Does the Bible Really Tell Us to Obey the Government?

By: Tonya Parrott

The instruction to obey the government is based on Romans 13:1-7, New International Version translation.

Romans 13:1-7 Submission to Governing Authorities (NIV)

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. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.

3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

Now, let’s look at this same passage of Scripture in the original, King James Version translation:

Romans 13:1-7 (KJV)

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. 2 Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.

3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: 4 For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. 5 Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.

Does this passage really teach that we should submit to the government? Let me break down some of the words in this passage from the original Greek and provide further explanation before you make your decision.

Romans 13:1 Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. (KJV)

The wording was changed over time:

Let every soul be subject to the authorities that are above him. (Romans 13:1 DARBY – 1890)

Let every soul be in subjection to the higher powers. (Romans 13:1 ASV – 1901)

Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. (Romans 13:1 NASB – 1995)

Most twentieth century versions have interpreted—not translated—the Greek words (huperecho exousia) as “governing authorities” while those of older origin, such as King James (1611), American Standard (1901), Bishop’s (1595), Geneva (1599), Darby (1890), Tyndale (1534), Webster’s (1833), carry the literal translation of these words as “higher powers.”

The word governing in the NASB is the Greek word huperecho that means “to hold above, to rise above, to be superior.”

The Greek word exousia interpreted as authorities in the NASB means “power to act, authority.”

The term exousia does not refer to human authority but rather spiritual. The adjective higher was used by Paul to distinguish exousia from that which is merely human.

It is to those in higher lawful authority to which all souls are to be subject. The point of conflict comes when people associate the word ‘governing‘ with secular government. The context of this verse has no connection to secular government.

In fact, a maxim of law states, “The power which is derived cannot be greater than that from which it is derived.” This means that government elected by the people, which gets its power or authority to govern from the people who elected it, can never have greater power or authority than that which the people possess. That means that an elected, lawful, government must be in subjection to the will of the people. To do otherwise would mean that we make ourselves subservient to a thing of our own creation.

Secular government is an entity that we created. Yet we have come to expect it to care for us. As an entity of our creation, it differs from the organizational government that Jesus established for those people he has called to assemble as his kingdom. Therefore, to misinterpret this verse is idolatry.

I am reminded of Peter’s words in:

Acts 5:29 Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men.

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