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Lesson 2 - One of God's Institutions given to man

Civil Government - One of God's Institutions given to man

It is commonly understood that God created, established or ordained three institutions for man; family, church and civil government. This study is focused on the Biblical principles and teaching on the third of these – civil government.

A starting point: Paul and Peter in the New Testament

There are several New Testament passages which in my experience are most commonly referenced in writings, sermons and studies associated with the Bible and Civil Government. We will focus on Romans 13:1-7.

Romans 13:1-7  (For today only verses 1 & 2)

Verse   King James Version
1 Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God
2 Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.
3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same:
4 For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.
5 Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.
6 For this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God's ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.
7 Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.

Common teaching and sermons on Romans 13:1-7

A few contemporary commentaries and sermon extracts are summarized below. The bold emphasis is added and not part of the original text:

Rev. John Bevere writes:

"Every soul is to be subject to authorities because God has appointed all governing authorities. The origin of all authority goes back to God. . . . Since God has appointed all authorities, we refuse the authority behind them if we dishonor or refuse to submit to them. Whether we know it or not, we resist the ordinance or rule of God. When we oppose God's delegated authority, we oppose God Himself" (John Bevere's "Under Cover" page 88)

It is very common today and becoming increasingly more so for the pulpit to state that God appoints all governing authorities based upon Romans 13:1. This same interpretation was present in many sermons and commentaries:

John O. Reid commentary

The phrase "let every soul be subject" is a military term implying subordination. It is a willingness to occupy our proper place, to yield to the authority over us. That these governing authorities are "appointed by God" stems from another military term denoting the order or organization found in a military unit. Not only should we be subject, but we should submit in the knowledge that God Himself has had a hand in allowing them to exist!

Paul's conclusion flows naturally from this. Those who resist, or rebel against, man's governments also resist the ordinance of God! What God has ordained we should obey! This means we are to regard man's governments as instituted by God and agreeable to His will. This is a hard pill to swallow for those who consider themselves sovereign!

Paul continues with his instruction with a warning that, if we break the law, we will be punished by the civil government as lawbreakers. Those in authority generally do not punish people for doing good, but they have God-given authority to punish those who do not accept their rule and laws. The apostle says we should be afraid to break man's laws because his government administrators are really "God's ministers"! They are servants of God! Thus, we should be subject, not just for fear of punishment, but also for conscience' sake.

As I found these interpretations in most sermons and commentaries I studied, some questions began to arise. Not only about our own current day civil government but ones from history end the Old Testament.

Rev. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention

For the Apostle Paul writing to the Romans, it was the Roman Empire—not what you would call an enlightened regime. You and I wouldn't like it even if we had been Roman citizens. Yet Paul referred to these pagan rulers as governing authorities established by God, and he instructed persecuted Christians to submit to them "for conscience sake": ...

Our Christian obligation is to support the government through tribute and through taxation. It is our godly duty to obey the law even when no one's looking: "Therefore, you must submit, not only because of wrath, but also because of your conscience" (13:5). It is our godly duty to obey the laws even if we disagree with them, unless in doing so we would disobey God, and seek to change them in a peaceful manner. We are to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's.

This sermon by Rev Richard Land raised even more questions. At the time that the Apostle Paul wrote Romans there was only mild persecution from Rome and for that matter many do not like our government in Washington DC either. But the Apostle Paul did not obey the Roman government. He was beheaded for failing to obey.

Rev. Mark Dunn

Paul's command that the believer must submit to the civil authorities may have been unexpected. After committing themselves to Christ, many believers considered God as their only authority. Paul reminds his readers that secular governments receive their authority from God. Governments may not acknowledge the Lord, but that doesn't make Paul's assertion less true. God established government (v. 2) to guide human behavior and provide for people. The fact that governments are designed by humans and therefore subject to the human propensity to favor sinfulness and ignore God does not release the believer from his or her responsibility to obey the Lord's command to submit to human governing authorities.

Verse 3 states human governments are sanctioned by God to judge between right and wrong conduct. If the first phrase of the verse ("for rulers hold no terror") is reflected on in isolation, a false impression can be gleaned from the passage. History is filled with well-known and forgotten examples of rulers who terrorized people. Paul's point, however, focuses on God's purpose for human government: to regulate right and wrong behavior. This is a holdover theme from the discussion of human sinfulness in the first seven chapters of Romans. When governments follow their divine charter, they regulate the rightness of human behavior. Submitting to a governmental authority should, therefore, not be a concern for believers, because their conduct is supposed to be exemplary.

Yes, it has always been my understanding of the Scripture that Jesus is our authority. But this sermon by Rev. Dunn is telling Christians that we are to obey sinful government?

The majority of current day commentaries and sermons on these passages stress;

1) Obedience to civil government,

2) That civil government and the civil authorities were ordained and chosen by God;

3) That disobedience is only justified if individually ordered to commit an ungodly act or action.

Note that many contemporary commentaries and sermons present that we should be obedient to civil government in all things which does not include the exception for being ordered to commit an ungodly action or act. Another theme in some recent translations, commentaries and sermons is that the current authorities constituting our civil government were chosen by God as a basis for requiring our obedience.

Thus if we do not obey our civil government authorities we are being disobedient to God. Conversely - if we obey these authorities we are being obedient to God?

