Obedience to Government
October 8, 2020 · C.E. Carter
The crux of the issue of disobeying government is figuring out when disobedience to government is obedience to Christ, and when disobedience to government is disobedience to Christ. One extreme school of thought is that obedience to government is necessary all of the time, and Paul’s command in Romans 13 to “be in subjection to governing authorities” is a command for all times and places and situations. This school would have to therefore condemn all civil disobedience as ungodly, including the civil disobedience of the apostles themselves. The opposing extreme argues that obedience to God necessitates that we don’t consider obedience to government at all, but of course, this view has to deal with pesky problem passages like Romans 13. Ultimately, the nature of the authority structure between God and government is in question. Is human government a pure agent of God’s governance? Certainly not. Is human government wholly divorced from God’s governance? Clearly, no.
A Minister for Our Good
The quintessential text is Romans 13:1-7, which says,
Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. 3 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; 4 for it is a minister 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 minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. 5 Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. 7 Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.
In defense of those who argue for more obedience than less, it’s easy to try to close the case with the first verse. However, a real problem arises when this passage is used to make a blanket statement that government can do no wrong. No person with a knowledge of history would argue that, but why would they argue that? In order for someone to say that a government is just or unjust requires a standard of morality which exists outside of the government under examination. We may, from the Biblical moral law given in Leviticus, which was expounded upon by our Lord Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, conclude that the socialist and fascist reign of the Nazi party in Germany was an unjust government, that Stalin’s rule in the Soviet Union was unjust, and that our own government engages in injustice because it allows for the killing of babies in the womb (among other things). We make these critiques using an external standard of morality, namely the Biblical moral law.
The question which the exegete of this passage must ask is, “what is the standard of good and evil” which Paul is referring to when he says “For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil”? Is he appealing to the Roman civil law, or to God’s moral law? Certainly the latter! How could government be “a minister of God” and “servants of God” if their ministry supposes an entirely different standard of good and evil than God’s? God is pleased by no standard of good and evil other than His own; any deviation from God’s standard of good and evil, or any reordering or any poor assignment of goodness or evil, is what sin is. If Paul were referring to the moral standards set by government when he says “good” and “evil”, instead of God’s, he would be under the curse of Isaiah 5:20,
Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; Who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!
Government is to be obeyed, not because its rule is the standard for good and evil, but because it is a minister of God’s standard of good and evil, assigned by God to enforce good and condemn evil according to God’s moral law. But this is not the only function of government, of course. Government maintains other regulatory duties outside of maintaining moral law and order. Building codes, health regulations, safety ordinances, speed limits, and wise expenditure of resources collected through taxation are also all duties of government. We ought to obey these as well; “render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.” Pay your taxes, drive the speed limit, respect your president (whoever they are). These are necessary obediences outside of obeying the law of God that we are commanded to live by for our benefit as citizens, as those who seek to do good, as those who seek to obey God, and as those who want to keep a clean conscience. This is something that “Christian anarchists”, who think we ought not to consider the rule of civil authorities at all, just can’t get around without doing exegetical origami.
Disobedience to the King of Kings
The question becomes interesting when government disobeys the law of God by enforcing a law which contradicts the law of God. At first, the passage above seems to preclude this possibility, and we may struggle to have a framework to answer this question. If government is a minister of God (that is, one who acts with power on behalf of God), then how can it possibly disobey Him? Well, quite easily. We are all ministers of God in some capacity, in that we were designed to be God’s agents upon the earth for His glory. And further, in Adam, we abdicated that agency; we sinned against God. Whenever we act in our own self interest, or against the interests of God, we are merely acting out our sinful nature to be disobedient ministers. Governments, since they are composed of sinners, are sinners too. Their rule can be tyrannical, self-serving, unjust, overreaching, and apathetic, just as sinful individuals may be as well. Without question, governments are imperfect and their rule is sometimes displeasing to God.
Who, then, are we supposed to obey? Do we obey a sinful government? Does a government’s sin in one area disqualify it from all other obediences which it is due?
Let us broaden our context. We must always, in any discussion of Christian political theory, recount that Christ reigns supreme over all the world. He is the King of kings, His government is over all governments. That is why He says in Matthew 18:18-20 before His ascension,
And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
There is no question here. We are servants of Christ, the King of the whole world. All authority is His. Again in Matthew 20, Jesus answers the Pharisees that they ought to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s”. The question is, then, “what do you owe to Caesar”, and “what do you owe to God?”. Well, as we’ve discussed above, there are things you owe to Caesar: your taxes, obedience to building codes, observance of health and safety standards, and lawful conduct in your citizenship. What do you owe to God? Everything. Obedience in everything.
You may think of it like this. Christ is the Lord of all, the King of kings. He is the one who gets the firstfruits of our obedience. We are to obey Him always. When His ordinance is silent and He has delegated rule to civil government, we are to obey them. For example, Christ does not enumerate the details of building codes, or health standards, or speed limits to us in His word. What He requires of us instead are matters of general equity, that we build safe and sturdy structures, that we be clean and healthy, and that we use our resources safely. When civil government wisely decrees the specifics of building codes, or health standards, or speed limits, we are to obey them, since that is one of the duties for which Christ has appointed them.
As for the crux of our discussion, we are required as foremost agents of good and evil to obey Christ when His rule is contradicted by the rule of civil government. A little illustration will suffice. You can imagine a chain of command in the military, where a private would be obligated to disobey his sergeant for the sake of following orders from a higher authority. He would be right to do so. We for the sake of the Great Commission, are obligated by Christ to disobey a despotic government in order to preach the Gospel the civil government has forbidden. We are obligated to meet and to worship Christ together, even if it is illegal to do so. We are obligated to act in accordance with the moral law of God, even if it societally disadvantages us, or is downright illegal to do so. We are obligated in whatever measure we can to stand for Biblical justice and morality in whatever capacity we can, which means taking a stand against the murder of the unborn and the civil recognition of marriage between homosexuals. Since civil government is not a distinct entity with distinct rule from Christ, we are to admonish our civil magistrates to uphold the law of God in all facets of their jurisdiction. We are obligated to disobey them when they disobey Christ, and we are obligated to obey them when they obey Christ.
Thus, the question of whether to obey or disobey civil authority must be answered in the context of what obedience to Christ is. Simply, if civil law X is unlawful according to Christ, we are not to obey civil law X. Otherwise, we are obligated to obey. In light of recent calamities and government overreach into American civil liberties, these are the things which must be discussed. Is being legally required to wear a mask during Christian worship unlawful to Christ? My answer is no, but there are those whose conscience convicts them otherwise. These are things which will need to be debated and discussed as theological issues. Thankfully, we come from a long line of Christians who have engaged in debates over theology out of love for the word of God. These things ought to be encouraged in the Church.