“Could you comment on Paul’s teaching in Romans 13:4-5? How is the civil ruler a ‘minister of God’? What is the meaning of ‘he bears not the sword in vain’?”
The general context of Romans 13:1-7 has to do with the Christian’s responsibility to the government under which he lives. And this embraces any government — ancient or modern.
The instruction deals with principles that are applicable within any political environment. The larger context includes the first seven verses of the chapter.
“Let every soul be in subjection to the governing authorities: for there is no authority but of God; and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority, withstands the appointment of God: and they that withstand shall receive judgment to themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to that which is evil. Would you have no fear of the authorities? Then do that which is good, and you shall have praise from the same: for he is a servant of God on your behalf for good. But if you do that which is wrong, be afraid; for he does not carry the sword in vain: for he is a servant of God, an avenger for wrath to him who does evil. Therefore, you must be in subjection, not only to avoid wrath, but also for conscience sake. For this cause you are to pay taxes also; for they are ministers of God’s service, attending continually upon this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: tax to whom tax is due; revenue to whom revenue is due; fear to whom fear is due; honor to whom honor is due.”
This text is the most comprehensive treatment in the New Testament that relates to the Christian’s obligations to civil government. Here are some fundamental truths set forth in this narrative, as well as in complementary biblical texts.
All authority ultimately resides in God, who is the sovereign of the Universe. He is the “ruler over the nations” (Psa. 22:28; cf. 1 Chron. 29:11). Kings, presidents, legislative bodies, etc., are subject to God and will be held accountable for how they administer civil affairs. Bible history is replete with evidence establishing this premise.
Jehovah has delegated authority in certain areas. In the maintenance of societal order, the Lord has decreed that civil authorities are to enact and administer laws that are for the ultimate well-being of the human family.
The grand moral principles that are progressively revealed in the Scriptures should be the general guidelines for crafting civil law. This was the primary basis of the body of law that was crafted in this country’s infancy, though we are rapidly digressing from this exalted concept.
Rulers are responsible to implement laws that re-enforce conduct that is “good” (moral, healthy, beneficial) to its citizenry, and penalties or punishments for actions that are hurtful to individuals and destructive to the moral fabric of the nation. National degeneracy contributes to the eventual fall of a people (Psa. 9:17; Prov. 14:34).
Jehovah’s Providential Activity Among the Nations
The Creator even may use civil authorities who themselves are intrinsically evil, in order to facilitate the implementation of his ultimate plan for humanity.
Nebuchadnezzar was the Lord’s “servant” for the punishment of the wayward kingdom of Judah, even though the monarch was a wicked man personally, and would be judged eventually for his evil (Jer. 25:8-12).
When Paul wrote his letter to the saints in Rome, the emperor Nero was on the throne. As vile as he was, the Christians in the imperial city were to be submissive to his administration in all matters that did not violate their Christian responsibilities.
However, the fact that civil authorities are designated as “servants” and “ministers” of God, for the maintenance of order in a rebellious world, has no redemptive value on their behalf. The reward is temporal; not eternal.
Personal salvation is obtained only through obedience to the gospel of Christ (2 Thes. 1:8; Heb. 5:8-9; 1 Pet. 4:17-18).
Civil authorities may have to employ deadly force (the “sword” — Rom. 13:44) in order to maintain societal tranquility.
When ungodly men are allowed to brutally murder their fellows, rape with virtual impunity, and receive but a “slap on the wrist” for robbery, societal chaos eventually results and honest people are forced to live in a state of slavish fear (cf. Eccl. 8:11). This is not the ideal environment for the growth of the kingdom of Christ.
Christians are obligated to be good citizens, obeying righteous laws and paying their share of taxes to support the system from which they derive manifold benefits.
Paying justly owed taxes does not imply that one endorses every use of that tax money that is made by his government. The saints in Rome were obliged to pay tribute, but they were not accountable for the support of idolatry that was funded from pagan Rome’s treasury.
Governments Are Accountable
A government may not, with impunity, provide sanction for wrong conduct. The fact that an act becomes “legal,” does not mean that it becomes moral in the sight of Almighty God.
The legalization of abortion (Roe v. Wade, 1973) did not negate the sacredness of human life (cf. Gen. 9:6). Capricious divorce laws do not “trump” Jesus’ declaration that fornication is the only viable reason for divorce (Mt. 5:32; 19:9).
Civil sanction and the bestowal of financial rewards to “domestic partners” who are living in immoral relationships (be they heterosexual or homosexual) does not legitimize these licentious unions that undermine the integrity of the divinely designed marital union.
And providing a “licensed,” paper facade for relationships that cannot possibly be “marriage” — under any circumstance — is a meaningless exercise in “legal” chicanery.
No Christian can be required to obey a law that violates the higher law of God. The apostles of Jesus refused governmental demands that they cease preaching Christ (Acts 4:18-20; 5:28-29).
Christian women in China must not yield to governmental requirements that they abort their children.
A gospel missionary may ignore regulations prohibiting the distribution of the Scriptures. A Christian teacher must never submit to a state requirement that he or she teach the dogma of evolution as scientific truth.
May Christians participate in riotous “civil disobedience” to protest what they perceive as societal injustices?
Though some so contend, I do not believe that these types of law-violations are to be engaged in by the children of God. One must break the law when it requires an act of personal wrongdoing, but we work to change what we consider to be unjust laws by exerting our influence in legal ways, most especially in the alteration of people’s hearts and their convictions (2 Cor. 10:3-6).
Christian people do not bomb abortion clinics or assassinate abortion doctors. They do not tie themselves together to block doorways, or lay down in the streets to bring traffic to a standstill.
There were many injustices in first-century Roman society (e.g., slavery, gladiatorial games, etc.), but there is not a trace of evidence that the Lord’s people did anything other than teach — to remedy such circumstances.
A government that abuses its divine appointment to deter evil and re-enforce good will be called to account for its abuse of power eventually. Such authorities will reckon with Him who is more than their match (Dan. 2:21; 4:17) — just as Rome herself ultimately did.
This era may not see a degenerate America brought low, but one may be assured that such will occur in Heaven’s good time — if we do not emulate the example of a renovated Nineveh (see Jonah 3:10).