Obedience to Civil Authorities
It seems that there is rather widespread confusion about whether Paul, Peter, and the Scriptures in general require unconditional obedience to civil leaders. A surface reading of the relevant texts would appear to require submission without qualification—“…there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore, whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God” (Rom. 13:1-2); “Submit yourself for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors” (1 Pet. 2:13-14); “My son, fear the Lord and the king” (Prov. 24:21). Yet, every historic expression of Christianity has recognized that there are situations in which believers may lawfully disobey civil powers—e.g. for the emancipation of slaves; the advancement of civil rights; the protection of the Jews from genocide; etc. etc. How is this possible? The straightforward answer is that upon a careful reading, the passages in view require general submission to governing officials, except for when their orders come into conflict with God’s commands.
Perhaps the simplest way to establish that Paul is not requiring unqualified submission to authority in Romans 13, is by observing that the Epistle to the Romans is itself an expression of civil disobedience, replete with admonitions to Christian citizens in the imperial city to engage in the same.
To appreciate our point, we must take into account the political context of Paul’s letter. In Roman society, it was a treasonous offense to publicly confess any man as one’s ultimate “Lord” or “King” besides Caesar. “Kaisar Kurios,” or “Caesar is Lord” was the mandatory confession of all Roman citizens. The Caesars were even deified, and expressly designated as the “Son of God” on Roman currency. There may be many gods in heaven, but Caesar alone was “Lord” in the political realm encompassed by Roman borders; borders that were ever expanding. The seriousness of dodging confession of Caesar’s absolute political lordship was set before none other than Pontius Pilate. After he had made an (albeit minimal) effort to have Jesus released, the Jewish authorities reminded him, “If you release this Man [Jesus], you are not a friend of Caesar; everyone who makes himself out to be a king [in this case, Jesus] opposes Caesar” (John 19:12). Appealing a second time to the political demands of Roman law, when "Pilate said to them, ‘Shall I crucify your king [Jesus]?’ The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but Caesar’” (John 19:15). Such was the proper confession of every Roman.
With this background in mind, consider that Paul’s letter to the Romans opens with an identification of Jesus Christ as “the Son of God” and “our Lord” (Rom. 1:4). Paul is unabashedly contradicting Caesar’s claims to ultimate lordship. This confession, in the full extent of its meaning, was flatly illegal. Still more subversive, Paul insists that all Christians including the citizens of the imperial city must publicly confess Christ’s universal Lordship—“confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord…for there is no distinction between Jew and Greek for the same Lord is Lord of all” (Rom. 10:9, 12). Paul is only echoing the demands that Christ Himself had placed on the disciples. Aware that His message came into direct conflict with Jewish and Roman “courts,” “governors,” and “kings,” (Matt. 10:17-18) Jesus solemnly warned His followers, “everyone who confesses Me before men I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies Me before men I will also deny him before My Father in Heaven” (Matt. 10:32-33; cf. Luke 12:8-9).
