Question: "What does it mean that we should submit to the government for conscience' sake (Romans 13:5)?"
Answer: In Romans 13 the apostle Paul explains to his Roman audience how believers in Christ ought to interact with the government. Paul offers several expressions of socio-political engagement in Romans 13:1–7 and indicates that one reason we should submit to the government is “for conscience’ sake” (Romans 13:5, NKJV).
In the broader context of his letter to the Romans, Paul writes to educate his readers about righteousness and how it pertains to them. Paul identifies the universal need for righteousness—that there isn’t anyone who is good, and all people need God’s righteousness (Romans 1:18—3:20). He explains how people can actually receive God’s righteousness—by grace through faith in Jesus, who died for their sins (Romans 3:21—4:25). Paul describes many of the results and implications of righteousness in the believer’s life (Romans 5—8) and affirms that God is trustworthy and will keep His commitments (Romans 9—11). After outlining these mercies of God in providing righteousness for all who believe in Christ, Paul challenges his readers to fulfill their responsibilities to put that righteousness into practice (Romans 12—16). Specifically, in Romans 13:1–7 he notes that believers have certain responsibilities to the government and ought to submit to the government for conscience’ sake.
Everyone ought to be subject to authority because authority was established by God (Romans 13:1). Governments have an important stewardship to fulfill in applying authority properly, traceable at least as far back as Genesis 9:6. There, God gave to humanity the right to kill under certain circumstances—specifically, to deal with murder, because humanity was created in the image of God. Paul alludes to this God-appointed assignment when he says that authority is established by God. Therefore, one who resists authority actually resists God (Romans 13:2).
Of course, even government can resist God when it exercises authority that is not in accordance with what God entrusted. Nonetheless, Paul notes that authority is a servant of God for good (Romans 13:4), designed to reward the good and punish the evil. Because of this, those who do good have nothing to fear from governing authorities (if government is wielding authority properly), while those who do evil should rightfully fear (Romans 13:3).
Paul recognizes that there are two reasons a person ought to submit to the government. First, submission to government can help a person avoid “wrath” (NASB) or “punishment” (NLT). Practically speaking, one who is not submissive to government will likely encounter wrath from that government. But one who is not submissive to government will also be worthy of God’s wrath because resisting authority He has designed is resisting God. The second reason Paul mentions for submitting to the government is for conscience’ sake (Romans 13:5). Because rulers are designed to be servants of God (Romans 13:6), believers ought to render “tax to whom tax is due, custom to whom custom, fear to whom fear, and honor to whom honor” (Romans 13:7, NASB).
It is the Christian’s duty to obey the laws of the land in which he lives. Paul gives “for conscience’ sake” as one reason for the command. If we reverence God, we will reverence the authority that God has granted to human governors, magistrates, and other officials. We must not violate our conscience (1 Timothy 1:19; 1 Peter 3:16; Hebrews 13:18).
Like Paul, Peter also expects that believers will be submissive to the government (1 Peter 2:13–14). Peter admonishes believers to honor all people, fear God, and honor the king (1 Peter 2:17). Peter adds that, even when the authority is unjust, bearing up under the injustice is a way of expressing God’s grace (1 Peter 2:19). Another reason to submit to the government, besides for conscience’ sake, is to silence the ignorance of foolish men (1 Peter 2:15).