Romans 13:1-7 says to obey the law of the government because the institution of government is God’s, however, does that apply absolutely? Some say Christians must abide by the government no matter what even when it goes against God’s word. Paul, the same guy that wrote Romans 13:1-7 spent a lot of time in prison. He was never arrested for stealing, adultery, or murder, but he was involved in civil disobedience when the leaders challenged his right to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. If the government restricts believers’ right to teach the gospel like Jesus said (Matt 28:18-20) then believers should choose civil disobedience for the kingdom of God. This action is peaceful and done out of love.
Romans 13:1 (NLT) Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God. 2 So anyone who rebels against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and they will be punished. 3 For the authorities do not strike fear in people who are doing right, but in those who are doing wrong. Would you like to live without fear of the authorities? Do what is right, and they will honor you. 4 The authorities are God’s servants, sent for your good. But if you are doing wrong, of course you should be afraid, for they have the power to punish you. They are God’s servants, sent for the very purpose of punishing those who do what is wrong. 5 So you must submit to them, not only to avoid punishment, but also to keep a clear conscience. 6 Pay your taxes, too, for these same reasons. For government workers need to be paid. They are serving God in what they do. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: Pay your taxes and government fees to those who collect them, and give respect and honor to those who are in authority.
Romans 13:1-7 says that followers of Christ are to be respectful to others including government officials. In 1 Tim 2:1-8, Paul says to pray for government officials to uphold righteous standards also that citizens can live quiet and peaceable lives in godliness and honesty. Paul’s words in Romans 13 are about doing civic duties like paying taxes and representing the kingdom by being morally correct citizens, not blindly promoting wickedness promoted by the government. Even Jesus paid his taxes (Matt 17:24-27, Matt 22:15-22) because civil workers must be paid for building roads, emergency services, criminal justice, etc. This doesn’t mean Christians have to worship false gods or promote sexual sin if the law pushes these things. In Romans 13:8-10, Paul even clarifies that he is talking about some of the human moral laws found in the 10 commandments which were upheld by even ancient pagan governments (like Rome). These included laws against things like murder, stealing, and adultery.
Rom 13:12 “The night is almost gone; the day of salvation will soon be here. So remove your dark deeds like dirty clothes, and put on the shining armor of right living. 13 Because we belong to the day, we must live decent lives for all to see. Don’t participate in the darkness of wild parties and drunkenness, or in sexual promiscuity and immoral living, or in quarreling and jealousy. 14 Instead, clothe yourself with the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. And don’t let yourself think about ways to indulge your evil desires.”
This whole chapter in general is about moral laws, similarly, Paul speaks about such things in Romans 1:28-32 as well as in his other writings (Ep 4:17-32, Gal 5:19-21, 1 Tim 1:8-11) and so does Peter (1 Peter 4:14-15). Some laws are secular and can be upheld by governmental forces like laws against stealing and murder. However, the government has no power or place to uphold laws against spiritual actions because there is no natural rule that governs these things. For example, the government can’t legitimately prosecute someone for exorcising a demon because there is no naturalistic basis for judging a case like that. In Acts 16:16-40, Paul and Silas were put in prison for casting a demon out of a medium. The woman was a slave and her owners made money from her divination abilities, but when the demon left her abilities left as well, so they had Paul and Silas imprisoned. That night, God caused an earthquake and broke them out of prison, and they even minister to the prison warden and his family. Later the local government officials apologized when they heard what happened at the prison. The government cannot enforce or restrict spiritual actions like prayer because we can’t legislate what someone believes in their heart. Belief is not something a person can even force on themselves, they must be convinced of something in order to believe it. Governments around the world that are biased against Christians often use laws against proselytization to persecute Christians for evangelizing, in addition to anti-blasphemy, and anti-apostasy laws to persecute people who convert to Christianity from the majority religion. In some places where anti-christian nationalists have control, Bibles are even considered contraband, and Christian gatherings are illegal. When Christians have to choose between God and the law, they should choose God (Luke 12:4-5).
