The Bible teaches that God is sovereign – even going so far as to say that all authority is appointed by Him: “For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God” (Romans 13:1).
That does not suggest that God is necessarily pleased by all those in authority or that those in authority cannot misuse their responsibilities (see for example Saul in 1 Samuel 8ff: God specifically chose Saul to be a king over Israel, but described that his reign would not be entirely positive), but it does underscore the reality that we must recognize that the appointing of authority is not out of His hands, and consequently, how Christians respond to those authorities is important to God.
Romans 13:1 adds “Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities…” The verb translated “to be in subjection” is the Greek upotassestho, and is a middle imperative – meaning the believer is to cause him/herself to be under aligned, or submitted to the governing authorities.
There are several instances in the NT that illustrate the importance of believers’ social-political relationships:
Matthew 17:24-27 – Jesus described the merits of paying a questionable tax in terms of avoiding offending those to whom the tax is due
Matthew 22:15-22 – When asked whether the Jews should pay taxes to Caesar, Jesus said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.”
Romans 13:1-7 – This passage is a fairly detailed description of the believer’s citizenship responsibility, including submission, taxes, custom, fear and honor, and even love.
1 Timothy 2:1-4 – Believers are to pray for those in authority, so that (1) they will lead well, and (2) that they might come to the knowledge of the truth.
Titus 3:1-11 – Believers are to be subject, obedient, and ready for every good deed, reflecting the kindness of God, and avoiding dissension.
Romans 12:17-18 / Hebrews 12:14 – Be at peace with all men insofar as it is up to us (of course, it isn’t always up to us).
2 Peter 2:13-17 – Freedom is not a license for “evildoing,” but rather believers are to recognize we are bondservants of God – honoring the king is an application of that (doesn’t require agreement, just requires respect).
If believers are to be obedient and responsible in these ways, then is there ever cause for civil disobedience?
Several of the above passages also include responsibilities of these governing authorities. For example Romans 13:4 describes government as bearing the sword for bringing wrath on evildoers. Specifically, the authority of the sword was granted to human government for dealing with one crime and one alone – murder (see Genesis 9:6). Within the Mosaic Law, capital punishment had a much broader function, but of course, that Law was limited to Israel and only to the time up to its fulfillment in Christ. Nonetheless, governmental authority is intended for a particular purpose, whereas it is often misused.
Believers are not told to submit only to those authorities with which they agree. So it is legitimate to ask if a Biblical case can be made for civil disobedience. The Bible speaks directly to this issue, and the principles are fairly evident.
Acts 5 describes an imprisoning of the apostles for proclaiming Christ, and when told to discontinue that evangelistic activity, Peter replied, “We must obey God rather than men” (5:29). Jesus had very specifically commissioned these men to testify of Him (e.g., Acts 1:8), and if they stopped proclaiming Him, they would be standing directly in disobedience to God. Nonetheless, they did not resist arrest; rather they accepted the consequences for their actions in a peaceable way, utilizing their lawful rights to legally defend themselves (to answer their accusers).
In this instance, the apostles were only willing to disobey human law when it directly contradicted God’s revealed directions. Too often we as believers are quick to disregard things with which we disagree, without properly considering the necessity of basing all of our actions on Biblical direction.
Likewise, Daniel provides an OT example of godly commitment and civil disobedience. Daniel was a man of prayer, and a man of high character – so high, in fact that his opponents could find no fault in him, and realized they could only accuse him in respect to his God (Daniel 6:5). These men facilitated a new law forbidding prayer, and thus the otherwise law-abiding Daniel was now a law-breaker. Whereas Daniel could have changed his prayer habits – either to stop, in fear of consequences, or to become publicly belligerent, in asserting his “right” to pray. He did neither. Instead, he continued as he had always done (6:10), without changing anything. He was willing to accept the consequences, though he proclaimed his innocence before God and before the king (6:22).
Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego encountered a similar persecution, when it was required that they must worship the king’s image (Daniel 3). As this was a direct violation of Israel’s law at the time (e.g., Exodus 20:3-4), they were unwilling to bow. There were, however, willing to accept the consequences, and had no expectation that God must deliver them (Daniel 3:17-18).
From these three instances, a few principles are evident:
(1) There is an order of priorities in showing honor and obedience, and God always comes first.
(2) There can be instances when government mandates against Biblical mandates, and in those instances, believers, I would conclude, have a responsibility to obey God.
(3) If civil disobedience is Biblically justified, the examples show that the consequences should be accepted and peaceably encountered.
Finally, in light of God’s sovereignty and the various Biblical expressions of social responsibility, it is a worthy question to ask: If God is in control of appointing authority, then why should a believer vote or push for political or societal change?
First, we should note that the Bible is decidedly not consequentialist. Meaning that it is not outcome-focused in regard to ethics. Instead, the ethical basis for believers in the church age is “You shall be holy for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16). The foundation of Biblical ethics is obedience, not outcomes.
Incidentally, we should further be careful to understand that redeeming or “Christianizing” society is never a commission that God gives to believers. Making disciples is different from pursuing the installation of a theocracy. Jesus’ kingdom will come – but it will be His doing, not ours, and in His timing, not as a result of our political efforts. And historically whenever religion has centralized its focus on attaining political power for the conversion of the masses the results have often been horrific. Hence we should be cautious to examine our motives and our purposes in political involvement.
Our goal is personal holiness and godliness, and where we can impact people around, we certainly should be doing that – but for the right reasons and to the right ends.
Now, with those points in mind, we can be very appreciative that we live in a system (undergirded by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution) that allows for its citizens to dissent, to vote, to influence, and if the governing powers become unjust, even to cast them aside. Ours is a very unique system indeed. Of course it is deeply flawed, as is any human-governed system, but still it is a system that comes closer than any other earthly model to a Biblical kind of respect for human life and all that implies.
So if a Christian sees a person in office, who is governing contrary to respect for human life (for example), knowing that God has appointed all authority, does the Christian have the right or responsibility to vote the representative out of office? The answer is easy – as a part of fulfilling our responsibilities to government, we have both the right and responsibility to do so. We may desire a particular outcome, but ultimately outcomes are in God’s hands and thus not our primary concern. Rather godliness – holiness – obedience – these are our concerns. God gives us responsibilities, and we have enough to keep our hands full without trying to take on His role as well.
As believers, we must always remember to keep Biblical priorities. If we are doing so, then understanding how we should relate to governing authorities is not as complex as first glance might imply.
Now…an interesting logical and theological teaser: America’s present system allows for the casting off of unjust government, as the Declaration reads,
“But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
But can this statement be justified with Biblical mandates for responding to governing authority? In other words, in our current system we can “overthrow” governing authorities (representatives) all while being submissive to governing authorities (Declaration and Constitution). But in creating that system, did the founders themselves violate the Biblical mandates?
This question is worth addressing, perhaps, in a future article.