Although the volume and intensity of protest is not to the point that it was in the Vietnam era, there has been a rising unrest among the masses. Driven in part by the media and in part by the natural tiring from the costs of war, it seems that more and more people are now staging rallies and events at which they might show their disapproval of the war in Iraq and their lack of support for the sitting president. In a democratic country this is part of the right of free speech. However, for the Christian, we might wonder: If I do not agree with the government, am I still obligated to obey it and honor it? What are my responsibilities to the government under the Law of God? The following essay, which I originally wrote in September of last year, addresses the Christian's obligation of obedience to the governing authorities, especially in light of Romans 13.
Romans 13 and Submission to the Governing Authorities
Whereas our religious rights are safely protected by the constitution of our country, the early Christians of the first centuries lived under the power of an empire that was not always tolerant of their faith. Their dilemma was different than ours, for they were asked to be subordinate to an authority that often openly persecuted them. Still, the challenge they faced has not been unique even in modern history, as has been shown in the persecution of Christians under various dictatorial and totalitarian regimes such as the brutality of Nazi Germany and the communistic intolerance of China.
Christians of every era have therefore struggled with the question of obedience to the governing authorities, especially when these authorities are openly hostile to believers, or when their actions are truly evil and immoral. “Nevertheless,” Gerald Bray observes, “the Fathers consistently supported the New Testament idea that the civil authorities were divinely ordained within their own sphere.”(1) For they took seriously Paul’s words to the Romans that “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.“ (2) However, does this mean that they turned a blind eye to the abuses of government, that they passively obeyed regardless of the circumstances? Are there no exceptions to their rule? Obviously they are. For when berated by the high priest for disregarding his explicit order “not to teach in this name,” Peter boldly proclaimed: “We must obey God rather than men.”(3)
Thus, it has been understood that when any authority demands actions that are clearly contrary to the express will of God, the Christian must submit to God’s Word first even if it means being in open rebellion to the authorities. The authorities which God has appointed as his servants to do his will cannot actively oppose that will and still ultimately serve Him. In the case of Peter this was a clear choice. Jesus himself had sent the disciples forth into all the world to baptize and teach. For the Jewish authorities to prohibit this was an obvious affront to God’s will.
On the other hand, living under the authoritative hand of an intolerant authority has never given believers the carte blanche right to live in open rebellion, even if the authority is obviously non- or anti-Christian, such as the Roman Empire of the days of the apostles. Jesus willingly submitted himself to both the Jewish and the Roman authorities, even though he was innocent and the case against him was clearly bogus. He spoke the truth, but did not resist either his arrest or their acts of punishment. Jesus also submitted to Pilate’s authority to impose capital punishment, telling the governor: “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above…”(4) He recognized and supported the state’s right to bear the sword and take life. It may have been an unjust sentence, the killing of a clearly innocent man, as Pilate himself attested.(5) Still, this did not negate the divine right of the state to exercise the sword. As Jesus noted, the “greater sin” was in the one who delivered him unjustly to the authorities. (6)
Paul likewise submitted to the same governing authority of Rome when his enemies unjustly condemned him. In his case, as a Roman citizen, he appealed to the authorities on the basis of their own justice. He too confessed the truth and pointed out that the charges against him were untrue either according to Jewish law or Roman.(7) To the governor Porcius Festus he said: “I am standing before Caesar’s tribunal, where I ought to be tried; to the Jews I have done no wrong, as you know very well. If then I am a wrongdoer, and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death; but if there is nothing in their charges against me, no one can give me up to them. I appeal to Caesar.”(8) Again, the right of the government to prosecute and punish, even by death, is affirmed, even though this government did not necessarily always protect or support his right to believe in Christ.
But we come again to a dilemma. Does submitting to the governing authorities mean that a Christian must accept the actions and demands of a given government or particular ruler even if they appear wrong and immoral? To what degree, if any, may a believer oppose such authority without opposing God’s own Word?
The early church father Chrysostom, who it is observed came into sharp conflict with the
governing rulers and society of Constantinople, reconciled this dilemma for himself by making a distinction in Paul’s choice of words in Romans 13. “He [Paul] does not speak about individual rulers but about the principle of authority itself.”(9) In speaking of Paul’s injunction to submit, he said that he did not see this as an endorsement of every individual ruler. He noted that “He [Paul] does not say, ‘For there is no ruler but of God,’ but it is the things he speaks of, and says, ‘there is no power but of God.’” Thus, Chrysostom argues for the need for order and is against anarchy wherever it may occur.(10) Yet, he distinguishes between the “order” and the ruler who exercises that order.
