When one studies the words that Paul penned to the church at Rome nearly 2000 years ago concerning our submission to governing authorities, a pattern clearly emerges. As Christians, we are to live lives of submission. Paul was by no means the only one in the Bible to teach on this virtue, as Jesus modeled the attitude of submission perfectly throughout His earthly ministry, always doing the will of His Father. In fact, perfect submission was so vital to our Lord that He described the will of the Father as His “food” (John 4:34). The apostle Peter likewise wrote concerning the importance of submission in the life of the Christian because “…such is the will of God” (1 Peter 2:15).

As we covered in our exposition of the first seven verses of Romans 13 in the previous blog series on the relationship between the Church and the Government, submission to the government is indeed submission to God for He is the one who establishes the governing authorities (Romans 13:2). However, because every government that has ever existed (and will exist) is comprised of sinful people, there are times when a government oversteps its God-delegated boundaries by mandating its citizens to do that which God has instructed us not to do, or to not do that which God has commanded us to do. As a result, it is under these circumstances that the Bible not only gives us permission to disobey the state but teaches us that we must disobey because “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). 

It is precisely this principle we see as it unfolded in real history between the apostles and the Sanhedrin, that we will be closely examining throughout this series. Clearly, we see instances throughout the pages of Scripture where the saints of old were ordered by their governments to carry out acts that they refused to obey. When Pharaoh ordered the slaying of all the Hebrew male newborns, the Hebrew midwives did not comply (Exodus 2:15-17). When King Darius issued a decree that outlawed any form of prayerful petitioning that was not directed at himself, Daniel did not comply (Daniel 6:7-10). When King Herod ordered that all male children born in Bethlehem who were two years old or younger be put to death, Joseph and Mary did not comply (Matthew 2:13-16). It is these divinely approved acts of disobedience that provide the proof we need in order to justify our conclusion that Romans 13 is by no means a universal command to always obey the government no matter what. We know that whenever the laws of men are in step with God’s laws, we submit to them, but human laws that are in direct contradiction to what God has instructed are to be disobeyed since God has the ultimate authority over our lives. But how can we rightly understand these exceptions which we confidently know do exist in light of Romans 13? 

To answer this question, we need to take a step back. What interpretive challenges has the Church faced and spilled much ink over when dealing with Romans 13? Arguably, the most notable challenge with understanding this text is the obvious fact that exceptions to the rule must exist, but they are not directly prescribed for us in the immediate context of Romans 13 because it was outside the scope of what Paul was writing about. Nowhere in Romans 13 did Paul write something to the effect of, “Submit to the government, unless they tell you to sin.” Instead, we derive our knowledge of exceptions from descriptive passages that give us accounts of saints disobeying the state in order to remain obedient to God as well as other clear texts of Scripture where we are prescribed to always obey what God has said regardless of the circumstances. In the Church’s effort to harmonize these biblical instructions through the centuries, two major views of Romans 13 have surfaced. The first of these interpretations, which we will call the “Strict Interpretation”, is the view that Christians are to obey their governing authorities in all circumstances with the only exceptions being when the government commands us to do that which is inherently sinful or forbids us to do that which God commands us to do. The second view of Romans 13 is what we will call the “Conditional Interpretation”, which is the view that Christians should only submit to a government that is operating within its God-delegated parameters as explicitly laid out in the text, namely rewarding good behavior and punishing evildoers. Both of these interpretations will be further elaborated on later in this series. 

As we consider these things, let us be reminded that while exceptions do exist and there are indeed times when governments abuse their authority and require their citizens to do those things that are inherently sinful, we should remember that the general attitude and spirit of submission always applies in all circumstances. As the Church of Jesus Christ, our calling is not to look around every corner for loopholes, but to keep our eyes focused on Christ, to live life the way He lived. Jesus lived under Roman occupation not as a revolutionary or zealot, but as a Jew humbly submitting to Gentile rulers. We should have the willingness to submit to those who have authority over us because Christ lived the perfect life of submission, and did so for you and me. When Peter wrote to the dispersed people of God about submission to governing authorities, he had something bigger in mind. Knowing that his audience was undergoing great persecution, Peter wrote the following words:

“Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation.” (1 Peter 2:12). 

Our submissive attitude and humility do not go unnoticed by the world. Though the world may mock us for the things which set us apart from them, there are some who will watch how differently we conduct ourselves and will ask us “…to give an account for the hope that is in you.” (1 Peter 3:15). Those who are outside of Christ are watching us when we obey laws that are generally deemed unnecessary or inconvenient in their eyes, just as they are also watching the way in which we disobey the government when it is right to do so in the sight of God. Do they see us disobeying the state simply because we do not like what the government says and have adopted an unbiblical libertarian or anarchist view of government? Or, do they see us believing that something bigger is at stake, that we send a loud and clear message to them about how we revere and love our Lord so much that we are willing to do anything for His name’s sake, even if that requires us to disobey our civil magistrates? 

Next time, we will address the “Strict Interpretation” of Romans 13 as we consider where it fits in the history of the Church along with its excellencies and shortcomings.