Two biblical reasons to obey government (and one reason not to)

Some Christians may find it hard to believe, but Paul’s radicalism is most beautifully displayed in one of the least quoted passages in the Bible. The first four verses of chapter 13 of the Letter to the Romans have been the subject of theological debates for centuries, and continue to be discussed today.

This excerpt demonstrates Paul’s radical views at their best, and I believe it to be one of the most critical passages in the Bible. In these four verses of chapter 13, Paul discusses the state’s function and the responsibility of Christians towards it with precision and subtlety.

As a Christian, how should one view the government? Is it an object of love or hate, admiration or disdain? What was Paul’s reason for writing those verses? Does he imply that Christians should mindlessly obey the government without question, like sheep? Or does he have a more profound message to convey?

To fully appreciate Paul’s radicalism and his message about the responsibility of Christians to submit to earthly authorities, it’s essential to approach the text with a level-headed and mindful perspective, considering all the potential implications, which can be radical at times.

1. Maintain order

Paul begins in no uncertain terms by instructing Christians to “be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1, MEV). He sets clear guidelines from the outset, leaving no room for ambiguity. Simply put, Christians are to obey the authorities. It’s a straightforward directive, perhaps even overly so.

One might question the reason behind Paul’s instruction. After all, he knew rulers could be wicked, unjust, malicious, and corrupt, having lived under the tyrannical Emperor Nero himself. However, Paul still gave this instruction.

Illustration of the Roman Emperor Nero Fæ / Wikimedia

And there is a significant reason behind it: God values order. Heaven, where God’s throne resides, is a place of complete order. Therefore, if orderliness is highly valued in Heaven, it must be even more crucial on Earth. Also, Christ stated that his Father’s will should be done on Earth, as in Heaven.

Standing up for Christ and his righteousness is crucial, but it’s equally important to do so with integrity and respect for those in positions of higher authority.

To achieve peace and tranquility within every country, city and community, it is imperative to have a governing body that establishes and maintains order. Regardless of personal opinions regarding the government and its responsibilities, it is evident that peace and tranquility cannot exist without structure and regulation.

In every aspect of life, whether government, work, school or home, a hierarchy of authority is divinely ordained. Maintaining order is crucial, and that is why these authorities are necessary. As a result, Christians need to submit themselves to every authority they find themselves under, especially the governing authorities.

If Christians behave rebelliously, show disorderliness, act unruly, and exhibit maliciousness, wickedness and spitefulness towards governing authorities, Paul says that they “will incur judgement”.

Government judge

Paul’s argument holds great significance as he states that rulers “are not a terror to good works but evil works”. This underscores how a Christian should behave and react toward governing authorities. Standing up for Christ and his righteousness is crucial, but it’s equally important to do so with integrity and respect for those in positions of higher authority.

2. Behave like Christ

Christians are called to emulate Christ’s behaviour, which was always righteous and kind. Although Christ often challenged the authority of the Scribes and Pharisees, he did so with courage and humility, never resorting to spiteful or malicious behavior. His conduct was characterised by love, humility, calmness and fairness.

Every Christian must conduct themselves in a way that reflects honour towards God, especially when standing up for their personal beliefs. They should avoid defiance and insolence towards governing authorities, as it may “incur judgement”.

As highlighted in 1 Peter 2: 22-23, Christ did not sin and did not deceive anyone. Even when he was reviled, he did not revile back. When he suffered, he did not threaten, but instead trusted in the righteous judgement of God. Therefore, Christians should strive to imitate Christ’s behaviour.

3. Do what is good and godly

Paul goes on to ask an interesting question: “Do you wish to have no fear of authority?” This is fascinating for a multitude of reasons. Though Paul seems to instruct Christians to be mindlessly obedient toward governing authorities in the first verses, he suddenly asks such a perplexing question, which makes it clear that he never intended for Christians to be mindlessly obedient.

Furthermore, Paul also establishes the foundation upon which every governing authority shall be built. These are called the principles of justice. The first principle is found at the end of verse 3. Paul says, “Do what is good, and you will have praise from him,” thus establishing the principle of reward. And, in verse 4, Paul goes on to say, “if you do what is evil, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain,” establishing the principle of punishment.

Should Christians find themselves in a situation where they must disobey an unjust law, by doing what is good, they need to follow the peaceful example of Christ and be prepared to accept lovingly any repercussions that may result.

Doing what is good, what is godly, will inevitably go against some governing authorities’ laws and regulations, so Paul knows exactly where he aims. He knows that doing good may not be to the liking of governing authorities, and yet he makes it clear that Christians should “Do what is good.”

Thus, should Christians find themselves in a situation where they must disobey an unjust law, by doing what is good, they need to follow the peaceful example of Christ and be prepared to accept lovingly any repercussions that may result.

The tools any Christian has when taking a stand against unjust laws and governing authorities, among many, are refusing peacefully to comply, filing a verbal or written complaint, writing a letter to a higher-up authority, getting a lawyer, or staging a peaceful protest or strike.

While doing this, the Christian must not be guilty of quarreling, spitefulness, maliciousness or anything condemned by the Scriptures as sinful. Though they may suffer consequences for this good behaviour, their conduct must be like Christ’s. As mentioned, every Christian should be peaceful and not be guilty of willful and rebellious conduct against governing authorities.

Government building

A word of warning to authorities

In addition to establishing the principles of justice, Paul also specifies the responsibility of a government towards its citizens, particularly the Christian individual, whom they must serve as God’s representatives on earth.

Just as God will one day judge and punish those who have done evil and reward those who have done good, so too governing authorities must reward those who do good and punish those who do evil. In principle, laws and regulations should be built on the two principles of justice.

Everyone is and should be innocent until proven guilty. The governing authorities cannot, and should not, make themselves guilty of injustice. That goes against their duty, as they are servants of God on earth. If they do the opposite of what they are supposed to do, that is, if they punish the innocent and reward the evildoer, they will “incur judgement” from God.

Regardless of whether governing authorities uphold their responsibility as representatives of God and administer true justice, Christians are still called to emulate Christ’s conduct and live in a manner that glorifies God in all aspects of life. Their actions and words must serve as examples to their non-Christian neighbours, which holds the most tremendous significance.

Marius Bagu is a freelance writer, and the author of Bold Christianity.

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