This paper was originally published on in September 2007. In April 2008, it won the Best New Paper Award at the Christian Scholars Forum at the University of Texas at Austin. In part 1, I examined the nature of the State in the Gospels, focusing on the Temptations of Christ and the famous “Render to Caesar” passage. In this section, I analyze Romans 13 and propose some potential application.

Paul’s Teachings on the State

While one is hard-pressed in the gospels to develop a thorough theology for how Christians should interact with the state, the epistles of Paul and Peter address these issues much further. Romans 13:1-7 is the clearest exposition regarding civil government, but other significant Scriptures include Titus 3:1-3, 1 Timothy 2:1-3, and 1 Peter 2:11-17. However, for brevity’s sake only Romans 13 will be examined in detail. The following analysis has benefitted greatly from the works of Dr. John Cobin, specifically his books Bible and Government and Christian Theology of Public Policy, which in this author’s opinion provide the best and most thorough attempt to integrate this passage into a consistent understanding of public policy theology.

christian_theology_public_policy Paul was a Roman citizen by birth, and even used his citizenship to his advantage on one occasion in Acts 22 and 23. Yet, he was a “Hebrew of Hebrews” and a Pharisee in regard to the law of God (Phil. 3:5). Hence, one would expect for him, like the Pharisees in the gospels, to be somewhat resentful towards the Romans because of their rule over the land of Israel. Yet in Romans 13, Paul seems to be quite positive towards Roman rule. A “face value” reading of the text might lead one to believe that the state is a very positive force in society and perhaps even a divinely ordained institution in the same way that the family and the church are divinely ordained.

However, I do not think this sort of interpretation is warranted. Apostolic admonitions regarding civil government cannot easily be reconciled with a casual, plain reading of the New Testament texts. Otherwise, you would conclude that the apostles were either wrong, speaking within an irrelevant cultural context, or just out of their minds. When one considers the actual historical context of Romans 13, rather than lifting it out of Scripture as merely abstract ideas, a surprising reading emerges. To illustrate this, how would the interpretation change if one replaced the words “governing authorities,” “rulers,” and the personal pronouns with the names of the emperor and kings of that time, namely Nero, Herod, or Agrippa? The text would read as follows:

1 Let every person be subject to Nero and Herod; for there is no authority except from God, and Nero and Herod have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists Nero and Herod resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For Nero and Herod are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of Nero and Herod? Then do what is good, and you will receive Nero and Herod’s approval; 4 for Nero and Herod are God’s servants for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the Nero and Herod do not bear the sword in vain! Nero and Herod are the servants of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be subject to Nero and Herod, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. 6 For the same reason you also pay taxes, for Nero and Herod are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. 7 Pay to Nero and Herod what is due them – 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 13:1-7, NRSV)

How should Christians today interpret this knowing that Nero was in power at the time of Paul’s writing? How can we resolve the problem of knowing that Nero killed good people, namely Christians, when the passage clearly says that civil government rewards and commends those who do good? Clearly, the interpretation problem is not resolved with an immutable maxim as simple as “do what the government says.” Both the Old and New Testaments manifest that this is not right or true on multiple occasions. Some examples include:

  • Hebrews defying Pharaoh’s decrees to murder their infants (Exodus 1)
  • Rahab lying to the King of Jericho about the Hebrew spies (Joshua 2)
  • Ehud deceiving the king’s ministers and assassinating the king (Judges 3)
  • Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refusing to comply with the king’s decrees, and were miraculously saved twice (Daniel 3 and 6)
  • The Magi from the East disobeying Herod’s direct orders (Matthew 2)
  • Peter and John choosing to obey God rather than men (Acts 5)

The text of Romans 13 can be better understood with an appreciation for the historical context and evident reason through Scripture and experience, rather than taking a “face value” interpretation as so many Christians often do.

1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.

