When Is It Okay for Christians to Disobey the Government?
I originally wrote the Bible essay below in response to the following question:
“Steve, does God’s Word say all political leaders are ordained by God, and that we, as Christians, have to obey them? If that’s so, wouldn’t St. Paul’s words in Romans 13:1-7 put our Founding Fathers under God’s damnation (Romans 13:2) for rebelling against the civil authority of their time?”
Today, I’m re-posting my answer to that question in light of the federal government’s draconian response to the so-called coronavirus crisis, which includes locking down Christian churches and hauling Pastor’s away, in handcuffs, whenever they try to open them.
It’s my opinion that Christians who are now erroneously claiming we “can’t do anything” about the government’s draconian response to the so-called coronavirus crisis — including the shutting down of Christian churches — because we must avoid at all costs being “delivered up before our time,” are a bunch of simpering cowards using a jingoistic phrase to justify their personal fears and failures, and their inaction in the sight of God.
Thankfully, our Founding Fathers had no problem with resisting tyrannical authority, including Patrick Henry who so plainly set the tone for the entire Revolutionary War with his bold saying, “Give me liberty, or give me death!” Would to God we had more Patrick Henry’s today.
But what should the Christian response to shutting down churches be? Well, the apostles set the right example. And it was a bold and fearless one. So, let’s examine their bold example within the backdrop of God’s Word…
In chapter 13 of the great book of Romans, St. Paul basically says civil authorities have been ordained by God to maintain civil order, and that obedience to civil government and governing civil authorities is therefore a necessity.
In other words, one of the main reasons for the establishment of civil government is the keeping of civil order, which prevents society from collapsing into chaos, violence and degeneracy.
Paul then goes on to point out that two chief motivations for obedience to civil authorities are the avoidance of wrath” (i.e., avoidance of being punished by the authorities) and the maintenance of a good conscience (i.e., you generally feel good when you do good).
Now let’s take a quick look at Paul’s writings in Romans 13, before moving on to the exceptions to the rule. As it’s written:
Rom 13:1 Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.
Rom 13:2 Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.
Rom 13:3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same:
Rom 13:4 For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.
Rom 13:5 Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.
Rom 13:6 For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.
Rom 13:7 Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.
In other words, God instituted, or ordained, civil government as a basic necessity for civilized society. The purpose of that civil government is to protect those who do good from those who would do evil.
So to resist civil government is essentially resistance to God’s own ordinance for civil society. We, as Christians, are to willingly subject ourselves to civil government for the very purposes God ordained it — the protection and advancement of civilized society.
What’s more, we also have St. Peter’s words in I Peter 2:13-14:
“Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right.”
In other words, both St. Paul and St. Peter are talking here about more-or-less Godly government, which is to say, government that’s been installed specifically for the restraint and punishment of evildoers (i.e., those who would corrupt society), and for the protection of the rest of the citizenry from such evildoers.
So, as you can see from the above Bible citations, civil government is supposed to be benevolent to citizens who do good and a “terror” to citizens who commit evil. And under such circumstances we are to subject ourselves in obedience to civil government.
But What About When Governments Become Evil?
But sometimes governments themselves become evil, acting tyrannically to their people, taking away the God-given rights of their citizens, and in some cases actually requiring the violation of God’s law from its citizens.
(This, for example, as we now see happening with civil governments throughout the western Christian nations forcing Christians to participate in decidedly ungodly activities, or to embrace such activities as “normal” and good when God’s Word clearly and decisively says they’re not.)
Our Founding Fathers rebelled against the British Crown over tyranny and the resulting loss of freedoms and rights.
They fought a bloody, seven-year Revolutionary War over it, and then, being imperfect but pious men, established the most Godly form of civil government they could come up with — one in which the individual citizens are essentially sovereign men and women under God, and the members of civil government are elected representatives of the people.
And our heavenly Father blessed them for it. First, knowing what our Founders had in mind, God gave them the victory during the war. Afterwards, He molded the nation our Founders established — this very nation — into what has been the greatest and most powerful (and beneficent) Christian nation of the face of the earth.
So think about that for a moment: Our own nation came into being based on outright rebellion to the civil governmental authorities of that time. And God blessed it. He did not damn it.
