For a moment, let’s try to walk in the footsteps of Jesus’ disciples. These men had been invited into the inner circle of the future King of Israel. What must they have thought as they lived out the dream their ancestors had prayed for?
As they walked the lakeshore of Galilee, the disciples were gradually learning to embrace the principles of the kingdom of God. They began to sense that their miracle-working Teacher was fulfilling the prediction of the prophet Isaiah, who said:
For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder: and His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, to order it and establish it with judgment and justice from that time forward, even forever” (isa. 9:6–7).
Could it be that Jesus was about to fulfill the words of the prophet? Could He be the long-awaited Messiah?
With anticipation of a divine takeover of the world, imagine the disciples’ wonder—and confusion—when this King told them that they owed a pagan emperor their money and respect! Yet in the days just prior to Jesus’ execution on a cross, that’s exactly what the disciples heard Him say.
The disciples anticipated political liberation. Shockingly, Jesus taught His followers to respect even a pagan ruler.
When Paul wrote to followers of Christ in Rome, he began by declaring Jesus to be Lord (rom. 1:1–4). Roman officials might have interpreted that as a subversive challenge to the authority of Caesar. But in the same letter he wrote:
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God (rom. 13:1).
Paul lived in the shadow of the reigning Caesar. Was he asking Christ-followers to give Caesar honor that belongs to God alone?
In emphasizing our duty to government, Paul twice used the words “be subject” (rom. 13:1,5). Paul urged his audience to recognize the God-given authority of a head of state who required worship of himself! The intent of the apostle was to encourage us to honor leaders, secular or pagan, who deserve the kind of law-abiding compliance that God-given authority merits.
Paul didn’t tell us to honor our leaders because we agree with their personal character or public policies. He explained that God instituted government to restrain lawlessness.
The Old Testament book of Judges is a sordid account of assassinations, genocide, power grabs, sexual abuse, and shattered families—the tragic result of government that is either too loose-knit or nonexistent. As a result of this vacuum of restraint, Judges grimly concludes, “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (jud. 21:25).
Romans 13:4–5 counters such a dangerous approach by highlighting that civil authority acts on God’s behalf to maintain order, uphold justice, punish wrongdoing, and restrict violence. Laws against murder, rape, robbery, vandalism, bribery, and fraud reflect God’s value on human life and personal property rights.
The apostle Peter joined Paul in emphasizing that the Caesars of the world are part of God’s provision to protect the public interest. He noted that by living a law-abiding life, followers of Christ reflect well upon God and show that they are not using religion as a cover for scandal (1 pet. 2:13–17). Peter encouraged his readers to represent Christ well when he wrote, “Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king” (1 pet. 2:17).
We may think it is possible to honor the office of a government official without respecting the person who fills it. But is that the intent of Jesus and the apostles? Do they urge us to respect and honor positions of authority and not individuals?
Again, we must keep in mind that Paul and Peter wrote to people living under the authority of the emperors. Roman law may have been admirable in the pluralistic freedoms and semi-autonomy extended to those under its control and occupation, but it was also under Roman rule that Christians suffered for their refusal to give Caesar the honor that they believed was due only to God.
Paul knew what it meant to face leaders who unfairly exercised religious and civil authority (acts 22:30–23:5). In fact, when he wrote his letter to Titus, Paul had been wrongfully imprisoned for his faith. Yet despite this deep personal injustice, he firmly upheld the principle that leaders should be respected. He instructed Titus to remind followers of Christ “to be subject to rulers and authorities, to obey, to be ready for every good work” (3:1).
What if the government tells us to renounce our faith, or abort our children, or serve in a military waging an unjust war?
The Scriptures make it clear that respect for leaders does not mean unqualified compliance.The New Testament apostles showed us that there are times to appeal to a higher authority. When the Jewish rulers forbade Peter and John from talking about the resurrection of Jesus, the apostles responded, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard”(acts 4:19–20; see also 5:29).
Peter’s and John’s challenge to authority must be understood in the context of the events that led to this confrontation. The truth of what they knew compelled them to resist orders. They had seen Jesus heal the sick and raise the dead. They had seen Him voluntarily suffer and die before rising bodily from the dead three days later. In the days that followed, they had seen additional, unmistakable acts of God (acts 3:1–12) that helped others believe their account of the resurrection of Jesus.
These apostles were not criminals. Rather, they were living in the spirit of Daniel, who centuries earlier had refused to comply with government-enforced idolatry. For his courage, Daniel was thrown into a lions’ den. His gracious but courageous response to this injustice clearly shows that he did not have issues with authority. When he emerged unscathed from the lions’ den, he said to the king:
O king, live forever! My God sent His angel and shut the lions’ mouths, so that they have not hurt me, because I was found innocent before Him; and also, O king, I have done no wrong before you (dan. 6:21–22).
When we have issues with our government, we do well to consider the way Daniel respectfully resisted King Darius.
David provides us with another example of courageous and respectful dissent. When he fled from an envious and raging King Saul, he chose to respect “the lord’s anointed” (1 sam. 24:10) even when it meant jeopardizing his own safety (1 sam. 19:9–10; 24–26). As Saul pursued David with his armed men, David had the opportunity to kill the king but chose not to do so (1 sam. 24:3–4; 26:5–25). His respectful restraint ultimately caused his enemy Saul to bless him (26:25).
The courage to comply with God’s Word rather than obeying man is one thing. Dishonoring our leaders is another.Daniel and David chose to show honor while respectfully dissenting and disagreeing.
At worst, our governors are unwitting servants of God. Paul wrote, “Whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God” (rom. 13:2).
Why would Paul say such a thing? Perhaps because even pluralistic, pagan systems provide important infrastructure and social order. Even tyranny can be better than no law at all.
With such wise considerations in mind, Paul said to citizens of the Roman empire, “Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake” (13:5). The word wrath here speaks of the potential for the government to wield power against its citizens. Paul’s point is that when weighing whether or not to resist the government for the sake of our conscience, we must also consider how we are to respond to an institution that has been ordained by God. It is an exercise in balance and perspective, requiring careful wisdom.
Respect for governors means having a healthy fear of their power. Paul reminded us that rulers carry a sword for the purpose of establishing order and enforcing the law (rom. 13:3–4,7). Describing the power of those entrusted with governmental authority, he wrote, “If you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil” (v.4).
Before resisting “the powers that be,” we must be sure that our cause is worth our imprisonment or death.
If we must resist, we need to do so with respect for the people of government. In some cases, followers of Christ have had reason to see their government as an enemy of the gospel. Under these circumstances, we must remember that such officials will give account to God for the authority entrusted to them. In the same manner, we also will be held accountable to God—the highest authority —for how we respond to government officials. Therefore, we must ponder how a cavalier or hostile attitude toward our government leaders will reflect on Christ.
If we do decide that for Christ’s sake we need to take matters into our own hands, we do well to remember the wisdom of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who quoted Thomas Aquinas: “An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.” Dr. King rightly saw some of the racist policies of his government as unjust. Yet King also said in the same letter: “In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law. . . . That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.”
So, if we are compelled to resist our government, we must ask ourselves three vital questions:
1. Will a watching world see our resistance as a selfserving effort to protect our own rights?
2. Are we protesting in order to protect the interests of others and fight for a higher sense of justice?
3. Are we prepared to accept the penalty?