Rom 13:1  Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except by God’s appointment, and the authorities that exist have been instituted by God.
Rom 13:2  So the person who resists such authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will incur judgment
Rom 13:3  (for rulers cause no fear for good conduct but for bad). Do you desire not to fear authority? Do good and you will receive its commendation,
Rom 13:4  for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be in fear, for it does not bear the sword in vain. It is God’s servant to administer retribution on the wrongdoer.
Rom 13:5  Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of the wrath of the authorities but also because of your conscience.
Rom 13:6  For this reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants devoted to governing.
Rom 13:7  Pay everyone what is owed: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.

Romans 13 is a cornerstone passage in covering theology.  It is cited as the biblical backing for the following concepts:

  • Everyone should submit to those in authority over them whether it be a husband, pastor, employer or apostle
  • Everyone who is in authority is God’s delegated authority
  • Those who resist God’s delegated authority are resisting God

Bevere writes:

"Since God has appointed all authorities, we refuse the authority behind them if we dishonor or refuse to submit to them.  Whether we know it or not, we resist the ordinance or rule of God.  When we opposed God’s delegated authority, we oppose God Himself. (Bevere 88)"

There are several ways in which the proponents of covering theology misinterpret this passage.

  • Paul is clearly referring to the government not the church, family or workplace
  • God instituted government, but that doesn’t mean we should always follow it
  • Resisting God and resisting what God has ordained are two different things

1) Paul is clearly referring to the government

The New Living Translation renders v1 this way. "Obey the government, for God is the one who put it there. All governments have been placed in power by God."  The nature of the NLT is that it translates concept for concept rather than word for word and that often paints a more accurate picture of what is going on.

The Good News Bible is similar in its approach.  It renders the verse this way: "Everyone must obey state authorities, because no authority exists without God’s permission, and the existing authorities have been put there by God."  The phrase "state authorities" makes it clear Paul is referring to the government.

In is argument Paul refers to three things that are applicable to governments but not to churches.

  • It bears the sword
  • It administers retribution on the wrongdoer
  • It collects taxes

None of the terms used in this passage refer to any church office (Harsville, 204).  Although the words used in Romans 13 most commonly refer to government functions, there are times when they are used by the church to describe similar roles.  For example, a diakonos in the government was a servant of the king;  a diakonos in the church took care of the poor and distributed money.

huperecho "governing" v1 to have or hold over one, superior
archon "rulers" v3 a ruler, commander, chief, leader
diakonos "servant" v4 one who executes the commands of another, especially of a master, a servant, attendant, minister
leitourgos "minister" v6 a public minister, a servant of the state

One thing item of note the word huperecho is used a few other times in scripture.  Paul used it three times in Philippians (2:3, 3:8, 4:7).  It is interesting to see how he uses it in 2:3.

Php 2:3  Instead of being motivated by selfish ambition or vanity, each of you should, in humility, be moved to treat one another as more important (huperecho) than yourself.

The manner in which a word is used will change its intended meaning.  Paul isn’t talking about the exact same thing in Rom 13 and Phil 2.  He isn’t calling the Phillipians to treat one another as if they were governing authorities.  In Philipians Paul calls us to consider each other as the ones who have hold over us, our superiors.  However it is another beautiful example of mutual submission in scripture.

Some have put forward the argument that leitourgos is a religious or spiritual term.  It isn’t at all.  It is used in non-biblical Greek writings and meant "render service to the people." Leitourgos was commonly used to describe people who dealt with financial tasks and taxation.  It is used in a Christian context where individuals are rendering service to people.

Jesus instructed the apostles to be nothing like the Gentile rulers in the way they exercised authority (Mat 20:25-26).  The very same gentile rulers Jesus was referring to are the ones Paul is referring to.  I can understand how Paul then would instruct people in Rome to respect the authority of the government.  There is a huge difference between doing that and equating the function of church leadership with the role and methods of state government.

