How does a Christian respond to government? Do we always, unquestioningly do what the government says? How do we know when it is time to respectfully refuse an order? There was a time when it seemed like those questions were merely theoretical, at least for the most part. But in our present situation, questions about how to react when the government and the church appear at odds are very much a part of living in the here and now.
If you know your Bible, you know that Romans 13 is a primary place to look to see how to respond to authorities over you. And a simple reading of that chapter tells us that Christians are supposed to submit to the government. At the same time, we know that there must be limits, nuances to that command. And I think we can see one such limit embedded in the command as God gives it to us.
Romans 13:3 – For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval,
In this section of Scripture, Paul is calling on the church to be submissive to the governmental leaders over them. This command is perfectly in keeping with the pattern of New Testament teaching that believers should pray for their leaders particularly so that the Christian might be free to live a peaceful and quiet life in obedience to the Lord (cf. 1 Timothy 2:1-2). Paul emphasizes the sovereignty of God over all kings and authorities. The Lord places leaders in seats of power, and Christians should be appropriately subject to those in authority.
What does subjection to a leader look like? What does Christian living look like? We see it in verse 3 with the simple call for a Christian to do what is good. That little phrase appropriately lays a boundary for the Christian to know what is righteous and what is ungodly submission to a leader. We submit to our earthly leaders so long as that submission is in keeping with what is good. And what is good is determined by the infallible word of Almighty God.
Thus, as we attempt to live as Christians in a difficult age, we obey our governmental leaders as far as the word of God and goodness will allow. We do what is good. When doing what is good in accord with Scripture is not violated by the expression of governmental authority, we happily follow and do not make waves. WE want, after all, to live peacefully in the land and to honor the Lord. Part of honoring the Lord is to show that we know how to follow one in authority over us.
However, when the commands of a leader call us not to do what is good, when the leader commands us to disobey the word of God, we cannot in biblical conscience obey. We must instead obey God rather than man (cf. Acts 5:29).
As believers, we have to be careful. It is easy for us to assume that every opinion we have about what is right and wrong is something to elevate to a level of civil disobedience. We do not see such a call in the word of God here. The call to obey must include the call to submit to things to which we would prefer not to submit. Otherwise, what is the purpose of using the term submit? Submission is not simply doing what somebody says when we like it. Submission necessarily includes obedience when that obedience is at times difficult.
What then is the standard? The standard is faithful obedience to the word of God. We follow governmental leaders by doing what is good. If doing what is good in accord with Scripture is not in accord with the law of the land or the impulse of the leader, then we must obey God rather than man. Thus, when doing what is good is sharing the gospel when it is banned, we share. When doing what is good is speaking truth about justice, we speak. When doing what is good includes telling only the truth about gender, we tell the truth. When doing what is good includes gathering for worship, we gather. When doing what is good includes protecting human life, even the lives of the unborn, we protect life.
Doing what is good must include following the commands of God. So, if the government commands us not to do that which God commands, we must disobey. Following God also includes not doing what the Lord forbids. Thus, if the government commands us to do that which God forbids, we must disobey. And the word of God lets us know that there are areas of our lives where the government has no right to speak. Thus, when the government seeks to assert authority into areas of life where clearly the Lord asserts another authority—e.g. the ordering of the family, the ordering of the church, the shaping of our beliefs or prayer lives, etc.—we must not allow this usurpation of power.
Christians, may we be faithful enough to the Lord to do what is good. Let us pray that doing good will not oppose our government. Instead, let us pray that our government will, as the word proclaims, punish evil. But let us know that, even as the Romans to whom Paul wrote would have understood, sometimes doing good, sometimes obeying the word, will bring down upon us the wrath of evil people in power. And when that occurs, may we choose to still do good, still be faithful to the Lord, still obey Scripture regardless of the physical and civil consequences.