Christians are admonished to obey authorities, not for their own sake or just because they say so; no, we submit “for the Lord’s sake,” out of obedience to a much higher authority, King Jesus. God has clearly put a hierarchy in place, and we dare not circumvent or reverse that. When an earthly authority clashes with our highest, majestic and supreme heavenly authority, we must disobey Caesar and obey Christ, every time.
While we are at it, we must be whole-Bible Christians and learn from godly examples. The Hebrew midwives were honored by God when they disobeyed the pharaoh’s command to kill all of the baby boys. Daniel kept praying, openly. His three friends refused to bow. Peter and John refused to stop preaching. If we can’t obey government “in the Lord,” we shouldn’t obey. Passivity is not necessarily a virtue; protest is not always a vice. This means we can make righteous appeals when we see authorities being unjust. We have record of the Apostle Paul twice appealing to his Roman citizenship, especially for the benefit of other believers and the churches he’d planted.
We are heirs of centuries of constitutional democracy built upon Lex Rex (‘Law is King’), instead of the medieval idea of the divine right of kings. We are involved citizens, not mere serfs and vassals. The highest human law of the land in America is not a president or some faceless bureaucrat, it is our Constitution, and to that we can rightly appeal.
God is sovereign and Christ can build His Church under the worst of tyrants and fiercest of persecution but, that doesn’t mean that we passively wait for America to become the next North Korea or Venezuela or not doing all that we can to prevent it. It’s been rightly said, “All that it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”
So, we know that God has given the government a specific sphere within which to function. It is ordained to punish evil and reward good. Further, Christians are called to submit to the government only in the Lord. Adherence to the Scriptures protects us from both anarchy and tyranny.
(1) Christians May Disobey the Authorities Because of the Three God-ordained Spheres of Authority (family, church, and state).
In other words, outside of their own sphere, rulers have no authority. The state needs no permission from the church or family to perform its tasks (elect officials, go to war, punish crime, etc.). The family needs no permission from the church or state to do its God-given job of raising and caring for the bodies and souls of that household. Speeches from a head of state are not “family meetings”; they are speeches. Likewise, the church needs no permission from the family or state to fulfill its role.
What happens when one sphere swells, expands, overreaches and trespasses into another God-ordained realm? Here’s a sobering example, when the Jews declared to Pilate, “We have no king but Caesar!” That is statism – idolizing the state, dethroning the Lord, and exchanging the true God for the false god of civil government. It is the opposite of Jesus’ famous answer when asked about paying taxes: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” In these two statements, God both legitimized and limited the role of the State.
(2) Christians May Disobey the Authorities Because of a Right Use of Romans 13.
Romans 13:1-7 reads:
Every person is to be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore, whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a servant of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a servant of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. Therefore, it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Pay to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; respect to whom respect; honor to whom honor.
Let’s ask five key questions of Romans 13, allowing the text to speak for itself:
(a) Who is writing this text?
Most scholars agree that this was penned by the Apostle Paul (Rom. 1:1), the same man who says earlier in this same epistle that for the Lord “we are being put to death all day long…considered as sheep to be slaughtered”, i.e., executed by the state. Romans 13 is written by the same Paul who would was publicly charged as a treasonous, seditious troublemaker and threat to the empire. The same Paul who got arrested countless times and wrote many of his epistle from state prison, in chains for his Lord (Eph. 3:1; 4:1; Php. 1:7,13-17; 2 Tim. 1:8,12,16; 2:9, imprisoned “as a criminal”). Clearly then, Paul wasn’t writing Romans 13 thinking of absolute, unconditional submission to government.
(b) When was Paul writing?
Scholarly consensus is that this is early in Nero’s reign, before his persecutions began. Contrast this to the Apostle John’s view of civil government in Revelation 13, writing during Domitian’s fierce persecution (about AD 90). John describes the beastly, demonic, evil and murderous character of pagan government in persecuting Christians (just as Daniel depicts in Dan. 7-8).
