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  • Writer's pictureBrian O'Kelly

38 - Is Civil Disobedience for the Christian? - Romans 13

Updated: Dec 3, 2023


3. Submission to Governing Authorities: 1 Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.

3.1. What is authority?

3.1.1.Inherent

3.1.1.1. Only God - inherent authority means it resides within you. It doesn’t come from anywhere else. Only God has inherent authority. He receives it from no one.

3.1.1.2. Some would say that heads of state have inherent authority as the “sovereign” over their nations. But people mean is that they answer to no man. While this is true, it doesn’t mean that they are answerable to God for everything they do. For example Kim Jong-Il, Putin, and other dictators don’t answer to human beings. However they will be held responsible by God for what they do. This is the proper definition of sovereignty.


3.1.1.3. Reformed theologians define sovereignty to indicate that the sovereign dictates every single thing that happens within their jurisdiction. Well, these earthly dictators control much within their jurisdiction but I don’t think they get down to the specific acts of specific people exhaustively. In other words they may not choose which games children will play on any given day, although they may well choose the games that are legal or illegal and impose punishments as such. The reformed theologian would have the sovereignty of God mean that he controls every single act of every single person at every single moment of history. Sovereignty doesn’t mean that.


3.1.1.4. Sovereignty means the right to rule.

3.1.2.Delegated:

3.1.2.1. All earthly Authorities have delegated authority in a defined arena. In the old days this was called the “divine right of kings” which was a recognition that the authority of the King had come from God.

3.1.2.2. We are all used to delegated authority.

3.1.2.2.1. The CEO is delegated his/her authority by the Board of Directors.

3.1.2.2.2. The airline pilot is delegated his/her authority by the airline.

3.1.2.2.3. The pastor is delegated his authority typically, by an elder board. There are however some churches that consider the pastor to be in a “Shepherd called by God”position. Even in these churches there is recognition that the authority of the pastor is delegated.

3.1.2.2.4. I am delegated authority over my family by God.

3.1.2.2.5. If the CEO of the Corporation tells me to go wash his car, and pick up his dry cleaning, unless that is in the area of authority that is part of my job it’s abuse of power.

3.1.2.2.6. If the pilot decides to fly to a different destination and do barrel rolls in the passenger jet he is violating his authority.

3.1.2.2.7. If the pastor decides that he wants to control your checkbook or where you go to work, he’s abusing his authority. There was a movement in the 70s called the shepherding movement. Shepherding movement was one where that was exactly what was done. Pastors would tell people to come wash their car or which job they could have, even who they could marry or how many children to have was considered to be a decision of the shepherd.

3.1.2.2.8. Likewise, if I attempt to exercise undue authority over my family, it’s an abuse of power. Some husbands (including myself Once upon a time) misunderstand the role of head of the house as one who exercises absolute authority over absolutely everything. As anyone who’s tried this or seen it tried can attest, this doesn’t work out very well.

3.1.2.2.9. Now in many areas where authority is delegated, that authority can be further delegated. For example, the CEO is delegated authority of the company, but he then delegates some of his authority to department heads. The pastor delegates some of his authority to a youth pastor, or to a head of small groups, or to a Christian education pastor. As a parent you may delegate authority over your children to a babysitter or daycare or to an older child to watch the younger children. Many kinds of authority that you receive can also be delegated at some level the others.

3.1.2.3. Some kind of authority can’t be delegated. These are primarily areas where your own responsibility can’t be escaped. The CEO can delegate some of his authority to department heads, but he can’t delegate his entire authority. I can’t delegate my authority as head of the household precisely because God has said he will hold me responsible. For example as a student I can’t delegate my homework to another student. I have authority over my homework, but not authority to delegate it.

3.1.2.4. What about violations of delegated authority? What are we to do when those with authority abuse it?

3.1.2.4.1. In many cases there is a mechanism for this. In corporations there is an HR department. In churches there is an elder board. In government there are oversight committees and ultimately the ballot box. In policing, there are police oversight boards and internal investigations. In a great many arenas there are mechanisms for redress.

