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. Romans 13:1

The thirteenth chapter of Romans discusses the relationship between church and state, and the relations of the individual Christian and various functions of government such as the military draft board; the Christian and civil disobedience; the Christian and revolution, and other important aspects of the Christian's life as a citizen. In short, what did our Lord Jesus mean when He said, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's"?

Palestine Under Rome

Let us review the circumstances in which that famous judgment was rendered. In the time of Christ, Palestine was an occupied country. The armies of Rome supplanted those of Greece after the downfall of the successors of Alexander the Great. To get the temper of the Jewish populace, recall the spirit of occupied nations in World War II, and the acts of defiance by patriotic underground groups in Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium and France.

Instances of such defiance by patriotic Jews are cited by Gamaliel in his speech to the council that met to try the apostles for preaching the gospel: "Men of Israel, take care what you do with these men. For before these days Theudas arose, giving himself out to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was slain and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. After him Judas the Galilean arose in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him; he also perished and all who followed him were scattered" (Acts 5:35-37).

Now, since the Romans were keenly aware of the possibility of uprising among the people whom they governed, Jesus' enemies saw an opportunity to get rid of him, for we read in Matthew 12:14 that the Pharisees and scribes "went out and took counsel against him, how to destroy him." We can easily imagine the conversation that took place among these conspirators. One of them came up with this idea: "I have it! Let us ask Jesus whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Rome. If He says that we should pay them, we shall denounce Him to the people as a collaborationist. If He says that we should not pay taxes, we shall report Him to the Roman authorities!"

God Is Lord of the State

But when they put the question to Him, Jesus answered, "Show me a denarius," a large silver coin, the equivalent of a day's wage. When the coin was produced Jesus asked whose image was on it and whose was the inscription. Of course they replied that it was the image of Caesar and the inscription was in the language of Caesar. Christ's answer came, clear and plain: "Pay the tax." But our Lord often killed two errors with one teaching. The rabbis had a saying, "Wherever any king's money is current, there that king is Lord." Jesus was reminding them that they were a subject people in accordance with the prophecies pronounced against them for their refusal to serve God as Lord.

But, far more important than this skilful answer that took Christ out of their trap, was the assertion of the sovereignty of God in every area of life.

Perhaps no verse in the Bible has been more twisted, misapplied and distorted than Matthew 22:21. And these distortions have led people to believe that God is not in charge in some areas of life. In the Middle Ages this verse was used to justify the theory of two empires, the sacred and the secular. Jesus' answer contains no such teaching. We strongly uphold the principle of separation of church and state, but we do not endorse the separation of God and the state. God is Lord of the state as much as He is Lord of the church, but His sovereignty over the state is not exercised through religious leaders.

In the Old Testament, God strictly forbade the vesting of religious and secular power in any individual. The priests came from the Tribe of Levi, the kings from the Tribe of Judah. Only in Jesus Christ are the two offices combined, as Zechariah 6:13 shows: "He shall bear the glory, and shall sit and rule upon his throne; and he shall be a priest upon his throne." No man of the offspring of Adam is capable of being both civil ruler and priest. History teaches that the attempt to combine the two has brought tyranny worse than any other tyranny.

"Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's." These words do not set before the Christian two systems of ethics, two ways of life. Rather, they bind him to the highest code of living in the political realm as well as in the spiritual.

Whence Comes Authority?

The Bible doctrine of the source and channel of authority is summed up in one verse: "God has spoken once; twice have I heard this: that power belongs to God" (Psalm 62:11). From that one spring all power flows. It might be compared to a river basin. On a map of the central United States, we see the courses of rivers from many sources, all debouching into the Gulf of Mexico. Waters from Pennsylvania flow into the Ohio River; from Montana and Wyoming they flow into the Missouri River; from Tennessee and Alabama they flow into the Tennessee. But all these join the Mississippi, which rises far to the north in Minnesota. Now, read this map in reverse and follow the mighty rivers back to creeks, from creeks to brooks, from brooks to rivulets. There we have the picture of the source and flow of power. All power comes from God, and the powers that be are ordained by God. Power exercised by any creature, even the power of a cat to kill a mouse, or of one insect to kill another, derives originally from God. How much more is this true of human affairs, where God is working out His great plan!

Hear Jeremiah set this forth: God told the prophet to make thongs and yokebars and wear them upon his own neck while he talked to envoys from Edom, Moab, Ammon, Tyre and Sidon. Then the Lord said to Jeremiah: "Give them this charge for their masters: "Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: This is what you shall say to your masters: ‘It is I who by my great power and my outstretched arm have made the earth, with the men and animals that are on the earth, and I give it to whomever it seems right to me. Now I have given all these lands into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, my servant, and I have given him also the beasts of the field to serve him. All the nations shall serve him and his son and his grandson, until the time of his own land comes; then many nations and great kings shall make him their slave' " (Jeremiah 24:4-7).|

Thus we see that political power is in the hand of God and that He establishes whomsoever He wishes. Not only the good kings among the descendants of David and Solomon, but also those who were evil, derived their power from God. The gift of authority is a divine gift, so precious that the Bible indicates that God will judge men severely for any abuse of it.

