This is a follow up to a post I wrote in February, “Romans 13 Re-Examined: Obey the Government.” That post left a lot of questions unanswered and evoked a lot of discussion. The thing I regret about that post is that I did not adequately address the question of when a Christian should disobey the government. Being a follower of Christ certainly doesn’t mean we should always go along with everything a government tells us to do. There are times we must “obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). So let’s discuss that issue in light of Romans 13.
Submission and Obedience
Even though we often interpret Romans 13 to mean we should “obey the laws of the land” or “obey the government,” what it actually says (and what I emphasized in the previous post) is that we should “be subject to” or “submit.”
Though there is often overlap between submission and obedience, they are not the same thing. You can obey without submitting and you can submit without obeying. Submission is about placing yourself under someone’s authority and oversight. It’s not merely about your action, but about your relationship to them. Submission says, “You’re in charge and I’m not. I will honor and respect your judgement.”
Take for example, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They are good examples of submission. They respected the Babylonian leaders who were over them. They were not rude, confrontational, seditious, or rebellious. They honored the king and his representatives, but they didn’t always obey.
- they would not eat certain unclean foods (Daniel 1)
- they would not worship a statue (Daniel 3)
- Daniel would not stop praying to God (Daniel 6)
But even in their disobedience, they were submissive. They acknowledged and yielded to the King’s authority to punish them and put them to death if he saw fit to do so.
When the apostle Paul told Christians under Rome’s rule to submit to the governing authorities, he clarified his meaning by contrasting it with “resisting” (Romans 13:2). The Greek word translated “resist” means to arrange yourself in battle against someone. It means to defiantly (even violently) oppose someone.
Being subject to the governing authorities means not “resisting” them (Romans 13:2), it means “honoring” them (1 Peter 2:17), and it may mean “obeying” them, but not if they tell you to do something sinful.
The United States is Unique
There is an argument I’ve heard countless times, in various ways, that basically says Romans 13 doesn’t apply to American Christians because of the uniqueness of our country. People say:
- We are a representative republic.
- We are governed by laws and not by a king or emperor.
- Our government officials answer to the people.
I don’t want to get too deep into civics or history. I love our nation and I love some of the relatively unique aspects of our nation. However, we’re not the first country to be a republic, have a constitution, or believe government officials derive their right to govern from the consent of the people. We’re even far from the first to be founded by men who knew, loved, and quoted the Bible. If Romans 13 doesn’t apply to us, then it hardly applies to anyone today. Should we do this with all of the Bible, dismiss it because our cultural context has changed?
Many feel they have a right to violently rebel against the government if a law is passed that is unconstitutional, but we have a mechanism for determining whether or not laws are constitutional. Under our system, citizens cannot just decide for themselves that a law is unconstitutional and violently oppose the government. That’s not how our system works. We must appeal to the courts. We have a right biblically and legally to appeal to the courts and let the courts decide.
Though our context today is certainly different than first-century Rome, our instructions to be submissive and not seditious are the same. If a law cannot be obeyed by a follower of Jesus, then we must disobey that law; but we do so respectfully and submissively, yielding to the government’s right to punish us if convicted.
Allegiance and Submission
Just as there is a difference between submission and obedience, there is also a difference between submission and allegiance. By saying, “Be subject to the governing authorities,” Paul was not saying give your allegiance to your country or your government. Paul wasn’t telling Christians in Rome to be Roman patriots.
A person can be a complete stranger in a nation and “be subject to the governing authorities.” If I take a trip to China, I would need to be subject to the Chinese authorities, but I would not be giving my allegiance to China. I would be a sojourner, a pilgrim. Which, of course, is the way we’re supposed to think of ourselves in every country (1 Peter 2:11).
I find it ironic that we think we are supposed to be sojourners on the earth, pilgrims just passing through, but yet bleed our national colors. Aren’t those two ideas in conflict with each other? Why do we feel we shouldn’t get too attached to the earth, but feel it’s perfectly acceptable to get attached to a particular nation on the earth?
Personally, I find it very hard to be a pilgrim and a patriot at the same time. I love and appreciate this country very much, but I respect the laws and am subject to the governing authorities because I’m a follower of Jesus. If I must choose between obeying God and men, I will respectfully disobey a country’s laws, submitting myself to their punishment while trusting in God to vindicate me.
My true citizenship is to God’s kingdom. His is the greatest nation on earth. Like my brothers and sisters around the world, I am peacefully embedded in this particular country to bring about God’s rule and reign.
I love you and God loves you,