In all the commentaries on Romans I’ve looked at no one even hints that this passage is applicable to the church.  There is debate but not about whether this applies to the church, but whether we should accept a corrupt evil government. In David Barlett’s commentary on Romans he wrote:

In the New Testament itself there is a striking contrast between the understanding of government power as found in Romans and in the book of Revelation, where John of Patmos claims that imperial power comes from Satan, not from God.  In the bible as a whole we have Paul urging that we respect authority; we also have Elijah and Jeremiah condemning authorities.  Christians looking for an easy answer to the question of how to be good citizens will not find such answers in the bible.  Different biblical writers bring different insights to different situations.

2) God instituted government, but that doesn’t mean we should always follow it

When we consider whole counsel of scripture we see many examples where authority is deemed illegitimate or in rebellion against God’s divine will.  We can reconcile this with Romans 13 by acknowledging God has a ordained governments to fulfill a role in society, but these authorities can be in rebellion against God.  Paul doesn’t say authorities represent God, just that they have an appointed role in God’s plan. 

Not everyone in authority is legitimate.  Jeremiah gives us an excellent example in Jer 5:30-31:

Jer 5:30  "Something horrible and shocking
is going on in the land of Judah:
Jer 5:31  The prophets prophesy lies.
The priests exercise power by their own authority.
And my people love to have it this way.
But they will not be able to help you when the time of judgment comes!

The priests definitely held positions of authority, even "spiritual authority" if there is such an animal.  But they exercised their power on their own authority.  It puts to bed the whole notion that everyone who is in authority is God’s delegated authority.

For the sake of consistency and to avoid the all too common method of cherry picking translations I’ve used the New English Translation throughout this website.  The NET, NIV and the NASB are the only common translations that use the word authority when translating v31.  Most other translations convey that the priests rule at the direction of the lying prophets.  Either way the passage still conveys God’s disdain for the priests abuse of their authority and how the people “love to have it this way.”  The NET notes explain some of nuances of the translation.

What did Jeremiah think of the leadership of the nation in his day?

"Jer 5:5  I will go to the leaders
and speak with them.
Surely they know what the LORD demands.
Surely they know what their God requires of them."
Yet all of them, too, have rejected his authority
and refuse to submit to him."

The leadership of Judah was in open rebellion against God.  In order to be faithful to God and follow His authority Jeremiah had to speak against the secular and religious leaders of his day.

Covering theology often speaks of leaders being God’s delegated authority.  If everyone in authority represents God to the people they are in charge of how can:

  • Satan offer Jesus the kingdoms of this world (Mat 4:8-9).
  • Satan be the ruler of this world (Joh 12:31).
  • The apostles decide to disobey their rulers (Acts 4:19-20).
  • Jesus warn his disciples to be discerning in how they follow the instruction of the scribes and Pharisees (Mat 23:23)
  • God give a prophet the authority to uproot entire nations (Jer 1:10)
  • The government be a tool of the anti-Christ in the Book of Revelation

3) Resisting God and resisting what God has ordained are two different things

Paul has chosen to be very precise in his wording in Romans 13.  If he meant to say people are resisting God if they resist authority he would have said that.  Instead he said that those who resist authority are resisting what God ordained or put in order.  God may have established the leaders of Judah but they rebelled against God.  At that point people must resist that which God ordained because people corrupted it.  For Jeremiah to be submitted to God’s authority he had to speak against the authority of his government, the government which God instituted.

The word translated ordained or instituted in this passage is Tasso.  According to Thayer’s lexicon tasso means to "put in order" which is why English translators would use institute or ordain.  A parking lot manager may be appointed/ordained/instituted to be in authority in the parking lot but that doesn’t mean they directly represent the CEO of the company.  Someone who is appointed to a specific position walks in the authority of that position.  If the parking lot manager exercises his or her authority to command a parking lot worker to break company policy a worker may end up in total rebellion against the manager but still completely respecting and following the wishes of the ultimate authority.