2.2.7 Why should people accept government’s claim to authority?

Back to 2.2.6

Unit 2 Contents


You will recall also that our study of the ‘just government strand’ in Scripture is organized around three basic, normative questions about government (1.4.2; cf. start of 2.2.3).  These are:

  • What should government do?
  • Why should people accept government’s claim to authority at all?
  • How should government be constituted?

For the last four screens, we have been looking at what Scripture has to say about the first of these.  We now come to the second.

This question of whether earthly government should be seen as having any authority at all was a real one for the early Church.

Jesus’ central message was that the reign or rule of God was coming, as we have seen (1.2.2, 2.2.5).  In proclaiming this, Jesus’ focus was not on human government but on a much more radical renewal of God’s people.  Against this background, earthly government can seem insignificant and irrelevant.

It appeared this way, at least to some, in the early decades of the Church’s history.  Some study of Paul’s letter to the Romans will help us see this.

We have given a lot of attention to the way that Jesus’ gospel of the coming of God’s reign sounded like a challenge to Roman power.  As it turned out, the way that Jesus’ message did challenge Rome’s rule was not on Rome’s own terms – he didn’t use the same means as Rome did to impose its rule, namely military power.  As we have noted, the gospels show plainly that taking up arms against Rome had no place in Jesus’ mission.

Despite this, Jesus, and then his followers, did pose a huge challenge to Roman imperial power.  This was because of the claim that Jesus was ‘Christ’ and ‘Lord’, which became central in the gospel proclaimed by the early Christians.

Let us look at these two terms.

Christ  This word means the same as ‘Messiah’; Messiah comes from Hebrew and Christ from Greek. They refer basically to a figure anointed by God to be the king of God’s people.  (Literally, the meaning is ‘anointed one’.)  From the very beginning of the Church, as recounted in Acts and evident in the New Testament letters, Jesus’ followers proclaimed that he was Christ.  Whenever we read this word, we should recognize the claim that he was God’s king.

Whereas Jesus had announced the coming of God’s reign or kingship, his disciples proclaimed that he himself was the king.  He was the one through whom God reigns.

Lord  This is the standard English translation of the Greek, kyrios.  Perhaps you know the prayer used often in Christian liturgy:

Kyrie, eleison.  Christe, eleison.  Kyrie, eleison.

This means:

Lord, have mercy.  Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.

In the first century, kyrios was used to refer to anyone who had authority.  It was a statement of deference to or respect for someone else’s authority or status.  As such, it is unsurprising that in Greek writing such as the New Testament it was used as a form of address to the sort of Jewish teacher we see Jesus to be in the Gospels.  To this extent, there is nothing remarkable about Jesus being referred to as kyrios.

But the New Testament puts across that the early Christians did not see Jesus as just one kyrios among many.  Rather, they came to see his lordship, his authority, as higher than any other.  According to St Matthew’s Gospel, the risen Jesus proclaimed that, under God, he has “all authority in heaven and earth” (Matt. 28:18).  St Paul, probably quoting an early Christian hymn, referred to Jesus’ humiliation in death on the cross and then continued,

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

(Philippians 2:9-11, NRSV)

From very early in Christianity, the word kyrios, when used of Jesus, made the claim that his lordship is above others’, that Jesus is Lord of lords.

But kyrios was used also to refer to the Roman Emperor.  The primary reason why Christians got into trouble with Roman emperors, and at times were persecuted, was because a basic element in their belief was that Jesus was the true King and the Lord above other lords – and that the Emperor was not.  This is why, even though Jesus’ had repudiated the military means that could threaten Rome directly and the early Christians followed him in this, the gospel of the coming of God’s reign and of Jesus as Messiah and Lord, did pose a great challenge to Rome.  Here was a movement with a radically subversive message, but not one that could be defeated in the way Rome knew how, by weapons of war.  The word ‘martyr’ means ‘witness’, and the early Christian martyrs were precisely this – witnesses to the impossibility of defeat of the Christian gospel by an outward show of suppression.

The confession that Jesus is Christ and Lord became absolutely definitive of who Christians were.  They were the strange people who said that a Jewish teacher condemned by the Jewish leadership and executed by the Roman governor, Pilate, was in fact the Messiah and the Lord.

That affirmation about Jesus’ status and authority gave the Christians a real sense of distance from Roman power.  Their identity was independent of Caesar.  But it was not only that confession which marked them out.  There was also the way of living which, as a community, they aspired to make real in the midst of the society ruled by Rome.  To have a glimpse of this, and to see why it is significant for how the Church came to see human government in general, we can look at what St Paul wrote to the small church in the imperial capital city, his letter to the Romans.

