Romans 13: Reevaluating Obedience to Tyrannical Authorities

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Roman’s 13 teaches submission to authorities, but how far should Christians go when submitting to the laws of men?

Submit to Authorities

Roman’s 13 teaches submission to authorities, but how far should Christians go when submitting to the laws of men? Many American citizens believe we should follow authority, regardless of what we’re being ordered to do. To make matters worse, there is a huge problem with our justice system today. There are a few different camps of people in this group. There are those that blindly follow, and these followers will sometimes be hostile toward anyone questioning their belief. Then there are those that go along to get along, and say they just don’t want to make waves, despite having some idea that what they’re doing is unnecessary or obviously wrong.

Blind Following the Blind

Finally there are some that simply comply out of fear – fear of man that is, not God – usually concerned with losing their job. Matthew 6:26 says, “But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?” When pressed for their reasoning, it’s very common for blind followers of authority to bring up the Bible, and most often it is the book of Romans. Romans 13 is often taken out of context when it’s used to support unquestioned obedience to governing authorities or to justify submission to unjust laws.

Romans 13:1-7

“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. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.”

Submit, Up to a Point

This passage is often used to argue that Christians should always obey the government, no matter what, however, this interpretation overlooks several important factors. First, it’s crucial to consider the historical context. The book of Romans was written by the Apostle Paul in the mid-to-late 50s AD, during the reign of the Roman Empire, which was notoriously oppressive to Christians. Christians were facing severe persecution, so when Paul urges Christians to be subject to the governing authorities, he is likely trying to protect them from harm. Secondly, the passage needs to be interpreted in light of the overall message of the Bible. The Bible also contains many examples of people defying governmental authorities for the sake of justice, such as the prophets of the Old Testament or the Apostles in the New Testament. In these cases, disobedience to the government was justified because it was in accordance with God’s will, so Christians “must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

Stand Firm for the Truth

Lastly, it’s essential to remember that all human authorities are fallible, but Christians should always obey the law, except when it conflicts with God’s higher law. In such cases, it’s the duty of Christians to resist and stand up for what is right. Now that we have a clearer understanding of the correct interpretation of Romans 13:1-7, it’s clear that the church has sometimes been negligent in this area. We are called to boldly speak the truth, but you don’t have to look very far to see how many have suffered for doing that.

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Unjust Laws

In today’s America, there are few who are willing to stand up and speak truth to the powers that be. The church is the last resort, so if not us, who? Governors continue to roll out unconstitutional mandates or executive orders. Governors and other elected officials also enjoy rolling out tyranny via Executive Orders (EO), which in recent years have been used to circumvent the natural process of making laws. Where we need to stand up is when these laws or EO’s are contrary to God’s laws. Thomas Aquinas said, “Human law is law only by virtue of its accordance with right reason; and thus it is manifest that it flows from the eternal law. And in so far as it deviates from right reason it is called an unjust law; in such case it is no law at all, but rather a species of violence.

Man Rules, God Overrules

Saint Paul Writing His Epistles by Valentin de Boulogne (public domain).

Paul tells us that all authority is given by God but Paul’s not suggesting that all tyranny or all anarchy are given by God. These are in direct and indirect defiance of God. When a ruler is a legitimate ruler, we’re instructed to obey; however, when the ruler commands what is illegitimate and is contrary to God’s law, we must respond the same way the Apostles did. We must obey God, rather than man (Acts 5:29). We are endowed by our Creator certain inalienable rights, with the primary right being life! Mahatma Gandhi said, “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it – always.” All human authority is ordained by God but not all authority acts according to God. We need to hold our elected officials accountable.


This is a spiritual battle we’re fighting, and if we’re going along with tyranny that makes us just as guilty as the tyrants. Tyrants cannot commit tyranny without citizens complying, which makes what happens as much our fault. We deserve what we tolerate. In summary, Romans 13 is often taken out of context when it’s used to argue for unquestioned obedience to governing authorities, but we need to be sure we’re interpreting these passages correctly (Rom 13:2-7). Christians should obey the law, but they should also be prepared to resist man’s laws when they conflict with God’s higher law as revealed in the Bible.

Author’s Bio: Ken Lemoine is a freelance journalist who lives in Bloomfield, Kentucky with his son, where they are members of Bloomfield Baptist Church. He served in the 82nd Airborne Division during Operation Desert Storm and has a BA in Computer Science from Southeastern Louisiana University and is currently working remotely with Cyberzek, Inc., a Christian owned and operated startup with his own website Duke of Good.

Here is some related reading for you: Roman’s Commentary – Summary and Key Verses

Resource – Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), Crossway Bibles. (2007). ESV: Study Bible: English standard version. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Bibles. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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