3.1.2.4.2. But what about areas where there is no mechanism for redress or that mechanism has become corrupted and is also abusing its power. For example in North Korea there is no mechanism for redress. In China, in Russia, in Saudi Arabia and many other dictatorships there is no mechanism for redress. We have examples of how this is to be handled in the Bible.

3.1.2.4.2.1. Exodus 1:15 15 Then the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, of whom the name of one was Shiphrah and the name of the other Puah; 16 and he said, “When you do the duties of a midwife for the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstools, if it is a son, then you shall kill him; but if it is a daughter, then she shall live.” 17 But the midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the male children alive.

3.1.2.4.2.2. In Daniel six, Daniel was told not to prayer worship God for 30 days, but he refused and was thrown into the lion’s den instead.

3.1.2.4.2.3. Acts 4:18 18 So they called them and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus. 19 But Peter and John answered and said to them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge. 20 For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.”

3.1.2.4.2.4. Acts 5:29 7 And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest asked them, 28 saying, “Did we not strictly command you not to teach in this name? And look, you have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this Man’s blood on us!” 29 But Peter and the other apostles answered and said: “We ought to obey God rather than men.

3.1.2.4.3. It seems to me that civil disobedience is a Christian obligation. It is the ultimate carrying out of the first commandment to have “no other gods before me”. We must adopt the attitude of these believers and of those who are in oppressed areas today. The people in China or North Korea who take great risk to practice the Christian faith. These people have decided not to be “subject to the governing authorities”

3.1.2.4.4. The trick here and the potential deception is to confuse obligations imposed by God with those that we are concerned about or with righting potential wrongs in society.

3.1.2.4.4.1. For example, there is now the famous Supreme Court case of Coach Kennedy, close to me here in Bremerton Washington who insisted on praying with his football team after the game. The school district said no, you can’t do that. Coach Kennedy resisted all the way to the Supreme Court. I think coach Kennedy was right to persist all the way to the Supreme Court, to ensure his rights under the U.S. Constitution to practice his religion and for those who would practice it with him. If the Supreme Court disagreed, I think coach Kennedy would have been right to continue praying anyway. Even at great personal risk. He would’ve however been incorrect had he insisted that the entire school prayer with him after the game. The apostles insisted on doing what God had said and being obedient. They didn’t insist that either the Jewish or Roman authorities join them.

3.1.2.4.4.2. Many of us who are Christians have worked for years in the pro-life movement. For those of us who live in countries with democratic systems, working for change in a godly direction is a good thing, but may not be a necessary thing in which to practice civil disobedience. Let your own conscience be your guide. For physicians or pharmacists who may be compelled by law to participate I’m quite certain it’s appropriate to refuse. Extending that into clinic blockades, even clinic bombings and violent targeting of providers is, in my opinion, a bridge too far.

3.1.2.4.4.3. The dividing line is near as I can tell would be in the places where Christian is compelled by government to participate in an evil practice or indirect disobedience to God. God has offered us a lot of direction and for us to not follow it is in fact sinful. Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin. James 4:17

3.1.2.4.4.4. Some have suggested that withholding taxes (since the government uses them for evil purposes) is okay. I’ll leave that between you and God, but the Roman government certainly did evil things in Jesus indicated that his followers were to pay their taxes.

4. Purpose of governments

4.1. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. 4 For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.

4.1.1.Doing what is right in the eyes of a righteous government is never fear inducing, a righteous government is there to “minister to you for good”. Evil people should rightly be afraid of a righteous government. The evil person should expect the wrath and consequences of that same righteous government.

4.1.2.A sword in this context represents the use of force by government. This is basically permission for righteous government to use force to compel the punishment of evildoers. The point of a sword, forgive the pun, is that it can be an instrument of death. This is not indicate that every crime should be punished by death, but that like an officer using his gun as a means of exerting a deadly threat over criminal to gain compliance, a sword can be used in the same way. The threat of deadly force compels the criminal who wants to preserve his life into compliance so that they may be fined or jailed depending on the crime.