You will remember that at the start of the page giving ‘An outline of biblical history’ (2.2.2), and also at the start of our study of Jesus (2.2.5), I quoted from Unit 1’s introduction to Christian faith (1.2.1):

Christian faith is in God.

The central claim of Christian faith is that God is love and that God has freely chosen to reveal his love in the world. God has done this in a special way, namely in a particular history.

On that page, I then summarized this ‘special way’ in three bullet points.  The first of these was about God’s revelation to ancient Israel, and the second was about Jesus.  The third was this:

  • God is revealed by the Holy Spirit, ‘the Spirit of God’s Son’ (as the New Testament puts it, Gal. 4:6), who is active in many ways in the world and is given especially to those who put their faith in Jesus Christ and who form a people committed to living in imitation of the way he lived. This people is the community called the Church.

I bring this in here because St Paul made clear in Romans that he understood the Holy Spirit to be of basic importance for Christian living.  People who are, as he put it, ‘in Christ’ are to “live according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:5).

It was the Church’s self-understanding of being a community living by the Spirit that made the question of whether human government has any authority at all a real one for them.

In a moment you’ll be asked to read a part of Romans that brings this out.  But, as always with biblical texts, it is important to place the passage you will read in context.  St Paul wrote Romans about 25 years after the crucifixion of Jesus.1.  At this time, Paul was in the midst of his lengthy journeys preaching the gospel (as recounted in Acts), but he had never been to Rome.  This helps to explain why, in this letter, he sets out his understanding of the gospel more fully and in a more ordered way than in any other letter.

In our Bibles, Romans has 16 chapters, but Paul didn’t put in the divisions into chapters and verses; these were added later.  We can see the letter as formed of two halves that are significantly different from one another.  In the first half, chapters 1 to 7 in our Bibles, Paul argues for his understanding of the significance of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, for the Jewish people and for all people.  In the second half, chapters 8 to 16, he goes on to describe what that means for how Christians should live.  This second half also includes a long passage, chapters 9 to 11, on how the Jewish people, specifically, fit into God’s purposes after the coming of the Christ.  (If you would like to look at a fuller outline of the contents of Romans, see the note at the bottom of this screen:.2.)

What especially matters for our purpose here is the second half of Romans, on how Christians should live, especially chapters 8, 12 and 13.

St Paul understands the Holy Spirit to be of basic importance for living in the way of Christ.  He contrasts living by ‘the flesh’ and by ‘the Spirit’.  The former means being subject to outward or physical controls and impositions, such as legal restrictions, which can control our external actions (our ‘flesh’) by stopping us doing some things and making us do others.  Living by the Spirit means freely living in the way Jesus Christ lived: those who make up the body of Christ (Rom. 12:4-5) are empowered by his Spirit to follow his way, and therefore to love neighbour (Rom. 13:9-10), without needing external, physical controls and sanctions to make them do so.

From the start of chapter 12, Paul sets out what this means in practice for the Christian community.  Through a series of exhortations, he presents an extraordinary vision of how the young Christian church in Rome is to live.   You will be asked to read chapter 12 in a moment. What this conveys – in the context of the whole letter up to this point – is that under the authority of Jesus, who is Christ and Lord, his followers are to live in a way that makes worldly structures of law and power superfluous. Their way of life is supposed to transcend these.

This is why it could seem to the early Christians that human government is pretty much irrelevant.  Compared with the authority of Jesus Christ, the issue of whether earthly rulers really had authority didn’t matter.

But, at this very point in Romans, Paul suddenly gives attention to how the Christians in Rome should see the Roman authorities.  While the whole letter so far could have been heard as implying that the Christian community just has no need for such worldly power, he teaches (in chapter 13) that the Christians should recognize and be subject to “the governing authorities” because these have their authority from God – the same God who is made known through Christ and the Holy Spirit.

Now read chapter 12 and the first part of chapter 13.  As you do, keep in mind that the first readers were members of a small Christian church in the capital of an empire that dominated the known world.  At the time Paul wrote, the churches had not (yet) experienced persecution by the Roman authorities.


Reading (2pp)

Romans 12 (whole chapter) and 13:1-10




How would you describe the relation between chapter 12 and chapter 13?  (Keep in mind that the chapter break here was not introduced by St Paul.)

Romans 13 is one of the best known texts about government in the New Testament.  Were you already aware of this?  You might recall that I quoted part of it the end of the last screen (vv. 3-6).

Re-read Romans 13:1-7.  If you have time, make a quick list of the distinct things this passage says.


