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Aug 08, 2021

God, Government & the Church

Passage: Romans 13:1-7

Preacher: John Repsold

Series: Romans

Keywords: church, submission, government, civil disobedience, covid-19


How difficult must it have been for the Apostle Paul to write about submission to government when he would eventually have his own life taken by the very government he was writing about and whom he would not be able to fully obey? Such is the nature of life for the people of God--called to live in humble submission to sometimes good, sometimes very evil governing authorities while discerning where the limits of that submission end in order for obedience to God to continue. This message seeks to teach the thrust of this passage--submission--while identifying its divinely ordained limits.


God, Government & the Church

Romans 13:1-7

August 8, 2021


Over a year-and-a-half ago (20 months to be exact), the whole world got turned upside down with Covid-19.  While WWII shaped my parents lives and several generations in the 20th century more than any other singular event, Covid-19 and the resulting changes to international relations, to governments and law, to churches and individuals has been THE most defining event of the 21st century to date. It has radically and dramatically changed the way governments govern, the way people interact and the way future generations will view the world and other human beings for the rest of their lives. 

ILL:  Having coffee in the YMCA with someone back in the fall of 2020—seeing the pre-schoolers all on a rope-line, distanced, masked, being led around by masked adults while playing.  Just imagine what it will do to the psychological and mental state of an entire generation of children, raised in public settings where they can’t see the facial expressions of others, where they are taught to fear an unseen enemy as well as their neighbors, and where they spend more time looking at electronic screens than in personal interaction with others.  Our methods of treating this pandemic will shape this generation far more than any messages or learning content we seek to communicate.

            All this has also challenged God’s people around the world to figure out how we are to relate to these changes, particularly when it comes to our relationship to government.  Nothing is new under the sun, as Solomon observed three-thousand years ago.  How God’s people are to submit to imperfect human governments while not disobeying God’s commands has been something every generation in every nation of the world has had to figure out. 

            Today we are jumping ahead slightly to Romans 13.  (Andrew will go back next week and catch the end of Romans 12.)  We’re doing this today because I’ll be heading out to vacation the latter part of August so won’t be around to address this passage and issue.  In addition, this past year’s Covid-19 governmental edicts related to the church cause me to do a deep-dive into the biblical theology of the relationship of church and state particularly as it relates to what we call “civil-disobedience.”  Civil disobedience for the Christian is basically when is it not only permissible but, some would argue, biblically required for the people of God to disobey the civil/governmental authorities that may be either requiring something unbiblical or prohibiting something biblically required. 


HISTORICAL BACKGROUND:   At the beginning of this year, I came out with a 60+-page document that seeks to address the theology of church and state from the Bible as well as attempting to answer various questions that I’ve heard raised about what the church should and shouldn’t be doing in this situation of Covid. [If you want to read the full paper, go to our MosaicSpokane website and you’ll find it under “Resources” tab and further under “Bulletins & Articles.”  See Mosaic Spokane]

That led to the formation of a local “coalition” of like-minded churches that is seeking to band together in Spokane for the mutual defense of the church in any future issues where government attempts to extend their authority unbiblically over the church in areas that violate biblical mandates (such as marriage, sexuality, family, education, public health, environment, etc.).  We’ve called it the Acts 529 Coalition, taking the name from Acts 5:29 in which Peter tells the ruling authorities of his day who are demanding they stop preaching about Jesus, “We must obey God rather than human beings!”  At present we have about a dozen churches in the coalition.

            So, let’s dive into the passage and then I’ll entertain questions as to how we might apply this to the present situation. 

Romans 13:1-7

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

            Verse 1 is one of the clearest biblical statements about God’s relationship with human governments and, more specifically, human government officials.  The simple, clear truths Paul is teaching here are:

  1. EVERY governing authority (from highest to lowest) is there because God willed them to be there.

From Xi Jinping in China to Gov. Inslee of WA and Mayor Nadine Woodward of Spokane, all governmental authority is, in some capacity, “established” by God.  That means both a George Washington and an Adolf Hitler were “established” by God.  God sets up every leader in power and God takes out every leader at some point.  God placed Roman Emperor Nero in power who would take His servant Paul’s life unjustly and God placed Roman Emperor Constantine in power who would establish the protection of Christianity in the Roman Empire in 313 A.D.  So, the first thing to remember when we are dealing with any governmental authority over us, they are there because God has put them there.  There are a myriad of implications and applications to this truth.

Principle #1:  Even wicked rulers are there because God desires them to be there.  To fight against them is, in some way, to fight against something God has done and instituted. 

ILL:  Any idea how many assassination attempts were made against Hitler.  42 minimum!  All failed.  One of them Dietrich Bonhoeffer was involved with…and it cost him his life.

