ORIGIN OF CIVIL GOVERNMENT
(A Biblical Examination of Its Origin and Jurisdiction)
by Kerry Lee Morgan*
“Thus, upon a careful review of the apostle’s reasoning in this passage, it appears that his arguments to enforce submission, are of such a nature, as to conclude only in favor of submission to such rulers as he himself describes; i.e., such as rule for the good of society, which is the only end of their institution. Common tyrants, and public oppressors, are not entitled to obedience from their subjects, by virtue of anything here laid down by the inspired apostle.” Rev. Jonathan Mayhew, Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers, January 30, 1750
“How do we know that a given government is ordained of God and that He has given it authority? A government’s existence is proof that it is ordained of God and that it possesses divinely delegated authority . . . . Whether democratic or autocratic, heathen or God-fearing, every government which has the power to rule over its people has been granted that power and authority by God. Submission to government then is an expression of our submission to God. God has instituted human government to exercise divinely delegated authority over men. We should be subject to human governments for this reason alone.” Rev. Robert L. Deffinbaugh, The Christian and Civil Government, August 18, 2004.
“But so that we don’t offend them, go to the lake and throw out a hook. Take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth, you will find a four drachma coin. Take that and give it to them for me and you.” Matthew 17:24-27.
Romans 13, 1 Samuel 8 and Deuteronomy 17
We now come to the trifecta–Romans 13, 1 Samuel 8 and Deuteronomy 17. We have concluded our review of the Old Testament with our inquiry regarding what God has to say about the origin and jurisdiction of civil government. We are 4,000 years into human history. The conclusion is that God ordained no civil government except his own and then only by consent in Israel. God established no civil government for any nation. Every civil government of every nation was and is the creation of human beings. Every judge and king of Israel was sent by God as an act of pity and grace, and was a departure from the original plan of government by God himself in Israel.
We now turn to the New Testament with the same question in mind. Such an inquiry invariably leads to Romans 13 which we will now examine. See also 1 Peter 2:13-16 where Peter admonishes us to, “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.” Is Paul or Peter introducing anything new about God and civil government? Re-read Jonathan Mayhew’s explanation at the beginning of this chapter. He says Paul is describing a very specific type of civil government that alone deserves our submission. Perhaps it is a mythical government because it has never existed in its true limited form. The other quotation by Robert L. Deffinbaugh says Paul is mandating submission to every civil government regardless of its character, just because it exists. Deffinbaugh is quoted because he well articulates what many think.
Or is there yet another view of this scripture? Let us first look at 1 Peter 2:13-14. It states, “submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right.” Note that Peter describes kings and governors as “human institutions.” He does not say God established a civil government with kings or governors. Human institutions are not created by God. Human institutions are institutions created by humans. Humans create all kinds of institutions. Humans create local fellowships and local churches. God did not create the Frist Baptist church of your city. It was created by human beings. Its articles of incorporated are signed by humans and filed in a government computer. God created his church and body of believers but that exists irrespective of any man-made church structure, hierarchical or congregational, messianic, catholic, orthodox or protestant.
The same goes for your political parties, car clubs, gun clubs, golf leagues, bowling leagues, sports leagues, homeschool cooperatives, dining clubs, Greek organizations or membership societies and organizations in general. These are all human institutions. God did not establish them and He is not a charter member. So too is the case with civil government. It is a human institution. Peter is advising us to submit to this organization at its national and local levels because it ought to be in the business of punishing wrongdoers and praising those who do what is right. Peter is not giving an order. Peter has no authority to give an order of conduct to you or me. Peter is not a legislator nor does his Apostleship carry with it the authority to make new laws of conduct for believers.
Peter is trying to communicate what to him is the common sense of the subject if you want to stay out of trouble then do what the government requires of you. But it is not an order. Peter can’t bind our conscience to say when or under what circumstance we may ignore the civil government or simply declare “I will not comply.” Those decisions remain with each human being and nothing Peter is advising changes that. Let us stop trying to make Peter a lawgiver or someone who can bind our conscience or a shill for unlimited submission to civil tyrants.
