(September 28, 2020) Dr Jim McClure, straight shooting theologian, brings a timely challenge…
I’m sure that we are all weary of the unavoidable and unrelenting news about Corona-19 and the responses to it by various political leaders in Australia. So many questions have been raised concerning the limits of political authority and police functions and personal rights.
Inconsistent political positions and, at times, authoritarian and uncompassionate directives, have not only created confusion but have also stirred the deep concerns of many loyal citizens – including many committed Christians.
This has raised questions such as:
- ‘What principles should guide Christians when we see political leaders lying or abusing their position of trust or promoting values that stand opposed to biblical values or pursuing policies that suggest self-aggrandisement rather than the benefit of the people they lead?’
- ‘Should they be challenged and their policies be opposed or should we meekly, quietly, uncomplainingly submit to and support their dictates?’
Recently I’ve read a number of articles by Christians who have expressed profound concern and have challenged many of the political decisions that some of our leaders have been making. And I have also read many responses from other Christians who rebuke those who express their concern and dare to criticise those leaders whose government policies and pronouncements with which they disagree. Often they quote Romans 13:1-7 (particularly the first two verses) in support of their rebuke.
So what should be the Christian position in regard to political leaders when their guidelines, strategies and directives run contrary to democratic values, and more especially to biblical values? Obviously both sides cannot be right! Does Roman 13 endorse a position of acquiescence and impassivity when confronted by overreaching and, at times, tyrannical government officials and policies?
Submit to governing authorities?
Paul wrote in Romans 13:1-2, ‘Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.’
At first glance that seems to be perfectly clear – submit to governing authorities because they have been established by God and consequently civil disobedience is wrong! Does that mean compliance with the dictates of governing authorities always and in all circumstances?
Paul was writing at a time when Rome ruled the world – and that rule had much to commend it. Certainly the Pax Romana principle was responsible for much of the stability that was experienced in the Roman Empire. But Rome also implemented policies of persecution, particularly against Jews and Christians. Therefore Paul was not advocating uncritical support of all policies and acts of cruelty!
To maintain that he was is to misrepresent what he was advocating in these verses. He was, however, stating that God’s purpose in sanctioning secular authorities was for the blessing and protection of those whom they govern – ‘For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer’ (Romans 13:4).
The Bible, history and contemporary experience clearly demonstrate that God’s authority and civil authority often stand in opposition to each other; it is therefore quite impossible to give absolute obedience to both!
Should Christians always submit?
When Paul wrote, ‘The authorities that exist have been established by God’ (Romans 13:1) and ‘he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted’ (verse 2), he clearly did not mean that all people (including Christians) should at all times comply with and support all the policies and demands of all leaders regardless how evil or misinformed they may be.
- For example, when a ruling authority pursues a policy of genocide, are Christians bound by what Paul has written here to conform to such a decree? Certainly not!
- Nor must we quietly submit to government policies that require us to support the right to abortion (which some countries, including New Zealand, permit up to birth).
- Or approve of homosexual practices
- Or accept the exploitation of children.
With a little bit of reflection one discovers that an interpretation of the phrase ‘total submission to the ruling authorities’, when isolated from the whole of the biblical narrative, contradicts what God actually teaches in his word.
Bible examples of some who did not submit
Consider the following examples of Godly people who refused to be compliant to the mandates of people ‘in authority’ –
When Moses was born, his parents totally defied Pharaoh’s decree that ‘Every boy that is born you must throw into the Nile, but let every girl live’ (Exodus 1:22). And the writer of Hebrews drew particular attention to their act of disobedience of the royal decree, ‘By faith Moses’ parents hid him for three months after he was born, because they saw he was no ordinary child, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict’ (Hebrews 11:23).
The prophet defied and strongly challenged King Ahab and his wife Jezebel who encouraged the Israelites to worship Canaanite nature gods (1 Kings 16) and who were also responsible for the premeditated murder of Naboth (1 Kings 21).
This prophet rebuked the injustice and hypocrisy of Israel and in particular he boldly and uncompromisingly challenged the king, priests and other leaders (Amos 6:1; 7:7–17).
Daniel and friends
The book of Daniel records the act of civil disobedience of Daniel and his three friends who…
a) Refused to eat the ‘fine food’ provided by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon because they would not defile themselves with the portion of the king’s delicacies (Daniel 1:8,11,12), and
(b) Disobeyed Nebuchadnezzar’s decree that required all people to worship his golden image despite the fact that the penalty for such civil disobedience was execution in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3).
The response of Daniel and his friends to the king was, ‘Your Majesty may be sure that we will not worship your god, and we will not bow down to the gold statue that you have set up’ (Daniel 3:18GNB).
Mordecai and Esther
In Persia Mordecai, who was a Jew, disobeyed the king’s command to pay homage to Haman: ‘Mordecai would not bow or pay homage’ (Esther 3:2). Then King Ahasuerus, under the prompting of Haman, decreed that the Jews living in Persia could be destroyed (Esther 3:10-11). Mordecai sent a message to his niece, Queen Esther, asking her to go to the king and plead for the Jews.
Despite the fact that there was a royal law that banned anyone from entering the presence of the king without an invitation (Esther 4:11), Esther stated, ‘I will go to the king, which is against the law; and if I perish, I perish’ (Esther 4:16).
Jesus drove out the money changers from the temple area who were operating under the permission of the ruling authorities (Matthew 21:12, Mark 11:15, John 2:15).
