One of the characteristics of our God is that he is orderly rather than disorderly. He is a designer—and our entire world is shaped by his genius. Everything from the creation of the universe to the establishment of a ruling government points to a sovereign divine designer. Therefore, any attempt to create a world, a city, a town, or a country that lacks law and order and is plagued by anarchy is a movement away from God.
When Paul penned his letter to the church in Rome, he laid a robust foundation of doctrinal clarity regarding justification by faith alone in the first eleven chapters of his letter. Beginning in chapter twelve, Paul directed the believers to put on display the gospel of Jesus in practical everyday opportunities. After outlining the characteristics of genuine Christianity, he moved on to chapter thirteen where he opens with the responsibility of Christians to submit to governing authorities. It’s here that Paul not only gives the command to submit, but he likewise details the blessings of a government.
Restraint of Evil
As we navigate through life, we spend time in three basic spheres of life. We spend time in a family structure of some kind. As Christians, we spend much time in the sphere of the church. No matter where we live, we spend time in the sphere of the state or under some form of civil law. God is the source of all authority, and he establishes all of the hierarchies of authority in these different spheres.
Regarding the family, it is God who has setup the father as the leader, provider, and protector of the family. He has called wives to submit to their husbands (Gen. 2; 1 Pet. 3:1; Eph. 5:24) and children to obey both mother and father in an honorable manner (Ex. 20:12; Deut. 5:16; Eph. 6:1-3). This is God’s design for the family and through this structure of authority, it restrains evil by keeping children in subjection rather than running wild and free into lawless behavior.
Regarding the church, God established elders (1 Timothy 3:1-7) as the spiritual leaders and deacons as the servants within the church. The church is called to submit to their spiritual leaders (Heb. 13:17) as they seek to shepherd them and equip them for the work of ministry (Eph. 4:12). When it comes to sin and lawlessness, Christ has commanded the church to be a pure bride. Not only are pastors to reprove and rebuke the church as necessary (2 Tim. 4:1-5), but Jesus gave a command regarding church discipline in Matthew 18 which serves as a means of reconciliation between members of the body, but ultimately between the church and Christ. This structure of authority and discipline is ordained by God.
As it pertains to the state and civil rulers, the call of the church is to submit to the governing authorities. We see this in Romans 13, but likewise in places such as 1 Peter 2:13-17:
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
Even as Paul wrote the words in Romans 13, he understood that the system itself and the rulers were not perfect. In fact, this is the very same government that would be responsible for his execution within a few years—yet so long as it was possible and so long as they did not mandate the church to disobey God, they were to submit. That same principle is true for us today.
One of the blessings of rulers and governing authorities is the restraint of evil. Paul writes, “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” (Rom. 13:3-4). Lawless individuals should fear the rulers for they do not bear the sword in vain. They have been given the responsibility of establishing law and order in a civil society.
The church can be blessed by such an orderly rule established by governing authorities.
Execution of Justice
In a way that is quite different than the sphere of the family and church—the government is given the sword. Paul calls the rulers “avengers” which comes from a Greek term “ἔκδικος” that literally means punisher. It is the role of governing rulers to act as God’s servants which is another Greek term that comes from the same root word from which we derive the English term deacon. Rulers are to execute justice and the sword is not given to them in vain. They are to use it and when it’s exercised properly, it’s a blessing to the whole of society—including the church of Jesus.
In 1995, Timothy McVeigh placed a bomb outside of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. In an act of terrorism, McVeigh detonated a bomb that killed 168 people and injured hundreds more. After being arrested and convicted for the crimes, McVeigh was executed by the State of Oklahoma by lethal injection on June 11th 2001. The sword was not given to the rulers in vain.
Today, months after the tragedy with George Floyd—we continue to see American cities filled with rioters, looters, and mobs who are interested in destroying businesses, government property, and creating mass chaos along the way. One of the common hashtags floating around on social media throughout this entire process has been #DefundThePolice. A movement away from law and order and toward anarchy is a movement away from God. The hierarchy of authority was established by God himself. Although every system is impure since every human system is operated by sinners, nevertheless, such impure systems are far better than lawlessness and anarchy.
The blessing of ruling authorities who have the sword and can lawfully execute justice is evident when mass murderers are put to death and when simple 9-11 calls are answered by police officers in small towns all across our nation. The entire society, as well as the church of Jesus, benefits from a ruling hierarchy of civil leaders and laws who not only restrain evil, but are given the authority to execute justice.
For that reason we can thank God for ruling authorities. We don’t want to live in a world plagued by anarchy. Thankfully, God has established an orderly hierarchy of rule for our good and his glory. In order to glorify God, we should not only submit to them, but we should strive to pray for them as well.
1 Timothy 2:1–2 – First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.