Submitting to Governing Authorities: Romans 13:1

submit governing authories

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f) Rom 13:1: This verse and the ones which follow it segue from the avoidance of personal vengeance to proper relationships with government officials (Rom 12:14–13:7).

Since the believers in Rome lived in the capital of the empire, this topic resonated with them.[1]

Peter wrote similar admonitions to Christians in Asia Minor (1 Pet 2:13–17).[2] Therefore, Paul likely derived his commands from traditional material within the early church.[3]

In the preceding section of this letter, Paul exhorted his readers not to take revenge but to leave judgment to God (Rom 12:17–21).[4]

One can imagine the questions arising from that teaching: “Does God allow those who commit evil to continue in their wicked ways as long as they live?” “Must we overlook serious offenses against us, our families, and others?”[5]

Paul previously informed them that corruption taints everything in this world until the arrival of a new creation (Rom 8:20–21).[6]

This caused them to question whether God expects people who live in anticipation of the age to come to reject every aspect of secular society, such as human government.[7]



The apostle affirmed the role of political regimes by writing, “Every person to governing authorities must be submissive.”

By placing “every person” first in the sentence, Paul emphasized that this mandate applies to all people.[8]

In the New Testament (NT), when “authority” (exousia) pertains to someone bearing power, it can have two different connotations.[9]

The word can refer either to human government and officials or to the transcendent rulers of the spiritual realm.[10]

In the past, some commentators asserted that this term applies to angelic powers which operate through people.[11]

However, that view encounters several difficulties. Typically, when “authorities” means spiritual forces, the term occurs in conjunction with “dominions” (kuriotēs), “powers” (dynamis), or “rulers” (archē).[12]

The modifier “governing” strengthens this case,[13] as hyperechō applies only to people in power over or more important than someone else (Cf. 1 Pet 2:13 and the Greek translation of Gen 25:23).[14]

Although Paul referred to a word related to “rulers” (archon) in Rom 13:3, he wrote about human leaders in that verse.[15]

Consequently, even scholars who once held the supernatural view, such as Cranfield, now recognize that Paul likely referred strictly to civil government in this passage.[16]

These authorities range from local bureaucrats to the highest human rulers in the land.[17]



Notably, Paul called his readers to submit (hypotassō) to governing authorities. This word carries a slightly different nuance than “to obey” (peitharcheō).”[18]

In the NT, “to submit” incorporates a wide range of meaning.[19] Here it consists of voluntary subjection of oneself to another person, accompanied by the respect appropriate for someone of higher rank.[20]

Paul calls us to recognize that we stand under our civil rulers and to live accordingly.[21]

Elsewhere in the NT, “to submit” consists of a willingness to renounce one’s own desires in deference to another person.[22]

This attitude should exist between all people (Eph 5:18–25; Luke 2:51; 1 Pet 5:1–5). Humility necessarily precedes submission (Phil 2:3).[23] As Eph 5:21 clarifies, both parties share mutual responsibilities.[24]



Regarding that verse, John Calvin wrote:

God has bound us so strongly to each other that no man ought to endeavor to avoid subjection; and where love reigns, mutual services will be rendered.

I do not except even kings and governors, whose very authority is held for the service of the community. It is highly proper that all should be exhorted to be subject to each other in their turn.

But as nothing is more irksome to the mind of man than this mutual subjection, he directs us to the fear of Christ, who alone can subdue our fierceness, that we may not refuse the yoke, and can humble our pride, that we may not be ashamed of serving our neighbors.[25]

Even kings must understand that God calls them to submit themselves to the needs of their subjects (2 Ki 21:16; 2 Ki 24:1–4).[26]



Paul wrote to people living under an authoritarian government, unlike many of us. Nevertheless, he expected his readers to treat civil authorities with respect, to pay taxes, and to pray for them (Rom 13:6–7; 1 Tim 2:1–4).[27]

Typically, this also involves obeying our rulers.[28] As long as we live in this era of the now and not yet, God calls us to abide by the political institutions of our nations.[29]

Yet, as with all other relationships, human laws may conflict with the ordinances of God.[30]

When that occurs, our submission to the Lord takes precedence (Matt 22:15–22; Acts 4:18–31; Acts 5:26–29).[31]



Not until Paul’s lifetime did Roman emperors adopt the title “Lord” for themselves.

