Submission to Whom?

Paul's letter to the Romans has important teaching about the role of civil government sandwiched within a discussion about the meaning of love. At the end of Romans 12, Paul is expounding Jesus' message about "turning the other cheek". He explains that we must not use force against those who harm us, but wait on God to provide justice. We must overcome evil with good.

Paul then answers a question that he had probably been asked many times when talking on this topic. Does the injunction to turn the other cheek apply to the civil authorities? Was Jesus saying that they should turn the other cheek to those who break the law instead of punishing them? Was Jesus advocating absolute pacifism? Paul gives his answer to this important question in Romans 13:1-7. He then goes back to talking about love for the remainder of the chapter.

The heart of Paul's message is submission to authorities that have been instituted by God.

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves (Rom 13:1-2 NIV).

This passage has been used to justify various forms of political control. The common argument is that Paul was writing to the church in Rome at a time when Nero was Caesar. If a terrible ruler like Nero was instituted by God, then all forms of political power are justified, and Christians must submit to whatever political authority they face.

The problem with this argument is that it does not define the "governing authorities" that Paul is writing about. The entire passage has been badly translated into English. Almost every English version has been translated in a way that gives the greatest possible power to political leaders. This is odd, given that we are supposed to be submitted to God and that Paul was in trouble with the political authorities throughout his ministry. The assumption that Paul is commanding us to submit to every political authority, including dictators and tyrants, is absurd.

The Powers that Be

Before we can understand Paul's teaching about the civil authority, we must answer a basic question: who are the civil authorities that he is writing about? I believe that Paul is only referring to judges. His teaching about submission does not apply to other political powers. There are several reasons why this is true.

The essential key to understanding Paul's message about civil authority is in Romans 13:1, where Paul writes,

The authorities that be have been established by God

This rather odd expression "the authorities that be" refers back to Deut 19:17, for which a literal translation refers to "the judges which shall be in those days." This link has been missed because we do not love the law, so we have not connected Romans and Deuteronomy. When Paul says that the "authorities that be" have been established by God, he is speaking about judges only. He is not talking about politicians, parliaments, emperors or presidents.

This is an extremely important principle. We are only required to submit to righteous judges. Romans 13 does not give blanket authority to political power in all its forms; Paul is simply confirming the Old Testament principle that government by judges is the best way. This is the system of government that has been established by God.

Excellent Judges

When considering the expression "governing authorities", we should note that the word "governing" is not in the Greek text. The word that is often translated as governing is "huperecho", which can mean "superior in rank", but it also has a strong sense of "excellence". Paul used the same word in Phil 3:8 when speaking of the "surpassing greatness" of knowing Christ. Paul is actually saying that we should submit to "excellent judges". This gives us a choice about submitting. We are only required to submit to those judges who have demonstrated excellence.

The word authority (exousia) is used four times in the first two verses of Romans 13. It has a broad meaning, ranging from freedom to ruler to judge. Exousia is used for the authority that was given to Jesus (Matt 28:10) and for spiritual authorities (Eph 1:21; 6:12). One meaning of exousia is judge or magistrate. This is the way that it is translated in Luke 12:11. In Romans 13, exousia is authority that has been given by God to those who "implement his law", so it must be referring to judges.

We should also note that the word "authority" is plural. Paul is not talking about a single political leader. He is suggesting that we should submit to authorities (plural). Romans 13 is not about kings and parliaments, but confirms the Old Testament teaching of the role of judges. There will be many judges, so we must submit to the excellent ones. This is consistent with the Old Testament, which always speaks of multiple judges (Ex 22:8,9, Deut 19:17,18; 25:1)


Paul contrasts God's judges (exousia) with worldly rulers. The word that he uses in Romans 13:3 for "ruler" is "arkon". This is the same word as Paul used in the letter to the Ephesians to describe "government-spirits". Arkon are rulers that are opposed to God, and are usually controlled by powerful government-spirits.

Followers of Jesus should not participate in the arbitrary and evil of worldly power. It does not provide justice, but protects the rich and powerful. Instead of relying on political power, they should overcome evil by doing good and providing justice within the body of Jesus. This justice would be delivered by elders rising up to become good judges, as described in Romans 13:1-3.

