In the Bible’s presentation of authority and governance, we find a hierarchical structure. At the top of this hierarchy, sitting as the ultimate authority, is God Himself. But the Lord establishes other subordinate authorities under Him to govern people. Over the church, God has set elders who are responsible to preach the Word, pray for the flock of the Lord, and exercise church discipline (1 Tim. 3:1–7). Over the family, the Lord has set husbands and fathers, who are called to lead their wives and children in love and raise their sons and daughters in the fear and admonition of Him (Eph. 5:22–6:4). And over civil society, today’s passage tells us, God has set the civil authorities, whose primary purpose is to use the sword, or force, to punish evildoers (Rom. 13:1–7).
Earthly authority, therefore, is delegated authority. Authorities receive their right to rule from the Lord, who alone possesses authority inherently. Because they are appointed by God, to disobey earthly authorities when they lawfully exercise their authority is to disobey the Lord Himself. Paul lays out this principle in Romans 13:1–7, particularly in verses 2 and 5–6.
In addition to demonstrating that disobedience to the legal exercise of authority on earth is disobedience to God, the Bible’s hierarchical understanding of authority reveals that no earthly authority is absolute. If the Creator alone possesses authority inherently and if He alone sits at the top of the hierarchy of governance, absolute authority belongs to the Lord alone. All other authorities are accountable to the Lord, to Christ, the Son of God incarnate who has been set above all other rulers and authorities on earth (Eph. 1:15–23). Consequently, no earthly authority may lawfully forbid what God commands or command what God forbids. When earthly authorities do such things, civil disobedience is lawful and required for believers.
But in most cases, Christians are obligated to render civil obedience to the governing authorities. Civil authorities do not have to be Christian for us to be required to obey them, as is evident from Romans 13. Paul was writing to Christians who were living under a pagan government, telling them to obey the pagan emperor. Obviously, given other biblical passages that we will examine in the next few days, Paul was assuming that the civil authorities were not commanding what God forbids or forbidding what God commands. In such instances, Christians must submit.