Verse 1 says that state authorities are instituted by God. Paul’s primary message for Christians, however, is not that states are specially instituted in the same way as the family and church, but rather that the state is not operating outside of the plans of God. In this sense, the state is divinely instituted in the same way that Satan is divinely instituted. God is not surprised when states act the way they do. As noted specifically in the Gospels, the state is understood throughout Scripture as being intimately tied to Satan and his kingdom, and patently opposed to the Kingdom of God. The state’s status within God’s ultimate plan does not legitimize the evil the state commits.

Submission to civil government, then, is always qualified. The command is to obey in general, but sometimes we will disobey public policy because of personal and Scriptural conviction. Christians are to obey most policy whenever directly requested to do so, but ensuring active compliance with every public policy is unnecessary. All submission is directed at being expedient and practical toward men and glorifying toward God. Cobin explains that, “Any sin problem for disobedience arises only when one’s action is unwise, involves poor stewardship, requires neglecting one’s family duties, or detracts from the believer’s principal purpose in life” (Christian Theology of Public Policy, 120).

2 Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; 4 for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.

Verses 2-4 indicate that if you irritate the state then you will face wrath, but if you behave in the way the state wants then they will be pleased. At many points, what the state defines as good and evil may be very much opposed to what God defines as good and evil. But what Paul is telling the believers in Rome is that if they do something that the Roman government defines as evil then they will likely be punished for it. We cannot abstract this verse from its cultural context and make it an absolute requirement on all cultures at all times. To do so would be to put Christians under a great bondage to bad public policy. There is no compelling reason to think that Paul was deliberately writing about any particular rulers other than those in the first century Roman Empire.

Paul knew full well the power of Nero and the potential harm he could cause to Christians in Rome – he calls it “the sword” – and he does not want believers to be persecuted for anything other than the name of Christ and what he stands for. Paul reminds the Roman Christians, though, that even the dreadful power of the state is not outside the power of God. His message to them is the same as Romans 8:28, that “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” The state can indeed be a means of sanctification for the Lord’s church.

5 Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. 6 For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing.7 Pay to all what is due them – taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.

Verses 5-7 expand upon the reasons for submitting and include practical ways the Roman Christians were to respond to Paul’s message. Cobin says, “The reason we must submit to government is to avoid wrath or worrying about being harmed by the state authority. God does not want us to be entangled with the affairs of this world to the point where such involvement detracts from our primary mission” (Christian Theology of Public Policy, 125). The word “conscience” in verse 5 should be interpreted in a similar manner as 1 Corinthians 10 (regarding food sacrificed to idols). The believers were concerned that the Roman state would find a legal reason to persecute them. One cannot use this verse in an absolutist sense to say that Christians can never participate in removing any authority, such as in the American Revolution. Paul also encourages Christians to “overcome evil with good” as understood in Romans 12:21 (this includes evil authority), and to work to be free if at all possible (1 Corinthians 7:20-23).

Paul also says to submit to paying taxes for the same reason: avoiding state wrath in order to live for God. One despises paying taxes, but in order to abate the state’s wrath one pays them. Likewise, “pay to all what is due them” is commanded for the same purpose, especially considering the political tumult of the time. But does this mean that a man sins if he makes a mistake on his Federal tax return? Paul would very likely answer no. Modern taxes are very different from Roman taxes. In fact, the Greek word for “taxes” in verse 7 is more accurately rendered “tribute,” which is specifically the capitation tax (or “head tax”) in a Roman township census. The Romans would send soldiers from house to house, count the residents there, calculate the tax, and then demand full payment immediately. If a Christian did not comply at once, then he, his family, and possibly even his fellow believers could be in imminent, serious trouble. Paul says to not resist these men when they do this, just pay the tax. Refusal to pay would identify them as part of the tax rebels and political rogues of the day, and would give the Romans a reason to persecute Christians in Rome and perhaps throughout the empire. Paul wanted the Roman Christians to avoid becoming public spectacles and government targets.