An important side note for nations that have Christian majorities. The church is not commanded to force non-believers to adopt faith in Christ (1 Cor 5:12-13). Think of the historical witch trials, which were contrary to God’s system of justice, since the bible says that can’t be punished for offenses that either can’t be proven or weren’t witnessed by at least two to three people (Deut 17:6). Witchcraft was never proven in many of those cases, and many people were killed based on slanderous lies. Even if it was proven, in the new covenant Christ died for our sins, so no one needs to be executed for sin unless they are a direct danger to others, Paul didn’t kill the medium he exorcised her. Excommunication from the church is the only punishment in the new covenant. Even though anti-Christ governments do this, Christians cannot do the same. Punishing people for unprovable offenses is a direct violation of the Torah’s rule about having witnesses to each crime. In the modern era, we have forensic science to give us a new kind of witness through physical evidence. In addition to the vast array of recording technologies and mobile devices that make it easier to catch people in the act of something that doesn’t leave behind physical evidence. Any laws made by Christians must be fair and justly executed with no bias or favoritism, with equal allowance for mercy. The church’s job is to share the gospel (good news), no one can be forced to believe it since we can’t threaten people with good news. More info on this idea can be read here.
The Bible never tells Christians to demand the government enforce Christianity because Satan can manipulate leaders and corrupt the faith through secular/pagan systems. Instead, we are here to share the gospel with individual people so they can receive the holy spirit and expect a future resurrection to eternal life. When the Romans adopted Christianity, it was a modified anti-Semitic version that involved Roman pagan practices, so it contradicted the bible. Christians are to stand for biblical values and live by example not threatening people. If they live in a democratic government that allows them to vote on the direction of the country, then Christians should support the biblical causes with their votes. However, if that vote goes the other way, Christians must fight on a spiritual level by sharing God’s word and changing minds, not persecuting people that don’t agree. Christian majorities shouldn’t manipulate any government to make prejudiced laws, they must lead and teach the unbelievers by example. Christian minorities often live under governments that make discriminatory laws against them and must stand in faith against the spiritual darkness in their community. If Christ’s way is right, then it will expose the truth through love.
If anti-Christ governments restrict Christians from practicing God’s teachings then they have a right to civil disobedience in order to follow God’s instructions. Believers don’t have to obey sinful decrees or limit their faith in the face of a persecuting government. Christians were persecuted by the Romans and Jews in the 1st century, so there was no directive in the Bible to submit to government enforcement of laws that contradict God’s instructions.
Ex: The Jewish leaders in Acts 4 told Peter and James to stop preaching Jesus, after healing a man in the name of Jesus in front of everyone.
Acts 4:13 The members of the council were amazed when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, for they could see that they were ordinary men with no special training in the Scriptures. They also recognized them as men who had been with Jesus. 14 But since they could see the man who had been healed standing right there among them, there was nothing the council could say. 15 So they ordered Peter and John out of the council chamber and conferred among themselves. 16 “What should we do with these men?” they asked each other. “We can’t deny that they have performed a miraculous sign, and everybody in Jerusalem knows about it. 17 But to keep them from spreading their propaganda any further, we must warn them not to speak to anyone in Jesus’ name again.” 18 So they called the apostles back in and commanded them never again to speak or teach in the name of Jesus. 19 But Peter and John replied, “Do you think God wants us to obey you rather than him? 20 We cannot stop telling about everything we have seen and heard.” 21 The council then threatened them further, but they finally let them go because they didn’t know how to punish them without starting a riot. For everyone was praising God 22 for this miraculous sign—the healing of a man who had been lame for more than forty years.
Even though it was proven that God was healing through these men who followed Jesus, the Jewish leaders attacked them for following the directive given to them by God through Jesus himself. God’s directive is greater than secular laws. Paul often went to prison because of slanderous accusations by Jewish zealots or Gentile businessmen (usually idol makers) who had him arrested because the gospel offended them or hurt their business. In Acts 19:23-41 a silversmith named Demetrius starts a riot because Christians were preaching that idolatry is worthless, which hurt his idol-making business. The riot was shut down by the government because this was a religious issue for which no one could be prosecuted. Similarly, the Jews brought Paul before multi governors of Rome to have him punished for spreading the gospel, but they too ultimately threw the case out (Acts 18:1-17) or passed it on (Acts ch. 23-25).
