We see corrupt and unjust governments all around us. In our newsfeeds and our history books we see countless examples of human authorities that abuse their power – governments that are rife with corruption, injustice, and oppression.
In light of all this, Romans 13:1 is troubling. It says, “Everyone must submit themselves to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.”
Really? All human authorities are established by God, and we should submit to all of them? What about Stalin? Mugabe? Hitler?
What are Christians supposed to do when those governments require us to do evil, or expect us to stand by and do nothing while evil flourishes? Does Romans 13 call us to obey in any and every circumstance?
The short answer is ‘no’. And we can say this with confidence for two reasons.
1. Submission ≠ Obedience
Firstly, submission doesn’t alway mean obedience. To submit (ὑποτάσσω) means to ‘place oneself under’ someone or something else. It means to recognise the order that God has established, and to respect those who are above us in it.
So submission absolutely requires respect of those above us, but it doesn’t always require obedience.
For example, the Bible calls Christian wives to submit to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22), but that doesn’t mean they obey them no matter what. If your husband wants you to sin, you need to obey God rather than your husband.
And in the same way the Bible calls Christians to submit to our government (Romans 13:1), but if the government wants us to sin, we need to obey God than than them. Because our primary allegiance is to God Himself.
So yes, we still submit to government. But that doesn’t mean we will always obey them.
2. God Rather Than Men
Secondly, Romans 13 is not the totality of what the Bible has to say about our relationship to government. There are also other parts of the Bible that help us piece together a bigger picture.
One of these places is Acts chapter 5. Here we read that the apostles were sharing the message of Jesus in Jerusalem, but the authorities arrested them and demanded that they stop.
What would the apostles do?
Would they obey their governing authorities and stop sharing about Jesus?
Acts 5:29 tells us: “Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than men!” And here we have one of the other key principles for how we as Christians relate to governing authorities. When forced to choose, we must obey God rather than men.
Yes, submit to government and obey wherever possible (Romans 13). But, if the government requires us to do something that God forbids, our choice is clear. We must obey God rather than men.
This idea isn’t isolated to Acts 5.
- When Pharaoh ordered the Hebrew midwives to kill the newborn babies, they disobeyed.
- When King Nebuchadnezzar ordered that everyone had to worship his golden statue, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego disobeyed.
- When King Darius ordered that no one could pray to any god or man except King Darius himself, Daniel disobeyed.
In these situations disobeying government is not just a valid Christian option, but our Christian obligation. To quote John Stott, “Whenever laws are enacted which contradict God’s law, civil disobedience becomes a Christian duty. In those cases we must disobey the state.”
Submitting to Jesus
Jesus calls us to recognise the rightful authority of governments (Matthew 22:21). Which means as a rule, followers of Jesus should obey the law. Keep the speed limit. Obey piracy laws. Wear your bike helmet. Be honest on your tax return (Romans 13:6-7).
Part of our submission to Jesus means that we submit to government.
But there will be situations where faithfulness to Jesus demands that we disobey our human authorities. Many Christians around the world face these situations this very day. Here in the West, these situations seem closer and closer on the horizon.
May God give us the humility to obey where we should, and the courage to disobey where we must.