Set within this literary context, it is rather easy to see that Paul’s admonition to submit to the government in Romans 13:1-7, is itself offered as a qualification of (a) his protracted (and illegal) teaching that Jesus (not Caesar) is Lord; and (b) his argument that justification comes by faith in Jesus (and not by obedience to the Jewish Law, or any other law for that matter). Near the end of his argument, Paul wants the Roman Christians to know that confession of Jesus’ Lordship unto salvation by no means absolves a believer of his general responsibility to submit to civil authorities, or to their laws when set within their God-given limits. To appreciate that Romans 13:1-7 qualifies Paul’s otherwise illegal proclamation that Jesus is Lord (Rom. 10:9), is to understand at once that believers’ submission to the government must itself be qualified by the prior demands of divine justice, and most of all, by the prior demands of the Gospel. Thus, Paul, like Jesus before him, specifically points out that civil authorities have the right to impose taxes (Rom. 13:6-7; cf. Matt. 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17; Lk. 20:20-26), and to penalize evildoers. Both of these prerogatives were granted to the civil agents of divine justice in the Scriptural record of redemptive history (Gen. 9:5-7; Ex. 21:23-25; 30:11-16; 1 Sam. 8:10-18). By contrast, the people of God were never required to obey civil authorities when their mandates contradicted their own God-given function to “serve as a cause of fear [not] for good behavior, but for evil” (Rom. 13:3). The Hebrew midwives who refused to report new births to the Egyptian authorities in order to prevent them from being murdered (Ex. 1:15-22); the Aaronic Priests who stood against King Uzziah when he entered God’s temple (2 Chron. 26:16-23); Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego who disobeyed Nebuchadnezzar’s mandate to worship his image (Dan. 3); Daniel, who refused to break from his regiment of prayer upon the civil penalty of death (Dan. 6); the Three Magi who refused to comply with Herod’s wishes to be informed of the whereabouts of the newborn Jesus (Matt. 2:1-12); etc. etc. etc. are all commended for their disobedience to unlawful uses of civil power. Hence, Paul is certainly intent on upholding the principle of Proverbs 24:21—“fear the LORD and fear the king.” But His illegal proclamation of Christ’s Lordship in Romans 1-12, demonstrates his insight that God and the king must be feared in exactly that order; submission to the former taking precedence over submission to the latter.
We will have more to say about Romans 13 shortly, but now is an appropriate time to consider the similar commendation of obedience to civil authority in Peter’s First Epistle.
1 PETER 2:13-14
As we saw with Paul, Peter’s admonition to submit to the civil government must be understood within the context of a letter that unabashedly proclaims Jesus’ universal lordship (1 Pet. 1:3; 2:3; 3:15), in flat contradiction to the claims of Caesar. Peter makes it clear that believers are bound to submit to civil authorities, only on the basis of their prior commitment to the Lordship of Jesus Christ—“Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution…” (1 Pet. 2:13). This can only mean that when civil powers mandate that which is directly contrary to the will of Jesus Christ, one cannot, in that particular matter, submit to them “for the Lord’s sake.” Fortunately, one need not opine as to what Peter would have personally done if the demands of a civil authority came into conflict with the absolute demands of Jesus Christ. Luke’s historical record furnishes us with two instances in which Peter’s Gospel preaching conflicted with strict orders from rulers to desist. On the first occasion, Peter and John compel the rulers of the Jewish community to reconsider the parameters of their own authority. Then they flatly state what they can and cannot lawfully do, in light of the demands of the Gospel—“…they [the authorities] commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered and said to them, ‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 3:18-20). The second time Peter was questioned by the Jewish council about unlawful proclamation of the Gospel, he answers on behalf of the Apostles, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
Following the Apostolic example, the first three hundred years of Christendom would be baptized in the blood of countless martyrs who refused to treat Roman Law as if it could take precedence over Christ’s command to publicly confess Him before their neighbors. The Christian Church exists because believers recognized that any and all submission to human governments must be carried out for Christ’s sake, and therefore suspended when at odds with Christ’s directives (1 Pet. 2:13). In his apocalyptic vision, the Apostle John renders it unmistakably clear that Christian resistance to authority for the sake of the Gospel is both precious in the sight of God, and the precursor to corporate rejuvenation and historical ascendency of the Christian Church over her enemies—“I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of their testimony which they had maintained; and they cried out with a loud voice, saying, 'How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood?'…And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony of Jesus….and they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years (Rev. 6:9-10, 20:4).
