All of us are aware that as Christians, we experience a continual tension between our commitment to righteousness and the pressures of our culture.
One of those tensions involves our role as citizens. The Bible tells us to be witnesses and examples, and one of the ways we are to be examples is to be good citizens, subjecting ourselves to governing authorities.
This can be an enigma. The governments which Peter and Paul instructed Christians to be subject to were harsh, authoritarian, and the government actively persecuted Christians. The Roman government, in fact, promoted polytheism and required its subjects to worship the emperor as a god. The Christians, being monotheists, were scorned and viewed as traitorous.
Yet through both Peter and Paul, the Lord tells us to submit to governing authorities. The only exception is when the government would require us to do something unrighteous in the judgment of God.
Two New Testament passages provide the principles we are expected to follow in relating to our government. The first is 1 Peter 2:13-17:
Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God's will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king.
The context of this passage is verse 12: we are to live such good lives among the pagans that even when they accuse us falsely they will know of our good deeds and glorify God because of us when Jesus returns.
The second is Romans 13:1-7:
Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
The context of this passage is that Paul is explaining to the Roman Christians how to maintain their integrity as good citizens in a pagan and immoral land.
Governing authority (civil government) is established by God (Romans 13:1)
Since God alone is the sovereign ruler of the universe, he has instituted authorities on earth: government over all citizens, the church over believers, and parents over children.
Obviously, we know from history that civil governments usually have not acted as though they have been inspired by God. Generally speaking, governments in history up to the present usually have not turned out to be godly in their policies and decision-making. So the Bible is giving us the main principle here: God has established the institution of government is to rule the affairs of society.
When we look at history, we can see that God has accomplished His work and His will either through the actions of government or in spite of the actions of government. The main principle about government authority for the Christian is that the institution of government was established by God.
So that being the case, what is the purpose of government?
The purpose of government authority is to promote good and punish those who do evil (1 Peter 2:13-14; Romans 13:3, 4)
Romans 13:4 tells us that governing authority is God’s minister (“deacon”). That is, its purpose is to carry out the instructions of a higher authority; in this case, to act in God’s behalf in establishing and maintaining order in society and perform other works for society’s benefit. Governing authority is called here “God’s minister” to us “for good.” Literally, the text is telling us that government’s purpose is to promote what is good. That would include promoting righteousness, safety, security, and contentment.
The other purpose of governing authority is to punish those who do evil. Verse 4 is a revealing text. In punishing evildoers, civil government is God’s “avenger” against evil, and its purpose is to deliver wrath (punishment) to those who do evil. The literal translation of the phrase is: “for a servant of God it is, an avenger for wrath to the one practicing evil.” It should be noted that even the most wicked, evil, and godless civil governments we know from history did serve, in at least some measure, as a deterrent to crime.
Note in verse 4 that the text says the governing authority “does not bear the sword for nothing” (literal translation: “in vain”). This is sometimes cited as the New Testament authority for governments to use capital punishment for punishing the worst crimes and protecting society from those who would commit those crimes. That may be accurate, but this reference is far from a conclusive argument for capital punishment. Governing authority bears the sword—a weapon for cutting, thrusting, and killing—not “in vain,” which means not “without purpose” or not “without just cause.”
Remember from our visits to this topic in previous years that almost all government actions involve one or more of four social needs or principles: freedom, equality, order, and safety.
Freedom involves the personal rights of thought, speech, movement, earning a living, buying, selling, etc. God created humans with the ability to think and reason and make choices.
Equality describes the fact that all people are equal before God and not judged by characteristics such as race, nationality, poverty, or wealth. Governments, if they are truly acting as God’s servants, will promote equality, and equality is the biblical standard for individual human conduct. As we know from history, various governments have fallen on both sides of the equality issue and have instituted laws that guarantee, or restrict, equality.
Order is perhaps the overriding purpose God has for government, as Peter tells us in verse 14: “to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.” In other words, to keep order among people whose natural or “old” nature is to act selfishly.
Safety involves the protection of the people governed from invasion and domination by other nations.
We are to be in subjection to government authority (1 Peter 2:13-14; Romans 13:1, 2, 5-7)
We are to be in subjection to governing authority; that is, submit to the control of government. To resist (Romans 13:2) is to oppose authority God has put over us. Romans 13:5 asserts that our subjection to governing authority should be not just because of its capacity to punish, but also (literally) “because of conscience.” I think this is part of the thought of verse 2: we should not oppose God by resisting authority He established.
Further, we should pay our taxes (Romans 13:7), be afraid of governing authority if we do wrong, and give respect (honor) to governing authority.
There is one obvious exception. When the governing authority wants to compel us to do something that is opposed to the character of God, we must disobey. A revealing example of this is found in Acts 5. The apostles were teaching so effectively in Jerusalem that the high priest had them arrested and jailed. (The high priest and the Sanhedrin were the civil government appointed by the Roman occupiers.) The apostles were released by an angel of the Lord, however, who told them to go back out and continue teaching at the Temple. Once more, they were arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin. We read their response when brought back before the Sanhedrin in Acts 5:27-32:
Having brought the apostles, they made them appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” he said. “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man's blood.” Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than men! The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead—whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”
When considering disobeying the governing authority because of a law or regulation that would require us to act in an ungodly manner, we also usually think of Daniel.
Daniel was one of the young men in ruling families of Judah who was taken by the conquering Babylonians to Babylon. It was the practice of the Babylonians when they conquered a nation to take captive men such as Daniel to Babylon, and over several years to train them in government administration, after which they would be sent back to govern their native land as servants of the Babylonians. In Daniel 1, we read that Daniel, who was captive in Babylon, refused to eat what the king ordered the captives to eat because it would defile him. The food in the king’s court consisted of meat that had been sacrificed to Babylonian idols. Eating is was understood as an act of worship to those idols. Daniel negotiated a deal: let us eat vegetables for 10 days and see if we look healthy. The king’s steward agreed, and Daniel and his friends remained healthy and were able to circumvent this unrighteous requirement. This was serious business. To refuse an order from Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king, was a capital offense.
We read in Daniel 3 that three of Daniel’s fellow captives (Shadrach, Mishach, and Abednego) refused Nebuchadnezzar’s command to bow to the golden idol and were thrown into the furnace and were delivered from the fire. The three friends’ response to King Nebuchadnezzar when refusing to bow to the idol as he ordered, is instructive to Christians faced with an unrighteous law or requirement: “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up” (Daniel 3:17-18).
Later, in Daniel 6, we find Daniel serving under King Darius. A law had been passed commanding that Darius be worshiped as a god, and the law forbade worship of any other deity. Daniel was observed praying to God and was thrown into a den of lions, a capital punishment. After surviving the night, Daniel told Darius the king: “My God sent his angel, and he shut the mouths of the lions. They have not hurt me, because I was found innocent in his sight. Nor have I ever done any wrong before you, O king” (Daniel 6:22).
So, while we are to be subject to governing authority, there are circumstances in which we are called to obey God rather than the governing authority. When this is the case, here are some guidelines to follow:
- Disobeying governing authority should be done in prayer.
- It should be a clear instance in which we would be compelled by governing authority to do something that is evil in God’s sight.
- It should not be done with a defiant or mean-spirited attitude.
- And it should be done in sorrow, because the civil authorities appointed by God are defying His purpose.