Now we turn to Paul. Peter and Paul are on the same page here. Could Paul also be saying obey the government as a practical matter so as to not give them cause to interfere with you? That is, lest they should think that we despise the civil government and thus provoke needless opposition, though we are under no obligation to submit, yet it is best to do so in general terms so that we can continue to follow God in our conscience, family and religion without interference from civil officials. We submit not because God commands it, but because submission denies the civil government occasion to say we are lawbreakers thereby justifying its ill treatment and evil doing tendency. Remember what civil government does by natural inclination: take, covet, kill and make war. Is Paul saying the wise keep out of the grip of that machine, that Leviathan? We submit so that we may not give the civil government occasion to accuse us or to misjudge us. Is this what is being said?
Before we look at the text of Romans 13, however, we must understand it in the context and flow of history we have taken thirteen chapters to understand. Adam was no king. He had no governmental authority over the people. Civil government is never mentioned for the first 27.5% of human history. Noah was not a king. Abraham was not a king. Moses was not a king. The first kingdom was Babel. It was made by mankind and God rendered it abandoned.
Pharaohs and kings are mentioned next as murderers, adulterers and lovers of war with its resulting taking of life, liberty and property. God neither instituted nor established these civil governments. We discussed the kings of Israel and later of Judah. The existence of these kings itself was a result of the evil choice of the people first rejecting God as their King. Saul, David and Solomon were progressively worse as kings when compared to the limitations of civil power stated in Deuteronomy 17. Most of subsequent kings did evil and God killed a few kings Himself.
The only government God ever created was self-government and the family through marriage, childbearing and rearing, and dominion. The history of civil government is punctuated by the description of the evils described in 1 Samuel 8 and the need for limits on civil power referenced in Deuteronomy 17. We discussed how civil government, specifically led by pharaohs and kings, would take from the people by force, their labor, property, increase and children and as a result, “you shall be his slaves.” 1 Samuel 8:17. This is God’s view of the civil governments of all the nations of that day. Little has changed.
God advised that the people should limit their selection of leaders to natural born persons. He advised that the people should limit the power of the civil government regarding offensive wars, resist the accumulation of massive wealth taken from the people, avoid entangling foreign alliances and treaties, and ensure that the law governed both the people and governmental officials equally. All were under the law of God and law of the land. Law was not to be used lawlessly. See also 1 Timothy 1:8, “We know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully.”
So with this background in mind and understanding what God has said about civil governments in the past we come to Romans 13. Is Paul, the author of Romans laying down a new doctrine of civil government, never before heard of by mankind? Is he rejecting what God has said about civil government and kings of the nations as recorded in 1 Samuel 8? What is Paul actually saying? Is he trying to reconcile what God said way back then, with the modern Roman civil government and its Caesar?
When looking at Romans 13, understand that few people have any meaningful understanding of what you have read from previous chapters regarding I Samuel 8 or Deuteronomy 17. They have never put 1 and 1 together the old and new covenants and testaments. They have never heard anything substantial about civil government as covered in prior chapters. Regretfully, they do not even know they should be asking what God thinks about civil government. Do you? Did you? No, they come to Romans 13 like sheep to the slaughter, ready to conclude that unlimited submission is God’s will and the order of the day.
Romans 13:1-7 states:
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. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
Who Are the Authorities: Not Pharaohs and Kings
Let us break this down. Romans 13 first says, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.” Stop. Who are these governing authorities? Don’t jump to any conclusions. Reason it out from what the Bible says. So far we have seen that the “authorities” include first God as the supreme and highest authority.
We also know that human beings were created by God to exercise authority over themselves, their physical bodies, their health, their mind and hearts. We know that human beings are of two types, male and female. To them are given the authority to exercise dominion over the earth, to possess and own property and to labor and enter into marriage and voluntary associations. To them as husband and wife, are also given the authority to be fruitful and multiply, and to oversee and direct the education and upbringing of their own children. Thus, mankind is an authority established by God. A husband and wife are authorities established by God. A father and mother are authorities established by God. So this is clearly what Paul is talking about thus far.