Even without a robust awareness of the historical, literary, and canonical context of Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:12-13, rather minimal reflection on the passages themselves yields the conclusion that a believer’s submission to civil powers cannot be absolute. Such a flat stance toward authorities is strictly impossible since they are often at odds with one another. Notice that both Paul and Peter are unambiguous that each and every civil officer is established by the providence of God (a concept on which we will elaborate below), and not just the highest sovereigns in a land—“there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God” (Rom. 13:1); “Submit yourself for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors…” (2 Pet. 2:13); “be subject to rulers, to authorities” (Tit. 3:1). Yet, Peter and Paul knew perfectly well that the Roman senate was often at odds with any given Caesar; that members of the royal family were often at odds with one another; and that Rome had succumbed to several civil wars throughout her long history. Local prefects, like Pontius Pilate, could resist the strict application of Roman Law as he had in the case of Jesus (John 19), while others like Herod Antipas might be ambivalent (Lk. 23:6-12), and still others like the rulers of the Jews could demand a strict application of the law (Lk. 22:66-71). Notably, Jesus Himself affirms that even though he was a lesser magistrate, Pontius Pilate’s civil authority had been given to him by God (John 19:11), no less than Caesar, Herod, or the Jewish council. But again, these distinct civil powers were often at odds within the lifetime of Christ and the Apostles.
This inescapable feature of a fallen world renders it impossible for citizens to honor every ruler, every law, and every order all the time. Likewise, it forces the thoughtful reader to appreciate that Paul’s description of civil authority—“it is a minister of God to you for good” (Rom. 13:4)— pertains to its divinely intended function, and not to its every historical administration. It is no secret why Paul would want to remind his readers of the positive ends for which God ordained governments. Having denied that believers are saved by adherence to the Mosaic law, Paul wants to clarify that his Gospel does not encourage a general stance of rebellion and anarchy to Roman Law, any more than it encourages believers to go on sinning after having be justified by grace alone through faith alone (Rom. 6:1ff; 7:12; 8:12). In general, believers should submit to governing authorities in their station as “avenger[s] who brings wrath on the one who practices evil” (Rom. 13:4). For this very reason, when a ruler acts contrary to the divine design for his office and becomes a “cause of fear for good behavior” (Rom. 13:3), believers must prayerfully and thoughtfully determine how best to resist him. Ideally, believers will be able to rally around lesser magistrates who are faithfully upholding justice, despite the despotic policies of others. In many instances, however, believers must simply be prepared to experience civil persecution for their unwillingness to compromise their conviction (Matt. 5:10-12; 1 Pet. 3:14; John 15:18-25; 16:2; 2 Tim. 3:12), as it is based on God’s word (Rom. 14:23).
DIVINE ESTABLISHMENT OF AUTHORITY
Another matter which often goes overlooked in passing discussions of Romans 13:1-7 is exactly what Paul means when he speaks of divinely “established” authority. Too often it is assumed that Paul means to teach that God immediately grants kings and emperors, governors and presidents a special authority to which a given populace must submit without question. I am happy to point out that it was a 17th century Presbyterian (a man from my theological tradition) in particular, who has dispelled this error with a deluge of Biblical argumentation. In his classic work, “The Law and the Prince” (Lex, Rex), Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661) demonstrates that God consistently represents Himself in Scripture as establishing civil governments with, and through the consent of a given populace. What this necessarily means, then, is that when a ruler has turned on his own populace, the same populace has an inherent right to resist him.
