I remember the old rules of wrestling when 2 falls or a SUBMISSION was a victory, Now, turning to Romans 12-13 we find submission to God comes before submission to the State. Notice that all instruction is addressed to all believers – “you” is plural. We think straight that we may act straight under His headship. If we get Rom. chapter 13 will flow naturally and easily. Love embraces submission!
Changing from wrestling to boxing, 13:1 begins with what many think is a body blow. “Everyone must SUBMIT him/herself to the governing authorities.” SUBMISSION is probably one of the most poorly understood terms in our western culture and very often in our church vocabulary. We are so conformed and conditioned to the pattern of this world – to consumerism, egotism, hedonism, relativism – that SUBMISSION to authority sounds so restrictive, oppressive, negative, so contrary to what I want. No less than a slavish obedience. (Of course there are many forced into submission as in wrestling, war and persecution. What we are asked to do in this verse is more accurately termed voluntary submission.)
SUBMISSION in our context means, “to place ourselves under the protection of the governing authorities. Actually someone or ones takes care of us, carries responsibility for our welfare, oversees and undertakes for our good today and tomorrow. So in scripture children submit to parents, young people to their elders and teachers, disciples to masters, wives to husbands, citizens to governments, and primarily the church to Christ. Yes, of course, the authorities to which we submit should be worthy of respect. The more honourable they are, the more ready we will be to honour them. Hence our total unquestioning SUBMISSION to God and to every institution ordained by Him. There are very occasional circumstances or situations where we must obey God rather than governing authorities, see Acts 5:29. Generally Rom. 13:1 applies and should be seen as a comfort blanket rather than a body blow.
Submitting to the laws governments impose, or paying taxes, is not slavish obedience nor is it merely to avoid punishment. Rom. 13:5&7 give two greater reasons for willing submission. We thereby give honour and respect to those in authority and we keep a clear conscience. (Conscience is a big subject, maybe for another time.) Rom. 13:8 sees the bigger picture: “Leave no debt outstanding to anyone, except the debt of love to one another, for he who loves the other has fulfilled the law.” Submission to authority and payment of taxes we can discharge as a debt but loving one another, and especially the other, is an ongoing responsibility. The other can be translated as the neighbour, as in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, but Paul is probably referring back to the governing authorities whom we do not find easy to love. We love and go on loving because we are loved/beloved by God in Christ. Love embraces SUBMISSION. We may wrestle with the word but we do not wrestle with THE WORD. (NB. Paul is not referring here to spiritual forces as in Eph. 6.)