The earliest known example of this refers to Claudius.[32] That papyrus, dated to 49 AD, calls him “Tiberius Claudius Caesar, our Lord.”[33]

This put early Christians on a collision course with the Roman adoption of emperor worship.[34]

The refusal of Jesus’s followers to worship Roman gods and their efforts to convince others to abandon burning incense to the emperor led to their persecution as atheists.[35] Eventually, Roman authorities declared such behavior a crime worthy of death.[36]



Although Roman rulers did not require making sacrifices to the emperor in the apostles’ lifetimes, both Peter and Paul died for their faith under Nero (54–68 AD).

The church historian Eusebius (ca. 275–339) wrote, “When the government of Nero was now firmly established, he began to plunge into unholy pursuits, and armed himself even against the religion of the God of the universe…”

He was the first of the emperors who showed himself an enemy of the divine religion.



The Roman Tertullian [ca. 155–220] is likewise a witness of this. He writes as follows, “Examine your records. There you will find that Nero was the first that persecuted this doctrine, particularly when after subduing all the east, he exercised his cruelty against all at Rome.

“We glory in having such a man the leader in our punishment. For whoever knows him can understand that nothing was condemned by Nero unless it was something of great excellence.”

Thus, publicly announcing himself as the first among God’s chief enemies, he was led on to the slaughter of the apostles. It is, therefore, recorded that Paul was beheaded in Rome itself, and that Peter likewise was crucified under Nero.

This account of Peter and Paul is substantiated by the fact that their names are preserved in the cemeteries of that place even to the present day.[37]

When Paul wrote to the Romans (ca. 57 AD), Nero had not yet begun his persecution of Christians. This may account for the lack of exceptions in his letter.[38]



The apostle then cited the reason for our submission to governing authorities, writing, “For there is no authority except by God, and those which exist are by God put in place.”

This concept of the Lord granting power to human rulers reflects Old Testament teaching (2 Sam 12:7). God planned Judah’s exile to Babylon and the nation’s release (Jer 29:4–7; Isa 44:28; 2 Chron 36:22–23).[39]

Nebuchadnezzar II finally grasped this truth after God disciplined him (Dan 4:17, 28–37).[40]

However, his successor Belshazzar failed to learn this lesson, and the Lord permanently removed him from office (Dan 5:1–5, 25–30).[41]

Paul left no room for doubt: ultimately the Lord sets all political leaders in their places.[42] No one, even an ungodly ruler, can exercise authority unless the Lord grants it (Isa 44:28–45:7).[43]

Yet, this truth does not exempt political leaders from God’s judgment when they abuse the offices he granted to them.[44] The Lord holds all rulers accountable for their actions.[45]



Evil people will reject those who suffer for a just cause.[46] Consequently, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “If we fall into human hands, if we suffer and die by human violence, we may be sure that everything comes from God…Therefore, ‘Be not afraid!’” [47]

By not being overcome by evil but overcoming evil with good (Rom 12:21), Christians bear testimony to this lost world that God has begun his new creation in the church community (Rom 8:15–30).[48]

Where this world and the body of Christ clash, political rulers either wisely withdraw or resort to violence. When brutality occurs, suffering believers need the full support of the world-wide church (Rom 8:31–39; Heb 13:1–3).[49]



During the Nazi era, Bonhoeffer made this statement:

The church was mute when it should have cried out, because the blood of the innocent cried out to heaven.

The church did not…resist to the death the falling away from faith and is guilty of the godlessness of the masses…

The church confesses that it has misused the name of Christ by being ashamed of it before the world and by not resisting strongly enough the misuse of that name for evil ends.

The church has looked on while injustice and violence have been done…

The church confesses that it has witnessed the arbitrary use of brutal force, the suffering in body and soul of countless innocent people, that it has witnessed oppression, hatred, and murder without raising its voice for the victims and without finding ways of rushing to help them…

The church confesses that it has looked on silently as the poor were exploited and robbed…

The church confesses its guilt toward the countless people whose lives have been destroyed by slander, denunciation, and defamation…

The church confesses that it has coveted security, tranquility, peace, property, and honor to which it had no claim…

The church confesses itself guilty of violating all of the Ten Commandments. It confesses thereby its apostasy from Christ.[50]

Bonhoeffer provides a strong reminder that the Lord calls all believers to protect those who cannot help themselves when they face injustice (Jer 22:3–4; Ezek 12:19; Ezek 33:7–9; Mic 6:6–16).