We also know the universal church was established by Jesus when he instituted his church and gave its members authority in Matthew 28:18-20. He stated, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Note Jesus references His “authority.” Paul says be subject to the “governing authorities.” Jesus is certainly a governing authority.
Of course, God did not create your local church down the street. It is not an authority God established despite its claims to the contrary. It has no inherited or delegated authority to govern any person. Your local “church” is established as a non-profit corporation under state law with its internal structure of control dictated by law. That structure has nothing to do with the church Jesus established of which He is the head and all believers stand equally under Him. His church has no new rules or ordinances. It requires only what has always been required–that we should love God and our neighbor as ourselves. His church therefore differs radically from the local assembly down the street with its rules and traditions of men and its man-made authority structure or hierarchy.
As noted a husband and wife have authority to govern their household. Parents are governing authorities. They have authority to govern their children. Therefore, according to Paul, whoever resists these authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. Isn’t it good to know that if you resist the petty tyranny of your local church, you will not incur the judgment of God for it?
Pause to ask, “Do the civil authorities resist what God has appointed?” God appointed the father and mother to educate their children. The civil government resists that authority by compulsory school attendance and curriculum requirements. God says that such resistance will incur His judgment. This is an easy one to see. We could provide more examples but you get the point.
Are you ready to add civil government to the list of governing authorities? Not so fast. Where does God establish civil authority? What chapter or verse? Let’s go back to the first pharaoh in Genesis 12. He was a man inclined to murder; a man who took what he wanted by force, a man who controlled land and agriculture, a man who determined who can reside in his kingdom, a man who ordered others to do his will; and a man who God punished for defiling the marriage covenant of Abram and Sarai. Here is a man who believes he is the law. Is this what God instituted? Is this an authority unto whom Abraham must submit? What say you? Do you think this is what Paul is commanding, that Abraham should have obeyed pharaoh as an act of obedience to God in letting him take his wife as his own? If that is what you think (that God commanded this), then why did God threaten to harm or kill pharaoh for that conduct?
And what about the first reference to kingdoms at Babel in Genesis 11, or kings in Genesis 14? You remember the ones? They are remembered for their conduct principally in terms of waging war, confiscating booty and enslaving human captives. They abducted Abram’s nephew Lot and took all his possession in their war. Did Paul say, “Submit to such as these?” Is this an authority unto whom Abram was required to submit? Apparently Abram did not think so. “When Abram heard that his nephew had been taken captive, he mobilized his 318 trained men who had been born in his household, and he pursued the invaders as far as Dan. Then, during the night, Abram divided his forces against them and defeated them. He chased them as far as Hobah, which is north of Damascus. He retrieved all the stolen property. He also brought back his nephew Lot and his possessions, as well as the women and the rest of the people.” Genesis 14:14-16. Are you ready to tell Abraham that he should have submitted to these kings as the minister of God? Are you ready to tell Abraham that he should turn the other cheek and just let the kings keep his nephew?
Look at the words God uses to describe the conduct of the kings they took captives, they were invaders, they stole property. Are you ready to tell Abram that submission to this government is mandated by God? Speak up. And let’s look back at the Egyptians. “They put foremen over the Israelites to oppress them with hard labor.” Exodus 1:11. And when Moses said let the people go and pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord that I should obey him by releasing Israel? I do not know the Lord, and I will not release Israel.” Would you advise Moses to respond, “Well that settles that, we will obey.” Would you remind Moses that “whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed?” Would you remind Moses that he should “have no fear of the one who is in authority?” Exodus 5:2. Or is God just giving conflicting advice here, telling Moses one thing and Paul another? How do you see it? Is God confused or are you?
What about Nahash the Ammonite who said that the only way he would make a treaty with Israel was to allow him to gouge out the right eye of every male? 1 Samuel 11:2. If he had defeated Israel in war, would you remind Samuel to command all the people to line up like sheep to have their eye gouged out because Paul will say one day “For he (Nahash) is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer?”