As a general principle, modern Christians should do the same when immediate threat of state force is upon them, taxes or otherwise. However, modern taxes are not often like this; tributes and tariffs are not culturally transcendent forms of payments to states. Hence, one is most certainly not sinning if a mistake is made on a tax return. Cobin would even go so far to say that some taxes can be completely avoided without guilt (Christian Theology of Public Policy, 129).

Romans 13 is not an abstract, blanket statement that requires submission to all state laws, in all places, for all circumstances, at all times. Nor is it a prescription for what particular form of government is sanctioned by God or for how states should act. The historical context and wording requires us to be careful when making pronouncements about what a Christian’s submission to the state looks like.

Christian obedience to government is for the purpose of expedient peaceful living and bringing no dishonor to the name of Christ. We are not obligated to follow every jot of public policy. Moreover, we are not supposed to follow any law that goes against the law of God. If we are to be persecuted, it should be for the name of Christ and what he stands for, not for refusing to follow some random law when directly threatened by state action.

In conclusion, developing a theology of the state from the New Testament is understandably difficult. Examining the gospels, one finds that the state is not related to the Kingdom of God in any way, and in fact the state stands with Satan in direct opposition to God. The “Render to Caesar” encounter with Jesus does not legitimize the state and does not form the basis of a Christian’s interaction with government. Finally, a full understanding of Romans 13, taking into account its proper context, helps us to make better decisions within whatever state authority we find ourselves under.


1. Some scholars are not convinced that Romans 13 is actually referring to civil government. Mark Nanos argues that what Paul is talking about here is the obligation of Christians, particularly Christian gentiles who associated with the Jewish synagogues of Rome, to “subordinate themselves to the leaders of the synagogues and to the customary “rules of behavior” that had been developed in Diaspora synagogues for defining the appropriate behavior of “righteous gentiles” seeking association with Jews and their God.” (Nanos 291)

If you haven’t already, read part 1 of this article.

For Further Reading

1. P. J. Achtemeier, Romans (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1985).

2. R. A. Batey, The Letter of Paul to the Romans (Austin, TX: R.B. Sweet Co., Inc., 1969).

3. G. Berry, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Romans (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998).

4. J. Cobin, Bible and Government: Public Policy from a Christian Perspective (Greenville, S.C.: Alertness Books, Ltd., 2003).

5. J. Cobin, Christian Theology of Public Policy: Highlighting the American Experience (Greenville, SC: Alertness, Ltd., 2006).

6. D. English, The Message of Mark (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992).

7. C. R. Erdman, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1929).

8. P. F. Esler, Conflict and Identity in Romans: The Social Setting of Paul’s Letter (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003).

9. J. A. Fitzmyer, The Anchor Bible: Romans (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1964).

10. K. Grayston, The Epistle to the Romans (Peterborough, England: Epworth Press, 1997).

11. M. Green, The Message of Matthew (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000).

12. D. R. A. Hare, Matthew (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1993).

13. T. G. Long, Matthew (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1997).

14. I. H. Marshall, New Testament Theology (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004).

15. M. D. Nanos, The Mystery of Romans: The Jewish Context of Paul’s Letter (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996).

16. T. H. Olbricht, His Love Compels: The Sacrificial Message of God from the New Testament (Joplin, MO: College Press, 2000).

Dr. Norman Horn

Norman founded and the Libertarian Christian Institute, and currently serves as its President and Editor-in-Chief. He holds a PhD in Chemical Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin and a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from the Austin Graduate School of Theology. He currently is a Postdoctoral researcher in Chemical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  • Trutherator

    Suggestion: Consider that most churches today (including what compromised Christian media likes to call “The Church”) are more comparable to the Pharisees than they are to the Acts 2 and Acts 4 churches, or the churches that Paul wrote to or of Revelation.

    THE church is “two or three gathered together” in the name of Christ and has NOTHING to do with buildings. That’s Jesus word. Fellowship is mandated and unfruitful doctrinal disputes to be avoided but it is good to seek out like-minded for fellowship. Christ took his disciples OUT of the “church” of his day and even out of the system of doing things the expected “Roman” way. He called them to “drop out”, but also acknowledged not everyone would.