Based on the most strict interpretation of verses 1-2 of Romans 13, our Founding Fathers should have “received to themselves damnation” for rebelling against the British Crown. And by extension, so should all of us who support the notion that our Founders were right to rebel against the civil authority of their time.
But our Founders didn’t receive damnation. Instead, the Founders were blessed in their endeavors (i.e., they won the war against overwhelming odds), and the country received immense blessing after the new civil government was formed.
And that’s largely because our Founders weren’t waging war against the governmental powers of England for the sake of a fleshly lust for power, or a lust for riches, or for the establishment of some behind-the-scenes international intrigue, and especially not in blatant disobedience to God’s ordination of civil government.
Instead, they waged bloody warfare against the civil government of their time in order to establish what they didn’t have — a Godly civil government that punishes wrongdoers and acts benevolently on behalf of the people.
Indeed, even our monetary currency states, on the backside, in Latin, Annuit Coeptis, meaning, “Providence favors our undertakings,” or more simply translated, “He hath favored our beginnings.”
So the Founders believed that God favored their act of rebellion against the British Crown, even though that act appears to violate the specific inspired dictums of St. Paul in Romans 13:1-7 and St. Peter in I Peter 2:13-14.
To quote Bibleway magazine on this issue:
“It must be understood that nowhere does it say God appoints EVERY leader, ruler or magistrate who has ever lived. This is plainly apparent in Hosea chapter 8, where, in speaking about Israel, the Bible says:
‘They have set up kings, but not by me; they have made princes, and I knew [i.e., designated — ED] it not; of their silver and gold have they made them idols that they may be cut off.’ (Hosea 8:4)
What this verse is saying is that the people set up kings, but the kings they set up were not who God wanted and therefore did not receive God’s blessing.
The people made and removed princes at their will, without consulting God.
Obviously there have been occasions when the people chose rulers and leaders which were NOT ordained by God, nor was God even consulted.”
Bibleway Magazine goes on to say:
“The blanket statement made by many theologians that every government along with every governmental official, ruler and magistrate is ordained by God is simply not true.
… God can and does ordain governments as well as rulers of those governments. It is His privilege as Almighty God to do so. He can ordain whomever He wants for He is a sovereign God.
But it cannot be accurately said that EVERY government in the history of this world was ordained by God. It cannot be said that EVERY president, governor, mayor and local policeman is ordained by God just because of a few verses incorrectly translated or poorly understood in Romans 13.”
So yes, as Christians, we’re to subject ourselves to civil government, because God has ordained civil government for the protection and advancement of civil society.
But when that government becomes corrupt, tyrannical, or otherwise takes a stand against God and His Word, what are the righteous citizens who long to live Godly lives to do?
Our Founders taught us, by example, that we’re to throw off the yoke of oppression, and institute a fresh government operating under Godly principles. And they were blessed for setting that historical example. (But it was not the only historical example, as we’re about to see.)
Taken Out of Context with the Rest of the Bible
I would add that St. Paul’s message and St. Peter’s message on obedience to civil government are all-too-often taken out-of-context from the rest of the Scriptures.
For example, it’s important to note that the prophet Daniel boldly resisted the civil authority of his time when he refused to obey the imperial edict to pray only to Darius the Mede, and not to any other god or man.
Daniel continued his daily prayers to the heavenly Father, anyway, and was then thrown into the Lion’s Den for his disobedience to civil authority. But God protected Him from being devoured by the hungry lions, meaning that God actually stood on the side of the one being disobedient to civil authority. Think about that!
Likewise, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (aka Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah) resisted civil authority when they refused to bow down to the golden image set up by King Nebuchadnezzar. They were then arrested by the civil authorities under Nebuchadnezzar’s control, and were sentenced to death by burning.
Yet, once again, God Himself intervened on behalf of those three men who had disobeyed the command of the civil authorities of their time. In other words, God sided with the disobedient, over the very civil authorities He had ordained.
In Acts 5:17-42, even St. Peter, along with other apostles, resisted civil authority when they were ordered by the rulers of the Sanhedrin (who had the civil power under Roman law to arrest and imprison them) to stop preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ among the people.
