Christians and Government
Christians do not agree on the exact meaning of this passage. Does God determine who each king, president, or governing body is for every nation? Are we called upon to submit to the government that we are under with no exceptions? If so, then we are forced to conclude that God put Hitler in power, and it was God’s will for the German citizens to obey orders and go along with the atrocities that were carried out against the Jews and others. Some have maintained that the United States of America was founded on unscriptural grounds because the people rebelled against the crown in order to establish this nation. Of course, others have adamantly disagreed and have claimed that unjust government action is reason for a lack of compliance toward that government. It has been suggested that in this passage Paul was describing the ideal government, and how we should behave as citizens under the ideal government, because it was obvious then, just as it is now, that there have been many unjust rulers and governing bodies that have not fulfilled the function described in these verses. Consequently, this could not be a blanket mandate. It has been countered that when Paul wrote this, the tyrant Nero was in power and if there were exceptions to the case, living under Nero would have been one of them. Countering this, the argument is made that the very fact that no exceptions are made in this passage, shows that something else is going on here, because it is a given that we should obey God, rather than those in power, when obedience to men conflicts with obedience to God. There is an argument that says that the early Christians expected the Lord Jesus to return very soon, and since Christians had no recourse in their current situation, and knowing that Nero would become aware of Paul’s letter, Paul was deliberately writing words that would make the Christians not seem like a threat to Nero, to try to keep the Christians from being persecuted. Paul meant this passage to be specifically for his immediate readers, rather than as a mandate for Christians of all-time, since he could not have known that the world would continue for another (almost) 2,000 years. The argument goes, that people often forget, or do not realize, that much of what is written in the Bible should be taken in the context of the time when it was written. What should we make of this passage as Christians today?
God knows that we are living in a complicated world and that we face difficult situations on a regular basis. There are certain professions in which the practitioners make their living in dangerous and volatile environments. Police and correctional officers, for example, are tasked with maintaining control of streets and institutions where people do not want to be controlled, and they can easily find themselves in “war-zone” type scenarios that result in “moral-injuries” that they deal with for life. There is a reason why those in military, police, and correctional professions have high rates of PTSD, with many suffering in silence because they cannot afford to be “weak” in their environments. But who creates these environments that they suffer in? Is war moral? Citizens do not declare war. Kings do. Presidents do. Governing bodies do. Have military personnel ever been wrongly sent to war? We know the answer is yes. Why are the streets filled with crime? Criminals have free-will, but government policies create career criminals. Why are the prisons over-crowded, resulting in higher rates of violence and staff shortages, with staff still being expected to keep pace with the expectations of policy makers, while they themselves are under the scrutiny of government oversight? As a person who has studied criminal justice and worked in this field, I do not hesitate to say that the word justice seems to be misplaced. Sentencing disparities, prosecutorial misconduct, and over-incarceration are just a few of the many problems in the American criminal justice field. It creates problems for offenders, their families, correctional staff, and their families.
Governments disseminate false information, they kill people that get in their way, they tell people they cannot operate their businesses, they send people to war for the purpose of their own interests, and the list goes on. Some people think that Romans 13 tells Christians that they should always do what government officials tell them to do, because God has ordained those powers and to resist is to bring condemnation upon oneself. When reading the Bible as a whole, we simply do not find that this is the case. A good principle to follow is that when there is a passage in the Bible that seems to contradict another passage in the Bible, we should interpret the less clear passage through the passages that are clearer on the subject. Though the Bible was penned by men, it is not a man-made book. God created a world in which he works through human and/or angelic agents, and the Bible that we hold is no exception. We have God’s words in our hands, so we need to examine everything about our lives by holding it up to the light of the scriptures. While it is true that no king, president, or governing body could be where they are positionally without God allowing it to be so, this does mean that God orchestrates the governments of the world or unilaterally decides who to put in power. He has created a world in which human beings make decisions of impact, and this results in both good and evil.
The Bible also says that Satan is the god (or ruler) of this world. When Adam lost the dominion that God gave him when he rebelled against God, Satan took dominion by default. Satan and the powers of darkness influence the kingdoms of the world away from God and holiness. When Satan tempted the Lord Jesus, he offered him “the kingdoms of the world” and the Lord did not say that it was not in Satan’s power to do so. He simply stated that he would do “the will of God” and would not accept Satan’s offer. None of this is meant to say that God is not ultimately in control, he is, but again, he is currently allowing the free-will choices of human and angelic agents to “play out” so to speak.
So again, does Romans 13:1-7 mean we should always do what government officials tell us to do? Some say that we should obey all the laws of the land unless they contradict God’s law. This is a good principal to follow in general, but perhaps this is an application of the text rather than an interpretation that catches the exact intention of Paul, as I stated before. Are there examples in church history, and even the Bible, of people resisting the government that was over them, with the result of God blessing them, or at least not condemning them for it?
1) The Hebrews were slaves in Egypt and were being governed by Pharaoh and his officials. The day came when Pharaoh commanded the Egyptian midwives to kill all of the Hebrew males that were born. The Egyptian midwives, no doubt having been influenced by the Hebrew mothers and their faith in the God of Israel, refused to do so and when they were asked about the matter, they lied about what happened. They did not comply with this government mandate. They protected others from harm from their government, and the Bible says God dealt well with them and blessed them for their actions. “But the midwives feared God, and did not as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the men children alive. And the king of Egypt called for the midwives, and said unto them, Why have ye done this thing, and have saved the men children alive? And the midwives said unto Pharaoh, Because the Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women; for they are lively, and are delivered ere the midwives come in unto them. Therefore God dealt well with the midwives: and the people multiplied, and waxed very mighty.”
