What God Meant: “Be Subject to the Governing Authorities”

We’re launching a new series of posts titled “What God Meant,” in which we will invite expert guest writers to explain some of the most commonly misunderstood scriptural passages. I invited Jesse Wisnewski, content strategist at TheResurgence.com, to kick things off with a look at Romans 13:1. 

Which one word that best describes the relationship between Christianity and the state?

Is it “influence”?

What about “redeem”?

Or how about “ignore”?

All of these are excellent suggestions and carried out by various Christians around the world, but there is one word that best answers this question: “submit.”

Paul wrote in Romans 13:1, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities” (italics added for emphasis). This is a simple command with profound implications.

This command influences the manner by which we relate to the government—it even influences the way governments relate to people. For instance, this command has been used in the past by oppressive and tyrannical regimes to “demand [the] unconditional obedience” of their constituents, and has caused incalculable suffering in the world.

But doesn’t “submit” call us to unquestionably obey what government says and do?

Well, not exactly.

What did God mean when he said “submit”?

In Romans 13:1, the Greek word translated as “submission” in English is hypotasso. This is a complex word and can denote either an enforced or voluntary submission. To better explain what I’m saying, let’s consider a couple examples of how this word is used elsewhere in the New Testament.

On one hand, we read in Luke 10:1 that Jesus Christ appointed and sent out seventy-two people in pairs ahead of him to every city and place he was going. After their departure, we read of their joyful return in Luke 10:17, in which they boast, “Lord, even the demons are subject (hypotasso) to us in your name!” What we see is that the demons were forced to submit to the seventy-two in the name of Jesus Christ, which implies a forced submission.

Now, on the other hand, in James 4:7 we read, “Submit (hypotasso) yourselves therefore to God.” In this passage, we see that James calls upon us to submit voluntarily to God.

If hypotasso can mean either a forced or voluntary submission, we must answer this all-important question: are we to submit to the governing authorities as the demons were to the name of Jesus, or are we to submit to government in the way that James calls us to submit to God?

For the following four reasons, I believe God desires for us to voluntarily submit to the government:

  1. In Romans 13:1, Paul uses hypotasso to indicate a continuous action and suggestive element. In teasing out the meaning of this word, “to submit” in this passage means “to subject oneself, to be subservient, to submit voluntarily.”
  2. In the immediate context (Romans 13:1–7), we observe that the authority of the government is rooted in the authority of God—for there is no authority except from God, all authority is established by God, and governing rulers are considered servants of God (Romans 13:2, 6).
  3. In the larger context of Romans 13:1, namely Romans 12:9–21 and Romans 13:8–14, we find further support for this idea by Paul’s emphasis on acts of selfless love.
  4. What is more, Paul called for everyone to “submit” rather than to “obey.” This fine distinction of words enables us to understand that Paul was calling his recipients to subject themselves voluntarily to the Roman government.

From the theological to the practical

Moving from the abstract to the practical, let’s explore three tremendous implications this passage has for us today:

  • First, we have a duty to God above and beyond the government. Our duty to honor God supersedes our obligations to everyone and everything—even the government.
  • Second, God has ordained governments with a specific role and purpose. As an agent of common grace, governments have a temporal responsibility of maintaining order, promoting the common good, providing for our defense, and protecting the freedoms of each and every citizen.
  • Third, not only are our government’s roles and responsibilities temporal, the very necessity of their existence and authority is temporal. This is why we should not overtly place faith, hope, and trust in what any government or policy can accomplish.

Jesse (@thejessew) is the author of American Crossroads: The Intersection of Christianity and Democracy and a student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He lives outside of Seattle, WA with his wife and four kids.

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