Image via Wikimedia Commons


Read Rom 13:1. How do we know that Paul had human authorities in mind rather than angelic ones?  Why must we submit to such rulers? How must we respond when the edicts of government authorities directly contradict those of the Lord?




Go to Engaging in Anarchy (Rom 13:2)

[Related posts include Live in Peace (Rom 12:17–18); Leave Vengeance to God (Rom 12:19); Responding with Kindness (Rom 12:20); Overcoming Evil with Good (Rom 12:21); Engaging in Anarchy (Rom 13:2); Do What is Good (Rom 13:3); Bearing the Sword (Rom 13:4); Blood for Blood (Gen 9:5–7); Co-Heirs with Christ (Rom 8:16–18); Creation’s Eager Expectation (Rom 8:19); Subjected to Futility (Rom 8:20); Set Free from the Slavery of Corruption (Rom 8:21–22); Unity in the Spirit (Eph 5:18–21); Submissive to One Another (Eph 5:21–24); Sacrificial Love (Eph 5:25–30); and Ancient Literature]

[Click here to go to Chapter 9: A Covenant with Noah (Genesis 8:20–9:17)]


[1]Dunn, Romans 9–16, 759.

[2]Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 793.

[3]Dunn, Romans 9–16, 759.

[4]Moo, Romans, 421.

[5]Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 792.

[6]Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 791.

[7]Seifrid, “Romans,” Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, 681.

[8]Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 2:656. In Koine Greek, authors placed what they wished to emphasize at the beginning of a sentence or clause.

[9]Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 795.

[10]Werner Foerster, “ἐξουσια” (exousia), TDNT, 1:560–75, 571.

[11]Dunn, Romans 9–16, 760.

[12]Arndt, Danker, and Bauer, “ἐξουσια” (exousia), BDAG, 352–3, 353.

[13]Dunn, Romans 9–16, 760.

[14]Arndt, Danker, and Bauer, “ὑπερεχω” (hyperechō), BDAG, 1033.

[15]Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 795–6.

[16]Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 2:656, 659–60.

[17]Moo, Romans, 421.

[18]Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 797. Cranfield notes that Paul did not choose any of the three NT words meaning “to obey” here (2:660).

[19]Gerhard Delling, “ὑποτασσω” (hypotassō), TDNT, 8:39–46.

[20]Arndt, Danker, and Bauer, “ὑποτάσσω” (hypotassō), BDAG, 1042.

[21]Moo, Romans, 422.

[22]Delling, “ὑποτασσω” (hypotassō), TDNT 8:45.

[23]Dunn, Romans 9–16, 761.

[24]Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 2:661.

[25]John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesian (trans. William Pringle; Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 316–7. Italics original.

[26]Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 2:662.

[27]Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 2:662.

[28]Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 797.

[29]Dunn, Romans 9–16, 760.

[30]Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 2:662.

[31]Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 797.

[32]Werner Foerster, “κυριος” (kurios), TDNT 3:1039–98, 1054.

[33]Duke Databank of Documentary Papyri, “Report of a Lawsuit (P.Oxy. 1 37),”

[34]Henry Fairfield Burton, “The Worship of the Roman Emperors,” The Biblical World 40, no. 2 (1 August 1912):80–91, 90,

[35]Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, 3rd Ed., 38.

[36]Burton, “The Worship of the Roman Emperors,” 90,

[37]Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History (ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace; vol. 1 of Church History, Life of Constantine, Oration in Praise of Constantine; Edinburgh; London; New York: T & T Clark, 1890), 25:1, 3–5,

[38]Keener, IVPBBCNT, Rom 13:1–2.

[39]Seifrid, “Romans,” Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, 681.

[40]Moo, Romans, 422.

[41]Seifrid, “Romans,” Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, 681.

[42]Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 798.

[43]Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 2:663.

[44]Dunn, Romans 9–16, 761–2.

[45]Seifrid, “Romans,” Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, 681–2.

[46]Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 109.

[47] Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 197.

[48] Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 243–4.

[49] Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 245–6.

[50]Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Clifford J. Green, ed., Reinhard Krauss, et al., Ethics (DBW; Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2005), 138–41.