16 March 2022

Governing Authorities

Paul instructs believers living in the Roman Empire not to resist the government since its existence is arranged by God

Writing to the churches of Rome, Paul presents principles for Christian conduct in relation to the State. Believers must “subordinate themselves to governing powers, for there is no authority except by God.”

His statement was written when Nero ruled the Roman Empire, the same man who became the first emperor to persecute the church.

What is truly exceptional is Paul’s instruction to show respect and submission to “governing authorities” in an imperial system that was anything but democratic, one ruled by an autocrat with absolute power.

And at the time, the empire was ruled by Nero, one of the most infamous of Rome’s emperors. Yet despite the despotic nature of his regime, believers are summoned to accord it respect and honor.


The existing powers have been “arranged” by God. This translates the Greek verb tassō, meaning to “order, arrange, set, appoint.” In other words, governing authorities exist due to the “arrangement” of God, whether we understand His reasons for the present order or not.

In principle, this teaching is not new. Paul builds his argument on Old Testament precedents, including passages from the book of Daniel.

Near the start of the Babylonian Captivity, Daniel declared that God rules over the affairs of the nations - “He removes kings and sets up kings He rules in the kingdom of men, and gives it to whomever he pleases, and sets up over it even the basest of men” - (Daniel 2:21, 4:17).

And because God has “arranged” the existing authorities, to “resist” them constitutes opposition to the “arrangement of God.” If He does give political authority to whomever He pleases, opposing the existing order means trespassing on God’s prerogative and challenging His sovereignty.

Over the centuries, church leaders have argued that tyranny, corruption, and incompetence constitute exceptions to Paul’s rule. In such circumstances, Christian support for political and even violent revolution becomes necessary and even justified.

But that is an argument of expedience, not principle, a form of the “end justifies the means.” Moreover, it ignores the historical context of the Roman house churches.

First, Paul says nothing about any exceptions to the rule. Justifying insurrection based on the government’s repressive policies or corruption is a loophole imposed on the text.

Second, Paul is writing to Christians living under a pagan and authoritarian regime. The Roman Empire was anything but democratic or just. Caesar held absolute power, and the government was notoriously corrupt and brutal.

Third, at the time Paul wrote, Nero was Caesar, a man so depraved that even by Roman standards he was beyond the pale.

Among other things, Nero murdered his half-brother and his mother. In a fit of rage, he kicked his pregnant wife to death. Needing a scapegoat for the fires that burned much of the city in A.D. 64, Nero blamed the conflagration on Christians, thereby becoming the first emperor to persecute believers.

And quite possibly, Paul himself was executed in the ‘Neronian Persecution,’ the very same apostle who ordered Christians not to resist the autocratic Roman State.


Considering New Testament principles and its apocalyptic perspective, the teaching of Paul makes perfect sense. The disciple of Jesus is called to give his total allegiance to Jesus, a political requirement that transcends all national, ethnic, social, cultural, economic, and linguistic loyalties - (Galatians 3:28, Revelation 5:9-12, 7:9-17).

His disciple is a citizen of a realm that has no concept of “dual citizenship.” Loyalty to Jesus must supersede all other allegiances. Moreover, he tasked his church with proclaiming the gospel of the “kingdom of God” to ALL nations, thereby summoning all men to render absolute allegiance to its king.

The only “revolution” that matters is the kingdom of God. The day is coming when His rule will replace ALL existing governments, and that day will coincide with the “arrival” of Jesus in glory. That biblical declaration alone tells us that no government in existence will endure forever - (1 Corinthians 15:20-28).

In the interim, Christians are called to testify to that political reality while living in a fallen world. But to work for change in the corrupt institutions of this age means working for the “meat that perishes” - (1 Corinthians 7:31).

The exhortation to obey even a despotic state ought to give us pause before immersing ourselves in the political process, let alone advocating rebellion against existing authorities. Any calls for Christians to disobey an unpopular government or officeholder must be rebuffed, if for no other reason because Scripture requires it.

Christians must not disengage from the world, but rather they are to engage it with the biblical means - faith, prayer, gospel witness, acts of mercy, and above all, by emulating the self-sacrificial service of Jesus for others.

We are NOT called to live our lives conformed to the ideologies and values of this age. Yes, very often the State is unjust, even brutal, and that is precisely the point. Disciples of Jesus must not do evil so some greater “good may come.” The ends do not justify the means!

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