I don’t remember the last time a biblical citation generated so many headlines.
Last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions sought to defend the Trump administration’s immigration policies, especially with regard to separating families. At one point, he stated, “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes.”
His citation set off a firestorm of debate in the culture and among Christians.
My purpose today is not to discuss the multitude of ways Romans 13 has been interpreted through history. Rather, it is to consider the larger question: When should Christians obey or disobey the government?
Obeying the state
God’s word consistently calls us to obey and support our governing authorities.
Paul urged that “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions” (1 Timothy 2:1-2).
His instruction to Christians living in Rome was clear: “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. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (Romans 13:1-2).
The apostle then stated that “the authorities are ministers of God” (v. 6) and urged his readers: “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed” (v. 7).
Peter added: “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Peter 2:13-14).
It would seem clear, then, that Christians are to submit to the authority of the government, seeing its exercise of power as God’s will for us. However, there’s more to the story.
Choosing civil disobedience
In Acts 4, Peter and John were ordered to stop preaching the gospel by the Sanhedrin, the highest authority in Judaism. Their response: “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (vv. 19-20).
After Peter was arrested again for preaching the gospel, he was again bold in his civil disobedience: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). His faithfulness to God led to his martyrdom by Rome. Paul suffered a similar fate: imprisonment (2 Timothy 4:6) and execution.
And so, two apostles who counseled Christians to obey the state were executed because they would not obey the state.
Theirs are not the only such stories in Scripture.
In Daniel 3, the Babylonian king erected a golden image and required all people to worship it. The Jewish exiles Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego testified before the idolatrous king: “We will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up” (v. 18). You know what happened to them.
Three chapters later, Daniel refused to pray to the Persian king and was thrown into the lions’ den as a result.
In Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. noted: “One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” He agreed with St. Augustine, who claimed that “an unjust law is no law at all.”
John R. W. Stott was one of the most respected evangelical theologians of the twentieth century. In his commentary on Romans 13, he asks:
“Granted that the authority of the rulers is derived from God, what happens if they abuse it, if they reverse their God-given duty, commending those who do evil and punishing those who do good? Does the requirement to submit still stand in such a morally perverse situation? No. The principle is clear. We are to submit right up to the point where obedience to the state would entail disobedience to God. But if the state commands what God forbids, or forbids what God commands, then our plain Christian duty is to resist, not to submit, to disobey the state in order to obey God.”
Citizens of two countries
You and I are citizens of two countries. We live in a secular nation with secular leaders we are to support and obey. But we also live in a spiritual society with an omnipotent King whose authority is supreme (Psalm 2:10-11).
Jesus taught us to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21).
But when we are forced to choose, we must obey our highest authority.
Peter encouraged us to “show proper respect to everyone.” What does this entail? “Love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17 NIV). We are to love each other, and we are to honor our secular leaders. But we are to fear only God.
On October 3, 1789, President George Washington issued the first formal proclamation of Thanksgiving in the United States. He stated: “It is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor.”
Let’s do our duty today