Threw out the case:
Acts 18:7 Then he left and went to the home of Titius Justus, a Gentile who worshiped God and lived next door to the synagogue. 8 Crispus, the leader of the synagogue, and everyone in his household believed in the Lord. Many others in Corinth also heard Paul, became believers, and were baptized. 9 One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision and told him, “Don’t be afraid! Speak out! Don’t be silent! 10 For I am with you, and no one will attack and harm you, for many people in this city belong to me.” 11 So Paul stayed there for the next year and a half, teaching the word of God.12 But when Gallio became governor of Achaia, some Jews rose up together against Paul and brought him before the governor for judgment. 13 They accused Paul of “persuading people to worship God in ways that are contrary to our law.” 14 But just as Paul started to make his defense, Gallio turned to Paul’s accusers and said, “Listen, you Jews, if this were a case involving some wrongdoing or a serious crime, I would have a reason to accept your case. 15 But since it is merely a question of words and names and your Jewish law, take care of it yourselves. I refuse to judge such matters.” 16 And he threw them out of the courtroom. 17 The crowd then grabbed Sosthenes, the leader of the synagogue, and beat him right there in the courtroom. But Gallio paid no attention.
Governor Felix passed to Festus:
Acts 24:22 At that point [governor] Felix, who was quite familiar with the Way, adjourned the hearing and said, “Wait until Lysias, the garrison commander, arrives. Then I will decide the case.” 23 He ordered an officer to keep Paul in custody but to give him some freedom and allow his friends to visit him and take care of his needs. 24 A few days later Felix came back with his wife, Drusilla, who was Jewish. Sending for Paul, they listened as he told them about faith in Christ Jesus. 25 As he reasoned with them about righteousness and self-control and the coming day of judgment, Felix became frightened. “Go away for now,” he replied. “When it is more convenient, I’ll call for you again.” 26 He also hoped that Paul would bribe him, so he sent for him quite often and talked with him. 27 After two years went by in this way, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus. And because Felix wanted to gain favor with the Jewish people, he left Paul in prison.
Governor Festus consults King Agrippa:
Acts 25:6 About eight or ten days later Festus returned to Caesarea, and on the following day he took his seat in court and ordered that Paul be brought in. 7 When Paul arrived, the Jewish leaders from Jerusalem gathered around and made many serious accusations they couldn’t prove. 8 Paul denied the charges. “I am not guilty of any crime against the Jewish laws or the Temple or the Roman government,” he said. 9 Then Festus, wanting to please the Jews, asked him, “Are you willing to go to Jerusalem and stand trial before me there?” 10 But Paul replied, “No! This is the official Roman court, so I ought to be tried right here. You know very well I am not guilty of harming the Jews. 11 If I have done something worthy of death, I don’t refuse to die. But if I am innocent, no one has a right to turn me over to these men to kill me. I appeal to Caesar!”
12 Festus conferred with his advisers and then replied, “Very well! You have appealed to Caesar, and to Caesar you will go!”13 A few days later King Agrippa arrived with his sister, Bernice, to pay their respects to Festus. 14 During their stay of several days, Festus discussed Paul’s case with the king. “There is a prisoner here,” he told him, “whose case was left for me by Felix. 15 When I was in Jerusalem, the leading priests and Jewish elders pressed charges against him and asked me to condemn him. 16 I pointed out to them that Roman law does not convict people without a trial. They must be given an opportunity to confront their accusers and defend themselves. 17 “When his accusers came here for the trial, I didn’t delay. I called the case the very next day and ordered Paul brought in. 18 But the accusations made against him weren’t any of the crimes I expected. 19 Instead, it was something about their religion and a dead man named Jesus, who Paul insists is alive. 20 I was at a loss to know how to investigate these things, so I asked him whether he would be willing to stand trial on these charges in Jerusalem. 21 But Paul appealed to have his case decided by the emperor. So I ordered that he be held in custody until I could arrange to send him to Caesar.”
