10 Things You should Know about the Christian’s Responsibility to Human Government
In this installment of 10 Things You should Know we’ll turn our attention to Romans 13:1-7 (and 1 Peter 2) and the Christian’s responsibility toward human government.
(1) All governmental authority comes from God (Romans 13:1,4,6). This applies to Pharaoh in Egypt (Rom. 9:17), as well as the pagan rulers in Babylon (see Daniel 2:19-21, 36-38; 4:24-37), and Pontius Pilate in the days of Jesus (John 19:11-12). Those in authority are therefore rightly called God’s “ministers” (v. 4) and “servants” (v. 6).
When Paul describes those in governmental authority as his “ministers” or “servants” he is not referring to their spiritual condition, as if to suggest they are all born again. Rather, he is describing their function under God’s sovereignty. They “serve” God and his purposes, even if they are oblivious to his influence over their lives.
(2) Because all governmental authority comes from God, all Christians are to live in subjection to it (Romans 13:1,5; 1 Peter 2:13-17). That does not mean we must obey everything that our government commands or requires. There are certain exceptions, as we’ll see below.
(3) Because all governmental authority comes from God, to resist “it” is to resist God (Rom. 13:2). Simply put, a crime against the state is a sin against God. But fear of civil judgment is not the primary motivation for obedience to the law (see Rom. 13:5). We have a responsibility to the will of God regardless of the consequences of our criminal behavior. Our obedience to the law of the land is based first and foremost on principle: obedience to God, and only secondarily because of the consequences it may bring.
(4) The purpose of government (the state) is two-fold: first, to promote and praise good, and second, to punish and prohibit evil (Romans 13:3-4). It is not the purpose of the state to promote or preach the gospel and we should oppose any law that seeks to utilize the state for that purpose. It is the responsibility of the Church to preach the gospel. The state is supposed to provide a legal and moral atmosphere that makes this possible (see 1 Tim. 2:1-2).
(5) Paul was not oblivious to the fact that sometimes governments do the very opposite: they promote and praise evil and punish and prohibit the good. What is the Christian to do when that happens? Might that reversal of roles justify civil disobedience or perhaps outright rebellion? See below under point ten.
The Apostle Peter knew what it was like to live under tyranny and barbarism. He lived and ministered during the reigns of the Emperor Augustus, Herod the Great (who ordered the slaughter of the male infants in and around Bethlehem in an attempt to kill the new-born Jesus), Herod Antipas (who executed John the Baptist and not only presided over the mock trial of Jesus but joined with the soldiers under his authority to torment and ridicule our Lord), Pontius Pilate, Herod Agrippa (who executed James, the brother of John, and arrested Peter with the intent of doing the same to him), and Nero.
And yet he tells us, without hesitation, to “be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Peter 2:13-14). We are also commanded to “honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17).
(6) It is the right of government to levy taxes and the obligation of its citizens to pay them (Rom. 13:6-7). But also note that simply paying our taxes isn’t enough: we must also show the respect and honor due unto the agencies and agents of the state for fulfilling their God-ordained responsibilities.
(7) Neither Paul nor any other biblical author ever endorses a particular form of government. We must remember that the Roman state was pagan and dictatorial; yet Christians functioned and even flourished under it. Neither Paul nor any other biblical author knew anything of democracy.
(8) Are Christians ever free to publicly criticize their government and its officials? Yes! Paul is not saying a government is free to do whatever it pleases. It is subject to God and his will. Government is not morally autonomous. The church is the conscience of the state and therefore must call it to account when it fails to fulfill its role as God’s minister for good. We see this in Daniel’s response to Nebuchadnezzar, John the Baptist’s response to Herod, and Paul’s response to Felix.
(9) So, are Christians ever free to engage in civil disobedience? Yes. Neither the authority given to the state nor the obligation of the Christian to obey it is absolute. The best example of this is in Acts 5:27-29.
Some point out that Nero was in power when Paul wrote Romans. Thus, if he commands subjection to someone as barbaric and wicked as Nero, how can civil disobedience ever be justified? But the first five years of Nero’s reign were known for their enlightenment, justice, and equity. Nero came to power in 54 a.d. and Paul wrote Romans in 56. At the time Paul wrote, Nero was commanding obedience to a good and civil government.
(10) Under what circumstances or on what grounds may a Christian engage in civil disobedience? Answer: When the state prohibits us from doing what the Bible commands, or commands us to do what the Bible prohibits (see Acts 5:27-29). John Jefferson Davis (Evangelical Ethics: Issues Facing the Church Today, 1993) provides us with some guidelines to determine when certain laws of the land demand that we disobey:
First, "the law being resisted must be unjust and immoral, clearly contrary to the will of God", and not just inconvenient or burdensome (216).
Second, "legal means of changing the unjust situation should have been exhausted. Civil disobedience should be seen as a method not of first resort, but rather of last resort, when legal channels have already been pursued" (217).
Third, "the act of disobedience must be public rather than clandestine" (217).
Fourth, "there should be some likelihood of success, particularly when the intent is to produce changes in laws and institutions" (217).
Finally, "those who consider civil disobedience should be willing to accept the penalty for breaking the law" (218).