Paul explains that people who object to the justice provided by excellent judges applying God's laws are rebelling against God.

Anyone resisting the decision of a good judge (exousia) is rebelling against what God has put in place. Those rejecting it are accepting judgment for themselves. Worldly rulers (archon) cause no fear for the good way, but only for those choosing the bad way (Rom 13:2-3).

Those who reject God's system of justice will inevitably find themselves under worldly rulers (arkon), whereas those who have chosen the best way within the body of Jesus are relatively safe from evil because they can support each other to protect their communities.

In contrast, worldly rulers (arkon) produce fear for those who reject God's way and choose to live under political power in whatever form prevails during their time.

But if you do bad, be afraid. A ruler does not carry the sword for no purpose; it is a servant of God making right in anger to the one committing evil (Rom 13:4).
Worldly rulers carry a sword and they are not afraid to use it. Their justice is based on power and coercion. People who are forced to live under political power, or choose to live under it, should be afraid of their rulers because they can hit them hard if they step out of line, even if they are doing what is right.

Rulers carry the sword in an attempt to overcome evil with lesser evil. They don't attempt to overcome evil with good, which is God's way.

All over the world and throughout history, good people have had terrible harm done to them by rulers. Kings and armies have pillaged and burned houses and farms without discrimination. Political powers have always been a source of terror for good people. Furthermore, democracy does not prevent the political powers from doing terrible harm to good people. Modern political authorities have so much power that they are a terror to good people.

Paul's statement about submission can only be true of excellent judges implementing God's law. They have no power to hurt good people and can only harm those who have broken God's law. This is further confirmation that Paul is only commanding submission to judges. His statement cannot be true of other forms of political power.

Whose Authority?

All authority belongs to God.

There is no legitimate authority (exousia) except under God (Rom 13:1).
If all authority belongs to God, there cannot be another source of authority. There can only be delegated authority, but delegated authorities only have authority, while they are submitted to their superior authority. If they claim an independent authority, their legitimacy disappears. If a king's servant claims the right to make his own decisions, he is refusing to accept the authority of his king.

If all authority comes from God, then Caesar cannot have an independent authority. The same applies to a parliament. The only legitimate authority is one that acknowledges God's authority and implements his law. Political powers that claim sovereignty and an independent authority are in rebellion against God's authority. Any institution that creates its own law is usurping the authority of God. To be legitimate, a political power must apply God's law in every situation. The only legitimate government is righteous judges applying God's law.

We have totally misunderstood Paul's message. He is not saying that we should submit to parliaments, kings and emperors. The real implication of his message is exactly the opposite. These so-called authorities are in rebellion against God because they are refusing to apply God's laws, but are trying to establish their own laws. The role of parliament is to create laws, so by definition, they are illegitimate. Being law-givers, they have become law-breakers. A parliament that acknowledged God's authority would have to vote itself out of existence and hand its power over to anointed judges.

Paul warns that resisting what God has instituted is dangerous. This is a challenging thought. We think that a Parliament is better than a King, but neither is instituted by God. A parliament puts the law of the people above God's law. A king put his own laws above God's law. So, any nation that is ruled by a king or a parliament is "is rebelling against what God has instituted" and will "bring judgment on themselves".

A more detailed study of Paul's teaching can be found at Understanding Romans 13.

Only One King

A kingdom can only have one king. If God is King, then all other kings must stop being kings. If God is lawgiver, then other lawgivers will have to find something else to do. If they are unwilling to become judges applying God's law, they are usurpers and rebels. Unfortunately, Christians have failed to understand this message and have twisted the scriptures to give a justification to kings and parliaments who have set themselves up in opposition to God.

Peters View

Peter's comments about political rulers in his letter are often misunderstood, because the context is ignored. Whereas Paul is giving basic principles of life, Peter is writing to Christians about practical living in a hostile world.

Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world... Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds (1 Pet 2:11,12).

He says that Christians who are ruled by kings and dictators should submit to the political powers for the sake of peace.

Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men (1 Pet 2:13-14 NKJV).
Peter is not describing God's will for government, as Paul does in Romans 13. He is explaining to Christians how to should live under a hostile government. He is not teaching about God's ideal.