What of the 42 kings of Israel and Judah and one queen? Of the 42 kings, 15 were killed or assassinated by others, God killed 3, and 2 killed themselves. Of the 19 kings of Israel, 7 were killed by individuals who killed the king in a coup and then assumed power. All 19 kings of Israel are described as evil doers. Every single king did evil. Among the kings of Judah twelve were described by God as evildoers. Eight kings were described as good.
Are any or all of these pharaohs and kings “governing authorities” referenced by Paul unto who God commands submission? No. We know what you are thinking. You are thinking, “Well Paul said we should submit to the government as a minister of God for our good.” So does that mean you would advise the people of Israel?–“Sure every one of your kings was an evildoer, but you have to submit anyway and for your own good, be impoverished, enslaved or murdered?” Friend, have you lost perspective? Do we have to single out all the kings and civil governments on the earth and illustrate their evil course of conduct and against this weight of evidence you maintain unlimited submission is mandated? Is there is no reasoning left? God did not make us to enjoy liberty to obey Him and then throw it all away for obedience to civil government. He did not make individuals and the family to govern themselves and then tell Paul to write they should throw it all away in preaching submission to civil government.
Romans 13 says the authority must be established by God. Human beings have authority as individuals, husbands, wives, and parents. Human beings have authority as believers to render to their creator those obligations required by Him. (This liberty was recognized in the 1776 Virginia Bill of Rights). Kings and civil officials do not have authority in this way. They are not established by God. True it is that “David realized that the Lord had established him as king over Israel and that he had elevated his kingdom for the sake of his people Israel.” 1 Chronicles 14:2. But this was by the consent of the people in first demanding a king and pursuant to God’s authority as their King previously agreed upon 300 years prior thereto. It is no rule for any other king or nation.
So Paul says “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.” Recall what Peter said, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right.” 1 Peter 2:13-14. A king and a kingdom is a “human institution.” A human instruction is not an authority established by God. It is established by human beings. How many times do we have to go over this? Peter and Paul say in effect: The authorities that exist have been instituted by God, and civil government is not one of them.
Paul then writes, “[t]herefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” In other words, the authorities that exist that are instituted by God are the husband and wife, mother and father, and His son Jesus. If you resist their limited and lawful authority, you incur God’s judgment. But since civil government is a human institution, it is not an authority and if you resist this human institution, you will not incur God’s judgment. You may incur the judgment of the human institution, but not God’s judgment.
Rulers Are Not To Be Wicked Tyrants
Next Paul adds, “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain.” What does this mean? Paul is speaking of a civil government that acts lawfully. When it acts lawfully it is a terror to bad conduct. He is also saying God uses civil government to punish wrongdoing. God uses civil governments when the people consent to establish those civil governments and the civil official exercises that authority lawfully given. God uses any civil government how He wants just like he will use you or me how he wants. But this does not mean civil governments are created by God or that their command and punishments are automatically just. A civil government not established by the people but rather established over the people by force of arms or conquest or some other tyrannical way is not God’s recognized way of establishing a civil government but it can be used by God nonetheless.
What does Paul say about the authority of Nero, Herod or of Agrippa? What does he say about the authority of Caesar? Are these rulers a terror to bad conduct? Are these rulers God’s servant for the good of Romans? Are these rulers the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer? No. They are none of these things. Paul cannot mean that these people are to be obeyed when they themselves do not submit to God. He cannot mean that we are to obey our civil officials when they do not submit to God. Paul is not sanctioning the abuse of power by wicked men.
And what authority would God have them exercise? There is only one type of authority and it is lawful authority. We know the authority God would not have them exercise. He has told us in 1 Samuel 8 and Deuteronomy 17. He would not have them exercise the lawless authority of the kings of the nations of the earth. He would not have them exercise the lawless authority He cautions Israel to specifically limit and prohibit. He would not have them exercise the powers which God warned against in 1 Samuel 8.