After being thrown into “the common prison” for preaching the Gospel to the multitudes (Acts 5:18), Peter and the apostles were then released from prison by “the angel of the Lord” who commanded them to go back out and start preaching again.
In other words, God Himself resisted the civil authority of that time, and commanded Peter and the apostles to continue doing the same.
Peter and the apostles were then rounded up, once again, by the authorities of the Sanhedrin, and once more were ordered to cease from preaching the Gospel to the crowds. But the famous reply of the Peter and the apostles was thus:
“We ought to obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29)
The members of the Sanhedrin then “took counsel to slay them.” They wanted the apostles dead.
But a highly-respected Pharisee named Gamaliel stood up and argued that if the apostles were in the wrong, God would put an end to their work. But if the apostles were right, then the members of the Sanhedrin might end up in the unenviable position of fighting against God.
The members of the Sanhedrin council then relented of their murderous plans, had the apostles beaten (i.e., scourged, probably with whips; Acts 5:40), and before releasing them, ordered them once more to quit preaching the Gospel. But the Scripture tells us:
Acts 5:41 And they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name.
Act 5:42 And daily in the temple, and in every house, they ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ.
They continued to disobey the edicts of the civil government of their time.
All of these examples, both civil and religious, established the principle that when any form of earthly ruling government — religious or political — is in direct and clear conflict with God and His will, our obedience as Christians must be to God and His Word, and not to the self-serving edicts of mere man.
So there are clearly times when obedience to governing authorities must be weighed in light of obedience to God and His Word. Here’ another Biblical example:
In Exodus 1, the Egyptian Pharaoh gave command to the Hebrew midwives that they were to kill all male Hebrew babies upon birth. Someone accepting a very strict interpretation of Paul’s writings in Romans 13 might look back at that situation and say, “Well, those midwives should have obeyed the government and killed those newborn Hebrew babies.” (Of course, one of those babies killed would have been Moses.)
But the Bible tells us the Hebrew midwives willfully disobeyed the lawful government order of the head honcho of all Egypt. And what does the Scripture say about their blatant disobedience? Let’s see:
Exo 1:20 Therefore God dealt well with the midwives: and the people multiplied, and waxed very mighty.
Exo 1:21 And it came to pass, because the midwives feared God, that he made them houses.
God rewarded the Hebrew midwives for their disobedience to the edict of the Egyptian governmental authority. And why? Because the command of the Egyptian Pharaoh was wicked and ungodly. That’s why.
In Joshua 2, Rahab directly disobeyed a command from the king of Jericho to produce the Israelite spies who had entered the city. Instead of turning over the Israelites to the civil government, she helped them escape down a wall, by rope — an act that would be considered treason by any civil government.
But as a result of her disobedience to civil government, Rahab and her family were purposely spared, while every other citizen of Jericho was slaughtered by Joshua’s army, in accord with God’s command.
Likewise, in 1 Kings 18, a Godly man named Obadiah disobeyed Jezebel’s civil government, which was slaughtering God’s prophets. Instead of turning prophets over to her, Obadiah hid 100 of them and saved them from the government-ordered slaughter.
The prophet Elijah, too, stood up against the wicked government of Jezebel and Ahab, publicly making a mockery of Jezebel’s prophets for an entire day, and then killed all of them directly afterwards (I Kings 18:40), spurring Jezebel into a murderous rage. Yet God protected Elijah and took him to heaven “in a whirlwind” (II Kings 2:1-14).
God Himself even helped Joseph and Mary outmaneuver the edict of Herod — the governmental leader of that time — who had ordered the death of the Christ child (Matthew 2:12-15).
Perhaps one last example of civil disobedience is to be found in chapter 13 of the book of Revelation. This takes place in the future, when the Antichrist rules over all who are alive, and commands them to worship the “image of the beast,” which he sets up in order to glorify himself.
Even though the Scripture states that disobedience to this most wicked of all governmental leaders can result in death by beheading (Revelation 13:15), you and I both know that those who truly love and serve God will not obey the command to worship the image, but instead, will do as Daniel’s companions did when they refused under threat of death to worship the golden idol set up by Nebuchadnezzar.
But, I must ask, at that soon-coming time, what will those Christians who insist on a much stricter interpretation of Paul’s admonitions in Romans 13 do when the antichrist orders everyone to bow to his image?