A whole-Bible view of politics requires both Romans 13 and Revelation 13 (and the rest of Scripture). On the one hand, when government is in line with God’s will and fulfilling its purpose of rewarding the right, punishing the wrong and not clashing with God’s Law, it must be obeyed. But when government rewards evil, punishes the right and requires us to disobey God, it has become a beastly tool of Satan and must be resisted.
(c) To whom will all rulers give an account?
God is the one who establishes governments and uses them as His servants. Every last human authority will answer to the Almighty. No human authorities are ever absolute, no matter how powerful or terrifying. Ask Nebuchadnezzar what happened when he forgot that, and had to learn about God’s supremacy the hard way! As the saying goes, ‘Rulers who don’t fear God will try to be God.’
(d) Why has God appointed them to govern?
“The State is to be an agent of justice, to restrain evil by punishing wrongdoers, and to protect the good in society. When the State does the reverse, it has no proper authority. It is then a usurped authority and as such it becomes lawless and is tyranny.”
~ Francis Schaeffer
(e) Who defines “good” and “evil”?
But who defines and who decides what is “good” or “evil”? Secular society today defines morality by political correctness, the LGBTQ agenda and censorship of all ‘hate speech’, and by all that is pro-abortion and anti-marriage. In communist countries, “good” is atheism, racism, worship of the state, rejection of all private property, and resulting genocide; “evil” is any opposition to the state or political treason.
But that isn’t how God defines morality in Romans 13 or anywhere else. In the very next verses (vv. 8-10), Paul proceeds to show that God’s absolute and objective Law defines our ethics, not any manmade subjective or situational standards. From the Garden of Eden, to Mount Sinai, to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, God has made clear that His character and Law are the fixed, universal standard for “good” and “evil.”
The scriptures tell us that rulers don’t create morality; they conform to it. Rulers don’t define good and evil; their job is to reward the good and punish the evil, based on God’s standards. As John Knox states, “Kings have not an absolute power in their regiment to do what pleases hem; but their power is limited by God’s Word. …Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God.”
But of course, pagan governments and authorities often disregard the divine standard, though God’s Law is still inscribed on their hearts and written on their consciences. So, we submit wherever possible and keep paying our taxes; but we are watchful for any infringement on our first allegiance and highest duty of obedience to God’s Law.
(3) Christians May Disobey the Authorities Because disobedience is NOT forbidden by the Scriptures
There is not one verse in all of Scripture that says you are never allowed to disobey the authorities. Let me illustrate: Wives are mandated to submit and “be subject to their husbands in everything,” which sounds like absolute language. Yet that does not include obeying a husband who instructs his wife to break God’s Law (e.g., be immoral, cheat on taxes, abort a baby, etc.). Children are commanded to “be obedient to your parents in all things,” which sounds unconditional. Yet that cannot include submitting when dad asks his son to commit a crime or to sin, or when mom asks her daughter to steal or lie. What Scripture teaches is that we always obey authority figures “in the rightful exercise of their authority.”
Whenever a human authority in home, church or state (or an employer) asks you to disobey God, at that point their authority is null and void. Similarly, Romans 13 presupposes an authority that is functioning justly, not requiring us to disobey the Word of God in any way. Writes John Calvin, “For earthly princes lay aside their power when they rise up against God and are unworthy to be reckoned among the number of mankind.”
In closing, Scripture makes clear that submission to authority does NOT necessarily mean agreement! We submit “for the Lord’s sake” to every human institution, no matter our opinion or preference. This means any time a legitimate authority gives a lawful command, like it or not, we must trust God and submit, no matter how irrational or unreasonable it seems.
However, whenever we are commanded by an illegitimate authority (out of their biblical sphere) or an unlawful command (against the Law of God), we “must obey God rather than man!” Biblical civil disobedience is required anytime we are commanded to do what God forbid or told not to do what God requires.
The heart of a Christian is not for maximum obedience to the state and minimum obedience to Christ. This is especially true in the church sphere. Our Lord has given us New Testament epistles packed with dozens of “one another” commands and principles for our “church” life, and our highest priority is to study and obey those divine regulations to please Christ our Lord and King.
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