He would not have them exercise lawless authority to take, take, and take. He would not have them exercise lawless authority to take our children or take our land and property. He would not have them exercise lawless authority to take our freedom, control our medical choices, make us slaves or increase their wealth through governing and taxes. He would not have them exercise lawless authority to establish a large standing army, militarize law enforcement or erect a military empire. He would not have them exercise lawless authority to lord their power over us or to exempt them from the law which applies to everyone else. He would not have them exercise the lawless authority to entangle the nation in non-defensive wars of foreign aggression or establish worldwide global hegemony over all nations. He would not have them exercise the lawless authority to practice rendition, torture or incite nuclear Armageddon.
Paul Is Not Instructing Us To Obey Tyrants
Paul is speaking of lawful purposes which citizens have the authority to and actually choose to voluntarily extend to their civil governments. He is not referring to the abuse of power by wicked men holding an office, position or title. The mere possession of a title or office is no guarantee of the lawfulness of its authority. Simply because a person is the president and claims to exercise presidential authority, does not mean that all acts done in the name of the president or in the office of the man or woman are lawful. Simply because a person is a Congressional Representative or a Senator, or a Justice of the Supreme Court, does not mean when they act or speak, that it is presumed lawful.
If there is a presumption to be attached to the acts of the legislature and of the conduct of the executive branch, is that they are lawless and unconstitutional when judicially challenged and that the burden is on the government to establish their lawfulness and constitutionality. Modern judicial decisions, however, adopt the opposite presumption. They presume the lawfulness and constitutionally of legislative acts and of executive decisions. The kings of Israel, all of which God declared did evil would have enjoyed such a presumption.
How different is this repeated misunderstanding of judicial responsibility when compared to his warnings about the inherent disposition of the legislative branch to fly off into orbit claiming any power they choose as elaborated upon by Thomas Jefferson. He wrote that “in questions of power then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the constitution.” In the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 he noted that judicial review is not worthy of the name where the presumption of constitutionality is accorded to the acts of the legislature. Indeed Paul is not naïve as our modern jurists. Though he lays out the best case for obeying civil government, he does not presume that its acts are inherently good or lawful or constitutional. When civil rulers act lawfully they should be obeyed as a practical matter, and when they act unlawfully or lawlessly, we have no obligation to obey them.
Judicially created canons of presuming constitutionality and avoiding constitutional questions are ill-suited to a constitution designed to limit civil government precisely because an expansive civil power is a dangerous thing. These canons of construction assume what they should reject. Power is dangerous and should be checked at every step, not given a free pass.
In its most common articulation, the presumption of constitutionality deters the court from striking down an Act of Congress except upon a clear showing of unconstitutionality. Similarly, the canon of “constitutional avoidance” provides that where an otherwise acceptable construction of a statute would raise serious constitutional problems, the Court will construe the statute to avoid such problems unless such construction is plainly contrary to the intent of Congress. Ashwander v. Tennessee Valley Authority, 297 U.S. 288, 341 (1936) (Brandeis, J., joined by Stone, Roberts, and Cardozo, JJ., concurring). These extra-constitutional canons should be rejected. The civil government deserves only the presumption that its actions are lawless and it must bear and carry the burden of proving otherwise.
The Key Concepts: Authorities, Conscience, and Servant Explained
Paul next asserts, “For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.” God is against the wrongdoer. If the people establish a civil government and clothe it with lawful authority by a non-exclusive delegation of their authority to punish crimes against persons and property, then in that sense a civil government is an avenger of God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. If the people however, do not establish such a civil government but it arises by force or fraud over the people, or becomes a civil government over the people and subjugates them, then its mere power to punish crimes against persons and property may still serve the purpose of executing God’s wrath against the wrongdoer, but the legitimacy of such a civil government is not automatically established.
Recall Hosea 8:4, “They made kings, but not through me. They set up princes, but I knew it not.” Recall Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon which God describes as “my servant.” Jeremiah 25:9. There was also Cyrus, king of Persia whom God calls “his shepherd” and “my anointed.” Isaiah 44:28 and 45:1. These kingdoms were not instituted by the consent of the people, but God used them anyway. They were nothing more, however, than human institutions.
