Obey the government, for God is the one who has put it there. There is no government anywhere that God has not placed in power. So those who refuse to obey the laws of the land are refusing to obey God, and punishment will follow (Romans 13:1-2, The Living Bible).
We live in extraordinary times, such that we can be placed in a position of having to choose between the right thing to do and secular expectations. While it is true that the Apostle Paul admonishes us to be lawful citizens, a very careful examination of this topic is important to your spiritual life.
What Paul Means by 'Obey the Laws of the Land'
Under normal circumstances, our governments serve God’s purposes by mitigating the damage fallen men do to each other through the implementation of laws and ordinances. These laws, if they are just, are intended to either hinder disordered behaviors or punish them appropriately when they are committed.
In Paul’s time, this end was not always met by the various rulers of the empire, yet that was still their stated intention — though they did not use the word sin to describe crimes. In Romans 13:1-7, he admonishes Christians living in the Roman Empire to abide by the laws of the land, so as to avoid unnecessary conflict with the authorities.
It was actually quite easy for a Jew or Christian to find themselves at odds with the laws of that time. In some cities, in order to do business in the public markets, the only places to purchase food, textiles, and other necessities of life, was to offer a small sacrifice to a particular pagan deity.
This was most often in the form of a small pinch of incense at a public altar. For Christians and Jews, such an act was unthinkable. It was very clearly the sin of idolatry. So, navigating the laws could be very tricky for believers in the one God of the Bible.
Yet Paul, knowing this, still admonishes his readers to respect the law, and even of the rulers themselves, as they rule only at the will of God. And he is not alone in that admonition. Titus also tells us to be obedient and submissive to rulers and authorities (Titus 3:1).
The Apostle Peter also encourages this same obedience to secular authorities, saying that we are to be subject to every human institution, leaders, governors, etc. (1 Peter 2:13-17). While we don’t live in the Roman Empire, we do live in a time in which Christian morals and ethics are severely challenged.
In some countries, particularly those of a Muslim majority, Christians face outright persecution, up to and including imprisonment and death all for the “crime” of being a disciple of Jesus Christ.
In these countries, it is illegal to be a Christian, or if not overtly illegal, certainly made nearly so by virtue of the authority of religious leaders to command suspected Christians to be stoned to death.
In Iraq and Syria, Islamic leaders have destroyed entire Christian communities, crucified many, and sold Christian women into sexual slavery. An estimated 700,000 Christians have been displaced in Syria as a result of the Islamic group known as ISIS.
Here in the United States, Christians have been dubbed domestic terrorists by the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department.
It isn’t difficult to envision a scenario in which Christians right here at home find themselves in conflict with the governing authorities for nothing more than the crime of being a Christian. What do we do when we’re forced to decide between the laws of men and the laws of God?
The apostles were no strangers to persecution at the hands of the governing authorities. Despite their best efforts to comply with the law and show respect to rulers, they were jailed, beaten, and in some cases put to death.
When the apostles had received the gift of the Holy Spirit, they began to preach boldly, and many people flocked to them for healing of illnesses and to be freed of the contamination of evil spirits.
As a result of numerous miracles, many of the people became disciples of Christ, which angered the ruling authorities, who had the apostles arrested and put in jail. Eventually, the apostles were brought before the Sanhedrin who reminded them that they had been ordered not to preach their message.
Peter’s response is quite instructive for us today. He simply stated that we must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). They knew the result of their position would place them in violation of the orders of the rulers, and that they would be beaten as a result, but still, this was their answer.
This principle remained the guiding one for Christians throughout the many years of persecutions under Roman authorities and others. Note that at no time do we find any example of the apostles engaging in violent insurrection or advocating a revolution.
They also understood that Christ’s kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36), and all such militant actions would ultimately be fruitless and sinful. In fact, Christians would also not serve in the military, knowing that their allegiance would be divided between those of the emperor and of Christ.
However, that did not mean that Christians were simply to obey unjust laws or laws that violated the higher law of God. This peaceful resistance led to the martyrdom of many Christians.
The emperor Nero organized the first systematic state-sponsored persecution of Christians, making them the scapegoat for the burning of Rome between AD 64 and 68, which took the lives of both Peter and Paul.
This was followed by the persecution under Domitian. Christians who refused to offer incense upon the altar of the emperor and refused to pay a tax in support of the pagan Capitolinus Jupiter were severely punished. John the apostle was exiled to Patmos during this persecution (AD 90-96).
Despite these persecutions, Christians remained peaceful, imitating the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, who offered no physical resistance to His persecutors, and even rebuking Peter for doing so (Matthew 26:52).
What Does This Mean?
Christians are to show all due respect to governments and authorities and do their absolute best to obey the secular laws.
However, when those secular laws violate the higher law of God, we will have no choice, much like Peter before the Sanhedrin, to peacefully resist such unjust laws.
Edwin Mora, Report: ISIS Has Crucified, Tortured Thousands of Christians in Iraq, Syria (article), Breitbart, September 29, 2015.
Heather Clark, Christians Deemed Terrorists in Studies Funded by Department of Homeland Security, (article), Christian News, July 4, 2012.
For further reading:
Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Ilya Burdun
J. Davila-Ashcraft is an Anglican priest, Theologian, and Apologist, and holds a B.A. in Biblical Studies and Theology from God’s Bible College in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is a recognized authority on the topic of exorcism, and in that capacity has contributed to and/or appeared on programming for The National Geographic Channel, Discovery Channel, and CNN. He is the host of Expedition Truth, a one-hour apologetics radio talk show.
The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of Salem Web Network and Salem Media Group.
These verses serve as a source of renewal for the mind and restoration for the heart by reinforcing the notion that, while human weakness is inevitable, God's strength is always available to uplift, guide, and empower us.
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