2) Moses was born to Hebrew slaves in Egypt and his parents hid him, then put him in a basket in the river so he would not be killed. They obviously defied the government they were under in doing so. Pharaoh’s daughter found him in the river, claimed him for herself, and then called for a nurse maid from the Hebrews to take care of him. Moses’ mother received those honors. That was not the law, but it was certainly justice.
3) Moses was raised in Pharaoh’s household, but he came to know that he was one of the Hebrews. One day he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave, and after looking this way and that way, he killed the Egyptian and buried him in the sand. Knowing this would result in his death at the hands of Pharaoh, he fled into the wilderness. He did not subject himself to Pharaoh’s government for this act. After years in the wilderness, God called on Moses to deliver the Hebrews from Egyptian bondage, which he did.
4) Years later, when the Hebrews were making their way through various lands at God’s bidding, two Hebrew spies slipped into Jericho to “get the scoop” on the place. Officials in Jericho must have gotten wind that they were there, for the two spies ended up in the house of Rahab, a harlot. Because Rahab had heard about God and “feared him”, she hid the spies. This was clearly defiance toward her government. When the officials arrived, she lied to them and said the spies had gone out a certain way. The Bible says that God honored her for her faith. “Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way?”
5) We read in 1 Kings 18 about a God-fearing man named Obadiah. When Queen Jezebel was killing God’s prophets, Obadiah hid a hundred of them so they would not be murdered. This was clearly defiance toward the ruling authority.
6) Peter was placed in jail, but an angel helped to break him out. That is illegal of course. Peter obviously did not think we have to submit to the government no matter what.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor that rebelled against Hitler and the ruling authorities of his day, and it is claimed that he became part of an assassination plot, with Hitler as the target. Was he wrong? Some say he was based on Romans 13 and the prohibition of murder. Would it have been murder? Who would claim that Hitler and his government were ministers of good and that they should have been honored? It is noteworthy that God raised up a deliverer for Israel by the name of Ehud, whom we read about in the Book of Judges. Ehud reported to a heathen king that he had a message for him from God. Once the king dismissed his servants from the area, Ehud assassinated the king with a dagger. The Bible then says this: “And Ehud escaped while they tarried, and passed beyond the quarries, and escaped unto Seirath. And it came to pass, when he was come, that he blew a trumpet in the mountain of Ephraim, and the children of Israel went down with him from the mount, and he before them. And he said unto them, Follow after me: for the Lord hath delivered your enemies the Moabites into your hand. And they went down after him, and took the fords of Jordan toward Moab, and suffered not a man to pass over. And they slew of Moab at that time about ten thousand men, all lusty, and all men of valour; and there escaped not a man. So Moab was subdued that day under the hand of Israel. And the land had rest fourscore years.”
Corrie Ten Boom hid Jews that were fleeing from the Nazis, and she lied to the officials that showed up to her door looking for them. Was she right? Many of us say she was absolutely doing the right thing, even though some people seem to be more interested in preserving self-righteousness for themselves rather than doing what is helpful for others. There are other examples, but I think the point is clear.
When we read the Bible and consider the choices that Christians have made in certain circumstances in history, it appears that morally ambiguous situations are not that uncommon. It does not work to say that as Christians we simply need to do as the Bible says: do not lie, do not deceive, do not kill, do not defy the government, because of the examples we have seen in the scriptures where God dealt well with those who did these things in certain instances. The Bible commands us not to bear false witness against our neighbor, not to murder, and to submit to governing authorities, but these commandments can seemingly be stretched beyond their intention, considering the examples given and others. Of course, these instances are not meant to be an approval of selfishness and wrong-doing, but some of us see in them the fact that sometimes we face situations where actions like these are committed in purview of a greater good. Are the actions promoting or hiding evil? If so, they cannot be justified. Harboring a murderer, for example, would not fall into this category we are describing. Lying to do harm to our neighbor, or for personal gain, would obviously be unjustified.
Some believe that we should overlook some moral issues in favor of others, or that we should at least be forbearing, depending on the circumstances. Even the Lord Jesus said that some sins are greater than others, contrary to the popular belief that all sins are equal (John 19:11). The Lord Jesus was also willing to rank the commandments (Matthew 22:37-39), as was Paul (1 Corinthians 13:13). The Lord criticized the Pharisees for neglecting the weightier provisions of the law, namely - justice, mercy, and faithfulness. The Lord stated that some virtues are greater than others, when he said: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
Do people have the wisdom and discernment to be able to understand and apply these principles? Do we believe that in the complex moral realities of life that we must choose between a lesser or greater “evil” at times because one is more important than the other? We should respect the conscience of those that disagree with us, but it seems there are indeed times when God is wise and merciful and does not view our “lesser sins”, with the rigidity and wrath that some might imagine, when we are not intending harm but trying to prevent it.
We see these principles being applied in the Bible, and I believe we too can apply them in our lives. We do not have a blanket commandment to follow the edicts of human government, come what may. The point seems to be that we should be peaceful citizens, not disruptive troublemakers, and we should follow the laws of the land, as a general rule. I do not believe this passage is a treatise for all situations we find ourselves in, or that it deals at all with the ethical dilemmas that can arise. As citizens of the state, we find ourselves in different roles and different situations, and we see that “what we should do” is not always clear-cut. Sometimes there is a hierarchy of values where we must choose between what seems to be a more or lesser wrong. I believe that God will have mercy on us for these morally ambiguous situations.