Satanic and Human Authority

We learn, from Scripture that God gave Lucifer his great power, saying, "An anointed guardian cherub I placed you" (Ezekiel 28:14). When Lucifer fell, he retained this power and reminded Christ that the kingdoms of the world, with their power and glory, had been committed to him and that he could give them to anyone he wished (Luke 4:6). This is why the Lord Jesus called Satan "the prince of this world"; and Paul called him "the god of this age" (2 Corinthians 4:4). The angels who fell with Lucifer received authority from him, and bear titles which indicate how much power was delegated: principalities, powers, world rulers of this present darkness, spiritual hosts of wickedness in heavenly places (Ephesians 6:12). But let us not forget that Jesus Christ "disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in the cross" (Colossians 2:15).

With regard to human rulers, beside the teaching about God's authority, cited from Jeremiah, there is the revelation through Daniel: "Blessed be the name of God for ever and ever, to whom belong wisdom and might. He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings" (Daniel 2:20-21). Note, also, that the passage in Ephesians 6 shows that Satanic spirits direct some human rulers; indeed we may say they direct all human rulers who know not Christ.

Let us sum it up: all power derives from God, even the vast power wielded by Satan. There is no power, there is no authority apart from God. Acts of an alien power are by God's permission, for reasons impossible for us to understand or even imagine, but which will be made clear in the future. Now, however, we live in a world that is filled with the tensions of rebellion.

The Believer and Civil Government

In the light of what we have seen, we can state a first principle with reference to the relationship of the believer in Christ to civil government: — The believer is responsible to the Lord God Almighty, who is universally supreme. Power in every domain derives from God, but it has been distorted and debased by some of its incumbents. The Christian is to live in the midst of this world, subject primarily to God; and he is to render to the civil government what might be called a management fee, a reasonable amount for the order and protection furnished by good government.

The difficulties encountered in this chapter seem to rise from thoughts that are read into it, rather than from what it actually teaches. Nothing here indicates what a believer should do when the civil government departs from the role that God has given to it. A government should maintain law and order. A Christian is subject to a government that maintains law and order. This chapter contains no rules for the believer to follow in case the government persecutes the Christian faith. Another omission is counsel as to what should be the believer's attitude if his government commits moral wrong. The teaching concerninig the believer's allegiance in case of civil war, revolution or rebellion must be found elsewhere.

In Romans 13:1 Paul states the believer's duty to government when it functions properly within the framework of law. No Christian is to be a law unto himself. No individual is exempt from the duties of citizenship. This teaching was especially important for the believers at Rome because the church there was formed around a central core of Jews, whose Old Testament heritage gave them the idea that they were a law unto themselves, and they were unwilling to render allegiance to any Gentile. They looked down upon the Gentiles and considered themselves superior to the nations among whom they lived and by whom they had been conquered. History records many evidences of their lawlessness in the face of established government.

Peter, addressing his first epistle to Jewish believers scattered throughout the empire, wrote: "Beloved, I beseech you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh that wage war against your soul. Maintain good conduct among the Gentiles, so that in case they speak against you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God in the day of visitation. Be subject for the Lord's sake to every institution ordained for men, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. For it is God's will that by doing right you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish men" (1 Peter 2:11-15).

The government of the Roman Empire at that time was one of the best in history. The Pax Romana was at its height. The excellent government of Augustus and Tiberius began to degenerate under Caligula, Claudius and Nero. For the most part, persecution of the Christians came from the leaders of the Jewish temple. Persecution by Gentiles was occurring; mainly in the provinces, and Rome was quiet. Paul was still free.

But now, rumors about the believers are beginning to circulate. Paul and Peter unite in telling believers, Gentile and Jew, to obey the magistrates. The powers that be are ordained of God. No one is above the law. If the Christians behave as true believers should, there will be no difficulty. Magistrates are not a terror to good citizens; only to evil citizens.

The Christian must realize that not only is he a new creature in Christ Jesus and a citizen of Heaven, he is still a human being in a society of human beings, and he must shoulder the obligations of mass citizenship. The Christian is to integrate his life and activities with all human relationships. The believer is to understand the first and great commandment: he is to render to God the things that are God's; that is, he is to love the Lord his God with all his heart, soul, mind and strength. He is also to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's; that is, he is to love his neighbor as himself.

Copyright 1957, Evangelical Foundation. Revised 2010, Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. All rights reserved.

All Scripture, unless otherwise noted, is taken from the King James Version.

Donald Grey Barnhouse (1895-1960), one of the twentieth century's outstanding American preachers, saw the need to spread God’s Word to a vast audience; he went on to start a radio broadcast which has become known as “Dr. Barnhouse & the Bible”. Dr. Barnhouse is best known for his many colorful illustrations of living the Christian life. His books include Teaching the Word of Truth, Life by the Son, God’s Methods for Holy Living, and more. He was pastor of Philadelphia’s historic Tenth Presbyterian Church (1927-1960).