“Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.”Romans 13:5
I’ll be honest. This is probably the trickiest verse of the passage.
What does it mean to be in subjection? Why is there a distinction between God’s wrath and conscience? I find myself unable to give a definitive statement on this, so I urge you to take what follows as the most opinion driven portion of this segment. I can’t form a syllogism to argue that my view is definitely the correct one like I can for everything else I’ve said. I can only say that I’ve formed these thoughts by using the rest of the passage to guide my interpretation.
The first statement is the easier of the two. Paul is circling back around to verses 1-2. “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.”
I won’t rehash what was said about those verses here, but I will point out a new observation that I think is pertinent. The word “subject” in both verse 1 and verse 5 is “ὑποτασσέσθω”. I’m no Greek scholar, so I can’t exactly comment on the correct translation of this word. Obviously, the guys who are Greek Scholars and who translated the ESV think “be subject” is a good translation, and their translation agrees with the NASB and King James. Ok, fair enough, but what does that MEAN? What did Paul think it meant to be subject?
This to me is very important and where a lot of the interpretive room exists in this passage. Does this mean we must be bootlickers? Are we to be obedient as though we’re servile children? Many people interpret our duty this way. After all, we ARE talking about God’s authority being exercised (verse 1) to carry out God’s wrath (verse 4), right? It’s no wonder Paul says that being subject keeps us from God’s wrath in verse 5.
But that still doesn’t exactly settle the matter. Do I have to obey every single law they make, even when the laws have nothing to do with criminal justice per God’s definition here in Romans 13? Am I failing to be subject if I drive over the speed limit?
I did a hasty word study using biblehub.com and didn’t really come up with anything conclusive. The word seems used to describe the relationship between someone in authority and that which is put under its authority in several different places. It still seems inconclusive to me.
The one thing that I think does shed some clear light on this is to note that the word Paul uses in Romans 13 is different than the one he uses in Ephesians 6:1 when he famously commands “Children obey your parents in the Lord”. The word for obey in Ephesians 6 is “ὑπακούετε”. The word in Romans 13:1 is “ὑποτασσέσθω”. This, to me, proves that the nature of our submission is different than when children submit to their parents. Parental authority is much broader in scope and includes the right and duty to coerce positive behavior on top of punishing negative behavior – hence the child’s command to “obey”. Governing authorities have no such right to coerce the positive performance of duties. They only have the authority to punish those who do wrong (as we’ve seen).
So what can we say ὑποτασσέσθω definitely does mean? I’ll say this. It means we don’t take up a posture of defiant opposition to them. Rather we maintain a posture that we accept their authority. Remember our analysis of “ἀντιτασσόμενος” (resist) in verse 2. Resistance meant diametric opposition and outright defiance. Even if we appeal to them or protest them, or possibly even practice civil disobedience, we do so in such a way as to show deference to their position as the one God has entrusted his authority to.
We don’t do this for their sake. We do it out of respect to God (and for our own conscience – but I’ll get to that).
Remember, only God can remove the king. They are his stewards. He put them in place and will remove them when he sees fit. It would be an act of defiance, not just against them, but against God for us to act against them. The great evil of rebellion is not that we act against the human authority, but that we steal authority from God to do what God alone can do. This applies even when the government is indeed tyrannical. We are not to avenge ourselves, even against tyrannical government – not because tyranny is justified in God’s sight, but because “vengeance is mine, I will repay, declares the Lord.”
1 Peter 2 gives us more insight too. After Peter’s commands to submit to the government and for servants to submit to masters, even when they’re abusive, he waxes poetic about how “is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly.” He goes on to explain that there’s something of a reenactment of the gospel being portrayed here. When we endure the persecution of the world trusting our Father in heaven to judge justly in the end, we imitate our Savior. Peter says:
“When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”
So let us never think that Romans 13’s commands for us to submit to government somehow mean that there’s no such thing as tyranny. Let us never think that tyranny excuses us from Romans 13’s commands. But let us also remember that Romans 13’s commands do not teach nor logically imply that our submission is due to some divine right on the part of the ruler. Tyranny is never justified.
So to come full circle on ὑποτασσέσθω, it is my opinion, though I can’t prove it definitively, that “be subject to” does NOT include a duty to obey every law.
At least not for the sake of God’s wrath! But there’s also this matter of conscience. What does Paul mean here?