It is true that in the original Greek Paul speaks of “authorities” or “powers” [excusais] and does not employ the more specific term for “ruler” such as archon, kosmokrator, or hegemon. But did Paul mean to make a distinction such that the Christian could disregard the individual ruler as long as he didn’t oppose order in general?
Lenski observes that this distinction was also appealed to by Calvinistic writers. They were open to the idea that God would not oppose revolution for the sake of a change of government.(11) This undoubtedly stemmed in part from the reformed principle that matters of the Faith were a concern of the state as well as the church, and in commingling their interests tended to view not two kingdoms or realms, but one that was bound by the same standards. Thus, if a government was observed to deviate from the law of Holy Scripture, then they “may be deposed with Christ’s sanction,” Zwingi noted.(12)
Lutherans, however, have kept distinct the two kingdoms, and while we acknowledge the right to oppose the authorities when they openly conflict with the divine Law (“We must obey God rather than men“), we have not taken that as license to declare the given government then in power invalid. As Luther himself writes: “In contradistinction to the Jewish conception, he [Paul] teaches that Christians must subject themselves also to the wicked and unbelievers…Even though rulers are wicked and unbelieving, yet is their governmental power good (in itself) and of God….Christians should not, under the pretense of Christian religion, refuse to obey men (in authority) even if they are wicked.”(13) As opposed to the Reformed concept which confused the work of the kingdoms by merging them, Luther observed that the church directs people as Christians, serving the inner, spiritual man, while the state directs peoples as “citizens,” serving their outward or earthly needs.(14)
Luther was also careful to keep distinct the sacred character of the state’s authority, even when it was usurped or high-jacked by evil men. Governments led by evil men, he observed, are still divinely instituted. Thus, like money, government in and of itself does not become evil through misuse.(15)
Given Luther’s and the Lutheran Church’s belief concerning the divine order of the state, it is not surprising to see that Lutherans were not all equally eager to join the American Revolution in the eighteenth century and its forceful rebellion against the rule of England. Part of this was probably due, as has been observed, to the somewhat pietistic nature of these early Lutherans to resist becoming involved in political affairs. Some early Lutherans did not even exercise their legal right to vote. Still, when Muhlenberg initially opposed the war and sided with England (as did other Lutherans of the time), it would be hard to imagine that this was not motivated in large part by the Lutheran reluctance to oppose a divinely instituted governmental authority.(16) Looking back in time it feels awkward to evaluate how one might act as a Christian today, considering the scripture’s injunction to be subject to the authorities. This author openly wonders if he could justify rebelling against a power simply because he disagreed with their political policies, no matter how unjust.
Yet, a familiar question is often begged when it comes to evil rulers and the place of the Christian in respect to rebellion. Can a believer rebel and work for the overthrow of a given ruler and still maintain his submission to the “governing authorities”? Was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s involvement in the plot to assassinate Hitler within his rights as a Christian, or was he wrongfully opposing the rightful, albeit thoroughly evil, ruler of Germany as one who represented the state as instituted by God?
Turning again to Luther we might view such questions by looking at the Christian through a two-fold lens. As the believer lives simultaneously in two realms or governments, he therefore acts in two capacities: as citizen of this world and as part of the kingdom of Christ. Thus, Luther defends self-defense on the basis that as a citizen of this world the Christian represents the secular authority by opposing those who would endanger his life, which the authorities are established to protect. The Christian thus becomes, “in an extraordinary way…a substitute for the official authority.”(17) Still there is a tension in living in two kingdoms, and not all dilemmas may be so easily resolved.
So, if a person were to openly oppose or rebel against a governing authority as a citizen of this world, for the sake of the defense and justice of his fellow citizens who are being victimized by the current ruler, would their actions still be in harmony with God’s Law? And what would constitute a legitimate reason to rebel? Luther was clear that a threat to one’s life allowed the citizen to defend himself. But if my life is not threatened, “any private exercise of force is forbidden, since in such cases we ought to wait for the authorities to act.”(18) But what if the “authorities” that exist do not act? What if they are silent and unwilling to act? Or worse yet, what if they deprive me of rights and freedoms I believe I should possess, or am even guaranteed by the law of the land?