Principle #2:  While God establish people in their governmental positions, not everything they do is ordained by God.  God is not stained by the evil choices of evil rulers any more than he is made more righteous by the righteous choices of good leaders.  Our choices in life don’t diminish or increase God one iota. 

Principle #3:  God will use both evil and good actions by governmental authorities to get His will done in this world.  If he couldn’t or wouldn’t, then He would not be the God of the Bible.  God can and does cause even the evil actions of evil people, when they intersect with God’s people and plan, to work together for the good of His kingdom and His children. 

So, the first thing this passage teaches is that EVERY governing authority (from highest to lowest) is there because God willed them to be there. 


#2.  EVERYONE is to be “subject” to their governing authorities.  This term “subject” means to “arrange under,” “to obey,” “to be submissive to.”  It is a voluntary act of the will every human being is commanded to hold to, not just Christians.  God has clearly ordained government in human experience to be one of those realms of submission to which his people are called to submit. 

            Just like the first truth, this one needs some clarifying and qualifying.  IF this was the only passage we had on the relationship between government and people, we would have to conclude that, no matter what government asked of its people, we would be morally bound to obey their requests. 

  • If they told us to murder 5 million Jews, we would be bound to obey.
  • If they told us to torture children, we would be required to do so.
  • If they told us to stop preaching the Gospel, we would be required to do so.

But such suggestions are not only absurdly false; they are immoral because the contradict other clear commands of Scripture.  Clearly, governments sometimes make demands on their subjects that are wrong and immoral. 

But we must ask, “Based on WHAT standard?”  WHY is that question so important?  [We must have an objective, unchanging moral compass/standard by which to judge government of men.] 

WHAT must be that standard?  [The Word and nature of God.]

            This is where knowing the word of God becomes so vital. We will never know the limits of government’s authority to demand things of people unless we know the word of God.  But when we know both the commands of God and the godly examples of people commended in Scripture for disobedience of government, we will know just how far a government or governmental leader’s authority should extend. 

            The rub comes in situations such as we are facing today where government is either prohibiting things that are not black-and-white demanded of us or is demanding things that are black-and-white prohibited by God (such as wearing face masks…or taking a vaccine…or closing your business, etc.).  We’ll get to some of those issues shortly.

            The point of this command about submission is that our first and heart-felt response to government is to be one of submission…whether you live in America or China!  If we are walking in Christ, we will want to obey our government as much as is possible.  And if we’re not at that maturity level spiritually where we “want to”, we will at least acknowledge that submission to government is our primary calling when it comes to our relationship to government. 


How does this biblical call run counter to our American culture and experience?

  • We were a nation birthed out of rebellion to authority. We didn’t just not agree to do everything King George III required; we actively fought against his commands, laws and edicts.  1 Samuel 15:23-- For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has rejected you as king.”  Not that rebellion must always look for its definition in the ‘word of the Lord’.  To rebel against a government or edict that is in agreement with God’s morality is to rebel against God’s word.  BUT, to obey an edict that violates God’s word is now rebellion against God.  This is where the doctrine of civil disobedience must come into play. 
  • Our history has been one of deep, personal, even radical individual freedoms, not individual or corporate submission and obedience.
  • Fallen human nature is predisposed to rebel, not submit. So, our flesh will delight in rebelling against authority, even when such rebellion is wrong.  And when it is right, our new nature in Jesus should cause us, in some fashion, to grieve the necessity of rebelling.


Now let’s talk about WHY we must obey governmental authority.  Paul gives us 2 reasons in this passage in Romans 13…and there are more.   

First, God himself ordains the authorities (vss. 1b, 2).  We’ve already seen this.

Second, governments and governmental authorities have been given the right to punish those who do evil or do not submit to their authority (vss. 2-4). 

Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 

We can confidently declare that it is God who has ordained governments (different governmental systems as well as various leaders) for the purpose of punishing those who do evil or who refuse to submit to their authority.  As we know, every human governmental leader and system is flawed.  Nevertheless, God calls His children to submit to that leadership, imperfect though it be, by obeying its laws and edicts (again, as we shall see, insofar as both God’s law and informed conscience permit). 

This point of the purpose of government is critical.  If you don’t know the purpose of government, you won’t question the limits of government.  Government and rulers are to restrain and punish evil while encouraging and rewarding good. 

Paul goes on to illustrate how the paying of taxes is one application of submission that we are clearly called to honor (vv. 6-7) just as did Jesus Christ (Matthew 22:16-21; Luke 19:20-25), apparently regardless of how corrupt the government may be. 

