Question: What is the appropriate degree of Christian obedience to government? Is a Christian under any obligation to support whatever policies the governing authorities deem appropriate?
Answer: Well, it depends …
Certainly, I believe the answer is not to “be a good Christian,” “keep your head down,” or “turn the other cheek” while sheepishly obeying the powers that be without thinking for yourself and considering what you’re obeying first. Governing authorities are not composed of divine supreme beings, but fellow humans—hence, such authorities and the rules they create are inevitably flawed. Let us all not forget that “civilized” society has, for example, used centralized control and the law to enslave millions and deny their natural rights of personhood (American slavery), execute innocents (infanticide ordered by Herod in Judea during the time of Christ), and justify the killing of guiltless civilians based on fallacious religious reasons (the Holocaust).
On the other hand, order is, in fact, a good thing.
Would you rather have everyone do what they want at an intersection or follow a comprehensive and timed lighting system to allow every car to pass? Would you prefer to board a plane with everyone all at once, with no seat assignments, or engage in a more methodical process?
Probably the most well known verse dealing with the issue at hand is described in both Matthew (22:17–21) and Mark (12:13–17). The verses from Mark are as follows (NIV):
13 Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. 14 They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? 15 Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”
But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” 16 They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
17 Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
And they were amazed at him.
The italics are my own, and the famous phrase is also translated “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.” The denarius would be equivalent to a penny today.
I’ve already talked about the irony of allegiance to Rome in a prior post, but let’s analyze this a step further: an earthly coin is made in a man’s image, so we all must render unto that man things made in his image. But who made Caesar in the first place? In whose image was he created? Do we not, then, owe all of our true and total “rendering” to the Creator who created the man, who then created the coin?
My point is not to ignore or to disdain civil authorities, but we must all recognize where our true allegiance lies. Secular institutions are simply imperfect and inadequate constructs in an attempt to create true, genuine, moral and just order.
The apostle Paul, in Romans 13:1–7, tackles the issue of submission to governing authorities directly:
1 Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
What do these verses mean? Basically, that it is the duty of a Christian not to disregard civil authorities. Note, however, that the described government(s) represents an ideal or what leadership ought to be. Any adult is able to think of politicians, institutions, or bureaucrats who knowingly do what is wrong and actually hold terror for those who do right.
Additionally, if an authority is meant to be God’s servant but instead seeks the citizen to worship it instead of God, then it has committed one of the most dangerous sins imaginable—vanity and self-worship. This kind of authority deserves destruction and the withdrawal of consent by its followers. Further, any institution that attempts to coerce or persuade individuals that it may claim divine prerogatives is also not what Paul speaks of—it cannot define right and wrong, it cannot be the final judge of people, it cannot define life and those who are worthy of grace, and it cannot measure the character of a man or define a human’s worth. In fact, it was God who created man in His own image, and then man created government. The creation of a creation is in no way greater than the Creator.
There are many in this world that attempt to do “good” via public programs with the intent of accomplishing some form of societal benefit. The danger here is that many assume themselves to be morally justified, thus giving themselves the ultimate power to accomplish their ends regardless of the consent of the recipients. This is, in fact, not biblical, but instead a form of self-idolatry to enact one’s own tyrannical ideology without ceasing until the entire world is molded in their image. Civil authority is often used as the vehicle to accomplish these ends. Whether you want everyone to engage (or not) in a particular behavior, or to impose Sharia law, both amount to the same thing (coercion and involuntary consent) and are blatantly wrong. Free and voluntary decision making should be the name of the game.
If nothing else, the Christian’s walk on earth is never present-focused, but future-focused on God’s ultimate redemption for the faithful. It is an end that will inevitably happen later and cannot occur on earth, so any attempt to “make perfect” now “for their own good” (paternalism) is an idea saturated in self-righteousness. As Paul says in Romans 13:9–10 (NIV), “Whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”
Despotism (Lenin, the pharaohs), abuse of power (Hitler, Nebuchadnezzar), deadlock (partisanship), bickering (campaigning), warmongering (USA), deception (WMDs), immorality (Monica Lewinsky), lies (politics), and secularism (state-sanctioned religion) are all the telltale signs of a nonordained administration.
What other models exist in scripture that actually support some form of organized authority? In the Creation, God brought forth and created order from chaos (Gen. 1:1–2), and that structured reality was deemed to be good. We are to respect said order. Further, “freedom” does not mean complete freedom from the law—just as Christ died to free us from sin and Mosaic law, we were not subsequently free to do as we please but adhere to a life saturated in faith by the gift of grace; just as God freed Israel from Egyptian bondage, the congregation then carried the expectation that they would separate themselves from secular society by adhering to a new set of rules. Human sin leads to disorder, and the genuine goodness of God leads to organizations sorting out that disarray. In essence, God equals order (1 Cor. 14:33).
In summary, it is a Christian’s duty to obey civil authority, but this must be done in the context of obedience to God first. Blind obedience to government is blatantly wrong, and walking in the ways of Christ is more far-reaching than any commitment toward secular authority.
Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal