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. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 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, 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. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
I have been persuaded by interaction with some of you that Romans 13:1-7 calls for one more sermon after this one. I had thought three was enough. But I think there should be one more next week.
Summary of Parts One and Two
Let me sum up where we have been and then explain why one more seems called for. In the first part I emphasized the positive good of civil authority which Paul stresses in verse 4: “He is God’s servant for your good.” I argued that we are very blessed by God when the evil of the human heart is restrained by civil authority and law so that anarchy and mob rule and vigilante justice do not hold sway.
Then in the second part I tried to explain why Paul would speak in such sweeping, unqualified statements that he knew had exceptions because he himself wrote about those exceptions and was a living example of the exceptions. For example, he says in verse 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.” But he wrote in Romans 8:35-36, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? [the same “sword” referred to in Romans 13:4 where Paul says that the magistrate “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”] As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’” So Paul knows that civil authorities are not just a terror to bad conduct. They are a terror to good conduct sometimes. They kill Christians, just like Jesus said they would, “You will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. . . . and some of you they will put to death” (Luke 21:12-16).
My two main suggestions for why Paul wrote in such sweeping, unqualified ways about government and submission were, first, that he wanted Caesar to get the message that God is over him and that there is a God-given moral law above the laws of the state, and states ARE to act this way. We use language that way: We say what is in order to say what ought to be. For example, I might say to one of my children who has just been disrespectful to his mother, “We do not talk like that in this family.” Well, he had just talked like that, and he is in the family. But everyone knows what I mean. So Paul has an eye on Caesar as he writes and says, “Government rewards the good and punishes the bad, not the reverse!” And he means: They ought to.
The other reason Paul spoke so resoundingly about submission to the state, I suggested, is that he wants us to know that the danger to our soul from unjust governments is nowhere near as great as the danger to our soul from the pride that kicks against submission. No mistreatment or unjust law has ever sent anyone to hell. But pride and rebellion is what sends everyone to hell who doesn’t have a Savior.
Then I promised that, Lord willing, this week, I would take up the question of civil disobedience—which I now hope to do. But I was persuaded that in America especially, where the form of government God has ordained (v. 1) is so participatory, we should ask what submission looks like when, in one sense, the government is us. In other words, what is the role of Christians in the rough and tumble of political, governmental life—with a special focus on the complicating fact of increasing pluralism, as the world and all its views and religions comes to America? That is next week, Lord, willing.
So today the question is twofold: 1) What is the evidence from the Bible that God sometimes approves of his people not submitting to the very authority he had put in place? That is, what is the evidence for God-approved civil disobedience? And 2) when is such civil disobedience right, and what should it look like? These are huge questions and whole books have been written on them. But if that stopped us from preaching, we would preach on nothing worth thinking about.
Biblical Examples of Disobedience to Civil Authorities
Consider a few texts on disobedience to civil authorities. I referred last week to Acts 5:27-29 where Peter and the apostles say, “We must obey God rather than men.” In other words, even though God said to submit to the men in authority, he does not mean: Obey them when they forbid what I command or command what I forbid. The command to submit to man does not make man God. It gives man authority under God, and qualified by God.
So let’s turn to some examples where that qualification lead to disobedience.
Then these presidents and satraps came by agreement to the king and said to him, “O King Darius, live for ever! All the presidents of the kingdom . . . are agreed that the king should establish an ordinance and enforce an interdict, that whoever makes petition to any god or man for thirty days, except to you, O king, shall be cast into the den of lions. . .” Therefore King Darius signed the document and interdict.
When Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem; and he got down upon his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously.
Notice how blatant Daniel’s disobedience is. It is, as we say, in your face. When Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he went to his house, where he had windows in his upper chamber—upper chamber!—opened toward Jerusalem. And he got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God as he had done previously. This was an open act of disobedience to the civil authority. It was a public act of putting God before the king’s decree. He took his place at an upper window, so he could be clearly seen. And for it he was thrown to the lions. Which he did not resist. Keep in mind that there is no explicit commandment that one must pray on one’s knees at an open window three times a day. This was Daniel’s conviction about God’s will, not an explicit command in the Bible.