The point is that Paul is describing the best of civil governments when created by human beings with their consent. Thus, at the end of the day, Paul is still describing a “human institution” at its best. The fact that God uses good and bad human institutions is rather unremarkable. He uses us doesn’t He, even though we are sinful? He uses the church doesn’t He, even though it is weighed down with myopic pastors, weak leadership and milk-fed members?
Let us turn to the above statements about conscience. Paul refers to obedience for conscience sake. What is this? He is talking about our conscience. He is indicating that we can choose to obey for the sake of our conscience when the civil government acts lawlessly. We obey them in order to avoid their immediate lawless wrath.
We may be wise and not throw ourselves before the civil governmental juggernaut. We may elect to obey a lawless government so that we may continue to do that which God has called us to do without the interference or the punishment of an evil ruler. This is a pragmatic consideration. This is a practical consideration. Do you want to stay out of jail? Do you want to avoid your assets being levied by the Internal Revenue Service? Do you want to avoid serving a prison sentence? Do you want to avoid the police kicking in your door and taking your property?
Let us assume each thing when done are wrongly done in your case and that they are done lawlessly by the civil ruler. Nevertheless, Paul is saying that you may want to submit anyway because the evil you submit to is less invidious than being denied the freedom to do what is right with the money you have left, or the freedom you have when not incarcerated.
Paul is giving advice. He is not, however, laying down a rule of conduct for every person. We may observe it to our benefit or ignore it at our peril. It is up to each person to decide to obey a lawless civil government, judge, police officer or federal agent based on pragmatic considerations. The choice to disobey is not a sin which God will punish, though Caesar will look upon it as contempt or a crime. But what did you expect that Caesar’s lawless command would not be followed by a lawless punishment? So we have to be prudent. Paul is giving us practical advice, not the immutable law of God.
Paul also says: “Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are servants of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.” This is the practice that applies when the civil government acts lawfully, not in all cases. Paul is switching gears. He is focusing on those times when the civil government does what the people have lawfully entrusted it to do.
Why would God be angry if we failed to pay taxes to support good government? His wrath would arise because the government established by the people to do what is lawful costs money to operate. But He is not angry when we refuse to pay taxes when that government is lawless. He may also be wrathful because “the will of God, [is] that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.” 1 Peter 2:15. Non-payment of taxes provides an easy target for the government to attack His people. Perhaps God is in effect saying, “Pay your taxes so as not to offend the government.” Or as Matthew wrote down what Jesus said, “But so that we don’t offend them, go to the lake and throw out a hook. Take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth, you will find a four drachma coin. Take that and give it to them for me and you.” Matthew 17:24-27.
This puts the idea of tax exemption in a whole new light. If your church is tax exempt and then chastises you to pay taxes because of Romans 13, ask why it does not pay taxes. The only answer is that found in Matthew 17:25. The kings of the earth do not tax their own sons, i.e., your ministers and church!
In further regard to the payment of taxes, it follows that governmental officials who are occupied in such affairs, most easily take offense when money is in question. Therefore, we pay taxes as our conscience dictates so that we may avoid the wrath of an evil government or interference of a good one. But at some point we must say no more. Remember that the people and Jeroboam came to Rehoboam to ask him if he would limit his power and relieve them of conscription and heavy oppressive taxes. Jeroboam and the and the whole assembly of Israel went to Rehoboam and said to him: “Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but now lighten the harsh labor and the heavy yoke he put on us, and we will serve you.” 1 Kings 12:3-4. Rehoboam said “no” and threatened to increase their taxes even more. As a result the People declared their separation from his rule. When all Israel saw that King Rehoboam refused to listen to them, they answered the king: “What share do we have in David, what part in Jesse’s son? To your tents, Israel! Look after your own house, David!” 1 Kings 12:16. A misreading of Paul’s statement makes no provision for this tax revolt or declaration of the causes that impelled them to separation. Yet, it had God’s blessing.
