I wrote this recently and showed it to my pastor for feedback. I'll keep you posted on the generalities of our dialogue.
Civil Obedience and the Christian’s Responsibility
This is an examination into the degree to which a Christian is responsible to be obedient to civil authority.
I preface by admitting that I have issues with authority, and so in the interest of truth, I need to be very careful about how fervently I adhere to my opinion. Keeping in mind Jesus’ instructive parable: “When any one heareth the word of the kingdom, and understandeth it not, then cometh the wicked one, and catcheth away that which was sown in his heart.” (Mt. 13:19), I welcome and encourage well thought-out contrary opinions.
In my experience, it’s the opinion of most Christians that it is their duty to be absolutely obedient UNLESS such obedience goes against obedience to God. There certainly are passages in the Bible that seem to back up that viewpoint, but taken all together, I can not arrive at the same conclusion and, in fact, completely disagree.
The primary argument is Ro. 13:1-10. There are a couple of things that come up immediately - one with the passage itself, and the other with the premise put forth above.
First the premise. Be obedient unless it goes against God. Well, what that’s really saying is: unless it goes against the individual’s understanding of God’s will, since the individual is not actually God. That’s pretty convenient for the professing Christian. As the human mind is capable of justifying just about anything, we can say, “I won’t do that because it goes against God.”, while simultaneously telling someone else that he must submit to authority. I don’t like that kind of selective convenience.
Next we have the passage (as it’s tied in to the premise). In the passage, it identifies those in authority as God’s ministers. Why would God’s ministers go against God’s law? It’s a self-defeating argument - but more on this later.
The author, Paul, was himself on the run from authorities who were trying to arrest him. To escape from Damascus, he snuck out a window and was lowered to the ground in a basket. This is certainly not submitting to authority. Yes, he was doing God’s work, I know. I suspect that Paul was much more skilled, and perhaps even more objective, in discerning God’s will than I or the average modern Christian.
The passage also says: “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil.” Does that mean that Paul’s actions were not good works? Was Paul evil? Because these rulers were certainly a terror to Paul.
What about “...the powers that be are ordained of God.”? Most Christians, as far as I can tell, read this to mean that they should submit to “the powers that be”. When I read it in context, I walk away with the exact opposite meaning.
It says: “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.”.
To me, that says to be subject to God (the higher powers), NOT civil authorities. It goes on to reinforce this by saying to do this BECAUSE the only reason civil authorities have any power in the first place is that God ordained it so. Therefore our subjection is not to civil authorities - which would be a lower power, but to the higher powers. God!
Also, I have to point out that some translations read “...appointed by God.”, but “appointed”, the way we understand the word’s meaning today, is not the meaning of the word “ordained” (in the KJV). Instead, “ordained” means arranged, or placed in a certain order or position.
I know that, at first glance, “placed in a certain position” and “appointed” sound pretty much the same - but there’s a minor distinction. Suppose I own a company that has ten employees and I have to choose a manager. I can appoint someone - which means anyone of my choosing, even if I hire someone from outside to fill the position - or I can choose to arrange or place in order from my existing employee pool. That’s the connotation of the word “ordained”. It’s another way of saying that God uses all things for good.
Consider, for example, Pharaoh or Nebuchadnezzar. These men weren’t good. They didn’t care about God. But God used them for His own purposes. These men TOOK power by force of human free will and God ordained things that were already there (and evil) to be used for good.
It’s the same today. People TAKE power and God (sometimes - and according to His perfect purpose) ordains these already-existing powers into new, ordered circumstances. That does not mean, strictly speaking, that God placed these people in power. He just used their power for His own ultimate purpose.
Throughout the Bible there are examples of evil leaders who performed unbelievable acts of cruelty that God eventually used for His ultimate purpose. But there are plenty of evil leaders that are seemingly disregarded by God - there’s no evidence that God has used them. Should we obey such an evil authority that, perhaps, God is not using, but disregarding? Who decides when to disobey?
Christians frequently hold that America’s founding fathers were Christian men and that America was, from the beginning, a Christian nation. I find it difficult in the extreme to reconcile these two disparate ideas (Christian founders and disobedience to their ruler).
