What does the expression “let every one be subject...) from Romans 13:1 mean? Is it used interchangeable with the Law of God?
The answer to this question involves far more than is immediately obvious. Historically, the relationship of the Christian community to state government has been difficult at best, and at times, resulted in horrific acts of cruelty from both sides. Indeed, it was the revoltingly disastrous experiment of the medieval church, at times indistinguishable from state government, that produced the modern notion of secular government which is neither theistic nor atheistic, as well as the modern concept of the separation of church and state . The resolution of these issues revolves around two questions:
- To what extent should state government be involved in religious matters? That is, to what extent should state government be Christian, atheistic or secular, if at all?
- To what extent should the Christian community be involved with state government? Should Christians vote, pay taxes or be members of a government, and obey worldly government law?
Unfortunately, the Bible material on these questions is scant but succinct. Here is a summary of the Biblical data.
- God rules the kings (and governors of the earth). Rev 1:5, 6, Dan 2:21, 47
- Every government is established and exists by God. John 19:11, Rom 13:1, Job 12:23
- God even uses wicked governments to accomplish His divine purpose. Jer 25:8, 9, Acts 4:27, 28.
- Christians should pray for those in government. 1 Tim 2:1, 2, Jer 29:7
- Christians should honour and submit to government and civil law (as far as conscience allows - see below). Matt 22:15-22, Mark 12:13-17, Luke 20:20-26, Rom 13:1-7, Titus 3:1, 1 Peter 2:13-17. This includes paying taxes.
- There are limits of conscience in obeying governments and laws – our first duty is to God and His laws which take precedence. Dan 3, Acts 4:19, 5:29.
- A Christian in government service should strive to be the best civil servant possible. Dan 6:1-4, Gen 41:37.
- Foreigners and strangers (as well as poor) in a country should be subject to the same privileges and protections as others. Lev 19:34, Deut 10:18, Ps 146:9, Jer 7:6, 22:3, Zech 7:10, Mal 3:5.
To the above explicit instructions we may add the implied requirements illustrated in the story of David, Bathsheba and Uriah the Hittite in 2 Sam 11, 12.
- No-one is above the law, including the king and rulers. All should receive the same treatment and punishment as appropriate for the crime.
- Those who deliver judgement messages should not be punished.
- Foreigners (Uriah the Hittite in this case) are just as important as local residents.
Thus, obeying worldly governments is not optional but they should be obeyed where this does not cut across the law of God.
No, it does not. As I suspect that this chapter of Romans has been used by unscrupulous power mongers to make Christians believe they are to sit down, shut up and do what they are told... in other words to submit to secular governments who desire to control the people in each nation, then I think we should look at this from the perspective of the first audience... those Jewish and gentile converts who were worshiping in their homes and assemblies in Rome at the time Paul wrote this letter to them in about 55-57 AD. (Note 1)
Those Christians, or called-out ones were living during the time of the reign of Caesar Nero and the letter would have reached them before Nero blamed the Christians for burning Rome, before the terrible persecutions Nero would cause about AD 64.
By definition, the called-out ones or "ecclesia" were called to live righteously under the gospel of Christ, and to shun sinful and worldly lusts. Why then would Paul be discussing the authority of secular, civil governments with those who were to live righteously before YHVH?
The question should be which higher authorities did Paul mean? Do we really think that Paul meant to call Nero an authority that was a servant to them?
We need to look at the original words, set in the original background, and begin with a better English translation from Young's.
Rom. 13:1 -4:
"Let every soul to the higher authorities be subject, for there is no authority except from God, and the authorities existing are appointed by God,
2 so that he who is setting himself against the authority, against God's ordinance hath resisted; and those resisting, to themselves shall receive judgment.
3 For those ruling are not a terror to the good works, but to the evil; and dost thou wish not to be afraid of the authority? that which is good be doing, and thou shalt have praise from it,
4 for of God it is a ministrant to thee for good; and if that which is evil thou mayest do, be fearing, for not in vain doth it bear the sword; for of God it is a ministrant, an avenger for wrath to him who is doing that which is evil." (YLT)
Did Paul need to define an emperor as someone with power of authority? That seems self evident that Caesar held power. The entire discussion then was needed to establish that another authority existed as an ordinance of God.
