When God and government conflict, we ALWAYS choose God over government. As Peter said, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). That said, most people generally agree that we should follow the law of the land. God is the one who “removeth kings, and setteth up kings” (Daniel 2:21)—and so we should obey the government that he ordains (unless, of course, it hinders obedience to God’s word).
After all, Romans 13:1 says, “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.” In the last year there has been a lot of discussion (and disagreement) about Romans 13 and “being subject to the higher powers.” Most people understand that this passage is talking about obedience to civil government; but recently, I’ve started seeing people teach that this passage of scripture is actually about church government.
According to them, “the higher powers…ordained by God” are the ministry of the church—pastors, teachers, evangelists, and the like. These people’s interpretation seems strengthened by the fact that these higher powers are referred to in 13:4 as a minister/διάκονος (we get our English word “deacon” from this Greek word). When 13:6 talks about “paying tribute,” so they say, this is referring to paying tithes and offerings to the local church. When 13:4 calls this minister “a revenger to execute wrath,” these people say that this gives the pastor authority to use church discipline (e.g., excommunication—which is still Biblical, by the way).
The only problem is, Romans 13 is definitely talking about civil government, not church government. Interpreting Romans 13 as church government is problematic for at least two reasons. For one thing, this could give people the false idea that they don’t have to obey civil government; and for another, it gives illegitimate authority to the church and the church’s ministry. The church deserves all of the authority that God gave it; but it is wrong to give anything more authority than God intended for it to have.
In what follows, I will deal with the first problem by explaining why Romans 13 refers to civil government. In a future blog post, I will deal with the second problem: reading Romans 13 as church government misrepresents God’s plan for the church and gives the church and its ministers power that God never intended for them to have.
Romans 13 Is About Civil Government
The Greek word for “power(s)” here is ἐξουσία. This word can be used to refer to authority in general (Matthew 9:6, 21:27, John 1:12), but it often refers specifically to people in positions of power. The Brill Greek lexicon defines this word as a “person in office, authority, magistrate” (729); BDAG defines ἐξουσία as a “bearer of ruling authority—human authorities, officials, government” (352-3).
Jesus used this word to refer to human government in Luke 12:11 when he said, “And when they bring you unto the synagogues, and unto magistrates, and powers (ἐξουσίας).” I am willing to be corrected, but I do not know of any place in the New Testament where ἐξουσία refers to church ministers. Rather, when ἐξουσία refers to a person in authority, it seems to refer always to someone in civil authority.
These civil officials/magistrates are referred to as “higher.” The Greek word here is the verb ὑπερέχω, which BDAG defines as “to be in a controlling position, have power over, be in authority (over)” (1033). This term also is regularly used to describe civil authority. Look at how this term is used in the non-Biblical text The Wisdom of Solomon 6:1-5
- Hear, therefore, kings, and understand; learn, you magistrates of the earth’s expanse!…Terribly and swiftly [God] shall come against you, because severe judgment awaits the exalted (τοῖς ὑπερέχουσιν).
Notice that Wisdom plainly uses the verb ὑπερέχω to refer to civil authorities (kings, earthly magistrates). But we need not rely on literature outside the Bible to prove our point. The Old Testament also uses ὑπερέχω to describe people in positions of civil/secular-governmental authority.
- Genesis 25:23—“And the LORD said unto [Rebekah], Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than (ὑπερέξει) the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger.” We often spiritualize this passage, but there were real political consequences to God’s choice here: Jacob and Esau became two nations, and Jacob’s descendants the Israelites were destined to have political control over Esau’s descendants the Edomites.
- Genesis 39:9—“There is none greater (ὑπέχει) in this house than I; neither hath he kept back any thing from me but thee, because thou art his wife: how then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” In other words, no one was “in a controlling position” above Joseph, except for Potiphar.
- Genesis 41:40—“Thou shalt be over my house, and according unto thy word shall all my people be ruled: only in the throne will I be greater (ὑπερέξω) than thou.” Pharaoh was the only one who would “be in authority over” Joseph.