The General Principle
The general principle that can be discerned from all of this is that we, as Christians, are indeed to subject ourselves to the civil authorities, because civil government is ordained by God for the protection and advancement of the nation and its people. As Paul once wrote to Timothy:
1Ti 1:9 Knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers,
1Ti 1:10 For whoremongers, for them that defile themselves with mankind, for menstealers, for liars, for perjured persons, and if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine;
1Ti 1:11 According to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which was committed to my trust.
But when the authorities in civil government are no longer carrying out their rightful duties of protecting the population from evildoers (i.e., thus preventing evildoers from violating the God-given rights of the people)
… when the authorities are no longer acting benevolently toward the law-abiding citizens, but are instead acting as tyrants
…when the authorities are not acting in obedience to God and His Word but instead instituting policies that go against God and His Word
…then obedience to God and His Word trumps obedience to civil authorities, and resistance to the wicked government can (and should) be practiced by righteous men and women of God.
As Bibleway magazine puts it:
“Teaching Christians to blindly obey every governmental official because they are “ordained” of God and thus represent His will is not only dangerous but totally irrational.
With study, it is plainly apparent that as believers we are to obey those in governmental positions as long as they do not require disobedience to God’s Word.”
So, while it might be very convenient for a king, prince, president, prime minister, governor or any other form of ruler to lay claim to the “divine right of kings” doctrine, claiming their every whim must be obeyed by the citizens or God’s going to damn them to hell and back, the reality is that this is simply not true in every case.
Sometimes civil government is made up of tyrants, evildoers, murderers and idolaters — the very kind of people Paul tells us that God originally ordained civil government to protect us from.
And ultimately, these evil and ungodly rulers (and those who support them) must be “cut off” (Hosea 8:4) — whether by God, or by man — for the protection and advancement of the nation and its people, and for the restoration of God’s blessings upon the nation and its people.
So, in Romans chapter 13, St. Paul was simply stating a truth that should be abundantly obvious, and doesn’t need to be unbiblically stretched to mean that every edict of every government official must be strictly obeyed. St. Paul (and St. Peter, in I Peter 2:13-14) were basically saying:
Civil government and its institutions are ordained by God for the good of society, and are set into place to protect the citizens and the nation from evildoers, to preserve the God-given rights of the citizenry, to maintain civil order, and to preserve and advance society as a whole.
And since failure to respect the role of civil government in accomplishing these goals can lead to chaos and disruption, we as Christians are therefore, through wisdom, to respect and obey civil government. We’re not to be rabble rousers, trouble-makers or disruptors of society.
Now, that’s not too hard to understand, is it?
But what happens when civil government no longer punishes evildoers, but instead, rewards and encourages them, or even sets them into high positions of power and authority over the people — even packing the courts and civil offices with them so justice no longer prevails in the land, and wickedness reigns?
What happens when civil government no longer works to preserve and advance society, but instead works to bring about its degeneration and ultimate downfall?
There’s the rub. At a certain point, it’s the Christian duty to resist the tyranny, and ultimately replace it with Godly government and laws designed to restrain and punish wickedness and thereby reward righteousness with peace.
And that’s why our Founding Fathers fought the Revolutionary War: the ruling government had become so vile and despicably evil that the people were being oppressed by civil government rather than protected by civil government.
Our Founding Father’s Laid It All Out for Us
In the Declaration of Independence, our Founding Fathers set forth in writing the reasons why they wanted to break away from the civil government of their time.
Let’s take a quick look at some of their reasoning, in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. (True, and Biblical.)
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, (True, and Biblical.)
That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. (True, and Biblical.)
Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. (True, and Biblical.)
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. (True, and Biblical.)
Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government…”
That’s pretty much what the Bible teaches us, by the examples therein. Obey civil government, unless civil government becomes so wicked and ungodly that obeying its growing numbers of tyrannical and freedom-robbing edicts corrupts the believer and thereby estranges him or her from God.
As Pastor Matthew J. Trewhella, author of the book, “The Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrates: A Proper Resistance to Tyranny and a Repudiation of Unlimited Obedience to Civil Government,” has written:
“Rulers are not to contravene, violate, oppose, or contradict God’s law. Citizens are not bound to hold unlimited obedience to government….”