4.1.3.Some have said that violence doesn’t solve anything, this is exactly wrong. The threat of violence is the main method that has been used by governments to gain compliance. For example, if you don’t pay your taxes the first thing that will happen is that you get a letter. Then you’ll get more letters. Eventually you will get sued for those back taxes. At some point if you don’t comply a man with a gun will show up and take you to prison. This same process applies for quite literally every crime. Eventually compliance is gained through threat of force. Even traffic tickets have behind them the coercive use of force. At some point in the lawbreaker’s career they will be confronted with an officer wants to arrest them. Resisting arrest is in most jurisdictions an authorized use of force for the officer. Of course most people follow the law out of a sense of propriety but one has to wonder how many of those who behave differently the power of the state behind those laws.

5. Be a good citizen

5.1. 5 Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake.

5.1.1.The idea here being that for the unbeliever it is wrath, it is the sword, it is the threat of violence that often is the thing that gains compliance. But for the believer we are to do it because of our responsibility before the Lord to do what is right. Much of the behavior of the Christian should be a response to the cross.

5.2. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. 7 Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.

5.2.1.This goes right back to earlier point that we are to pay taxes and support those who are serving the public in official roles.

5.3. 8 Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not bear false witness,” “You shall not covet,” and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

5.3.1.Many of the great political movements have been rooted in this concept of “love your neighbor”. The Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, abolition, women’s suffrage and the pro-life movement have all been movements rooted in loving our neighbor.

5.3.2.Some of these movements have even involved people taking up arms. The Revolutionary war and the Civil War both involved people using violent means to overthrow an existing system. In both of these cases, it is my view (and I know this won’t be popular) that the use of violence was inappropriate. Both wars flowed from the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson (who was not a Christian) said that men are “endowed by their Creator with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. Jefferson was partly wrong.

5.3.3.Only one of these three, life, is rooted in biblical truth.

5.3.3.1. We are commanded to not take life unjustly in the sixth commandment. We often hear this commandment recited as “thou shalt not kill” but it’s more proper rendering (and most of the modern translations use this rendering) is “you shall not murder” Exodus 20:13. This is easily harmonized with the verse above about the state bearing the sword. When the state uses its power to take the life of a criminal through capital punishment or the exercise of the police powers it is not murder. Murder is the unjustified taking of a life.

5.3.3.2. We are not promised liberty. Paul says “20 Let each one remain in the same calling in which he was called. 21 Were you called while a slave? Do not be concerned about it; but if you can be made free, rather use it. 22 For he who is called in the Lord while a slave is the Lord’s freedman. Likewise he who is called while free is Christ’s slave.” 1 Corinthians 7:20-12

5.3.3.3. We are not promised happiness. Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him. Even so, I will defend my own ways before Him. Job 13:15

5.4. 11 And do this, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. 12 The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light.

5.4.1.Some see an eschatological or “end times” meaning to this verse. I don’t see it that way. I see Paul saying that our lives go quickly and if we are adults, especially adults of older age that the day of our salvation is quickly approaching. Here’s what I’m certain of: regardless of whether were in the last days of the earth, I’m certainly in my own last days. It’s been 50 years since Hal Lindsay wrote “the late great planet Earth”. This book had most people expecting the end of the earth to be in the 80s. Well, we are 40 years past that now. At 58 years old I doubt there’s much chance that I make it another 50 years. Truthfully, another 20 years would be a huge blessing. Since we don’t know, and can’t know, what the timing of the end of the earth is it seems to me to be an irrelevant point and one that Paul himself was unlikely to be making. The point that is relevant is that from the time that we became Christians to the time of the end of our life means that Paul was correct here when he said “our salvation is nearer than when we first believed”.

5.5. 13 Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy. 14 But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts.

5.5.1.This also does not fit with the idea of “liberty”. Throughout the writings of Paul he speaks of himself as a slave of Jesus. We looked at this idea quite a bit in earlier chapters. He lists here a few things, revelry, drunkenness, lewdness, lust, strife and envy but this is not intended to be an exhaustive list. Rather he says “make no provision for the flesh”. This is the opposite of “liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. The Christian is to be committed to bondage to Jesus and the pursuit of His agenda not our own agenda. 19 Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? 20 For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body [g]and in your spirit, which are God’s. 1 Corinthians 6:19-20

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