Pastor Cosand: July 2017
CIVIL OBEDIENCE (and disobedience)
meditation on Romans 13:1
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.
For there is no authority except from God,
and those that exist have been instituted by God.
In many passages of the New Testament, Christians are called on to be advertisements, if you will, for Christ. In a manner of speaking, we are to be walking, talking, living advertisements for Christianity, inviting others, by the way we live, to be Christians. In Titus 2:10, Paul says that we adorn the doctrine of God by our good works. We make it look good, attractive, inviting. In Romans 13, Paul draws out, in very practical terms, some of the implications of Christianity. In the first seven verses of Romans 13, Paul writes about the obligation Christians have to be subservient to and obedient to their government. The principle would apply to all legitimate authorities … parents, husbands, policemen, teachers, judges, church leaders … but the specific focus of these verses is on government.
Christians in the first century might have reasoned that the Roman government was idolatrous through and through and therefore a Christian is under no obligation to obey its laws. Christians in 21st century America might reason in the same manner. Our country is covered with a great, and increasing, spiritual darkness, from Washington D.C. to Minot, North Dakota, and therefore some might say that we are at liberty to dismiss the laws of such a spiritually bankrupt system.
This passage commands, in no uncertain terms, that Christians are bound, by divine decree, to obey the laws of governing authorities. "Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities." In a word, we are duty-bound to obey the laws of the land. We are required by Romans 13:1 to obey the laws of our land … federal laws, state laws, city laws. Christians ought to be the most law abiding citizens there are. And what we see in this passage is that civil disobedience is equated here with disobedience to God. When reading the words 'governing authorities', it is helpful to keep in mind that the 'governing authority' under which Paul lived was the idolatrous Roman Empire and the emperor on the throne was Nero, a ruthless, murderous, anti-Christian ruler. If the Scripture commands that Christians of the Roman Empire must obey the Roman authorities, how much more does this command guide our own response to the democracy in which we live?
Our culture provides a good opportunity to be clear witnesses for our God in this matter, because in our society there is an increasing disdain for authority, at every level. Many students challenge the authority of their teachers … many people do not respect the authority of government officials … many children do not respect the authority of their parents. It is a day of increasing rebellion against anything that smacks of authority. When a Christian lives a life of quiet subjection to authority, it is a way to live that is radically different than our culture at large.
"Let every person be subject to the governing authorities . . . for (or 'because') there is no authority except from God and those that exist have been instituted by God." We should obey our government because our government and our leaders have been established by God. "Therefore," this passage reasons in verse 2, "whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed . . ." The powers that be are ordained by the sovereign, providential hand of God. To disobey a governmental law is tantamount to disobeying God because He is the one who established the government or king or senator who made that law.
To be sure, sometimes our taxes are used for funding abortions and sometimes they are wasted on unnecessary, and even harmful, government programs. But that is the responsibility of government officials, who will one day be called on to account before God for the way they used, or misused, the authority God gave them. Certainly the Roman government did not use the taxes from Christian citizens for righteous purposes. The unrighteousness of government officials does not absolve Christians from paying their taxes in compliance with the laws of the land. Governments do not always exercise their God-given authority properly, it is true. There are inequitable laws and corrupt judges and greedy lawmakers and perjured witnesses and crazed dictators and purchased policemen. God will judge them for their actions, but God will judge Christians for their actions as well.
I know that a question develops from this passage because governments are not always good and governments are not always right. So is there a place for civil disobedience? May a Christian ever disobey the laws of his government with God's blessing? The Biblical answer is 'yes'. There are times when a Christian not only has the right to disobey ruling powers, but the duty to disobey governing authorities.
There are two guiding principles in the stories of the Bible which highlight circumstances in which it is right for someone to disobey a governmental law. (1) Christians may disobey a governing authority when that authority commands what God forbids. (2) Christians may disobey a governing authority when that authority forbids what God commands. In these cases not only may a Christian disobey a governing authority, he must disobey. There are Biblical examples of both.
Obedient for His name's sake,