    There are congregations that do not bow down to Baal or to Caesar.

  • Trutherator

    Note that my King James Bible is a scathing rebuke at the “divine right” of kings, no matter how much one speculates on the intentions and motives of the man for the hour, and your modern filthy-lucre-motivated, government-monopoly-protected, government-forced copyright-royalty supported modern translations do no better at “clarifying” the spirit of Romans 13 than the King James. James did not propose the idea anyway, it came from a Puritan.

    Take a hint from some of the unique stamps of authority. One, you get an idea of what Romans 13 means from Romans 17 and 18 where GOD himself puts it in the heart of the ten kings who share power with the Beast himself, to burn the Great Whore with fire.

    In another point dear to the hearts of Christian libertarians especially ancaps, is this word “servant”, correctly translated in the King James Bible. But in every one of the copyright-tainted NCC-influenced versions it is instead translated as “slave”. These modern books purport to use modern language, but in modern English the word “slave” refers to chattel slavery, where the slave is fully owned and has no more rights than a pig.

    A clear reading of the context in the laws of Moses shows that the word “servant” does not mean “slave” AT ALL, but usually more like contractual work or restitution. Funny, the only time the word “slave” appears in the KJB is a contemptuous reference as a spoiled “homeborn” slave, but any such “slaves” bought from “strangers” were to be treated as family.

    And in the laws of Moses is a clear ban on forcing free men into any servanthood.

    The other “smoking gun” sign of diabolical NCC theology infiltration is the prolific use of the word “race”, as in “holy race”, in the modern translations, instead of the more proper use of the word “seed”. It is less carnal, and we see counter-examples to that mistranslation in Rahab, Ruth, David’s Mighty Men of all kinds of “races”, Esther (“many of the people of the land became Jews”), and Paul’s pointing out that we are children of Abraham in the spirit of the faith of Abraham.

  • Aaron David


  • Michael Alford

    I tried to throw my two cents into this discussion with one of my postings, and allow me to congratulate you. Although I disagree with a couple of the finer points, I think you covered a complicated subject as well as anyone could hope to cover it.

  • Thanks Michael! I don’t expect everyone to agree with me 100% for sure, but what I do expect is that we can learn from each other through good, respectful discussion. :-)

  • Michael Alford

    I dont even agree with myself 100% of the time

  • Aaron David

    Mock away. I know how blessed I am.

  • Vinney1

    Actually, most of Paul’s persecution was the result of Jewish leaders. In fact, on one occasion he used the fact that he was a Roman Citizen, and that he had been beaten with out a trial. The local magistrates were very afraid when, they found out, and Paul made them come an escort his out. The only reason he was in chains and appearing before the emperor was not because of persecution of the Romans. He found out there was a plot by Jewish zealots to kill him. The romans in this case, transported him to appear before another ruler. It was Paul who appealed to Caesar, not Caesar arresting him for breaking Roman laws. The local governor asked Paul if he wanted to go back to Jerusalem and face his accusers. I think people need to read the bible, and the Book of Acts in the Bible to get a bit more facts. At this time, Paul was not breaking any Roman Laws.

  • DanielRCoats

    Therefore Christians should not worship and praise their State and should worship and praise the living God!

  • Amen!

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  • Paul urged compliance with the king’s decrees for the same reason Christ paid tribute as seen in Matthew 17: “lest we offend them”. In other words, to keep them off our backs so we can do God’s work.

