Does Romans 13 Prohibit All Civil Disobedience?
Pastor John, do the rather strong words in Romans 13:1–7 indicate that civil disobedience is always wrong for the Christian?
I don’t think Romans 13, the first paragraph there, rules out all civil disobedience. Let me read just a piece of it, because it sounds like it does, and I admit it is a significant exegetical problem. So it says: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God,” — so be subject, because authorities are from God — “and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (Romans 13:1-2).
“Government is a great gift in a world of fallenness, restraining evil and bringing some kind of order.”
So there is the basic statement. We ought to be submissive to government, because government is of God, and it is a gift of God. Sometimes people who get their back up real quick and want to plead for civil disobedience before they think too much forget that anarchy and mob rule are horrible, horrible things.
I remember watching the movie Gandhi and those couple of scenes where the mobs got out of hand and turned on a man and the terror that came over me just watching the power of a totally lawless mob. You are utterly helpless. And so government is a great gift in a world of fallenness, keeping a cap on the evil of the world, and restraining evil, and bringing some kind of order. So I just want to say yes to God’s gift of government in a world of sin.
But we all know — Stalin’s regime, Nazism, Pol Pot, all kinds of illustrations from history — that government can go wrong which makes verse three and four look really strange. And I think this is a clue to what Paul is up to. “Rulers are not a terror to good conduct but to bad” (Romans 13:3).
And we read that and we say, “Paul. How can you possibly say that? You are being thrown in jail every other week, and Jesus was crucified by governments. What do you mean they are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad?”
And then Paul goes on and says you will receive their approval if you do what is good. In verse four, the ruler is “God’s servant for your good . . . an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4). And that is the argument for why we should be submissive. And we say, “Well, if the argument is so weak, how does the conclusion follow?”
Why Would Paul Write This?
I think Paul, if he heard us say that, he would say, “Listen, here is what I am doing. Number one, Caesar is going to read this, and I will want to make sure that the ruling authorities in Rome know that Christians are not anarchists. We are basically law abiding citizens and we believe that he has his position by God.” That is the first thing.
And the second thing, I think he wants to say to Christians, “Don't get your back up so easily, because being wronged by a government sends nobody to hell, but being rebellious and angry and bitter and spiteful does send people to hell. And so it is a much greater evil for you to be rebellious than of the government to mistreat you. Much greater evil for you that is.”
Always Obedient to the Highest Authority
Now if you step back from Romans 13 and say, “Are there any appropriate acts of civil disobedience?” There are. Acts 5:29 says, “We must obey God rather than men.” The apostles must preach even though the authorities have told them they shouldn’t. And then we have the example of the midwives in Exodus who wouldn’t kill the baby boys, and we have Daniel who, right after they make the law that you can’t pray, goes up and kneels down in front of a window and gets thrown into a lions’ den, and Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego won’t bow down to the big golden statue, and Esther is told by Mordecai, you have got to go to the king because we are all going to be killed if you don’t go to the king. And she writes back and says, “You can’t go to the king. It is against the law if you go to the king unbidden.” And he writes back and says, “We are going to die anyway.” And she says, “Ok, if I perish, I perish.” And she breaks the law. He mercifully raises the golden scepter, and she is spared, but she was willing to risk breaking the law for the sake of her people.
And so I think the principle is this: Citizens to governments, children to parents, wives to husbands, church members to elders, all of these are called to have an appropriate submissive spirit and to follow leadership. None of these is considered to be absolute. All of them have the lordship of Jesus riding over the lordship of the superior and, thus, defining the limits of the lordship of the superior.