Wecome to Logia, the personal blog of Paul Hartwig. Reflections and resources to enhance understanding of what God has revealed of himself in Scripture.
A Biblical Case for Civil Disobedience & the Right Use of Romans 13, Part 5, by Tim Cantrell
G.K. Chesterton once made this astute observation:
It is only by believing in God that we can ever criticize the government. Once abolish God, and the government becomes the God.… Wherever the people do not believe in something beyond the world, they will worship the world. But, above all, they will worship the strongest thing in the world.
At present here in South Africa, we are under an indefinite ban on all worship services of any size or location. Yet Scripture commands us not to forsake “our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near” (Heb. 10:24-25). What then must the Christian do?
In this series, we are looking at two biblical reasons for Christian civil disobedience when earthly authorities clash with our highest allegiance to heavenly authority:
(1) Christians May Disobey Because of the Three God-ordained spheres of Authority (family, church, and state).
(2) Christians May Disobey Because of a Right Use of Romans 13.
We’re answering five key questions of Romans 13, the first two of which were answered in Part 4 previously: (a) Who is writing this text?; (b) When was Paul writing? Now let’s tackle the remaining three questions:
(c) To whom will all rulers give an account?
Look back at our text and count how many times the name of God appears. Six times it is emphasized that God is the one who establishes governments and uses them as His servants. Every last ruler and cop will answer to the Almighty. No human authorities are ever absolute, no matter how powerful or terrifying. Ask Nebuchadnezzar what happened when he forgot that, and had to learn about God’s supremacy the hard way! (Dan. 4). As the saying goes, ‘Rulers who don’t fear God will try to be God.’
John Gill comments on Romans 13:2, which seems to forbid any resistance to government:
This is not to be understood, as if magistrates were above the laws, and had a lawless power to do as they will without opposition; for they are under the law, and liable to the penalty of it, in case of disobedience, as others; and when they make their own will a law, or exercise a lawless tyrannical power, in defiance of the laws of God, and of the land, to the endangering of the lives, liberties, and properties of subjects, they may be resisted (1 Sam. 14:45). But Romans 13 prohibits resisting magistrates in the right discharge of their office.
(d) Why has God appointed them to govern?
Notice again, just as we saw (Part 3) in 1 Peter 2:14, so also in Romans 13, the text itself contains clear limitation clauses showing the God-ordained boundaries around the government’s sphere of authority: “For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behaviour; but for evil…a minister of God for your good…an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil” (vv. 3-4; cf. Ps. 101:8; Prov. 20:8; 29:4). Yes, these are descriptive clauses, not conditional ones; but still they put boundaries upon government authority. (Answering to what extent we submit to abusive authorities is not an easy question, nor the purpose of Paul’s teaching in Romans 13:1-7; but this blog series seeks at least to establish some biblical principles as a starting point for the discussion.)
God calls government to a focused, limited role of mainly criminal justice and protection of human rights, not universal parenting in a nanny state. As a friend of mine recently said, “When law-abiding citizens are more afraid of the police than criminals are, government is outside of its God-given role.”
As Francis Schaeffer said in applying Romans 13:
The State is to be an agent of justice, to restrain evil by punishing wrongdoers, and to protect the good in society. When the State does the reverse, it has no proper authority. It is then a usurped authority and as such it becomes lawless and is tyranny.
As pastor Tom Buck sums up well the biblical limitations of government’s role:
…The government is not responsible to ensure that everyone avoids death as long as possible. The government does not have the right to outlaw pizza, because consuming too much pizza might clog your arteries and result in a heart attack. Or to regulate how much sugar a citizen eats to make sure no one dies from diabetes. Eating too much pizza or drinking too much soda do not infringe upon another person’s rights, and so the government should not meddle in these types of actions.
The government only has the authority to make laws that incentivize obedience to God’s commands and criminalize disobedience to God’s commands within society. …The government does not have the authority to close the church in the name of protecting life – that’s not their job. Government has been established by God to protect rights, not to prevent all illness and death.
Or as David deBruyn stated in a recent sermon:
…The most dangerous governments are those who think of themselves as pure and righteous, because they see their acts as for the greater good, and are blind to the pain they produce. To be more specific, the more the government takes on the role of omni-protector, the more freedoms will be crushed and extinguished. Modern governments are a far cry from what the Bible charges governments to do: which is simply maintain order by punishing crime or threats to life. That's the biblical role of government as seen in Romans 13.
(e) Who defines “good” and “evil”?
Look again at Romans 13:3-4: Three times Paul speaks of “the good”, and three times he speaks of “the evil”. But who defines and who decides what is “good” or “evil”? Secular society today defines morality by political correctness, the LGBTQ agenda and censorship of all ‘hate speech’, and by all that is pro-abortion and anti-marriage. In communist countries, “good” is atheism, racism, worship of the state, rejection of all private property, and resulting genocide; “evil” is any opposition to the state or political treason.