The case of America’s founding fathers is one of the most famous in all of history of disobedience to authority. And it had very little to do with God or spirituality. Yes, they wanted to worship as they saw fit, but this was hugely overshadowed by other, more material, more financial, more...human motives. These men decided to disobey.
It’s my contention that human government is Satan’s government. It stemmed from a rejection of and disobedience to God, and grew from there.
Deuteronomy tells us in chapter 14 that Israel was meant to be “...an holy people unto the LORD thy God, and the LORD hath chosen thee to be a peculiar people unto himself, above all the nations that are upon the earth”. But Israel rejected God - God himself said as much in 1Sam. 8:7. They didn’t want to live under God’s law. They wanted a king to rule over them “...like all the other nations”. So God wanted them to be above all the other nations - with Him as their King, but they wanted to be like all the other nations. It’s difficult to imagine a more blatant rejection.
From this point on we see a succession of human rulers - some good, some bad - and never again a permanent return to God.
In 1Jn. chapter 2, John warns us not to love the world or anything in the world because everything that is in the world “...is not of the father, but is of the world”. It seems to me that government would be a perfect example of what John was talking about.
Likewise, James, in chapter 4, warns that “...friendship of the world is enmity with God”. This theme arises again and again in the New Testament. Rejecting the world and the things of the world while embracing the idea of human authority as legitimate are completely incompatible at best, and at worst could lead to tragedy for God’s people.
Human rulers are, in fact, frequently used by God - almost always in the role of punisher. Pharaoh, the Assyrian king(s), Nebuchadnezzar, etc. were all used this way - and they themselves were all punished later. God always punishes. If we are a part of the world (or worldly government), or support it, or submit to it, I believe we run the risk of sharing it’s punishment when God inevitably decides it’s time.
Consider the following passages:
In the book of Job, God asked Satan, “Whence comest thou?” Satan responded, “From going to and fro in the earth and from walking up and down in it.” (Jb. 1:7 and again in 2:2).
Peter, in his first epistle, warns: “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.” (1Pe. 5:8)
Paul writes: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of darkness of this world.” (Ep. 6:12)
In Ephesians 2:2, Paul calls Satan the Prince of the Power of the Air.
In three different verses, John calls Satan the Prince of this world. (Jn. 12:31/14:30/16:11)
In 2Corinthians, Paul calls Satan the god of this world. (2Co. 4:4)
This all sort of culminates in Luke 4:6, where Satan, in no uncertain terms, claims authority over the world. Now, every time in the Gospels, when Jesus encounters hypocrites and liars, he calls them what they are. Here Satan says, “All this power will I give thee, and the glory of them: for that is delivered unto me; and to whomsoever I will I give it.” Jesus does, of course, rebuke him - but He does not call him a liar.
Hebrews 4:15 tells us that Jesus “...was in all points tempted,,,”, and the 4th chapter of Luke records Jesus’ temptation directly by Satan himself. Jesus doesn’t call Satan a liar because, in this instance, he wasn’t lying. If he was, Jesus could not have been tempted.
Finally, and again, in the book of James, the author points out that, “...friendship of the world is enmity with God(.) whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.” The author then reinforces and elaborates on that for a couple of verses, then says, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”
Read that again. He says do NOT submit to the world (or, by extension, the world’s government), but rather, submit to God. Further, resist the devil - being equated here with the world.
At this point, I would go even further and say that Christians should neither run for office, nor even vote. To do either is participating in Satan’s government.
The 17th chapter of John implies that we are to be in the world, but not of the world (verses 14-16 especially). Kind of like ambassadors. In fact, Paul calls us “ambassadors for Christ” (2Co. 5:20), and states that “...our conversation (citizenship) is in heaven” (Ph. 3:20).
Ambassadors do not take part in the government that they are temporarily placed under.
I believe Jesus’ instruction to: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” is as much saying don’t get involved with the politics of the world as anything else. I’m somewhat more resolved in my viewpoint when I remember that, despite what the Jews were hoping for, Jesus was a spiritual messiah, not a political one. His disciples did not get involved with politics and neither should we.