What does it mean for the Bible to declare that all authority comes from God? Does that require that all Christians acquiesce to every government authority and never challenge or question presidents or world leaders? Does it mean that even bad leaders are chosen by God? What does the Bible say?
In addressing these issues, there are several points I’d like to make. Importantly, the admonition of Romans 13:1-2, which does say that all authority comes from God, must also be interpreted in light of all else that Scripture says about God, authority, and those in power. I think five things are especially relevant.
- Submission to Government authority does not entail blind obedience.
Romans 13:1-2 reads:
Rom 13:1-2 Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. (NASB95)
Perhaps the key to understanding this passage is found in the meaning of the word here translated as “subjection” (or in some translations, “submission”). A number of commentators have pointed out that this word (Gr. hupotassō) is less strong that the word “obey,” and that this is likely an intentional move by Paul. As Everett Harrison says, “he seems to avoid using the stronger word “obey,” and the reason is that the believer may find it impossible to comply with every demand of the government.” As Doug Moo explains, this is because all of our allegiances are subject to our supreme allegiance to God. In other words, “submission” to government is always subsumed in the Christian life under obedience to God. Christians therefore not only have permission to question whether leaders exercise authority in accordance with God’s will, but have an obligation to do so.
- God grants authority with the expectation that leaders will be just and righteous.
The Bible is quite clear that God appoints leaders for the specific purpose of carrying out justice and righteousness. Consider the following two verses (among many others):
Gen 18:19 “For I have chosen him, so that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him.”
1 Kgs 10:9 “Blessed be the LORD your God who delighted in you to set you on the throne of Israel; because the LORD loved Israel forever, therefore He made you king, to do justice and righteousness.”
This of course raises the question of what exactly is meant by “justice” and “righteousness.” First, justice in Scripture is often related to the fact that all people have rights by virtue of being made in the image of God. As Lewis Smedes has pointed out, the Ten Commandments, for example, are inherently rights oriented. Murder is forbidden because people have a right to their own life, theft because they have a right to their own property, and so on. Righteousness then refers to actions that uphold the justice expected of God in all human relationships. Thus, the terms “justice and righteousness” appear together often in Scripture, and refer to what we in modern parlance would call “social justice”—that is just-ness in the way we treat others, especially the poor and vulnerable. For example, Jeremiah declares
Jer 22:3 ‘Thus says the LORD, “Do justice and righteousness, and deliver the one who has been robbed from the power of his oppressor. Also do not mistreat or do violence to the stranger, the orphan, or the widow; and do not shed innocent blood in this place.
Therefore, basic human rights are not granted by governments, but by God. Governments may protect human rights, but they don’t establish them. All people as divine image bearers are due fundamental protections and provisions. The Bible especially highlights the poor, the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan because these are often most vulnerable and therefore most likely to have their rights impinged upon by those that would unjustly take advantage of them.
- God-given authority does not guarantee obedience to God.
We should carefully note that justice and righteousness are action words. They relate to what we do and define the nature of our relationship with God. Because God himself is just and righteous, those created in his image are to embody these same characteristics. Furthermore, the lack of these qualities leads to the judgment of God, but the practice of justice and righteousness restores one to a right relationship with God. In Ezekiel we read:
Ezek 18:21 “But if the wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed and observes all My statutes and practices justice and righteousness, he shall surely live; he shall not die.
Because people have free will, there is no guarantee that leaders will embody this concern for justice and righteousness that God expects. Perhaps no story in Scripture illustrates this better than the story of Saul. Saul was chosen of God, but failed to demonstrate the kind of leadership God expected. At the end of Saul’s life, he had become prideful, disobedient, and jealous and God judged him for it. He rejected God’s word and chose to go his own way. As Origin said regarding Romans 13:
God will judge us righteously for having abused what he gave us to use for good. Likewise, God’s judgment against the authorities will be just, if they have used the powers they have received according to their own ungodliness and not according to the laws of God.
- Humility is a requirement for those in authority.
Remember, it was humility that God desired in Pharaoh during the Exodus (Ex. 10:3). God over and over again judges the kings of Israel for their lack of humility (e.g., 2 Chron. 33:23; 36:12). Throughout the wisdom literature humility is described as a prerequisite for obedience to God and for knowing the will of God (Ps. 25:9; 69:32; Prov. 11:2; Prov. 29:23). And Isaiah declares that humility and obedience to God’s word go hand-in-hand:
Isa 66:2 For My hand made all these things, Thus all these things came into being,” declares the LORD.“But to this one I will look, To him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word.
- Those in power must value and stand for truth.
When Jethro advised Moses to appoint leaders that can assist him, he told him to select “men who fear God, men of truth, those who hate dishonest gain” (Exod. 18:21). Solomon later described his father David as having served the Lord in “truth and righteousness” (1 Kings 3:6). And when Hezekiah pleaded his case before God, he declared that he had “walked before the Lord in truth” (2 Kings 20:3).
Because of these five things (and one can likely find more), we cannot simply declare based on Romans 13 that all people in authority are so by the will of God or that they are acting in obedience to God. Romans 13 is teaching the broad principle of authority, not endorsing the actions of every person in power. Christians are to be discerning in their obedience to governments and leaders, and evaluate whether obedience to government demands is compatible with faith in God. The true test is to ask whether the actions of governments and government officials are grounded in justice, righteousness, humility, and truth. Nothing, not even concern for our own safety, can justify the neglect or rejection of these fundamental qualities of godly leaders.
Everett F. Harrison, Romans, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein and J. D. Douglas, vol. 10 of Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977), n.p.
Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, New International Commentary on the New Testament. Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 797.
 CER 5:92–94.