I suggest that it is really important to read Romans 13 in the context of the letter as a whole, and I hope this screen has enabled you to do this.  There are two good reasons for this.

First, the few verses about the ‘governing authorities’ in this chapter are not much more than a brief aside in the letter overall.  But this aside is made necessary, or at least desirable, by the way that the vision of ‘life by the Spirit’ which Paul has expounded means that at least some Christians were bound to think that this new way of life was so overwhelmingly important that the issue of Rome’s authority was a red herring.  It is as though Paul is saying something like this:

The main thing you need to grasp, to appreciate, to live in light of, is all that God has done in his Son, Jesus the Christ, and the Holy Spirit. This is what the whole letter has been about. But you also need to keep in mind another, more mundane way in which, still, the same God is acting: through the Roman authorities.3

Second, there is a danger that if Romans 13 is quoted completely out of context, it can seem to be an arbitrary assertion that God has appointed rulers and we have to obey them – and that’s all there is to it.  But this can be highly dangerous, because it may mean that people fail to question what rulers are doing.

The title of this screen is: ‘Why should people accept government’s claim to authority?’  In light of Romans 13 and a small number of similar passages in the New Testament, the short answer which we find in Church teaching is: we should recognize government’s authority because this comes from God.

But it is vitally important to appreciate the whole story of God’s action in the world, especially in Jesus, which gives the context in which the Church affirms that.  We can characterize the line of thought in Romans 12-13 as a relativization yet affirmation of human government.  We should obey government because its authority is from God – but this is of secondary importance, relative to what God has done in Jesus and is doing by the Spirit.

It is very interesting that a parallel line of thought to this comes in the first letter of St Peter.


Reading (1p)

1 Peter 2:1-17


This passage emphasizes that the Christians have, in Christ, become a community, “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation… God’s people” (vv. 9-10).  It emphasizes too that, even while they should accept the existing institutions of authority (v. 13), yet they should “live as free people” (v. 16, NRSV). In the terms St Paul uses, they should live not by the flesh but by the Spirit.

Ever since the first century, the question of why people should accept that government has authority has been answered in Church teaching by reference (in part) to these two passages, Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2.

To end this screen, look at a very short passage in the Catholic Catechism.  This has the heading ‘Authority’.  You will see that this quotes Romans 13:1-2 and refers to 1 Peter 2: 13-17 (in note 17).   It also includes other points we haven’t considered on this screen.


Reading (1p)

Catechism of the Catholic Church, first part of subsection headed ‘Authority’: ##1897-1900


Of course, to affirm that political authority comes from God does not mean that government may do anything it likes, may abuse its power.  Rather, it must do only what God has authorized.  As we began to see in the previous screens on the role of government, particularly those on the Hebrew Scriptures, this can be summed up as to do justice by practising judgment in court, especially for the sake of the afflicted and poor.  We return to this in Unit 3.


End of 2.2.7

Go to 2.2.8 How should government be constituted? Clarifying the question

Module B outline

Copyright © Newman University. If you wish to quote from this page, see Citation Information. N.B. If you are a student and make use of material on this page in an assignment, you are obliged to reference the source in line with the citation information.

  1. Most scholars agree that Paul wrote Romans in the mid-to-late 50s and that the crucifixion of Jesus was between CE 30 and 33. 

  2. Outline of St Paul’s letter to the Romans:

    First half:

    1.1-17             Introduction (incl. summary in vv.16-17)

    1.18 – 3.20      All have sinned, Gentile and Jew, and are subject to God’s judgment

    3.21-31           But there is justification of sinners through Jesus Christ – sinners are brought within one covenant people.

    4                      But if this is so, what significance did Abraham, the father of Israel, have?

    5.1-11             Summary/review of chaps 1-4 – of what has been achieved through Christ

    5.11-21           Location of this story about Israel and Christ in the story of all humanity: Christ/Adam

    6                      Therefore, let us not sin

    7                      Given all said so far, how should I, a Jew, see the Jewish law?  The law is good but cannot free us from sin.

    Second half:

    8                      In Christ all (Jew & Gentile) are freed from sin and death.

    Therefore, “live according to the Spirit” (v.5).  Live as those who are “in the Spirit” (v.9).

    9 – 11              But how, in light of Christ, does the people of Israel fit into this?

    12.1-15.13      Continued description of ‘life according to the Spirit’

    13.1-7             Within this description: what place do the Roman governing authorities have?

    15.14-16.27    Conclusion 

  3. Quoted from N. Townsend, ‘Government and Social Infrastructure’, in J. Chaplin and N. Spencer (eds), God and Government (SPCK, 2009) 118.