“ Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God .” (Romans 13:1)
Christians have long used Romans 13 as a way to promote their preferred brand of political idolatry. But being “subject to the governing authorities” isn’t a free pass to accept and condone anything the government — or the president — says or does. Often weaponized as a way to propagate partisan agendas while simultaneously shut down criticisms, this passage is commonly misunderstood by many Christians.
Partisans use Romans 13 to baptize their politics as being “ordained by God.” But Christians who reference Romans 13 typically do so using an us vs. government relationship. But unlike the first century when Roman rulers were mainly determined by heredity, lineage, or brute force, today we are the government. There is no us vs. them because we play an active role in how our government works and is run.
We the people vote, support, and help decide who our leaders will be. We can’t disassociate ourselves from being responsible for a government we directly influence, control, and put into power.
Suggesting that God put the government in place and President Trump should be exempt from any sort of religious criticism is usually a partisan ploy to excuse the words, actions, legislation, and executive orders that are often callous and cruel.
Christians who think President Trump is sovereignly chosen by God but shouldn’t be judged according to Christ’s standards of truth and holiness are succumbing to both moral relativism and cognitive dissonance. If you believe in the constitutional legality of having a separation between the church and state while also propping up a president as being a divinely appointed servant of God, you are embracing a theocracy. For Trump-supporting Christians, his perceived status as both a president and pseudo high priest who they believe is faithfully carrying out God’s plan provides immunity from any type of legal, spiritual, or moral accountability.
If you use Romans 13 to support Trump, then you must also use Romans 13 to divinely sanction the support of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, who were both elected as government officials. But usually, the people who are the most adamant that Trump is ordained by God are also the most adamant that his critics aren’t. If you believe God sovereignly ordains governments, you must accept this truth across whatever political spectrum comes into power — something virtually impossible to do.
For example, when Obama was president, Trump’s supporters warned that the government was morally indefensible and evil. If you believe the government is a sovereignly divinely appointed institution, then why lambast past presidents who disagreed with you, or current politicians who get elected in place of your preferred party? Could it be that one’s interpretation of whether they should “submit to governing authorities” is largely dependent on their political opinions, and whether their preferred brand of government is currently in power?
Of course it is, which is why Trump’s policies and actions are glorified as being “godly” while same sex marriage and abortion are demonized as being wicked, even though same sex marriage and abortion are completely legal and were legalized through the government.
Christians also fail to consider governments beyond their own when referencing Romans 13. There are countless institutions and leaders throughout the world, and besides the problem of trying to decipher which God-ordained authorities are favored by God and which ones aren’t — especially when governments oppose, battle, and contradict one another. Are we supposed to respect authorities who are dictators, war criminals, and brutal regimes as being divinely appointed by God? How can we fault citizens living in enemy states who wage war against the U.S.? Aren’t they just following a biblical command and submitting to their rulers and governing authorities, too?
The gospel is ultimately a message of following Jesus, not passively cowing to a government. Peter boldly tells the apostles, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29) and Jesus himself warns that “no one can serve two masters” (Matt. 6:24). We often miss the simplest messages of the Bible even when they’re right in front of us. For example, when the Bible says to "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's; and to God the things that are God's..." (Matthew 22), it is a basic statement that claims the things of Caesar and those of God are not the same thing. The moral of the story: don’t mistake the government and its leaders as always being aligned with God — they aren’t. Followers of Jesus should always pledge allegiance to God over any carnal power.
Christians should recognize that Jesus and his earliest followers were arrested, persecuted, and killed by the government of their day — often defying Roman orders and being viewed as treasonous.
Theologian Greg Boyd notes :
It was never God’s goal to have humans rule other people. Governments are God’s concession to human sin. They are now a practical necessity in the world, and God uses them to further his purposes (Rom. 13:1-6). But this doesn’t mean that God approves of them … The Kingdom of God, on the other hand, is based on people trusting God as their sole ruler. Kingdom people are therefore to place no more trust or confidence in governments than Jesus did – which is none. If a government’s laws happen to be consistent with the rule of God, we obey them. If they’re not, we follow the example of Jesus and disobey them (cf. Ac. 5:39). But either way, it’s clear that our behavior isn’t dictated by what government says, but by what God says.
Christians must choose which kingdom they will serve: a kingdom of this world or the Kingdom of God. Because eventually, you’ll be forced to choose which one has the highest priority in your life. When your desire to “respect governing authorities” directly opposes God’s great command to “love your neighbor as yourself,” what will you do? God has already told us which directive is more important, but Christians too often prefer listening to their partisan politicians over their Prince of Peace. God help us.