What would possess Samuel Rutherford to conclude that God only establishes civil governments through the consent of the people? Well, the basic answer is that the Bible says so. And it says so again and again, and again and again. We begin with the Mosaic stipulations for how Israel was supposed to choose a king—“When…you say, ‘I will set a king over me like all the nations who are around me,’ you shall surely set a king over you whom the LORD your God chooses, one from among your countrymen you shall set as king over yourselves; you may not put a foreigner over yourselves…” (Deut. 17:14-15). In this passage it is unambiguous that while God acts as the transcendent agent who will select and appoint the king, the body politic (acting through elders of clans and tribes) is the immanent agent who must select and appoint the king. And of course, the exact same dual manner of appointment by divine providence working through a general populace is attested to throughout Scripture (Deut. 1:13; Judg. 8:22; 9:6; 11:5-6; 1 Sam. 8:4-9, 19-22; 11:14-15 + 10:1; 1 Sam. 16:12-14; 2 Sam. 5:1-5; 1 Chron. 12:38; 2 Sam. 16:18; 1 Kings 1:38-40; 1 Kings 12:4, 20 + 11:29; 1 Kings 16:16; 2 Kings 10:1-5; 2 Kings 11:12; 2 Kings 14:21; 2 Chron. 13:3; Hos 13:10). In light of this fact, it is no wonder God can and does providentially judge and even displace wicked rulers through the principled opposition of lesser magistrates, who also represent the people. For example, Athaliah the wicked queen of Judah attempted to kill all of the royal offspring to secure her own administration. She was justly resisted by another civil authority, princess Jehoshabeath, her husband, the priest Jehoram (an ecclesiastical authority), several military captains, and the greater part of the Judean populace (2 Chron. 22:10-23:15; 2 Kings 11:1-16). Despite the accusation that her enemies were guilty of “treason” (2 Kings 11:14), she was justly executed by the people (2 Kings 11:16; 2 Chron. 23:15), who subsequently made the child, Joash king in her place. Likewise, David (a lesser magistrate), was justified in resisting Saul’s tyranny by amassing a significant army who engaged in several forays with Saul’s forces. Although Solomon was to be David’s successor, it required a military effort, and a rallying of the populace to secure that position over against another member of the royal household, his brother Adonijah (2 Kings 1-2). When Solomon and Rehoboam taxed and worked their countrymen to the point of economic enslavement, God ordained Jeroboam, through the consent of the ten tribes of Israel (1 Kings 12:4, 20 & 11:29) to secede from rule under the house of David.
One thinks too little of the highly educated Pharisee and Apostle, if he believes that Paul was either unaware of, or determined to contradict the natural rights of national peoples to select their form of government, to resist tyrants, and in extreme circumstances to displace them. Every argument advanced in Romans betrays fidelity to the prior teaching of Scripture. Thus, when Romans 13:1-7 speaks of the divine “establishment” of civil governments, we are justified in supposing that he is alluding to that manner of establishment through the consent of the people that appears over and again in the 39 inspired books of the Old Testament. As it turns out, the Christians in Paul’s historical context comprised a razor thin minority of the Roman populace. This meant that the majority of people were, for the time being, happy to be “Roman”—they embraced the empire’s never-ending military campaigns; her indulgence in sensual idolatrous worship; her indifference with respect to the God-given rights of indentured servants; the legality of abortion; etc. In a certain respect, Paul could recognize that even these evil features of Roman policy were indirectly ordained by God, because despite the vast social ills created by them, they were by and large consented to by the public. It is with this point that Paul opens his letter—“Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity…murder, strife, etc. ” (Rom. 1:24, 29). Thus, there was no meaningful way for Christians to change public policy quickly—the greater part of the nation, by far, were pleased to be under such a divine judgment. In their unregenerate condition they couldn’t even recognize it as judgment (Rom. 8:6-7; cf. 1 Cor. 2:14-15). Thus, Paul encourages the first century Roman Christians to maintain their bold profession of faith in Christ in the face of social and civil persecution (Rom. 12:14-18); to honor civil authority wherever they can do so without undermining their allegiance to Christ, as He impresses His will on the conscience through Scriptures (Rom. 13:1-7; 14:23); and to confidently hope and labor for the triumph of Christ’s kingdom over every persecuting agent (Rom. 8:37-39; 12:19) in the evangelization of the world (Rom. 11:25-32). This is something quite different from a flat command to Christian citizens to obey civil authorities without critical reflection.
