Regarding Civil Government - Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Charles Westby, Pastor
Romans 13:1-7
September 06, 2020

I invite you to draw your attention with me to the epistle reading appointed for today from Romans 13:1-7. In these verses the Holy Spirit moved the Apostle Paul to provide teaching regarding civil government and the relationship of Christians and the church to it. I want to ask some questions and work with the language of these verses. In Jesus’s Name. Amen.

The first question I have is what we can say about the purpose of these verses. I think a commentator by the name of Anders Nygren said it well, when he said: “[The Apostle] is not here giving . . . counsels [on how to resolve particular disputes and issues with respect to] how his readers should act towards the authorities in different situations; he is setting forth the basic Christian view about worldly government. In so doing he is aware both of its [affirmative] powers and of its limits” (Anders Nygren, Commentary on Romans (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1949), 429). So Paul is talking about basic things and somewhat in general. I will be doing the same.

The next question I have been thinking about is this: why is this passage in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Christians at Rome at all? After all, we might wonder what a discussion about civil government has to do with Christian doctrine and the Gospel. I mean, you are reading along in Romans about the law and the Gospel and then you come to this statement: “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities.”

One thing in general we could say about this is that Christians still need to live in the world. It would be odd if the Holy Spirit did not move the apostles to tell us something about that. More specifically, I think there is another important reason if we take into account what the Apostle says in Philippians chapter 2. There Paul wrote: “Let this mind be in you, which was in Christ Jesus. Who being in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient unto death, and death on a cross. Therefore, God also exalted Him and gave Him the Name that is above every Name, so that at the Name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father” (Phil. 2:5-11). Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.

Some scholars think that these verses from Philippians were either a hymn or a creedal statement used in Christian churches at that time. Declaring that Jesus is Lord is profoundly significant because throughout the Roman empire of that time, people confessed that Caesar is Lord, and Caesar and Roman society demanded this confession. Now Christians were confessing that Jesus is Lord.

What then? Does this mean that Christians and the Christian movement should be viewed by Christians and non-Christians as subversive, as set on overthrowing Caesar and the Roman government as central to its mission? That question is answered when Paul instructs the Christians at Rome: “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities.”

Christ came to accomplish a redemption from sin and death. He did not come to topple governments. No matter what kind of civil government a country might have, people would still need to be redeemed. The Spirit at work in Christianity is much different than the spirit at work in radical revolutionaries. It was, therefore, important for every Christian and every non-Christian who may happen to read this letter or hear it read that Christianity is not subversive and revolutionary. Just think of how the energies of Christ and His church would be exhausted if it were in the business of toppling governments. Where would the Gospel be? So the Apostle is teaching that the church does not exist to overthrow the government and subvert civil government and civil functions. Those functions, by the way, would also include engaging in commerce, buying and selling property, serving in government itself, serving in the police and military, and other types of offices, functions, and institutions relating to civil life and government. It is just not the mission of the Gospel, of Christ, to subvert civil society and its functions and institutions, government being one of them. We hear what Jesus said to Pontius Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight” (John 18:36).

This leads to teaching an important difference between Christianity and the church and the civil government. It is as the Augsburg Confession states: “Therefore, the two authorities, the spiritual and the temporal, are not to be mingled or confused, for the spiritual power has its commission to preach the Gospel and administer the sacraments. Hence it should not invade the function of the other, should not set up and depose kings [as was being done by the popes], should not annul temporal laws or undermine obedience to government, should not make or prescribe to the temporal power laws concerning worldly matters” (Augsburg Confession, Art. XXVIII). Keep in mind that the mingling and confusion between the temporal and spiritual authority can also work the other direction, from the civil government or state toward the church.

So the next question I have is this: is the power and the authority of civil government absolute, according to the Apostle and the Scriptures, or is it relative, that is, limited and related to a particular purpose? Let’s begin answering this by asking what it would mean if civil government were absolute. Then it would have jurisdiction over the Gospel. Then it would have jurisdiction over Christ and every Christian as a Christian, that is, with respect to the Christian faith and its practices. Then it would have jurisdiction over the church by divine right, by God’s authority. Then it would have jurisdiction over your heart and over your speech. Then it would even have jurisdiction to define what is true and right in relation to God. In short, if Paul means to say that the authority of the civil government is absolute, then the Holy Spirit through Paul would be affirming totalitarianism.