The case of Daniel’s friends, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, was slightly different. The decree was made that all should bow down before the king’s image. In other words, Daniel was forbidden to do a thing, and his friends were commanded to do a thing. They would not. Instead, they said:
O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace; and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image which you have set up.
This was civil disobedience on the basis of religious conscience. And for it they were thrown into the furnace. And they did not resist.
Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwifes . . . “When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women, and see them upon the birth stool, if it is a son, you shall kill him; but if it is a daughter, she shall live.” But the midwifes feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live. . . So God dealt well with the midwifes; and the people multiplied and grew very strong.
The midwifes disobeyed the king’s order to kill the babies.
One response to these last two texts is that they portray disobedience to a command that requires sin. What about civil disobedience to laws that are not requiring you to do anything. They are just forbidding you from doing something that you feel morally bound to do.
Besides the case of Daniel, the Bible gives several other examples (e.g., Kings 18:4,13; Joshua 2:3-4). For example, Queen Esther is honored for disobeying the law against unsolicited approach to the king. King Ahasuerus had decreed that Jews were to be annihilated young and old, women and children (Esther 3:13). Mordecai, Esther’s uncle asked Esther to intervene for the Jews to save their lives.
Esther’s response was to remind Mordecai that any unsolicited approach to the King was against the law. She could be killed (4:11-12), unless the king had mercy on her and raised his scepter. Mordecai answered that Esther may well have come to the kingdom for such a time as this (4:14). So Esther calls for a three-day fast. Finally she resolves, “I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish” (4:16). The effect of her intervention was that the Jews were spared.
There are at least three features of Esther’s disobedience that stand out: 1) The law Esther broke did not require any active evil of her. It only stood in the way of trying to save the Jews. 2) There was no guarantee that her disobedience would be successful. It might have only galvanized the king’s opposition to the Jews. She risked it because so much was at stake. 3) Her act of disobedience to the state is not incidental to the main point of the book. It is the heart of her sacrificial faith: “If I perish, I perish!”
But even if there were no explicit instances of civil disobedience in the Bible we would have to ask some tough questions: Is it morally right to jay walk to stop a rape? Is it morally right to break the speed limit to rush a dying wife to the hospital? Is it right to break into a neighbor’s house to put out a fire—or save a child?
Under what conditions, then, might civil disobedience be morally called for? One could say with the apostle Peter: Obey God rather than man (Acts 5:29). In other words, if the law commands what God forbids or forbids what God commands then you must break the law. But the problem with that simple guideline is that much of the civil disobedience in history has involved doing things that are not clearly commanded by God. Sitting down on the sidewalk in front an abortion clinic in 1989 was not explicitly commanded by God in the Bible. Eating in a white-only restaurant in St. Augustine, Florida in 1964, and marching and praying in Montgomery, Alabama in 1965 were not commanded explicitly in the Bible.
In other words, some Christians have come to the point in history where they believed laws were so unjust and so evil, and political means of change had been frustrated so long, that peaceful, non-violent, civil disobedience seemed right. What factors should we take into consideration to decide if we should do that kind of civil disobedience? It seems to me that it would be a combination of at least these four things.
- The grievousness of the action sanctioned by law. How atrocious is it? Is it a traffic pattern that you think is dumb? Or is the law sanctioning killing?
- The extent of the unjust law’s effect. Is it a person affected here or there? Or is it millions? Does the law have an incidental inconsistency? Or is it putting a whole group of people into bondage because of their ethnic origin?
- The potential of civil disobedience for clear and effective witness to the truth. This is the question of strategy, and there will certainly be room here for differing judgments about whether a particular act of civil disobedience will be a clear and effective statement of what is just.
