There is one Bible verse that every unbeliever knows – “judge not, lest ye be judged” (Matthew 7:1 KJV). You have probably heard it shouted at you when you stepped on someone’s ethical toes. But every discerning believer knows that this verse is not meant to be taken as an absolute, or as a solution for every problem. It has its proper use, and it can also be abused. With this verse, for example, Jesus goes on to clarify that we are to judge soberly, dealing with our own sins first, and not to judge others hypocritically or foolishly.
Today we hear less abuses of “Judge not”, but plenty with regard to Romans 13:1-7. A cursory reading of Romans 13:1-7 tells us a few basic truths regarding the Christian and the government. First, we are told to be subject to the governing authorities as a general rule. Second, we are told that governments are instituted by God, and are therefore a lawful authority. Third, we are told what the civil government is for: it is to be God’s arm of justice in the world, appointed for punishing evil and rewarding good. So far, so good.
I understand how this passage feels like a silver bullet to those who would argue that we must obey the government’s recently imposed regulations on churches, families, and individual freedoms. It seems like the perfect hammer to hit a bunch of nails with. But like “judge not, lest ye be judged”, that is a way to abuse this text.
If you think for a moment about possible exceptions or nuance to this command, you will probably have a few things come to mind. First perhaps is the logical question, “what if the government commands me to sin?” Hopefully, you can see without too much wringing of your hands that this is a reasonable exception. Why is it reasonable? Because God himself is our highest authority, and his law is to be obeyed over any man-made laws. You shouldn’t need to do an in depth Bible study to know this to be true. This is written on your heart.
Next you might ask the reverse of the first question: “what if the government forbids me from doing good”? This question is less obvious than the first but it is no less reasonable and biblically based. God doesn’t only command us not to do things, he commands us to do things as well. Should we stop praying because the government forbids it? Daniel would say no! King Darius signed a law saying that very thing. “When Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem. He got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously” (Daniel 6:10). Daniel didn’t miss a beat. The government said, “stop praying!” and Daniel said, “watch me”.
Is prayer commanded in Scripture? Yes (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Is fellowship commanded in Scripture? Yes (Hebrews 3:13). Is corporate worship commanded in Scripture? Yes (Hebrews 10:25). Is greeting one another warmly and with a smile on your unmasked face commanded in Scripture? Well would you look at that, why yes it is. I mean how else could you give someone a holy kiss? (Romans 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Thess. 5:26).
The more we think about this, the more it becomes abundantly clear that there are limits on the government’s authority. Peter and the Apostles knew this. We must obey God, rather than men they said (Acts 5:29). They didn’t stop preaching just because the authorities told them to. After the Angel broke Peter out of jail, Peter didn’t submit to the government and turn himself in (Acts 12:6-11). Or Paul, the very author of Romans 13, had his friends lower him out of a window to avoid arrest (Acts 9:25).
Christians are good citizens, but we are dangerous to tyranny. The Thessalonians knew it when they said of Paul and the brothers, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus” (Acts 17:6-7). These charges were true! They were saying treasonous things about Jesus being Lord, not Caesar. The authorities were not pleased with this (17:8). They even gave Jason a fine for hosting a super-spreader event (17:9)!
We need to remember that the early church was not persecuted for their worship of Jesus directly; they were persecuted because they would not give even a little bit of worship to Caesar. They would not cede to the state authority that belonged to God. “Just give a little pinch of incense to Caesar, just say that he is Lord”. The Christian wouldn’t do it.
But there is one more point worth mentioning. And that is regarding the role of government described in Romans 13. God himself tells us what government is for. Civil government is God’s servant to reward the righteous and punish the evildoer. So what do we do when the state breaks these bounds and meddles in other affairs? Do we accept government overreach? Are we obligated to obey the civil government when they branch out and take on other spheres of authority? Just think about mandatory vaccines or mandatory masks or mandatory social distancing. Surely this is not the government’s role according to Romans 13. But these aren’t obvious and direct gospel issues either. Some Christian leaders insist that we need to obey these man-made laws because of Romans 13; yet these authorities are in defiance of Romans 13 in making these laws. And often these laws are in direct contradiction to the highest laws of the land, be that the Constitution or the Charter. I would suggest that these unjust and arbitrary laws need to be disobeyed, because of Romans 13.
Christians in history have understood these things. Take Augustine for example, who said, "an unjust law is no law at all". Or John Knox who boldly declared, “Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God”. When the government is trying to usurp the role of God, and defining for themselves what is good and evil, they have ceased to be a lawful authority.
I would suggest to you that this is not a time for Christians to submit and to comply. This is a time for Christians to lead the way in declaring to the world that Jesus is Lord, and not Caesar. We need to stand firm and obey God rather than men. We are Daniel, commanded not to pray. We are Peter, commanded not to preach. We are Paul, commanded to stop disturbing the peace. We must not obey. Now is the time for civil disobedience.