people reserve the right to reform tyrannical government through other means available.

1. And this led about the Magna Carta as well as the American Revolution.
4. Believers pay taxes and show honor and submission to the civil government unless it becomes tyrannical (disobeying God);
A. Again it must be stressed, that tyranny exists, not just when there are bad laws, but when the government directs the believers to personally violate God's revealed Word.

B. A Christian has no authority but Jesus Christ. But Christ has allowed the powers to be in order to fulfill His kingdom work. This is why Paul charged Timothy to bring order to the community at Ephesus:

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, 1Timothy 2.1 for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. 1Timothy 2.2 This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, 1Timothy 2.3 who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 1Timothy 2.4
5. The Church honors God and thus honors God's human government, and therefore may speak prophetically into their governance.
A. Thus, did John the Baptist speak to Herod and his adulterous relationship with his brother's wife.

B. Thus, did Jesus speak (and act) in relationship to governmental structures

1. The Bible says that Jesus Christ grew in favor with God and man. He was obedient unto death in his relations with all men, including human government. He did not mind resisting human government or religious government. He turned over tables in His father's house. And he when he heard that Herod wanted to kill him 12 , the Lord called Herod into account and said:

Go and tell that fox, "Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course." (Luke 13:32)


As a US Army Reserve chaplain, I have had some commanders that didn't understand the regulations of the Geneva Convention concerning chaplains as non-combatants and how US laws apply those regulations. One time a commander ordered a senior chaplain to dismantle and clean guns. This is a violation of the principle of chaplains and guns. I don't think this was like Sir Alec Guinness in The Bridge over the River Kwai, but he was not going to obey this commander's unlawful order. The chaplain told us that if we carried out the command he would write us up as well as writing up the commander! The commander reacted and there was a showdown. The commander took the situation to the Judge Advocate General section. The JAG officer commander told the Commander that he was out of line. The Geneva Convention and US military law required that chaplains NOT be involved with weapons whatsoever. And the commander backed off. He even apologized. And we sought to help in every way that we could, short of handling the weapons ourselves.

That is probably a good way to think about it. We want to help the government to follow God and be obedient to the Lord. Yet we remember Jefferson who said, "when the people fear government that is tyranny, but when government fears the people, that is freedom." So, until and unless civil government becomes so "radically and incurably corrupt," and thus fails to meet its divine goals, and must be reformed, then believers must advocate Biblical submission to human government. We do this for the cause of Christ and for the honor of Christ, even when the government, like the Roman Caesar at the time of Paul's writing, may not be a friend to the Faith. Within only a few years the very Praetorian Guard were naming Christ as Lord. Within decades this faith of Paul's would spread throughout all of the Empire and finally the Empire would declare itself Christian. For good or bad, that act symbolized how Christ's Kingdom will finally overwhelm all opposition.

Even the human heart that today resists God. Tomorrow that heart may beat for God. And this is the Gospel of Romans 13.

All government exists for the glory of God, the good of man, until the Day when the one is called "the Ruler of nations" appears. Who is this Ruler? "He hath on his vesture and on his thigh a name written, King of Kings, and Lord of Lords." (Revelation 14.16). He is our supreme Monarch, but because of His rule through earthly powers, we willingly subject ourselves to government. And thus it is said that Christians make the best citizens. May it continue to be so.

God save our nation. God restore the thirst for liberty that set the eyes of our forefathers and mothers to this "city on a hill." And, oh God, send revival.


1. William J. Cooper, Jefferson Davis, American, 1st ed. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000).

2. In my own opinion, Davis was a man of his time. He was wrong in some areas, right in others. In other words he was like most of us. That is not to condone his racial views (which I find reprehensible, yet which were, sadly, the views of many, both Northern and Southern, in his lifetime), nor is it to approve of his decision to support succession given that his grounds, in my own opinion, lacked the moral high ground of the Republican anti slavery movement (as in the views of Joshua Chamberlain of Maine).

3. Archibald Alexander Hodge, The Confession of Faith: A Handbook of Christian Doctrine Expounding the Westminster Confession (London; Fort Washington, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust ; distributed by Christian Literature Crusade, 1958).

4. Ibid.

5. This is not just a political view, but also a realistic assessment of the present crisis in the role relationship of believers and government. For instance, the Obama administration's new executive order concerning the providing of abortions in federally funded health care facilities is presenting ethical quandaries for many Christian doctors and nurses and pharmacists who refuse, by faith, to be engaged in the promotion of the sin of abortion or to in any way deviate from the sacred, historic (unrevised) Hippocratic oath.

6. John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, New International Commentary on the New Testament. (Grand Rapids,: Eerdmans, 1959).

7. Seyoon Kim, Christ and Caesar (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).

8. Hodge, The Confession of Faith: A Handbook of Christian Doctrine Expounding the Westminster Confession.

9. Ibid.

10. CHAPTER 23 — Of the Civil Magistrate

I. God, the Supreme Lord and King of all the world, hath ordained civil magistrates to be under him over the people, for his own glory and the public good; and to this end, hath armed them with the power of the sword, for the defense and encouragement of them that are good, and for the punishment of evil-doers.

II. It is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the office of a magistrate when called thereunto; in the managing whereof, as they ought especially to maintain piety, justice, and peace, according to the wholesome laws of each commonwealth, so, for that end, they may lawfully, now under the New Testament, wage war upon just and necessary occasions.