- The movement of the spirit of courage and conviction in God in people’s lives that indicates the time is right. Historically, there appears to be a flash point of moral indignation. An evil exists for years, or perhaps generations, and then something strange happens. One person, and then tens of thousands of people, can no longer just get up and go to work and say, “I wish it weren’t this way.” A flash point is reached, and what had hung in the air for years as tolerable evil explodes with an overwhelming sense that this state of affairs simply can no longer be!
So if and when that time comes, how should civil disobedience be carried out? What should it look like?
Non-Resistance and Active Love for Your Enemy
Let’s look at the demands of love in Matthew 5:38-48. These are tough paragraphs about non-resistance and active love for your enemy. First, Jesus says:
You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to him who asks from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you. (vv. 38-42)
All of those verses are intended to show compliance to one who mistreats you or asks you for something. This looks like the opposite of resistance. Now here comes something a little different in verses 43-48: active love rather than non-resistance.
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. . . .You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (vv. 43-48)
Here a different note is struck. The emphasis falls on seeking the good of the enemy. Love your enemy. Pray for your enemy—presumably that he would be saved and find hope and life in Christ. Do good to your enemy the way God does with rain and sunshine.
So in verses 38-42 the note of compliance is struck (don’t resist, turn the other cheek, go the extra mile). But in verses 43-48 Jesus strikes the note of positive actions for the good of your enemies with a view to their blessing.
Now this raises the question whether the non-resistance and compliance of verses 38-42 is always the best way to love others and do them good as in verses 43-48. One focuses on passivity—don’t retaliate, be willing to suffer unjustly. The other focuses on activity—seek to do good for your enemy. Is passivity always the best way to do good?
The answer becomes more clear when we realize that in most situations of injustice or persecution we are not the only person being hurt. For example, how do you love two other people if one the criminal and the other is the victim—if one is hurting and the other is being hurt? Is love passive when it is not just your cheek that is being smacked but someone else’s—and repeatedly?
Or what about the command to give to the one who asks. Is it love to give your coat to a person who will use it to strangle an infant? And how do you go the extra mile (lovingly!) with a person who is taking you along to support his bloodshed? Do you go the extra mile with a person who is making you an active accomplice to his evil?
The point of these questions is this: In these verses Jesus is giving us a description of love that cuts to the depth of our selfishness and fear. If selfishness and fear keep us from giving and going the extra mile, then we need to be broken by these words. But Jesus is not saying that passive compliance in situations of injustice is the only form of love. It can be a form of cowardice.
When love weighs the claims of justice and mercy among all the people involved, there can come a moment, a flash point, when love may go beyond passive, compliant non-resistance and drive the money changers from the Temple (Mark 11:15).
Guidelines for How Christians Should Engage in Civil Disobedience
What guidelines are there, then, for how a Christian will perform civil disobedience?
The words of Jesus rule out all vindictiveness and all action based on the mere expediency of personal safety. The Lord cuts away our love for possessions, and our love for convenience. That’s the point of Matthew 5:38-42. Don’t act merely out of concern for your own private benefit, your clothes, your convenience, your possessions, your safety.
Instead, by trusting Christ, become the kind of person who is utterly free from these things to live for others (both the oppressed and the oppressors; both the persecuted and the persecutors; both the dying children and the killing abortionists). The tone and demeanor of this Christian civil disobedience will be the opposite of strident, belligerent, rock-throwing, screaming, swearing, violent demonstrations.
We are people of the cross. Our Lord submitted to crucifixion willingly to save his enemies. We owe our eternal life to him. We are forgiven sinners. This takes the swagger out of our protest. It takes the arrogance out of our resistance. And if, after every other means has failed, we must disobey for the sake of love and justice, we will first remove the log from our own eye, which will cause enough pain and tears to soften our indignation into a humble, quiet, but unshakeable, NO. The greatest battle we face is not overcoming unjust laws, but becoming this kind of people.