As we continue our study of Romans 13, let’s take a moment to ponder the unambiguous conclusions that we have arrived at so far. God alone is the source of governing authority. The purpose of government is to restrain evil in a society by punishing evildoers. We as the church have been called by our Lord to do the right thing by obeying our leaders ultimately as our obedience unto Him. While these things address why we submit to the government, today we will be taking a closer look at how we submit.
To start us off, let us once again review our text for this series:
“Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.” (Romans 13:1-7, emphasis added).
Taxation was a big deal to the first-century Jews living under Roman occupation. They hated giving up much of their hard-earned income to such an idolatrous Gentile nation, and any Jews who would collect taxes on Rome’s behalf were viewed by their kindred as the most treasonous scum imaginable. When we consider this historical background, it is no wonder that the Pharisees were absolutely astonished when Jesus reclined at the table with the tax collectors and sinners (Matthew 9:11). When the Pharisees later tried to trap Jesus, they asked Him, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (Matthew 22:17b). This was intended to be a “gotcha” question because they figured that if He said “yes,” they could accuse Him of treason against His own kindred and for endorsing what was indeed an unjust system, yet if He said “no,” then they could nab Him for rebellion against Rome. Jesus, knowing their hearts, did not even pretend to play along with their little game; instead, He simply replied, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21b). Rather than trapping Jesus, they found themselves trapped by Him! Jesus did not justify the taxation system the Jews were under, nor did He openly rebel against the Roman Empire, but instead pointed out that what God ultimately wants from us is not our money, but our souls. It is not to suggest that there are things that Caesar owns that God doesn’t and vice versa, for “the earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness, the world and those who dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1). Rather, He is saying that what God is most concerned with is of far greater importance than any tax the government may demand from us. Therefore, we can pay our taxes to our government with a clean conscience knowing that we have already surrendered unto the Lord what He desires most from us: our souls.
Paul’s point is exactly the same. We pay our taxes not because we support everything the government does with our money, but because we who have surrendered our lives to our God and Savior Jesus Christ truly believe that He has appointed those with governing authority and has done so for our good. Fast forward to twenty-first-century America. Is it possible that some of your tax dollars are funding Planned Parenthood? Most definitely. Does this mean that you as a Christian are responsible, at least in part, for the slaughter of millions of unborn babies? By no means! What government officials choose to do with your tax money is entirely their responsibility, not yours. You are called to continue obeying the laws of the land not primarily to be a law-abiding American citizen, but to be a loyal slave of Christ your King, remembering that God is in control and not a single penny you give to the government will be spent in a way that is outside of His sovereign will.
Submitting to the government through our finances is not the only way we are called to submit. Paul also reminds us to render to them “custom to whom custom,” “fear to whom fear,” and “honor to whom honor” (Romans 13:7). What does that mean? What often comes to mind when we hear the term “custom” is a cultural norm or tradition, but it seems unlikely that this is Paul’s use of the term here. Instead, since the context is about submitting to governing authorities, it seems more likely that Paul is referring to our submission to whatever laws and regulations the government has put in place for those who partake in commerce (i.e. trademarks, anti-piracy laws, etc.). Though we have been called out of the world, we are still in the world and are therefore expected to partake in business interactions that are often protected by various regulations set forth by the government. Paul is instructing us to honor our leaders by doing commerce in a lawful manner, and we are likewise called to have a healthy fear of those who have been given authority by God to punish those who refuse to do business lawfully.
Submitting to our governing authorities may not always be easy or convenient, but it is always biblical and in accordance with God's will for our lives. Governments exist for our good as a society; otherwise, we would end up with anarchy. However, we live in a fallen world where the very authorities we are commanded to honor and obey are also sinful human beings whose intentions are not always for the good of the citizenry. Sometimes, rulers and governors can abuse their God-given power and fall into the other ditch known as tyranny. In a future blog series, we will further address the issues that come up as well as the various interpretations believers throughout church history have had over Romans 13, especially when considering tyrannical forms of government.