And as John of Salisbury wrote in 1159, in his treatise titled Policraticus (the first book of political science produced during the Middle Ages):
“Loyal shoulders should sustain the power of rule so long as it is exercised in subjection to God and follows His ordinances.”
In other words, once government rule is no longer Godly, resistance to it is not only acceptable, but necessary.
Christian author and radio and podcast broadcaster Jim Reed, of Christian Life Tools, writes:
“It is gross error to misquote and take biblical passages out of context. If you read the Romans 13:1-7, in its entirety, you will find that God has ordained human governments to do ‘good’ and to do ‘right’ and correct wrongs. Then, it speaks of ‘conscience.’
All these must be based on the foundation of what is right and wrong in God’s view and the conscience he has placed in all of humanity. To think that we must obey governments just because they are the governments is a gross error.
God determines right and wrong and human government has been ordained to do just that. However, we often fail. So, if we correct — we correct UP to God’s standards, not down.”
Even the Protestant clergy of Revolutionary War times agreed that Romans 13 was not a blanket “must always obey” clause for the civil government of the oppressive king of England. As the Anglican priest and regimental chaplain David Griffith said in a sermon on Romans 13, Paul “never meant … to give sanction to the crimes of wicked and despotic men.”
Other Revolutionary clergy, pointing to the oppressiveness, tyranny and wickedness of the king of England, even directly quoted Paul’s admonitions in Romans 13, pointing out that Paul had written, “Rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil,” and arguing that when a ruler no longer fits that bill, he is no longer fit to lead a Christian people.
Many colonists had been influenced heavily by earlier ministers who preached directly from Romans 13 to deny that Paul’s writings had given rulers the right to be tyrants.
For example, Pastor Jonathan Mayhew’s work from 25 years before the Revolutionary War, “A Discourse, Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-resistance to the Higher Powers,” was widely circulated at the time. Mayhew argued that Paul’s writings gave no ruler the right to institute tyranny, and that resistance to unjust rule was therefore justified.
Founding Father John Adams wrote of Mayhew’s work that “It was read by everybody; celebrated by friends, and abused by enemies.” Adams continued that Mayhew’s work “had great influence in the commencement of the Revolution.”
James P. Byrd, in his book “Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: the Bible and the American Revolution,” says this about Mayhew’s famous sermon:
“Mayhew argued that the key to Paul’s advice was that the ruler was ‘the minister of God to thee for good.” That is, the purpose of civil government was to support ‘the good of civil society.’
If a ruler was doing just that, then disobedience was ‘not merely a political sin, but a heinous offense against God and religion.’
But if a ruler failed to serve as God’s ‘minister…for good,” then the command to obey that ruler did not apply.”
The bottom line, in my own view, is that blind loyalty to any form of government that’s become wicked in its practices is the equivalent of taking the mark of the beast — i.e., working hand and mind for the ruling powers without even taking their wickedness and ungodliness into consideration.
The Founders then went on to list their many grievances against the civil government of their time, which of course was the king of England and his many minions. They ended that long list of clear grievances by stating:
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.
A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
Read that last sentence again.
That was the general principle laid out by our Founding Fathers, i.e., that when civil government becomes so large…so over-bearing and oppressive to the citizenry that it becomes tyrannical and unresponsive to the rights of the citizens…then it’s the people’s right, even their solemn duty, to dissolve that government and to start afresh with a new civil government that actually protects and preserves the rights of the people and works for the peaceful advancement of a civil society.
So, no, our Founding Fathers were not “resisting the ordinance of God,” as St. Paul put it in Romans 13.
Instead, they were working to establish the ordinance of God, which is to say, establish a civil government that would protect those who do good from those who would do evil, and that would work benevolently toward the general peace and advancement of civil society.
And it worked. More or less fabulously. For nearly 200 years before Big Government once again reared its ugly head and began casting aside the rights of the people in favor of the wicked.
The question, now, is this: Whose examples are we going to follow? The Christian fraidy-cats who misinterpret God’s Word in order to justify their personal fears and failings? Or the examples of the apostles, the Founding Fathers and so many others who stood firm against tyranny and never feared acting in God’s name against it?
Regards in Christ,
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