In addition, every Christian must recognize that, no matter how evil a human authority in government is, God has sovereignly placed that person in that role for that time.  That does not mean that everything a particular governmental leader does is sanctioned by God or involves the rewarding of good and punishing of evil. 

Many governments throughout history have flipped that script to reward evil and punish good.  That is not Paul’s focus in this passage.  His concern is to assure believers that all governmental authorities are there by God’s sovereign permission and that we must obey them insofar as our biblically-educated conscience permits. Further, whenever our behavior violates their laws or edicts, unjust though they may be, we are called to place ourselves under their potential penal and even capital punishments. 

We are, therefore, to see God’s sovereign hand behind even the most wicked of rulers, whether that may be for purposes we do not presently understand (such as divine working out of history, national punishment or personal discipline) or for more obvious reasons (such as maintaining order, rewarding good, punishing evil or illustrating human fallenness). 

This has clear implications for the behavior of Christians under evil leaders and systems.  One of those implications is that every believer must be willing to bear the punishments decreed by governments when they choose to disobey those governments and leaders. 

Paul is not ignoring that many governments use the power of government to punish right and support wrong.  His own death eventually came about at the hands of Roman officials who were persecuting good, godly Christians such as himself rather than commending good people as they were empowered to do.  Paul’s point is that, in the norm, governmental authority, as God designed it, was created to punish wrong and cause fear in those who do wrong. Government should be feared when we are doing wrong. 

But when we are punished by evil governments for doing right (as was Paul), there should be no “fear” of their abuse and misuse of divine authority.  At that point our fear of God is to trump our fear of divinely ordained authority, even to the point of suffering death if need be.  We have nothing to fear from the most important “authority” we are under when doing right.  In this passage, Paul simply does not address the many instances in which government and governmental authorities may pervert and reverse the divine script God has given them by punishing good people for good actions. 


  • No indication in Sc. that Daniel or his 3 friends were afraid of King Nebuchadnezzar or King Darius when faced with breaking/engaging in civil disobedience against unjust laws and decrees.
  • No indication in Sc. that Paul was afraid of being beheaded by Nero for not denying Christ.

If anything, the people God takes fear from and gives His peace to are those who disobey evil laws in order to obey God’s divine law. 

When governments cease to do what they are appointed by God to do and instead rise up against God’s declared will, they cease to be authority which we must obey in that specific area and become mere tyrants against whom we are biblically bound to dissent. These biblical passages present us with both the authority and limitations of divinely ordained human government.  One cannot claim that continued obedience to government is required based upon this passage when the biblically stated purposes and limits of government are not being upheld but rather egregiously violated by said government. 


Before we spend the rest of our time applying this passage and these truths about the relationship of government to God’s people and the church, let me just give you a few other N.T. passages that support each of the principles we’ve discussed and add a few others. 

  • I Peter 2:11-17
  • Matthew 22:15-22
  • Titus 3:1-2

If this were the totality of the Bible’s teaching on submission to governmental authority, we would be left knowing that, regardless of the nature of the demand by governmental laws or officials, we are absolutely bound to obey their every edict be they good, evil or some mixture of the two. 

But these passages are not the totality of Scripture’s teaching on the relationship of believers to government.  Nor do they somehow trump or silence the many clear biblical examples of specific-situation applications of these and other biblical truths by God-fearing saints of old. Failure to include these passages and stories in a discussion of these critical questions related to civil disobedience will lead to an incomplete and deeply flawed understanding of God’s will for us as we relate to governments in our day. 

            So now let me give you a short list of additional biblical examples of civil disobedience that seem to be commended if not commanded by God. 

  1. Exodus 1—the Hebrew midwives
  2. Exodus 5-15—Moses confronting Pharoah
  3. Joshua 2—Rahab and the spies
  4. I Samuel 14—King Saul’s command to kill Jonathan for eating before Saul said he could.
  5. 1 Samuel 22—Saul commands his bodyguard to kill the priest, Ahimelek, who had hidden David and his men…and he refuses.
  • 1 Kings 18:3-15—Obadiah, the God-fearing palace administrator for wicked king Ahab hides 100 priests against the command of the king.
  • Daniel 3—the 3 Jewish administrators thrown into the fiery furnace of King Nebuchadnezzar.
  • Daniel 6—Daniel in the lions’ den for his prayer life.
  • Matthew 2—the magi and King Herod
  1. Jesus’ response to Pilate and Herod in all the Gospels.
  2. Luke 3—John the Baptist
  3. Acts 4 & 5—Peter & John preaching the Gospel
  4. Acts 6—Stephen
  5. Acts 9—Paul; disobeying the Roman authority of King Aretas working in concert with the Jews to kill him.
  6. Hebrews 11:23—Moses’ parents
  7. Revelation 13:16-17 and 14:9-12—mark of the beast

NOTE:  This is NOT an exhaustive list of permissible cases of civil disobedience. 


