Obeying Government

It’s time to be patriotic. July and Independence Day is near. We are Americans and we justly and rightly celebrate the freedoms we have. A question has arisen recently in our country about obeying laws and what the Bible says about obeying. Without comment on the issues that brought about that debate I want to try to answer if the Bible tells us we are to obey every law always no matter what. Here’s what the Bible teaches.

It teaches us that we are to obey governmental authorities. Romans 13:1-7 tells us government is a creation of God and is a minister of God, literally, a deacon of God. It’s purpose is to help keep order by promoting public good and harmony. God established it.  We are to obey it and we are to pay taxes to support it. Government does God’s work.

But always? No. It doesn’t. Romans 13 isn’t everything the Bible says about the relationship of a Christian to secular authority. Sometimes secular authority doesn’t want to serve God but wants to take God’s place. Sometimes it enacts laws that are counter to how God says we are to live. What does a believer do then? If you are Daniel, a Jew living in ancient Persia, what do you do when the government makes it illegal to pray? You pray anyway. If you are a Christian in first century Jerusalem what do you do when the government forbids you to publicly talk about Jesus? You reply, “We must obey God rather than men.” The point is that both in Scripture and in practice we see followers of God refusing to cooperate with certain aspects of what governments decree while still respecting secular authority as a whole. Even Jesus when on trial before the Jewish and Roman authorities refused to answer some questions  he was asked. Jesus resisted.

There is a long history of Christians resisting laws they believe that obeying would mean doing wrong. MLK, Jr. was one. He counseled this, “I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.” How is that true?  Because laws are supposed to enhance freedom, justice, and the flourishing of all. When they do the opposite to what we must is to respect what government is supposed to be. So follow your conscience and be willing to accept the consequence. Dr. King wrote the words above from a jail cell where he was placed after demonstrating without a permit. The law he was protesting was a law requiring a permit to demonstrate. The authorities at the time wouldn’t have given one anyway.

Here’s an important fact. You may disagree with other believers about whether or not a law is unjust. Fine. You must, nevertheless, allow them the freedom to follow their consciences provided they are willing to accept the consequences.  After all, that’s not only taught in Scripture, it’s what led to the Declaration of Independence.