The word "authorities" in vs. 1 is Strong's Gr. 1849, "ἐξουσία", and is transliterated as "exousia". It means power to act, authority and was used as "(a) power, authority, weight, especially: moral authority, influence, (b) in a quasi-personal sense, derived from later Judaism, of a spiritual power, and hence of an earthly power." (Note 2)
It is different from Strong's Gr. 1537 and 1510 which speak of authorization and delegated jurisdictional authority. Strong's Gr. 1849 is used in the NT as 'authority God gives to His saints – authorizing them to act to the extent they are guided by faith (His revealed word)." Ibid.
That authority was the authority God delegated to the Apostles to preach His word - the sword of the Spirit (Matt. 10:34; Eph. 6:17; Heb. 4:12) - that whatever they would bind on earth would be bound in heaven, and what they loosed on earth would be loosed in heaven (Matt. 18:18).
"God's ordinance" in verse 2 would not encompass a command from Caesar Nero to worship him as a god under the Roman cult of emperor worship. The ordinance referred to in vs. 2 must be those set by the Apostles through the power and gifts of the Holy Spirit as their leadership of the assemblies / churches of the saints did establish in that first century AD. Therefore anyone setting themselves against the authority of His Apostles were setting themselves against God's ordinances.
The word "ministrant" in vs. 4 is Strong's Gr. 1249, "διάκονος" or "diakonos" and means servant. According to A.T. Robertson it means to kick up dust, as one who is running an errand. It is the root of the English word "deacon". Thayer's Greek Lexicon has three meanings: 1) a servant of the king; 2) a deacon...who cares for the poor and distributes monies, 3) a waiter, one who serves food and drink. (3)
I cannot under any circumstances imagine Paul would imply that Caesar Nero or any other secular ruling authority of the time was a servant, or deacon to the assemblies of Christ.
The Apostles carried the two-edged sword of God, namely the word of God, the gospel of Christ:
"For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart." (KJV)
That two-edged sword proceded from the mouth of Christ in Rev. 1:16; 2:12. The two-edged sword is the word of God, the gospel of Christ. It is the means of binding kings with chains and honored ones in bands / fetters of iron (Psa. 149:6-9)
The dues and tributes of vs. 6 which they were to pay to the servants of God would be those paid to the "deacons" (diakonos) who were working and ministering to the poor of the assemblies.
The dues of vs. 7 is Strong's Gr. 3782, "ὀφειλή" or "opheilé" and is a debt, an obligation. (4) Verse 7 is speaking of paying all debts to any one to whom it is owed, whether of the tribute / tithe to the assembly, or of any taxing authority. It goes along with the command in vs. 8 to owe nothing to anyone.
If we pay the duties and customs demanded by secular governments then they will be less likely to throw us in jail. That is all this verse is discussing for the conduct of the called-out ones. But, this verse alone cannot be used to make the entire chapter speak of civil authorities. The current traditional teaching of this chapter needs to be thoroughly re-examined and a much brighter light shone upon it as it is being misused and misapplied.
It is very possible that the current teaching was generated by the desire of King James in his battle with the Pope to support his claim of the divine right of kings, and in his distaste of the Puritans and the marginal notes of the Geneva Bible which, if extended to its fullest application, threatened his authority and position as king, which he fully recognized as possible. (5)
1) See Dating The New Testament - Romans here
2) Strong's Gr. 1849 exousia biblehub
3) Strong's Gr. 1249 diakonos biblehub
4) Strong's Gr. 3782 opheilé biblehub
5) King James and the Divine Right of Kings here
To answer your main question: the answer depends on how you view New Testament scripture. If you view these types of NT instructions by the Apostles as commands, then you may view not heeding the instructions as sin. However, if you view these instructions as encouragements, then you may not see non-observance as sin.
I think Jesus answers your question when he said:-
Matthew 22:21 (NWT)
"They said: “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them: “Pay back, therefore, Caesar’s things to Caesar, but God’s things to God.”"
So if there is any conflict the a Christian must put God first wich is confirmed at:-
Acts 5:29 (NWT)
"In answer Peter and the other apostles said: “We must obey God as ruler rather than men."
So what God says on any matter is to be followed by the followers of Jesus.
What happens is that God invests people with authority, but that does not guarantee that they will exercise it as He intended. But even so, Peter says that it is still better to submit and suffer than to rebel (1 Peter 2:18-19). When it is not possible to honor God by submitting to authority, then we can expect to suffer by honoring God over human authority.
We should respect the governing authorities, even pray for them as we see in Jeremiah 29:7. Of course it is difficult especially if we are guided by what we see.... But Jesus Christ gave us an example by suffering an unfair trial (1 Peter 2:21-24). May we follow in His footsteps.