One final list that relates directly to Covid-19 ‘pandemic’ edicts.  What are the things the word of God specifically requires N.T. believers to engage in regularly, consistently and together that various governmental edicts under Covid-19 made/are making illegal or punishable? 

New Testament commands that require the church gathered:

  • Loving one another: John 13:34,35; Romans 12:9-10, 13:8; 1 Thess. 3:12; 4:9-10
  • Use of spiritual gifts: Romans 12:4-8; I Cor. 12-14; Ephesians 4:11-13
  • Promoting zeal, spiritual fervor, serving and sharing: Romans 12:11-12
  • Hospitality: Romans 12:13; Acts 28:7; Romans 16:23; 1 Timothy 5:10; Hebrews 13:2; 1 Peter 4:9; 3 John 1:8
  • Shared emotions: Romans 12:15; Ephesians 4:32
  • Unity & harmony: Romans 12:16, 15:5-6; 2 Cor. 13:11; Eph. 4:3-6
  • Fellowship: Romans 12:16
  • Physical touch: Romans 16:6; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:26
  • Being God’s temple: I Cor. 3:16; Ephesians 1:18-23, 5:18-19
  • Church discipline and forgiveness: I Cor. 5:4, 9-23; Eph. 4:32; 2 Thess. 3:6;
  • The Lord’s Supper: I Cor. 11:17-34
  • Submission to one another and spiritual leaders: I Cor. 16:15-18; Eph. 5:21; Hebrews 13:17;
  • Comforting & encouraging one another: 2 Cor. 1:3-5; Job 2:11; Isaiah 40:1; Lamentations 1:16, 17, 21; 2 Corinthians 1:3-5; Colossians 4:11; 1 Thess. 5:11
  • Praying for and anointing of the sick: James 5:14-15
  • Prayer, confession of sins, and restoration: James 5:16; Gal. 6:1-2
  • Spiritual fruit-bearing: 5:22-26, 6:6; I Thess 3:10;
  • Biblical theological instruction: I Tim. 4:13; Hebrews 10:24, 25; Ephesians 6:6; Acts 2:42, 5:42, 18:11; Col. 1:28; 1 Thess. 5:27; I Timothy 5:17; 2 Tim. 1:13; 2:2; 2 Timothy 4:2; Titus 2:15
  • Worship, corporate singing and praise: 5:18-20; Gal. 3:16

NOTE:  This is not an exhaustive list either of commands we are called by God to obey that require the church gathered.  This is why the international church has always been willing to risk persecution to be the church-gathered. 



Following are questions covered in my paper specifically related to Covid 19:

  1. Is a health or potential health crisis sufficient reason for governments to regulate regular religious practices?............................................................ 34
  2. How serious is it when governments require people to cease normal religious practices, regardless of real or imagined reasons?..................................... 36
  3. Isn’t the loving thing to do in this situation not to potentially expose or infect others through continued church gatherings?......................................................
  4. 36
  5. What and who are we to fear and not to fear in a crisis like this?.............. 38
  6. Shouldn’t the government’s motive for limitations on religious

expression in a situation like this determine, to some degree, a

Christian’s response to government restrictions?........................................ p. 39

  1. Does the size of groups in prohibitions on the church-gathered make a difference when it comes to civil disobedience?.......................................................... 40
  2. What about mandating masks and social distancing in church

gatherings to potentially reduce viral transmission?  Why wouldn’t a church willingly embrace these simple and reasonable accommodations to public health? ..................................................................................................................... p. 41

  1. Since the church is not a building but people who believe in and follow Jesus, it shouldn’t matter that we can’t meet in the buildings we are used to. I can have a relationship with God and others totally apart from a church building, can’t I? 43
  2. What kind of gathering of God’s people actually constitutes a

functional church?....................................................................................... p. 44

  1. Can’t electronic means of gathering together substitute for some or all of the church’s previously practiced public gatherings?....................................... 45
  2. Isn’t the church getting too political when it speaks out against

governmental controls of the church?......................................................... p. 46 

  1. Should the form of government a Christian finds themselves under in any given country influence the type of response they make to governmental control of the church?........................................................................................................ 47
  2. Isn’t it misguided, counterproductive and a poor witness to our

secular society for Christians to appeal to our Constitution in

asserting our religious ‘rights’?................................................................... p. 49

  1. When should believers engage in civil disobedience and what are the limits, if any, on civil disobedience?......................................................................... 49
  2. Isn’t this a lot of controversy about nothing? Can you really say that the church is suffering persecution under the present situation and limitations?..................................................................................................................... 50