Where the Germans in WW II being obedient to God? Where Sherman's troops when they looted and plundered their way across Georgia being obedient to God? Was the Apostle Paul being disobedient to God when he refused to obey Roman law?

A look at the actual Greek word used

The chart below lists Romans 13:1 in several recent Bible translation dated 1991 or later. The Greek word translated in these newer Bible translations as some form of "obey" is also used in Ephesians 5:22 for a wife's role with her husband.

The following Greek interline uses Strong's numbers to identify each Greek word in the original text. The word of interest is G5293

Romans 13:1

  1 G3956 Let every G5590 soul G5293 be subject [G5732]   G5242 unto the higher [G5723]   G1849 powers G1063 . For G2076 there is [G5748]   G3756 no G1849 power G1508 but G575 of G2316 God G1161 : G1849 the powers G5607 that be [G5752]   G1526 are [G5748]   G5021 ordained [G5772]   G5259 of G2316 God.

Ephesians 5:22

  22 G1135 Wives G5293 , submit yourselves [G5732]   G2398 unto your own G435 husbands G5613 , as G2962 unto the Lord.

Strong's Concordance number G5293 is the same Greek word in both verses and has the following definition(s):

to subordinate; reflexively, to obey


1) to arrange under, to subordinate
2) to subject, put in subjection
3) to subject one's self, obey
4) to submit to one's control
5) to yield to one's admonition or advice
6) to obey, be subject

As the chart below demonstrates, while older translations use the same terms for our relationship to civil government as a wife to her husband – newer translations seem to use a stronger term (obey) for our relationship to civil government than for the wife/husband relationship. In addition – increasingly it is explicitly stated that ALL who hold positions of authority are chosen by God -- in many of these translations.

One of the most pronounced translations is the New International Readers version. For the same Greek word, for government we are to "obey completely" while wives should "follow the lead."

Has God's Word changed in our country since the early 1990s or has our country changed?



Romans 13:1

Ephesians 5:22

New Century Version


All of you must yield to the government rulers. No one rules unless God has given him the power to rule, and no one rules now without that power from God.

Wives, yield to your husbands, as you do to the Lord,

Good News Translation


Everyone must obey state authorities, because no authority exists without God's permission, and the existing authorities have been put there by God.

Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands as to the Lord.

GOD'S WORD Translation


Every person should obey the government in power. No government would exist if it hadn't been established by God. The governments which exist have been put in place by God.

Wives, place yourselves under your husbands' authority as you have placed yourselves under the Lord's authority.

Complete Jewish Bible


Everyone is to obey the governing authorities. For there is no authority that is not from God, and the existing authorities have been placed where they are by God.

Wives should submit to their husbands as they do to the Lord;

New International Reader's Version


All of you must be willing to obey completely those who rule over you. There are no authorities except the ones God has chosen. Those who now rule have been chosen by God.

Wives, follow the lead of your husbands as you follow the Lord.

New Living Translation


Obey the government, for God is the one who put it there. All governments have been placed in power by God.

You wives will submit to your husbands as you do to the Lord.

In these recent translations we see an emphasis on "obey" as opposed to "subject" or "submit." In other words as our government turns away from God, Christians are increasingly being told to give it their obedience in ever stronger terms.

In addition the newer translations and a majority of the commentaries or sermons that I have heard or can find with an internet search state that God has "chosen" all civil government authorities as justification that we are to obey them.

But I want to include one more sermon excerpt on Romans 13:1-7:

Rev. Jonathan Mayhew

The apostle enters upon his subject thus—Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers; for there is no power but of God: the powers that be, are ordained of God. Here he urges the duty of obedience from this topic of argument, that civil rulers, as they are supposed to fulfil the pleasure of God, are the ordinance of God. But how is this an argument for obedience to such rulers as do not perform the pleasure of God, by doing good; but the pleasure of the devil, by doing evil; and such as are not, therefore, God's ministers, but the devil's! Whosoever, therefore, resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God; and they that resist, shall receive to themselves damnation. Here the apostle argues, that those who resist a reasonable and just authority, which is agreeable to the will of God, do really resist the will of God himself; and will, therefore, be punished by him. But how does this prove, that those who resist a lawless, unreasonable power, which is contrary to the will of God, do therein resist the will and ordinance of God? Is resisting those who resist God's will, the same thing with resisting God? Or shall those who do so, receive to themselves damnation!

The sermon by Jonathan Mayhew was delivered in 1750 and was instrumental in framing the sentiment that led to the resulting conflict with England. This sermon was typical of sermons delivered on this subject and specifically Romans 13:1-7 throughout the Colonies by what became known as the Black Regiment, due to the prevalence of black robes.

Comparing the modern interpretations and these newer translations with the sermon by Jonathan Mayhew and other Black Regiment preachers of the Colonial period - raise some questions:

The first step in this study will be to look at each of these questions to determine if there is a contradiction in these modern translations and interpretations.

The Bible is the inspired Word of God and is inerrant.

If there are such differences and questions it is a case of lack of knowledge, lack of understanding or false doctrine. When faced with conflicting interpretations that seem to reflect a contradiction we need to study further to receive the Truth which will set us free. If there are in fact contradictions and we do not study further then will we be viewed by God as he viewed Israel speaking through the prophet Hosea, "My people are destroyed by a lack of knowledge." Will our land receive God's Judgment as the northern kingdom did?


Next: Lesson 3 - Does God Chose ALL civil government magistrates

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