The early forefathers of this country rebelled based on the ideals of individual freedom and liberty, although these ideals were more a product of the Enlightenment sentiment of their times than what we think of as Christians. When the scriptures talk of freedom, they do not talk of political freedom, but rather freedom in the Gospel, freedom from the power of sin, death and evil. This freedom was the most important, and could be realized even if one were enslaved for a time in this world. Therefore, Paul could surprisingly encourage the slaves of his time to “be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling….”(19) In the case of Philemon, a slave owner who had a legal right to execute his runaway slave Onesimus, Paul does not argue the master’s right or the general morality of slavery, but appeals to Philemon as a brother in Christ. He even offered to pay whatever restitution is needed to cover the slave’s theft.(20)
Are there higher ethical or legal issues that would justify rebellion or revolution, or at least resistance in some way? What if the government or ruler in question works in direct opposition to its stated purpose to serve for our “good” (13:4), or becomes a “terror to good consciences” (13:3), or begins to “execute his wrath” rather on the doer of good instead of the wrongdoer (13:4b)? Does Paul condition our obedience on the success of the government to do right? Who then judges the government?
In discussing issues of grievance in the Christian church Paul reminds his hearers that “the saints will judge the world” and thus should not be held “incompetent to try trivial cases.” “Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, matters pertaining to this life!”(21) Yet, to be true, Paul was concerning himself here with disagreements in the church that resulted in lawsuits, and was not discussing the legitimacy of the governing authorities to try cases themselves. Still, are Christians equipped to judge the moral rightness of the government’s actions? And if so, how should they act on this judgment?
Undoubtedly many of these questions have plagued Christians for generations, and the resolution of the questions has often fallen on both sides of the issue. However, there are issues of clear truth that can and do guide the Christian. The following, according to this author, would be issues of just such truth:
1.) Christians live as citizens of a particular political realm, and as such should exercise
their rights as citizens to the greatest possible degree. Thus, if given the right to vote they should exercise this right often. Christians should also be encouraged to participate in the government itself through elected or appointed office.
2.) If deciding to oppose an order or decision of the government that a Christian determines runs contrary to God’s express will, the believer should be prepared to suffer under the cross for this decision.
3.) The Christian should fulfill their obligation to serve in the military, if required. However, if serving in a combat role where the taking of human life may be required troubles the believer’s conscience, they should find a way to serve in a non-combat role.
4.) Christians are not free to oppose the government’s right to assemble an army or to go to war. However, Christian ethicists have evaluated individual acts of war under the “Just War” theory. A Christian could certainly express their disapproval of a given war that the believer felt was “unjust” and unwarranted. They could express this disapproval in any legal means at their disposal.
(5) Christians in countries ruled by governments actively opposed to the Faith have historically long endured persecution while submitting to the authorities. This began with the first believers and has continued even to this day in oppressive countries such as modern day China.
(6) Christians are called to pray for those in authority (22). If disturbed by what is going on within a particular government, the Christian’s first action should be to intercede on the ruler’s behalf that God would guide and use them in a way consistent with His will.
(7) Forceful revolution within a country where one works to overthrow one government regime in order to substitute another one, cannot be supported or justified based on Holy Scripture. The Christian is called not to rebel and overthrow the government, but to pray for it and to support it by the payment of taxes.
(1) Gerald Bray, ed., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture - New Testament VI - Romans (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 1998), 323-324.
(2) Romans 13:1
(3) Acts 5:29b
(4) John 19:11a
(5) John 18:38
(6) John 19:11b
(7) Acts 25:9
(8) Acts 25:10, 11
(9) Bray, 325.
(10) George W. Forell, History of Christian Ethics, Vol, I: Form the New Testament to Augustine (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1979), 151.
(11) R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1936), 785.
(12) Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, Vol. III (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1953), 180.
(13) Martin Luther (translated by J. Theodore Mueller), Commentary on Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications1954), 179, 180.
(15) Ibid, 181.
(16) E. Clifford Nelson, ed. The Lutheran in North America (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), 76.
(17)Paul Althaus, The Ethics of Martin Luther (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972), 76.
(19) Ephesians 6:5.
(20) Philemon 15-19
(21) 1 Corinthians 6:2, 3
(22) 1 Timothy 2:1