We have addressed the concept of “authorities” instituted by God and the idea of conscience. Let us turn to the last key concept in Romans 13 what is meant by saying he is “God’s servant for your good” and that “the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.” As we noted, this “very thing” is punishing wrongdoing, not punishing doing right or interfering with the authorities God established (self-government, husband, wife, father, and mother.) We also noted that when civil government acts it often is a very incompetent or an evil minister. Just being called a “minister of God,” however, does not clothe the civil government with God’s authority. It simply means that when the people have established a civil government by their consent, and clothed its officials with limited authority to punish specific wrongdoing, then that official acts as God’s minister (through the people’s consent.)
Israel’s evil kings and queen were not “governing authorities . . . instituted by God” nor were they “God’s servant” for good. Romans 13:1-4. Didn’t God kill a few along the way? They are not “authorities” either. Though Paul calls them “ministers of God” they were not good ministers worthy of any obedience. Impeachment, not obedience, is their lot.
Thus we cannot take Paul’s admonition as a universal rule of conduct. Nor is Paul the lord of any man’s conscience. He may appeal to our conscience and advocate that it should dictate the payment of taxes or submission to civil officers. But it is my conscience and your conscience that is to be exercised and is only accountable to God for the exercise thereof. Paul’s admonition cannot bind anyone’s conscience in these matters except his own. Nor did he intend to do so. If you remember nothing about this chapter, remember that. Yes, the civil government will take note of your conscience. It will create a list with you on it. It will mark you as someone to watch and perhaps prosecute at some point in time. But this does not mean it acts lawfully.
4,000 Years and What Do We Know?
The sum of the matter so far is this: God does not institute or establish civil government. The kings of the earth arise by force, conquest or the consent of human beings, but not by divine will. Remember also that: “The Lord has established his throne in heaven; his kingdom extends over everything.” Psalm 103:19. All nations and kingdoms are subordinate to Him.
If the people choose to establish a civil government, wisdom dictates it should be one of very limited power. It must be limited to those lawful objects which the people themselves have the authority in the first place to extend to a civil government. When that government acts lawlessly or goes beyond the limited authority lawfully given to it, then the people have no need to obey it. God does not require it. Paul does not advise it. Yet, every person may submit as a pragmatic matter so that they may continue to enjoy their life though diminished, their families though regulated, their religion though confined, their employment though subject to control, their wealth though partially taken, and their freedom though systematically denied or disparaged on a relative scale.
But we do not see in Romans 13 the announcement of a never before heard doctrine of civil government. We do not see God declaring that civil governments are “authorities” He has instituted. We do not see God waking up after 4,000 years of human history and saying, “Well I guess now that the Romans are the world’s superpower, I better share with Paul some insights about civil government that I never bothered to communicate before.” We do not see the doctrine of unlimited submission to civil magistrates. We do not see the nonsense that every civil official, from the president down to the dog-catcher is God’s agent no matter what.
Paul says that civil officials are ministers of God. But their office is a human institution. It is created by humans. But ministers sent by God are not “authorities” instituted by God. God did not clothe them with civil power. Only people can do that. Nor does it mean that civil officials are automatically good ministers. The presumption should be to the contrary. Read the books of God’s own kings whom He Himself calls evil.
In a nutshell Romans 13 essentially offers nothing new after 4,000 years of human history. It offers only the pragmatic observation that obedience to civil government ought to be guided by our individual conscience. Submission may cost us less in the short term, than disobedience in the long term. It also reaffirms that the “authorities” set up by God are the individual, the family and later on the church of Christ which has but one head Jesus Christ. Your favorite religious corporation down the street you call the “church” shares no power from Jesus to dictate submission, mandate belief or command your conscience. Don’t you give it to them either. The Creator gave it to you to exercise in self-government.
Finally, the scripture affirms that when established by the people, a civil government might act as a minister or servant of God, but this is no guarantee that it will act lawfully, or as a good servant or an obedient minister. Nor is it a declaration that any civil office is an “authority” or established by God. Indeed, “They made kings, but not through Me. They set up princes, but I knew it not.” Hosea 8:4. If you have that yellow marker handy, this would be a good paragraph to highlight.