- Daniel 7:23—“Thus he said, The fourth beast shall be the fourth kingdom upon earth, which shall be diverse from all kingdoms [the LXX says, “which shall have authority over (ὑπερέξει) all kingdoms”], and shall devour the whole earth, and shall tread it down, and break it in pieces.” Obviously the kingdom which Daniel describes here is a political force: one which has authority over all of the other civil governments of the time.
But, if all of these verses weren’t enough to prove that these “higher powers” or “governing authorities” refer to civil governments—the verse that really seals the deal for me is 1 Peter 2:13-14.
- Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme (ὑπερέχοντι); or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well.
Peter is certainly referring to civil governments here: he mentions kings and governors, and starts the discussion by mentioning the “ordinance of man.” The king is described with the verb ὑπερέχω, the same verb we have been examining in Romans 13. The king holds the supreme authority and controlling position in the kingdom. Under him are governors, who carry out his authority.
It should catch our attention how similar 1 Peter 2 and Romans 13 are. Both passages command Christians to be subject to authorities with the verb ὑποτάσσω (1 Peter 2:13, Romans 13:1). Both passages say that we are supposed to obey these authorities because of our relationship with God (1P 2:13, R 13:5-6). Both passages say that the job of these authorities is to punish evildoers and to reward those who are good (1P 2:14, R 13:2-4).
1 Peter 2 and Romans 13 are obviously referring to Christians obeying the same kind of authority. Since 1 Peter 2 refers to civil authority, Romans 13 must also refer to civil authority.Tweet
Just because the “governing authority” is called a minister/διάκονος doesn’t mean that we are dealing with a minister in the church. The Greek term διάκονος can refer to a servant, messenger, or minister of any kind (Esther 1:10, 2:2). Josephus describes Rachel as a διάκονος because she brought Jacob to Laban (Jewish Antiquities 1.298); Josephus likewise describes Elishah as the “disciple and servant” of Elijah (Jewish Antiquities 8.354).
A διάκονος is someone “who gets something done, at the behest of a superior, [an] assistant” (BDAG 230). Matthew 22:13 uses this term to describe the servants of a king, who obey his commands. This is precisely the role of human government: they are God’s assistants, who get stuff done for him in the world.
When a nation is sinful, God uses other governments to punish them. He did this countless times in the Old Testament—both using Israel to punish other nations, and other nations to punish Israel. Likewise civil governments can be used to bless the righteous, just as Hiram helped King Solomon to build the temple. Civil governments are God’s ministers, his intermediaries, on the world stage.
Because civil governments are ordained by God and used by him for righteousness, we owe it to them to pay taxes (Romans 13:6-7). These verses do not refer to paying tithes and offerings to the church, as some would claim. The word for “tribute” here is φόρος; the Old Testament uses this term MANY times to refer to taxation (Judges 1:30, 2 Samuel 20:24, 1 Kings 5:13 [LXX 5:27], 12:18, 2 Chronicles 36:3, Ezra 7:24)—NEVER to refer to paying tithe or offering. Other than Romans 13, the New Testament only uses φόρος two other times.
- Luke 20:22—”Is it lawful for us to give tribute (φόρος) unto Caesar, or no?
- Luke 23:2—”And they began to accuse him, saying, We found this fellow perverting the nation, and forbidding to give tribute (φόρος) to Caesar, saying that he himself is Christ a King.
Both of these two places plainly refer to taxation levied by civil government.
In summary, Romans 13 certainly describes civil—not church—government. “Higher powers” refers to earthly leaders, not ecclesiastical ones. These leaders collect taxes, not tithes; and they act as God’s intermediaries in the political sphere by punishing evil and rewarding good. Unless civil laws contradict God’s laws, Christians MUST be obedient to civil leaders. Otherwise, “Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation” (Romans 13:2).
In this post, I have explained why Romans 13 definitely refers to civil government. In a future post, I will explain why interpreting Romans 13 as a template for church government is actually harmful to the body of Christ.
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