III. Civil magistrates may not assume to themselves the administration of the Word and Sacraments; or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven; or, in the least, interfere in matters of faith. Yet, as nursing fathers, it is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the Church of our common Lord, without giving the preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest, in such a manner that all ecclesiastical persons whatever shall enjoy the full, free, and unquestioned liberty of discharging every part of their sacred functions, without violence or danger. And, as Jesus Christ hath appointed a regular government and discipline in his Church, no law of any commonwealth should interfere with, let, or hinder, the due exercise thereof, among the voluntary members of any denomination of Christians, according to their own profession of belief. It is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the person and good name of all their people, in such an effectual manner as that no person be suffered, either upon pretense of religion or infidelity, to offer any indignity, violence, abuse, or injury to any other person whatsoever: and to take order, that all religious and ecclesiastical assemblies be held without molestation or disturbance.

IV. It is the duty of the people to pray for magistrates, to honor their persons, to pay them tribute and other dues, to obey their lawful commands, and to be subject to their authority, for conscience' sake. Infidelity, or difference in religion, doth not make void the magistrate's just and legal authority, nor free the people from their obedience to him: from which ecclesiastical persons are not exempted; much less hath the Pope any power or jurisdiction over them in their dominions, or over any of their people; and least of all to deprive them of their dominions or lives, if he shall judge them to be heretics, or upon any other pretense whatsoever.

11. Question 123: Which is the fifth commandment?

Answer: The fifth commandment is, Honor thy father and thy mother; that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God gives thee.

Question 124: Who are meant by father and mother in the fifth commandment

Answer: By father and mother, in the fifth commandment, are meant, not only natural parents, but all superiors in age and gifts; and especially such as, by God's ordinance, are over us in place of authority, whether in family, church, or commonwealth.

Question 125: Why are superiors styled father and mother?

Answer: Superiors are styled father and mother, both to teach them in all duties toward their inferiors, like natural parents, to express love and tenderness to them, according to their several relations; and to work inferiors to a greater willingness and cheerfulness in performing their duties to their superiors, as to their parents.

Question 126: What is the general scope of the fifth commandment?

Answer: The general scope of the fifth commandment is, the performance of those duties which we mutually owe in our several relations, as inferiors, superiors, or equals.

Question 127: What is the honor that inferiors owe to their superiors.?

Answer: The honor which inferiors owe to their superiors is, all due reverence in heart, word, and behavior; prayer and thanksgiving for them; imitation of their virtues and graces; willing obedience to their lawful commands and counsels; due submission to their corrections; fidelity to, defense and maintenance of their persons and authority, according to their several ranks, and the nature of their places; bearing with their infirmities, and covering them in love, that so they may be an honor to them and to their government.

Question 128: What are the sins of inferiors against their superiors?

Answer: The sins of inferiors against their superiors are, all neglect of the duties required toward them; envying at, contempt of, and rebellion against, their persons and places, in their lawful counsels, commands, and corrections; cursing, mocking, and all such refractory and scandalous carriage, as proves a shame and dishonor to them and their government.

Question 129: What is required of superiors towards their inferiors?

Answer: It is required of superiors, according to that power they receive from God, and that relation wherein they stand, to love, pray for, and bless their inferiors; to instruct, counsel, and admonish them; countenancing, commending, and rewarding such as do well; and discountenancing, reproving, and chastising such as do ill; protecting, and providing for them all things necessary for soul and body: and by grave, wise, holy, and exemplary carriage, to procure glory to God, honor to themselves, and so to preserve that authority which God has put upon them.

Question 130: What are the sins of superiors?

Answer: The sins of superiors are, besides the neglect of the duties required of them, an inordinate seeking of themselves, their own glory, ease, profit, or pleasure; commanding things unlawful, or not in the power of inferiors to perform; counseling, encouraging, or favoring them in that which is evil; dissuading, discouraging, or discountenancing them in that which is good; correcting them unduly; careless exposing, or leaving them to wrong, temptation, and danger; provoking them to wrath; or any way dishonoring themselves, or lessening their authority, by an unjust, indiscreet, rigorous, or remiss behavior.

Question 131: What are the duties of equals?

Answer: The duties of equals are, to regard the dignity and worth of each other, in giving honor to go one before another; and to rejoice in each other's gifts and advancement, as their own.

Question 132: What are the sins of equals?

Answer: The sins of equals are, besides the neglect of the duties required, the undervaluing of the worth, envying the gifts, grieving at the advancement of prosperity one of another; and usurping preeminence one over another.

Question 133: What is the reason annexed to the fifth commandment, the more to enforce it?

Answer: The reason annexed to the fifth commandment, in these words, That thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God gives thee, is an express promise of long life and prosperity, as far as it shall serve for God's glory and their own good, to all such as keep this commandment.

12. At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, "Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you." Luke 13.31

And he said to them, "Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course. Luke 13.32


William J. Cooper, Jefferson Davis, American. 1st ed (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), p. xv, 757 p.

Archibald Alexander Hodge, The Confession of Faith: A Handbook of Christian Doctrine Expounding the Westminster Confession (London; Fort Washington, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust ; distributed by Christian Literature Crusade, 1958), p. 404 p.

Seyoon Kim, Christ and Caesar (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).

John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans: New International Commentary on the New Testament. (Grand Rapids,: Eerdmans, 1959), p. 2 v. in 1.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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