But affirming totalitarianism would put this statement of Paul in conflict with what we heard from Philippians 2 about the lordship of Christ. Furthermore, if the civil authority is God’s servant, whether he, she, or it recognizes this or not, then civil government cannot be absolute, not in God’s order of things. It must exist for a specific and limited purpose. It ought not, in God’s order of things, try to lord it over the church. We hear what Paul says directly in Ephesians 5:24 that “the church is subject to Christ” (NKJV).

Now the relative authority of civil government is easy to illustrate. What if the government commanded you to murder someone? Should you obey? I hope you would say no. Should we Christians obey if the government tries to tell the church what it can and cannot teach? If we follow the life and example of the Apostles and Christ Himself, we would have to say no. These examples are just to illustrate that the civil government’s authority is not absolute. It is relative to its proper jurisdiction and mission.

So we have two things. Jesus is Lord means that the civil authority is not absolute. But Christianity is also not a subversive movement. This means then that church and civil government, in general and as a matter of principle, have their own proper mission and should not interfere with each other with respect to their proper missions. We can also hear what Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21).

So what is the proper mission and jurisdiction of the civil government according to our verses from Romans 13? Paul says it in verse 4: “It is the servant of God for you toward the good. And if you do evil, be afraid. For it does not bear the sword in vain. For it is God’s servant, an avenger toward wrath against the one doing evil.” Earlier in verse 3 the Apostle made reference to deeds or “conduct.”

This means that the civil government’s jurisdiction pertains to outward conduct, deeds. It has the authority and responsibility as God’s servant to punish and avenge bad outward conduct, and to reward good conduct. This mission is defined basically in the fifth through eighth commandments: you shall not kill, you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not give false witness. Functioning in this role is what the government cannot omit and still be doing its job.

The bigger picture s this: God intends to rule over the civil realm. God does it through the governing authorities. God uses them as His servants to punish wrong, deceitful, and violent conduct to protect goods, commerce, life, and property, and to reward good conduct. This is incredibly important for the stability and welfare of civil society and maintenance of peace and justice. It is vitally important to provide the conditions in which commerce may take place, in which you may work to be able to have an income and provide for your families.

Finally, Paul exhorts obedience to government in relation to its purpose and mission because it is God’s institution. Thus, he also exhorts such obedience “not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake” (Rom. 13:5). This is really important. If we were admonished to obey the civil authorities on the basis of wrath, then the basis of such obedience could only be slavish fear. Such a view of obedience would affirm totalitarianism. The Apostle Peter, however, tells you that you are free in Christ, though you should not use your freedom as a pretext for bad conduct (1 Peter 2:16). So Paul teaches us to obey and respect government as a matter of respect for the office of civil government, and those who hold those offices, and this respect arises out of due respect, honor, and fear of God.

But conscience, in contrast to slavish fear, brings with it thought, rationality, evidence, reference to what is right and wrong. And if submission to governing authority is a matter of conscience, then civil government should also be subject to considerations of conscience as it pertains to the purposes and jurisdiction of civil government.

In this respect, I think it is important to recognize that you and I are inheritors of a wonderful heritage when it comes to civil government in this country. We must hope and pray that it does not get destroyed, for it is a profound gift from God. This is a belief that all government action should be grounded on at least a rational basis; that principles of due process, fair play, and justice should govern and limit government action, where these principles apply in terms of guilt and innocence before the law and equality of opportunity; that the government itself is limited and constrained by a higher authority than itself and is subject to that authority, whether it realizes it or not; that government actors are subject to the rule of law; that the people are entitled to be governed by rulers who are subject to and accountable to the people, subject to their vote and their opinion, subject to a political process that includes accountability and free and open debate. In our heritage, any government action that imposes itself drastically on the people and civil society should be open to public debate and the mechanisms of the political process so that policy and those who make it are subject to the people. This is our heritage as Americans, and we as Christians are free to embrace it and expect it of our government. So we give thanks for the government and political and economic system we have in our country, and we pray God’s blessing and preservation of it.

And now let us be mindful of the promise that Jesus Christ is among us as we are gathered in His Name (Mat. 18:20), and that He blesses us with the gifts of salvation He won and delivers to us here in His word and sacrament.



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