John the Baptist
He dared confronted Herod over his adulterous relationship with his brother’s wife (Matthew 14:4).
Peter and John
In the early days of the church the apostles, Peter and John, had been arrested by the Sanhedrin, a ruling authority responsible for the principle affairs of the nation. They were strictly told ‘not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus’ (Acts 4:18).
But the two men openly defied that authority and asserted, ‘Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard’ (verses 19-20).
Similarly in Acts 5 we read that when the duly appointed authorities – the Sanhedrin and the High Priest – arrested and jailed the apostles (verse 18) ‘during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out’ (v19). Following their re-arrest they were again brought before the authorities who angrily told them, ‘We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name’ (v28). But the apostles replied, ‘We must obey God rather men!’ (v29). Clearly there are times when the demands of the ‘authorities’ clash with what is right!
The Roman authorities persecuted the early church and they tried to silence the apostle John by imprisoning him on the island of Patmos. But he refused to be silenced and on that island he wrote the book of Revelation.
Throughout the centuries many Christians (who would have been aware of Romans 13!) dared to defy the mandates of the ruling powers and suffered the consequences! The following are just a few examples.
In the 2nd century Christians refused the edicts of the rulers by continuing to worship and evangelise and consequently a great many of them, because of their disobedience, were savagely executed.
One such martyr was Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna. At age 86 he was arrested and sentenced to death by burning at a stake. All he needed to do to save his life was to submit to what the state required – burn a pinch of incense to Caesar’s statue and declare, ‘Caesar is Lord.’ Polycarp defied the authorities by refusing to do that and was executed.
In England in the 14th century when the authority of the church was dominant – and often wrongly exercised – the theologian and translator John Wycliffe wrote essays on the subject of divine and civil dominion. He argued that men exercised ‘dominion’ (that is ‘authority’) directly from God and that while they were in a state of mortal sin, their dominion was in appearance only. Pope Gregory XI called for his arrest! Wycliffe continued to work on a translation of the Bible from Latin into English so that scriptures would be more available to the general public. His writings were condemned by a church synod in London 1382. He died in 1384 but so strongly held were the attitudes of the church leaders against him that in 1415 his writings were banned and his body was removed from his grave and burned and his ashes were cast into a river.
In 1526 William Tyndale was burned at the stake for defying the authorities by disobediently translating the New Testament from Greek into English.
During the late 18th and early 19th centuries William Wilberforce and a group of evangelical Christians (who were later named the ‘Clapham Sect’) did not submit to the government policies of their day but rather vigorously challenged the ruling authorities and campaigned for the abolition of slavery, prison reform, improvement in the care of the mentally ill, the abolition of the practice of using young boys to climb up chimneys to clean them, improvement of working conditions for factory workers, improved methods in education, and many other things besides.
When Adolf Hitler began to exercise his authority in Germany, at first his policies were beneficial for the people and consequently he received their support. And when his plans for self-aggrandisement led to dictatorship, the people largely continued to support him, trusting that his plans were for their good. As a consequence of that support 6 million Jews died! How ludicrous it would have been if Christians in Germany had quoted Romans 13 as an excuse for non-resistance.
One man however did resist Hitler’s schemes – pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer – and for that act of ‘civil disobedience’ of denouncing Hitler and Nazism, he was arrested, incarcerated in a concentration camp and then executed. His was a courageous and godly resistance.
Throughout the world today thousands of Christians are being slaughtered in many countries for defying the ruling authorities by refusing to surrender their faith in Jesus Christ!
A holy and righteous God would never affirm the wrong and corrupt actions and policies of leaders whom he has permitted to rise to civil power – though he may allow them and, at times, use them in furthering his purposes.
What does ‘submit’ mean?
When Paul wrote ‘Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities’ (Romans 13:1), he used the Greek word huptopasso. Translated here as ‘submit’ it is used 40 times in the New Testament. It was originally a military word which referred to ‘troops being arranged in order under a military leader’ and it was expanded to express a broad range of meanings which included ‘surrender to a dominant power’ and ‘voluntary co-operation with others.’ (Paul used it in this sense in Ephesians 5:21, ‘Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.’)
- Paul also wrote ‘Keeping God’s commands is what counts. … You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men’ (1 Corinthians 7:19, 23).
John Calvin, the 16th century Reformer, commented ‘… we were redeemed by Christ at the great price which our redemption cost him, in order that we might not yield a slavish obedience to the depraved wishes of men, far less do homage to their impiety’ (Institutes, Chapter 20 para. 32).
The challenge of righteousness
In Proverbs 14:34 we read, ‘Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin condemns any people.’
- The Hebrew word for ‘righteousness’ refers to justice and morality. ‘Righteousness’ may be defined as ‘doing the right thing.’
- Passivity is not righteous!
- Merely quoting ‘convenient’ verses to hide behind and to let us off the hook of personal social responsibility, is not righteous!
Someone has perceptively commented, ‘Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.’
There comes a time when God’s people must have the courage to draw a line and say, ‘I stand for righteousness.’
Dr Jim McClure, author of several books such as the enlightening Grace Revisited and Bible study series, welcomes questions from Christians seeking enlightenment on biblical perspectives.
Grace Revisited is highly recommended – as are Looking for Answers in a Confusing World, Overview of the Old and New Testaments, Love, Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage, The Masonic Deception, Word of Life in the Old and New Testaments and Interpreting the Letter of James. All are available in electronic version in EPUB, Kindle and PDF formats with hyperlinks and offered free. Link for orders and questions: firstname.lastname@example.org