The Big Question 96: To What Extent Should We Obey the Government?
Feb 22, 2022 1619
To what extent should we obey the government?
Well, depending on where you live, this could be just a theoretical question, or it might be a burning and intensely practical issue. I want to make it very clear that I won’t get getting into politics in any way. I just want to deal with what the Bible teaches. How you apply it is up to you.
There are two core principles at play here. The first one is found in Acts 5:29, when Peter said to the Jewish ruling council:
We must obey God rather than human beings! (Acts 5:29.)
The context of this statement was that the Jewish ruling council had given Peter and the apostles strict orders not to teach in Jesus’ name. However, the apostles had “filled Jerusalem” with their teaching (Acts 5:27–28.)
The second principle is found in Paul’s epistle to the church in Rome, in which he wrote,
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves (Rom. 13:1–5.)
Let’s look at this second principle first. Paul is saying various challenging things here. He is saying that God has established the civil authorities. To rebel against them is effectively to rebel against God. The civil authorities are God’s servants. We should submit to earthly governments because it is the right thing to do.
The could all be fine if the government at the time when Paul wrote this was a model government. But it most definitely wasn’t. The Roman emperors were some of the most arbitrary, corrupt, cruel, and quite frankly, mad rulers that ever existed. Go figure!
Well, you can’t just take one statement of the Bible and create a blanket teaching, without considering everything that the Bible has to say about it. Like everything else in life, you need to understand context. So, what else does the Bible have to say on this topic?
Jesus himself, when asked if it was right to pay taxes to Caesar, or not, replied,
…Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s (Mark 12:17.)
It’s clear that the laws of God always take precedence above human laws. In the Bible, when secular powers commanded the worship of idols, God’s people refused. When the apostles were forbidden to preach Jesus, they continued to preach. Yet, like the apostle Paul, they humbly submitted themselves to the judgment of the secular authorities when they disobeyed. They didn’t organise a rebellion against the government. They didn’t disobey the government on secular matters. In fact, in all respects except refusing to worship false gods and insisting on continuing to preach Jesus, they were model citizens. And that’s what the apostle Paul is telling followers of Jesus to be in Romans 13: model citizens.
Today many people live in democracies, and we actually have the legal ability to influence government policy and even change governments. Christians should use these rights to bring about good for our societies in ways that bring honour to the kingdom of God, instead of discrediting it. In fact, much of what is good in our culture has been brought about by Christians who have protested evil and brought about what is good through peaceful and lawful means.