Romans 13:2: Obeying and Disobeying the Government


Michael Cassidy, the founder of African Enterprise visited P W Botha in South Africa on October the 8th 1985. ‘It was the time of the National Initiative for Reconciliation, and Michael hoped for signs of repentance and for assurance that apartheid would be dismantled. He was to be bitterly disappointed. This is his account of what happened: ‘I was immediately aware on entry to the room that this was not to be the sort of encounter for which I had prayed. The President began by standing to read me part of Romans 13.’ One of the verses that was read was Romans 13:2 which talks about the responsibility of every person to obey the government. Romans 13:2, ‘Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement.’ This is one of the more abused verses in the bible.

Paul has just given us two positive reasons for why every person should submit to the government in verse 1, God has created government authority; and He has providentially brought even the bad governments to rule. In verse 2 Paul draws the necessary inference and gives a negative reason for everyone to submit. The inference is that if God ordains government, and the ones we are presently under then, by inference, to resist the government is to resist God. And those who do resist God in this way will suffer, in the words of the KJV, ‘damnation.’ Paul has left no doubt as to our responsibility, twice he has emphasised everyone and he has argued for it with both positive and negative motivations.

For those of you who are familiar with Puritan history you will know that the English Civil War of the 17th century was fought about how one interprets Romans 13:1-7. There was the notion of the divine right of kings where a monarch appointed by God was responsible to none but God, these were called the Royalists. And opposing them were the Parliamentarians that believed the kings power exists by agreement, or social contract. The view that saw God as appointing the King directly, and the apparent call from Romans 13:2 to obey unconditionally led many monarchs to assert their wills in violation of the consciences of their people. Does Paul mean by these verses what those who believed in the divine right of kings believed? Are bad governments given carte blanche to do what they like and we just have to submit? How do we understand Romans 13:2? Is there a time to disobey? More than that is there a time to revolt and overthrow bad governments?

Upon our first reading of Romans 13:1-2 you might get the impression that all bad governments are to be tolerated and obeyed no matter what, but this would be to misunderstand Paul’s purpose here in writing. Paul is making a summarised positive assertion that governments are good and should be obeyed. He is not writing an exhaustive essay on all the different types of governments and how we are to respond in every situation. Remember the need in Rome is a positive view of government, Rome is generally perceived as bad and Paul is balancing an imbalance in their thinking. It is only people with a particular agenda who would isolate these verses from the rest of what the bible says on the matter. Paul being a Jew with a background in the OT would have many examples of when not to obey a bad command given from a government.

Today we want to do three things. We want to look at civil disobedience, when it is necessary and what it looks like; then we want to look at the notion of revolution, and then finally we want to make a few disclaimers to placate our agitation.