Although the context, the internal logic of the passages themselves, and the Biblical concept of divine establishment all qualify the manner and degree to which believers can submit to civil authority, Paul had good reason to state the Christian’s duty without qualification. Paul would have the churches of Rome know that Christians should have a reputation for being generally respectful to, and appreciative of authority (even when they resist them), and not the opposite. Here, there is a strong analogy to other Biblical imperatives. The fifth commandment—“Honor your father and mother” (Eph. 6:3; cf. Ex. 20:12; Deut. 5:16); the duties of wives—“be subject to your husbands” (Eph. 5:22; Col. 3:18); the permanence of marriage—“What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate” (Mk. 10:9); and many other moral imperatives are stated without qualification; but not because there aren’t any. The young Jesus let his parents depart Jerusalem without him, because he had a prior commitment to learning about God the Father (Lk. 2:41-52); the submission of wives to their husbands must be “in the Lord,” and occasionally suspended out of prior submission to the Lord; and Jesus Himself offers minimal qualifications on the parameters of divorce in other contexts—Matt. 5:32; 19:9. Again, these commandments are set forth without qualification to convey that the general disposition of believers ought to be to build up parental authority, complimentary marriage relationships, and the permanence of marriage. We ought to be a people who are inherently comfortable with authority structures. Our God, after all—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—has an internal and immutable order of relations (1 Cor. 11:2; John 14:26). We ought to be a people whose highest wish is neither to usurp nor to destroy every office of authority, but if possible, to carry on in godly submission to them out of obedience to the Lord. We ought to be a people who never forget that a rebellious stance toward authority was first counseled by the Serpent (Gen. 3:1-6). Thus, we ought to heed the example of Jesus and His Apostle’s, who were able to carry about in a world of compromised authority without kicking against their every error. Jesus, on all but a handful of occasions, manifests a remarkable tone of respect toward the very authorities who would have Him killed (Matt. 26:59-27:54; Mk. 14:23-15:39; Lk. 22:54-23:49; Jn. 18:12-19:37). And yet, Jesus did not cower to identify Himself as the Son of God, even though the authorities would interpret His self-disclosure as a blasphemous and treasonous crime.
To restate our thesis, Christians are bound to a general disposition of submission toward civil authorities, except for when their policies come into conflict with divine justice and the demands of Christ. We have said nothing thus far with respect to how to navigate any particular conflict of allegiance to God and to the civil government. And, we will have to refrain from doing so in the context of this already lengthy reflection on the Biblical teaching about obedience to rulers. We will have to limit ourselves to the observation that we ought to expect for Christians and Churches to embrace a range of acceptable stances that simultaneously reflect primary honor for God, and secondary honor for the state. There will be certain government evils that believers simply overlook (Prov. 17:9; 19:11), either because they are preoccupied with other godly causes, unaware of the said evils, in no immediate position to alter those evils, or discerning that God has providentially ordained them to discipline society at large (Lk. 21:20-24; Rom. 1:24ff.). Individuals and communities can and will find different creative ways to simultaneously honor some aspects of a civil law, even as they refuse to heed other aspects of the same. Evidently, Joseph, Daniel, Nehemiah, Esther, and many others were even able to meaningfully participate in civil administrations that were grossly compromised, without neglecting their own prior, holistic commitment to God. What this means is that Christians must not to be quick to condemn one another for their resistance, and/or failure to resist evil government policies in exactly the same manner or degree as others do. Yes, we must be ready to supply a Biblical answer for why we have taken any given stance toward an unjust civil policy. We must be willing to encourage our Christian neighbor to boldly advance the cause of Christ and justice in the world, even as we labor to be at peace with all men (Rom. 12:18; 1 Thess. 4:11-12). We must be willing to thoughtfully weigh others’ best insights for how to do the same. But, what Paul says about food laws is also true about many aspects of a Christian’s civil stance—“Who are you to judge a servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand” (Rom. 14:4). In fact, Christians must recognize that there is no more powerful agent of change in reality, than the faithful profession of faith in Christ as Lord. Whatever we do, let us not neglect to do that.
Brant Bosserman lives in the greater Seattle area with his wife Heather and four children — two 11 year old girls (Nicea and Chalcedon), and his 8 and 5 year old boys (Augustine and Calvin). He is the planter/minister of Trinitas Presbyterian Church, in Mill Creek, WA (PCA) which was launched in May 2013, and particularized in October 2015. He has his PhD in philosophy of religion from the Welsh, Bangor University. His M.A.T is from Fuller, and his B.A. in Religion & Philosophy/Biblical Lit is from the Pentecostal University, Northwest U., where he has taught philosophy courses in an adjunct capacity for over 10 years. He is a Van Til scholar, and published “The Trinity and Vindication of Christian Paradox” available here. His previous article on Gentle Reformation was "Marxism, Postmodernism, and Critical Race Theory.