    Paul saying to obey them “not just” for wrath’s sake, but for conscience’s sake, was also a reference to the fact that God uses the wrath of man to “praise Him”. Like David asked God in the Psalms for God’s protection against his (David’s) enemies, “Arise, O Lord, disappoint him, cast him down: deliver my soul from the wicked, which is thy sword:”- Ps 17:13

  • David Hillary

    A logical analysis of Paul’s argument shows that Paul is completely demolishing his point. This is a reductio ad absurdum of the proposition that the powers that be are established by God to do us good. Paul is arguing, covertly, against the state propaganda that it produces social order by suppressing evildoing by punishing those who do evil. Paul is playing devil’s advocate in introducing the state as being a legitimate power on the side of good, when he (and his audience) know that the state is the devil’s scheme (Eph 6:11-12), which of course is also why we should it to claim to be a servant of righteousness (2 Cor 11:14-15). If we know Paul we should know this is his style: ‘We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.’ (2 Cor 10:5).

    The truth is that we submit to the state not because it is legitimate but in spite of its illegitimacy. We follow the example of Jesus: we do good, submit to the state, get punished by the state and get commended by God (1 Pet 2:13-23). Peter uses a similar rhetorical structure, but instead of using local inferences to disprove that the state propaganda that it is there to punish those who do evil and commend those who do good, he juxtaposes the teaching about suffering for doing good and getting commended by God, and the example of Jesus, the good, being executed by the governor, Pilate, who was sent by the emperor (Tiberius).

    See here for a study on this topic:

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  • Carl Edwards

    Libertarian Christian is an oxymoron. Simply because Libertarians do not understand the concept they purport to fight for. Liberty is not the right to do what you want, it is the power to do what you ought. Libertarian definition is license not liberty. There can be NO liberty without law! Christians should know this best because we have been liberated from the passions of the flesh to follow the genuine liberty of the cross!

  • Obviously did not read the article, or anything else on this site.

  • Old web post here, but had to say if they look at Matthew 17 they’ll find out who Jesus meant in Romans 13 a little more clearly (in my opinion anyway). There he said “the kings of the earth”, and clearly said “then are the children [of the kings[ free”. Of course he couldn’t mean spiritually free! They are free of taxes!

    Caesar stole everything he had from the forcefully subjugated conquered peoples…

  • Joshua

    This is a problem passage for most Christians, and something I struggled with myself. Most of us go to other passages of scripture to give loopholes to what we think Paul is saying here. But I believe that isn’t necessary, we have just been misunderstanding Paul’s point this whole time.
    The one thing that is missing in this article – and other interpretations of this passage – is the context of Romans 13:1. Not the historical context … but the literal context! Just go back a few verses in Chapter 12, Paul is discussing not returning evil for evil but overcoming evil with good.

    To be clear, I don’t believe that evil here is synonymous with sin. Evil is always sin: murder, theft, assault. But sin is not always evil: covetousness, envy, greed, lust. I would define evil in a Libertarian manner similar to the non-aggression principle. Sin can be on the inside, evil is acted out aggressively against someone else.
    Let’s call evil, harm – for clarity.

    So, if someone harms you, do not return that harm but overcome the harm with good. (Romans 12:21) For vengeance is the Lords (Romans 12:19).
    How does the Lord exact vengeance? On of his means historically has been government. (See Romans 13:4 for the tie back to Vengeance being the Lord’s.)

    That is why in Chapter 13 he goes on to say how one handles harm: by arranging yourself under the governing authority. Paul is not suddenly changing the subject – from evil, harm and vengeance – to obeying the state.
    It is a logical train of thought, and gives us one view of what the proper role of government should be. To protect the right to freedom for all individuals, specifically, freedom from the aggression of others. As well as to punish those who violate the freedom of others. (Paul argues this legitimacy in Romans 13:3-7. Even saying that it is for this service that we pay taxes. If only we paid taxes for this service, our national debt would be nothing, and income tax barely noticeable).

    It is important to note that most English translations, translate two different Greek words in these verses as “stand against” or “resist”, as though they are the same word. They’re not. But translating it as such makes it sound like resisting the authority is the same thing as resisting God (Romans 13:2 and the reason for most of our confusion). When a more accurate translation would be: “Therefore whoever does not arrange himself under the governing authority resists the ordinance of God.”