The contrast with Paul's teaching is interesting. Whereas Paul says that judges are instituted by God, Peter is very clear that kings and governors are instituted by man (the ordinance of man). The word translated as "ordinance" is a derivative of the word for "create", so kings and governors are the creation of man. The reason for the different attitude is that Peter is describing life under an ungodly government, whereas Paul is confirming God's ideal government (just as he describes how Christians should respond to bad people in Romans 12).

The Greek word that Peter uses for governor is "hegemon", which is not a positive word like "judge". (We should also note that governors are sent by the king and not by God, as some translations suggest.)

Kings and governors exist, and they have real political power, so fighting against them is pointless. Since Christians have very little choice, they should submit to kings and "hegemons" for the sake of peace and to gain freedom for God's work. Peter is being a realist, but he is not saying that political rulers are instituted by God. We might have to submit to them to survive, but submitting to a king or a parliament is not the same as submitting to God. They are the creation of man, so their power has been stolen from God.

Christians should not attract unnecessary attention by trying to overthrow the government, but should submit to it, so they can get on with preaching the gospel. We do not need to start a revolution against emperors or parliaments because our gospel is revolutionary. As more and more people are converted and give their allegiance to Jesus, the power of kings and rulers will gradually leak away. The gospel undermined and defeated the Roman empire, so it can destroy any political power. Powerful preaching of the gospel supported by prayer will be more effective than any revolution.


Peter encouraged Christians to be clear about what they are doing. Although they are submitting to political rulers for pragmatic reasons, they must guard our freedom, so that we can continue to serve God.

Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God (1 Pet 2:16).
If God required us to submit to evil rulers, then we would not be free. However, Peter is advocating voluntary submission. The distinction is important, because a person who submits voluntarily remains free to disobey when the need arises. For example, Peter mostly ignored the political authorities, but if they prevented him from doing God's work, he refused to obey them.
And when they had summoned them, they commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered and said to them, "Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard" (Acts 4:18-20).
Peter advocated voluntary submission to political powers, but he never forgot that serving God takes priority. A Christian should not draw unnecessary attention from the political authorities.

If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler (1 Pet 4:14,15).

Christians should try to stay out of trouble with the state, so they can be free to get on with God's work.

Honour the King

We must honour the king, but surprise, surprise, we are required to honour everyone. The king is not worthy of special honour.

Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king (1 Pet 2:17 NASB).

We should love other Christians, and we must fear God, but we are not required to love or fear the king. The king is below God and our Christian friends, but on the same level as other people. We should honour the king, but no more than we would honour anyone else.

I am to submit to my Christian brethren, but I am not required to submit to all people. I am not required to submit to every king or hegemon.

Praying for Kings

The scriptures tell us to pray for kings, but that does not mean they are appointed by God.

I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness (1 Tim 2:1,2).
The word used for authority is not the same word as Paul used in Romans. The word here is "huperache" (a form of archon), which means to be placed above. Kings have placed themselves above us, but they do not have authority in the same sense as a judge who is applying God's law.

We pray for kings so we can live in peace and have freedom to share the gospel, but our prayers do not make them God's people. We can pray for members of parliament, but that does not mean that they are God's servants in the same way as judges. Their authority is not authority from God.

We pray for Kings because God is greater than they are. He was able to bring down Nebuchadnezzar, the ruler of Babylon and one of the most powerful emperors that have ever existed (Dan 4). God decides the times and boundaries of the nations (Acts 17:26), but this does not mean that kings, dictators and parliaments are appointed by him.

Servants of God

Judges who apply God's law are his servants.

For he is God's servant to do you good (Rom 13:4).
God has given us his law, but he cannot implement it himself. He needs servants to do this for him. Excellent judges are as much his servants as pastors and apostles (Eph 4:12).

Jesus stated clearly that we cannot be a servant of two masters.

No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other (Matt 6:24).
Most modern judges serve a king or a parliament. Their loyalty is either to one man, or the entire people as represented by their parliament. However, a judge cannot serve two masters. A judge serving a democracy cannot be serving God. God needs judges who will serve him alone.

This material is developed further in a book called Government of God.

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