In our politically tense world, we need to look to God’s word for perspective and guidance. Romans 13 is one of the key passages in Scripture on politics, and while it is deep and complex, there are three simple points that can be drawn for our context today: 1) Leaders are necessary, 2) laws are good, and 3) love is better.
Leaders Are Necessary
Romans 13:1 makes a bold claim, “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.” In an age of corrupt politicians, this command feels strange. Are we really called to submit to government leaders, even when they’re driven by greed and partisan gain?
Affirming God’s sovereignty over governing authorities and the call for Christians to submit to them does not mean that the authorities won’t be held accountable for their actions or that we owe unconditional obedience to them. The point is that all human authority is derived from God’s authority. And since it comes from God, the authority of government leaders is a delegated authority, not an absolute authority.
Of course, this does not mean that God endorses everything done by a political leader. God-given authority can be misused and abused. Like Jesus said to Pilate before the crucifixion, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11). Pilate misused his authority to condemn and kill Jesus, yet the authority he used to do this was delegated to him by God.
The apostle Peter could say “Honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17), even though the emperor during his time was a psychopath named Nero who terrorized Christians and eventually killed Peter himself. Submitting to the authorities God has established is about respecting the function of the office, not the character of the one in the office.
For this reason, while it is fine to disagree with a political ruler, Christians are called to do so with respect and love, acknowledging the image of God in that political leader even as we hold them accountable to their God-given authority.
Leaders are always flawed, and yet they are an essential part of God’s design for government.
Laws Are Good
Government leaders are called to create and uphold laws that protect people’s basic rights and create space for their flourishing. And we can all agree, in general, that laws are good. It’s good that fourteen-year-olds can’t drive. It’s to everyone’s benefit that stealing is not allowed. But while laws are meant to be good, we have to acknowledge two important qualifications to how Christians relate to the laws of the land.
First, we must recognize the distinction between biblical principles and government policies.
For Christians, our biblical principles must shape the way we approach government policies. But we cannot confuse the two. The Bible does not give us policies on international trade, carbon dioxide emissions, or public education. If we don’t recognize this difference, there is a danger of reading our own policy preferences into Scripture and then claiming to be the only one who’s being biblical.
Take immigration, for example. Scripture gives clear principles about God’s heart for the immigrant and how God’s people are to love the immigrant. Deuteronomy 10:18-19 says the LORD “loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.” However, while the biblical principle regarding love for the immigrant is clear, Scripture does not prescribe policies regarding how many immigrants should be allowed in a country or how long visas should last. Biblical principles must inform our approach to government policies.
Second, while laws are good, there is certainly a time for Christians to resist the laws of the land. In fact, as a Christian, you are obligated to resist the law when the government forbids what God commands or commands what God forbids.
Scripture is filled with examples of God’s people resisting the government. Pharaoh ordered Hebrew midwives to kill newborn boys, but they refused to obey. King Nebuchadnezzar issued an edict that his subjects must fall down and worship his golden image but three Israelites, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego resisted. When King Darius made a decree that for thirty days nobody should pray “to any god or man” except himself, Daniel refused to obey.
In Acts 4:19, the governing authorities commanded the apostles to stop preaching the gospel but they replied, “We cannot help but speak about what we’ve seen and heard.” In Acts 5:29, they say, “We must obey God rather than man.”
We have an obligation to the government but our ultimate allegiance is to God. When Christians do resist the government, however, they must do so not in violence but in peace, driven not by hate but by love, and aiming not for defeat but reconciliation.
Love Is Better
While many people look to Romans 13:1-7 for principles about government, they often miss the connection to verses 8-10, which are about love. Just after discussing leaders and laws, the Apostle Paul says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” for “love is the fulfilling of the law.”
We must remember that while Scripture speaks to the legitimacy of goverment, it also establishes the limits of government. The government can’t change the heart, but love can. Politicians can’t make you a new person, but love can. Laws can’t give purpose to your life, but love can. This is not to minimize legislation: it’s important. But you can’t legislate internal transformation. The people of God are called to be a people of love.
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
Love is the social glue in the community of Christ. We are bound together by love for each other and for our city.
Romans 13 is a deep and dense biblical passage on the topic of politics, but at the most basic level we can learn from it that leaders are necessary and laws are good, but love is better.