Agrippa and Festus believe he is innocent and will oblige his request to see Caesar:
Acts 26:30 Then the king, the governor, Bernice, and all the others stood and left. 31 As they went out, they talked it over and agreed, “This man hasn’t done anything to deserve death or imprisonment.” 32 And Agrippa said to Festus, “He could have been set free if he hadn’t appealed to Caesar.”
A few more examples:
The book of Philemon speaks to Christians who are slave owners and says that we are to be slaves of Christ and should not be enslaving others but rather sharing the gospel which frees people from being slaves to sin. In the letter to Philemon, Paul appeals to a slave owner named Philemon in Colossae. His former slave, Onesimus, ran away and under Roman fugitive slave law he could be killed but Paul urged Philemon to forgo the law and take him back as a brother in Christ, and no longer a slave. Paul is urging him to follow the Torah’s laws which allowed runaway slaves to go free (Deut 23:15-16) and ignore the Roman fugitive slave laws for the sake of the gospel.
In Roman law of the 1st century, it was illegal for a man or woman not to be married between the ages of 25-60 (for men) and 20-50 (for women). So for the Romans celibacy was a crime, and there were restrictions on those who were celibate, this is one of the many issues that put Christians at odds with the Roman empire. Jesus approves of eunuchs in Matt:19:11-12. Paul was a celibate and even encouraged being celibate in his letter to the Corinthians when talking about marriage (1 Corinthians ch. 7). However he never required it, and even suggested getting married if a person can’t control their sexual desires. He recommends celibacy so that Christians could focus on the work of the Kingdom because single people could focus on the Lord’s work without the distractions of familial obligations (1 Cor 7:8-9). So Paul is encouraging people to reject the marriage laws which required people to get married or be remarried after divorce or widowhood.
Examples from the Old Testament:
In Daniel ch. 3, the Babylonian emperor Nebuchadnezzar made a decree that everyone was to forsake their gods and worship an idol that he created at a certain time of day when music was played. Some Hebrew boys known as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused because it goes against God’s word to do so. They were thrown into a furnace but God rescued them. They didn’t use violence or kill anyone but they were willing to take the death penalty and be martyred in order to keep God’s covenant.
After the fall of Babylon, under the Persian King Darius, something similar happened to Daniel himself in chapter 6 of Daniel. Some government officials that were jealous of Daniel, manipulated the King into making a law that required everyone to forsake their gods and worship the king instead for the next 30 days. They did so knowing Daniel would not break the law of God and worship anyone other than God. They entrapped and arrested him and had him put in the lion’s den. Darius loved Daniel but his hands were tied because it was Persian law. God preserved him the whole night he spent in the lion’s den. Darius was grateful that God rescued Daniel and realized that this was a setup. He had Daniel taken out of the lion’s den and had the wicked advisors thrown in, and they died.
In the book of Esther, there is a similar story of targeted persecution by a government official against the Israelites. This book is about a Jewish woman named Esther who becomes the new wife of King Xerxes but his right-hand man Haman, hated Jews, specifically Mordecai who was secretly Esther’s cousin, and he tricked the king into making a decree to kill all Jews on a certain date. Esther revealed her ethnic identity to the king and foiled the plot and Haman was put to death. Persian laws said that the King could not undo a decree. He instead, gave Jews permission to defend themselves without prosecution if people attacked them on a designated day of extermination and the Jews did so and won against their persecutors.
Governments have been attacking God’s people for many years. Even today some countries in the Middle East, East Asia, and Africa have anti-conversion, anti-proselytization, and anti-apostasy legislation created by nationalists that target people that leave the dominant religion to join another. Civil disobedience is necessary in order to follow God’s word and share the gospel (Matt 28:18-20). Remember, Jesus said to fear God and not men because can destroy the soul (Luke 12:4-5).