Question: "What does it mean that everyone should be subject to the governing authorities (Romans 13:1)?"
Answer: As perplexing as it may sometimes seem, the Bible explicitly states that all positions of human authority, including those of government officials, have been appointed by God. Therefore, Christians must submit themselves to these governing authorities, recognizing their God-ordained purpose: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God” (Romans 13:1).
The apostle Paul is not making a suggestion; he’s issuing a command. In the original language, hypotassesthō (“be subject”) is from a root word meaning “to place or rank under; to submit.” The New Living Translation clearly expresses the present passive imperative verb tense: “Everyone must submit to governing authorities” (Romans 13:1). Paul immediately explains why everyone should be subject to the governing authorities: because “all authority comes from God” (Romans 13:1, NLT).
There is no wiggle room here for Christians. Whether or not we agree with a leader’s policies or politics, we must recognize that God has placed our governing authorities in their positions. Romans 13:1 underscores God’s all-encompassing authority and sovereignty in human affairs. Believers need not fear submitting to governing authorities since it is God who appoints them. Daniel, who served under the evil King Nebuchadnezzar, understood that his God, and not the king, was ultimately in control: “He [God] controls the course of world events; he removes kings and sets up other kings” (Daniel 2:21, NLT).
The apostle Peter agrees, “For the Lord’s sake, submit to all human authority—whether the king as head of state, or the officials he has appointed. For the king has sent them to punish those who do wrong and to honor those who do right. . . . Respect everyone, and love the family of believers. Fear God, and respect the king” (1 Peter 2:13–17, NLT). As a rule, God establishes government leaders to discipline the disobedient (“punish those who do wrong”) and carry out His righteous will on earth (“honor those who do right”). They are “God’s servants” raised up for the good of the people, to enforce order in the societies they govern, and to prevent chaos and lawlessness (Romans 13:3–4; see also Ezra 7:26; Proverbs 29:4, 14).
Paul urges his disciple Timothy to “pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. Pray this way for kings and all who are in authority so that we can live peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity. This is good and pleases God our Savior” (1 Timothy 2:1–3, NLT). Paul tells Titus to “remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good” (Titus 3:1).
We don’t have to like our leaders, but we do have to treat them with respect out of reverence for their God-appointed position. When Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, he was residing under the rule of Nero, one of the cruelest Roman emperors. If Paul could submit to Nero’s authority, then so ought we recognize and respect our civil leaders.
God is the One who “decides who will rise and who will fall” (Psalm 75:6–7). He rules over the king’s heart “like a stream of water directed by the Lord; he guides it wherever he pleases” (Proverbs 21:1, NLT). “Fear the Lord and the king,” counseled Solomon to the wise. “Don’t associate with rebels, for disaster will hit them suddenly. Who knows what punishment will come from the Lord and the king?” (Proverbs 24:21–22, NLT; see also Ecclesiastes 8:2–5; Matthew 22:15–21).
Christians are called to obey their leaders, pay taxes, abide by the laws, and show respect. When we disrespect and rebel against our leaders, ultimately, we disrespect God, who places these authorities over us (Romans 13:2). The Bible says, if we don’t submit, we will incur God’s judgment.
There is only one exception when believers are not to be subject to the governing authorities—when those leaders try to force Christians to contradict the will of God. In Acts 5:22–33, the apostles are arrested for preaching the gospel in Jerusalem and proclaiming the name of Jesus Christ. As they stand trial, the apostle Peter defends their actions with these words: “We must obey God rather than any human authority” (Acts 5:29, NLT; cf. Acts 4:18–19). The Christian has a duty to disobey human authority if the alternative is dishonoring and disobeying God’s law (Exodus 1:17; Daniel 1:8; 3:28; 6:7–10; Hebrews 11:23). When governing authorities attempt to take the place of God by requiring behavior that conflicts with God’s revealed will, then resistance is justified.