    And how does one “not arrange oneself under the governing authority?” By doing what Paul just said and returning evil for evil, rather than overcoming evil with good. He goes on to give additional reasons for not returning evil for evil. If you do, you may bring down the wrath of the state upon yourself. (Romans 13:3-5)

    Furthermore, what ordinance of God are you resisting if you don’t arrange yourself under the governing authority? The ordinance he quotes in Chapter 12, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.”

    So, to put it in an illustration: Let’s say someone murdered my father. I am told not to return the harm with harm. So I’m not supposed to kill them/take revenge. But rather overcome it with good. I would say that this would be through forgiveness, which furthers the gospel. If I do seek vengeance myself and kill the murderer, I may end up in prison for that act. (13:4)

    But does that mean the person who killed my father received no consequences for his actions? Absolutely not! I align myself under the state and their justice system. Whatever that may look like. Whether it’s a communist state or a democratic republic, neither is going to look at my forgiving the man who murdered my father as doing evil.
    This also explains the apparent contradiction we see through History where Governments can be a terror to good works. It’s the context of the Government looking at me, and the way I reacted in the situation of my father’s murder. Not a blatant statement that Governments never terrorize good people.
    And as a Christian I know, that whether justice is ever served through the State’s system, the Cross brought ultimate justice to this situation.
    Please re-read Romans 12 and 13 in this light, and I’m sure you’ll see the logic Paul is trying to get across. It’s very Libertarian!
    I would be happy to discuss this more but will keep this post short so people might actually read it.

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  • Shawn Covington

    This is the very passage the city officials used to attack me and justify their aggressive behavior towards me and my property while ignoring their own laws. These ideas are infecting even the smallest towns where city council members still open their meetings with public prayers (sickens me). I try to be a good citizen and get along with my neighbors as much as possible, but in this day and age conflict is inevitable. The laws are set up so that anyone and everyone can be considered a law breaker. Jesus considered the rulers and practitioners of the law to be lawless during His time and, since they serve the same father, they are just as lawless today. Their ignorance must be challenged for their own sake and for the sake of others. Any time someone uses this verse as an argument I refer them to Tortured For Christ (free online) where Richard Wurmbrand lays out his argument against the common interpretation of this passage. Wurmbrand suffered greatly due in part to the ignorance of Christians concerning this scripture and all scripture during the rule of Stalin. It is a great reference for how the state comes to power, what it is capable of, and how to combat it with the teachings of Christ.

    Personally, I use the model Jesus laid out for us with Peter and the taxes. He paid the taxes, so as not to “offend them”, but He pointed out that those who don’t pay taxes (the princes) are free. The question then becomes, what is He saying about those who pay taxes? Are they free or not free due to these taxes? He spoke out about the taxes and used it as a lesson to teach. He didn’t just quietly submit and neither should we.

  • Oliver Churchill

    Avoiding payment of taxes altogether is a free-rider philosophy. I would link it ethically to Paul’s warnings that those who do not work should not expect to be fed because consumption of resources without just compensation is, in my humble opinion, a form of civil theft. I benefit greatly from my tax-funded police department, fire department, streets and sanitation and even municipal enterprise funds such as airports and water department. And I don’t mind paying for those things. I also benefit greatly from a powerful conventional and nuclear force structure in place, which I help fund, even if I don’t agree with its deployment. All that being said, objections to government policy are on a case by case basis with individuals needing to reconcile their own actions with their individual consciences, knowing they are answerable to God.

  • S-800 Hunter/Killer

    What a bunch of mumbo-jumbo trying to rationalize away the plain meaning of the text. I sure hope this author doesn’t end up appointed to the Supreme Court. Yeah, and the Constitution is a “living document” too, right?

    All the problems clear up when you realize the authorities the chapter is talking about have nothing to do with the government. The authorities that have been ordained by God are listed in Ephesians 4:11, apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.

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