It’s my interpretation that the conscience here is not alerting us to sin, else the distinction would be redundant. What is it alerting us to? I think this is echoing verse 3. “Would you have no fear of the one in authority?…” That fear is what is weighing on your conscience. Technically, all you should have to do to avoid such fear is to do what is good (Romans 13:3), but….. failing to cooperate with the government – even obeying unjust laws – can have the same effect. Suppose your city passes an ordinance that you must keep your grass below a certain height. Would your conscience not be concerned with the potential consequences of breaking this order? How can you keep your conscience clear? Obey the law.
This can be practical advice – we can have peace of mind if we comply with the law, even when unjust. You don’t have to worry about a cop passing you on the road if you’re not speeding, do you?
But I think it’s more than that, too, because the Scriptures do warn about the possibility of having weakened, defiled, corrupted, and even seared consciences. Our consciences can be delicate things. I don’t think this is teaching that there’s absolute sin in disobeying the law, but Paul means to say that there is great wisdom in taking care that our consciences are clear and accurate so that it can function properly. If we muck it up, we put ourselves in danger of falling prey to temptation.
To round this out, let me respond to some feedback I received. I was asked in response to my verse 1 exegesis, “Is the legitimacy of a government determined by their adherence to the laws of God? In other words, at what point do they become illegitimate?”
The declarative nature of Romans 13:3 leads me to answer the first question in the affirmative. I wouldn’t necessarily say so in absolute terms. A single sin or error in judgment does not fully disqualify a government. But just as an abusive father forfeits his rights as a father, or any unfaithful steward forfeits his stewardship, there comes a point where tyrannical governments should not be considered a legitimate government.
I don’t think we can answer the second question definitively. It’s not ours to make such judgments. Only the master can judge and remove his steward. God alone can remove the king, which is why revolution should be avoided if at all possible. However, this does not mean that God cannot use a revolution to remove the king. Surely if God does so it would be a good thing, especially if it does result in greater justice rather than greater tyranny (*cough* Robespierre *cough*).
Now I’ve come out pretty solidly against the boogaloo here, and I mean what I’ve said. I stand by everything. But I want to moderate it slightly. I think there is some gray area here. I don’t want to say that there is never a time when Christians can take a side against the tyrant who is being removed. Verse 2 did say that whoever opposes the governing authority opposes what God has established. However, if the tyrant’s tyranny has disqualified him from being a legitimate government and it becomes clear that God is moving to remove him through revolution, things are not nearly so cut and dried.
There may be a time in which love for my neighbor may compel me to join together with him to remove the usurping false government who is tyrannizing him. It was right for Corrie ten Boom and others to hide Jews. It was right for Rahab to hid the spies.
I think David gives us some insight. David in no way submitted himself to King Saul in such a way that allowed Saul to have his tyrannical way with David (killing him). However, even as he ran and hid from Saul, and even as he pulled some shenanigans to mess with Saul, he maintained a respectful posture towards Saul as “the Lord’s anointed”.
I don’t think secular governments outside of the old Kingdom of Israel have quite the same significance as Israel did. They were not covenant types of King Jesus. But at the same time, they do in some sense carry the torch of Jesus as King. This is the very reason why their tyranny is so evil. They distort the picture of Christ they are supposed to portray.
So I urge caution. This is a very serious matter. We ought to be very slow to join the boogaloo and very sure in our judgment that the government is indeed a tyrant. Dare I say, it must be beyond a reasonable doubt, and it must be a last resort. What’s more, when considering it, we must be suspect of our own motives first above all.
This is a matter of conscience, but know that there are grave implications for the decisions made here. Pray and seek wise counsel from godly men if ever you are faced with this choice. Whatever you do, do not defile your conscience.
In any case, while we can’t make a definitive judgment on the matter, we can certainly use standards found in Scripture to get a sense of where things stand. Verses 2-4 of Romans 13, along with Psalm 2, provide us with just such a set of standards. We can see from Romans 13:3 that when governments are engaged in terrorizing good conduct rather than bad, they are tyrants and no longer legitimate governments. Yes, this means Hitler, Nero, Stalin, and the like.
There are ways in which any State does this, namely by opposing other governing authorities (as we saw in verse 2), and by coercively subjugating people who might be served by an alternate governing authority. In other words: by creating and enforcing their monopoly on the status of “governing authority”, the State terrorizes the good conduct of other governing authorities and those who are subject to them.
This is crystal clear to me. What isn’t so clear, though, is whether this rises to the level of such tyranny that it justifies calling the State a tyrant who is not a legitimate government. I do not believe this is categorically warranted. Minarchist, paleo-conservative governments that concern themselves only with the basic provision of the Sword as described in Romans 13 do not rise to that level, in my view. I think they are in the wrong, but not so in the wrong that they should be considered illegitimate.Even still, we have a duty fo submit.