But that cannot be how God defines morality in Romans 13 or anywhere in His holy Word and His perfect Law. In the very next verses (vv. 8-10), Paul proceeds to show that God’s absolute and objective Law defines our ethics, not any man-made subjective or situational standards. From the Garden of Eden, to Mount Sinai, to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, God has made clear that His character and Law are the fixed, universal standard for “good” and “evil” (Exod. 20; Lev. 19; Micah 6:8; Matt. 5:17-20).
Therefore, rulers don’t create morality; they must conform to it. Rulers don’t define good and evil; their job is to reward the good and punish the evil, based on God’s standards. As John Knox states, “Kings have not an absolute power in their regiment to do what pleases them; but their power is limited by God’s Word. …Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God.”
But of course pagan governments often disregard the divine standard, though God’s Law is still inscribed on their hearts and written on their consciences (Rom. 2:14-15). So we submit wherever possible and keep paying our taxes (Rom. 13:6-7); but we are watchful for any infringement on our first allegiance and highest duty of obedience to God’s Law. As the famous Magdeburg Confession states, “divine laws necessarily trump human ones”.
There is not one verse in all of Scripture that says you are never allowed to disobey the government. Let me illustrate: Wives are mandated to submit and “be subject to their husbands in everything”, which sounds like absolute language (Eph. 5:22-24). Yet that cannot include obeying a husband who instructs his wife to break God’s Law (e.g., be immoral, cheat on taxes, abort a baby, etc.). Children are commanded to “be obedient to your parents in all things”, which sounds unconditional (Col. 3:20). Yet that cannot include submitting when dad asks his son to commit a crime or to sin, or when mom asks her daughter to steal or lie. What Scripture teaches is that we always obey government “in the rightful exercise of their authority”.
Whenever a human authority (in home, church or state) asks you to disobey God, at that point their authority is null and void. Likewise, Romans 13 presupposes an authority that is functioning justly, not requiring us to disobey the Word of God in any way. Writes John Calvin, “For earthly princes lay aside their power when they rise up against God, and are unworthy to be reckoned among the number of mankind.”
In closing, Scripture makes clear that submission to authority is not agreement. We submit “for the Lord’s sake” to every human institution, no matter our opinion or preference. Any time a legitimate authority gives a lawful command, like it or not, we must trust God and submit, no matter how irrational or unreasonable it seems.
But whenever we are commanded by an illegitimate authority (out of their biblical sphere) or an unlawful command (against the Law of God), we “must obey God rather than man” (Acts 5:29). Biblical civil disobedience is required anytime we are commanded to do what God forbids (e.g., Exod. 1; Dan. 3, etc.), or told not to do what God requires (Dan 6; Acts 4-5).
The heart of a Christian is not for maximum obedience to the state and minimum obedience to Christ. Especially in the church sphere, our Lord has given us New Testament epistles packed with dozens of “one another” commands and principles for our church life, and our highest priority is to study and obey those divine regulations to please Christ our Lord and King, our Head, Shepherd and Ruler of His Church, whose glad slaves we are, who bought us with His own blood.
We dare not have a view of near-absolute submission to the State that effectively rules out any underground church, leaving only the registered churches that meet Caesar’s approval and boast of their full compliance.
David deBruyn drives this home to our present situation here in South Africa:
…The difficulty we are going to face in the coming months, and maybe even years, is that as wave after wave of the virus comes our way, the government may keep banning religious gatherings.…We cannot live through another year where we are tossed to and fro by every announcement coming from Pretoria. At least one thing needs to remain certain in our lives, and that is our covenant with Christ and His people. We need the rock solid pillar of the church, the pillar and ground of the truth, not the shifting sands of whatever happens with Covid-19.
 See my sermon here explaining this further, “Why We Gather”: https://youtu.be/8u8e7Z0FNvQ
 https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/gills-exposition-of-the-bible/romans-13/; Cf. D. Moo, “all our subordinate ‘submissions’ must always be measured in relationship to our all-embracing submission to him. …Our own sad experience of situations like the Holocaust during WWII suggest that genuine Christian devotion to God must sometimes require disobedience of the government. …Clearly, a willingness to resist the demands of secular rulers, when those conflict with the demand of the God we serve, is part of the ‘transformation of life’ which Paul speaks about in Rom. 12-15. …we should refuse to give to government any absolute rights and should evaluate all its demands in the light of the gospel.” (pp. 797, 806-10, Romans, NICNT) Cf. Schreiner on Rom. 13, “This text is misunderstood if it is taken out of context and used as an absolute word so that Christians uncritically comply with the state no matter what….” (p. 687, Romans, BECNT).
 p. 90, A Christian Manifesto
 p. 372 in M. Cassidy, The Passing Summer
 p. 146, J. Murray, Epistle to the Romans (NICNT); he continues, “we are compelled to take account of exceptions to the absolute terms in which an obligation is affirmed (e.g., Acts 4-5)” (p. 149).
 Commentary on Daniel Lecture XXX, Daniel 6:32
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