2 Peter 2:13-14 – 13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.
Romans 13:1-4 – 1 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. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 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, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.
Acts 5:29 But Peter and the apostles answered, "We must obey God rather than men.”
Over the past year, I have heard more and thought more about a Christian response to government than in any prior time. After all, for the most part, Christians in America have lived with a solid amount of religious freedom and little fear of governmental persecution. But, with videos of arrested pastors in Canada and articles about fines and government strongarming in California so prominent this past year, we have to be sure that we know what we will do if, or perhaps more honestly, when the government again seeks to restrict Christian freedom in the United States.
As we discuss the issue of religious freedom, obedience to government, and civil disobedience, the three passages I listed above are front and center. In general, these passages are simple and simply applied. Christians, when all things are equal, when life is going normally, you are supposed to obey the government. God puts leaders in place. Those leaders have a God-given job to do, and you and I are supposed not to get in the way.
But not all things are equal. Not all governments are willing to do their jobs. And we must ask ourselves what we are to do in those settings.
In 1 Peter 2:13, we are called to submit to the government for the Lord’s sake. But what if the government is trying to prevent us from obeying the Lord’s commands? What if the government is leveling an attack on the Lord’s worship or against human beings, the Lord’s image? Do we submit for the Lord’s sake to an attack on the Lord’s glory? I cannot think so.
In verse 14, the Lord shows us exactly what the governing authorities are tasked to do. God raised up human government for this reason, “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.” So long as the government is punishing the evil and praising the good, we are to follow their lead. But what do we do when the government punishes the good and praises the evil? In such a case, obedient submission cannot be the only option.
How about in Romans 13, the more often quoted passage? We see there that the very same principles are at work. In verse 3, Paul tells us that rulers are to be a terror to bad conduct, never for good conduct. In verse 3, we see that we should receive the government’s approval for good conduct. And, in verse 4, we see that the government has the authority given it by God to bear the sword, to exercise the greatest of punishments, against only the wrongdoer. But should we assume that we are also to submissively respect and obey a government that punishes the good and applauds the wrongdoer?
When, then, do we apply Acts 5:29? When do we refuse to follow the lead of rulers over us? In Acts 5, the apostles would not listen to any law against preaching Jesus, even though the authorities demanded they stop. Why? At that point, the authorities had demanded that the good not be done and that which opposes the Lord be allowed to stand. At that point, faithful followers of Jesus could not submit. Later in Acts, Paul also would not listen to authorities who tried to release him secretly from prison after publicly jailing him wrongly. In fact, Paul repeatedly defied authorities when those authorities tried to stop him from preaching the word when they did not want him to do so.
Christians, it is our job to think clearly and respond faithfully. We are to obey the government eagerly so long as the government is rewarding the good and punishing the evil. We are to oppose it when the government commands the rewarding of evil and the punishing of the good. When the government attempts to reach into areas where the Lord has not given it authority, we are not required to follow. Thus, when the government tries to tell us how to raise our children or when we may or may not sing, we are obligated to go against the rulers who are overreaching their God-given bounds.
I have no judgment for churches who followed their local regulations over the past year, even when those regulations hindered worship. Many of us were caught off guard. Many of us were not ready to know when to submit or when to respectfully disobey. Besides, many of us were dealing with vastly different sources of information and just did not know what was the most loving thing to do for our people. So, as I say, I am not judging anybody here.
What I am doing, however, is reminding you now, get ready. This is not the first time that the government has attempted to reach into the church, and it will not be the last. As you take off a mask and begin to breathe freely, remember that , for a season, the government told you this was not OK. They said that they were looking out for your safety. And, who knows, maybe they were telling us the truth. I’m not worried about that today. What I am thinking about is the next one.
Sometime soon, Christian, the government will have another thing that they will tell us is for our safety. Perhaps the government will say that you are not safe if you do not support their causes. Perhaps they will say that you are not safe if you do not applaud all they say that safe people applaud. Perhaps they will say that safe people do not say that the Bible is perfect, inerrant, and fully sufficient. Perhaps they will say that it is not safe to sing hymns and preach sermons that say that there is only one way to find salvation. Perhaps they will say that Christians who hold to a biblical view of modern issues are not safe for public health including public mental health. Perhaps they will say that those who do not embrace CRT or who do not bow to the LGBTQ+ agenda are not safe for public health.
Christian, do you have enough love for Jesus, enough steel in your spine, enough trust in the word of God to stand when the government comes to you and says that, for your own good and for the public safety, you have to stop following this or that command of the Lord? I’m not fearmongering. I’m telling you that this has been the pattern of the government throughout all of human history. Do not be surprised. Do not give in. Be ready. Obey when you can. Disobey when you must. But submit to Scripture and honor Jesus above all.