Let’s face it, government is a reality we all have to deal with, no matter where in the world we live. As Christians, we need to make sure that we relate to our government in a way that honors God. It is, in general, a simple rule: Christians are to submit to the government and respect government officials. Peter makes this clear in 1 Peter 2:13-15
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. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men.
As Peter explains, our submission to the government not only glorifies God, but it is also a rebuke to the ignorant and foolish. The ignorant and foolish men he refers to are those in the Roman Empire who viewed Christians as dissidents and renegades, and believed them to be a threat to the Empire. Paul further expands on why we submit to the government in Romans 13:1-7, where he explains that the government’s authority is delegated to it by God. He makes it abundantly clear that resisting the authorities is, in fact, resisting God.
Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.
Obviously, that’s not okay. “But” you may ask “what if the government is evil?” After all, North Korea isn’t a godly country by any stretch of the imagination, and the whole Middle East (outside of Israel anyway) is not a fun place to be a Christian. Not to mention the Nazis or the Soviet Union. There are lots of evil governments out there. The Roman Empire was most definitely one of them, after all, gladiators fighting to the death had been a favorite entertainment for almost three centuries by the time Jesus began His earthly ministry. The Romans Empire was not nice at all, especially to Christians. Nevertheless, Paul said their authority came from God, and Christians were to submit to them.
Now, submission doesn’t mean we always do as we’re told by the government.
I’m serious. Paul, for example, didn’t pray to Caesar. Daniel 3 tells the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego who went directly against King Nebuchadnezzar’s order to pray to an idol he made. (Spoiler: they don’t die.) The reason they weren’t sinning becomes clear on closer inspection of Romans 13:1, where Paul says the government gets its authority from God. God is a higher authority than the government, and the government is ultimately responsible to Him for how it uses its authority. By telling Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego to worship an idol, Nebuchadnezzar was overstepping his authority to contradict the One who gave him his (lesser) authority. In other words, Nebuchadnezzar was out of his jurisdiction, as was the Roman Empire in demanding Christians worship Caesar.
The government cannot compel Christians to violate God’s law, and we are not required to obey when it tries to do so. Kim Jong-Un has no authority to compel Christians to worship him, the Chinese government has no authority to prohibit the worship of God, and the Colorado Civil Rights Commission has no authority to compel a Christian baker to celebrate sinful lifestyles. If the government demands that we break God’s law, Christians must disobey the government.
Now, there will be consequences for disobeying the government, and we must be ready to bear them. That is how Paul could disobey the government, and still be submissive to it. Paul did not fight the Roman Empire, but he took his imprisonment and ultimate execution submissively, knowing that he was glorifying God in doing so. Nowhere in Scripture are Christians allowed to take up arms to overthrow the government, no matter how unjust it is. If the government oversteps its authority, and punishes us for obeying God, we can either flee to another country or take the unjust punishment, knowing that God will not forget the government’s abuse of its authority, and will hold them to account one day.
Now, just because the government’s going to punish you for refusing to violate God’s law doesn’t mean you have to be completely passive. It is completely appropriate to use every legal means to avoid the unjust punishment. Appealing your conviction to a higher court is fine if that’s possible. Paul did the same thing and exercised his right as a Roman citizen for his case to be heard by Caesar. It is perfectly acceptable to take legal means of recourse for protection from unjust punishment. It is never acceptable for Christians to take up arms to overthrow the government.
We may call out the government’s wrongdoing, as John the Baptist did with Herod, but even here we should be aware that we, like John the Baptist, may pay a heavy price. No matter how heavy the price though, no government can take away our salvation or eternal reward from God Himself. As Jesus himself said in Matthew 10:28:
Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.
Christians are not called to overthrow unrighteous governments, though we may call out their sins, warn them of the wrath to come, and call on them to repent. We cannot violate God’s law, no matter what the government may do to us. We submit to the government, not because they have more guns, but because God has given them authority for a little while, until Jesus returns. Until then, we submit to the government, knowing that it is pleasing to God to do so.
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