Source: H. Gordon Smith III
What is a Christian’s responsibility to submit to governmental authority when laws and regulations are in conflict with a Christian’s belief?
As a pastor, I am regularly confronted with this question, from parishioners and even in my own life as a citizen of the United States.
I was asked the question yet again on our most recent Inauguration Day, when President Joseph Biden was sworn into office. The question was couched in relation to the compliance called for in Romans 13:1–5:
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
Drawing one’s entire theology concerning our relationship with authority from five verses fails to consider the whole tenor of Scripture. Romans 13:1–5, for instance, cannot be isolated from Ephesians 6:11–12, or Revelation 13:4–5, not to mention several other passages. To do so would be to render irrelevant all those saints over the millennia who resisted evil at the hands of tyrants and unjust laws.
When Paul says that “Jesus is Lord,” he refers to his loyalty to Jesus above Caesar (“the state”), who, by Roman law, required citizens to call Caesar “Lord.” Paul was obviously governed by an “authority” greater than the nations and rulers of his day.
Nations and rulers are given limited authority by God. As long as these authorities continue to enact laws that defend and protect human dignity without diminishing the authority of God, the Christian is obligated and compelled to comply, “as if unto God.”
But if a nation or ruler demands absolute obedience to laws that are contrary to God’s authority, then a Christian has a responsibility to lovingly stand against these untruths.
A believer’s use of violence is not condoned; rather, the believer is repeatedly exhorted to demonstrate a patient kind of love to his neighbor and even enemy, coupled with dignity and respect. This is the point of Romans 13:1–5. Providing us a practical example, on many occasions, Paul utilized rhetoric rather than rebellion when compelled to plead his case to the various rulers of his day, whether Jewish or Roman. Like Jesus, Paul’s opposition to the state manifested through clinging doggedly to the truth.
Continuing in the tradition of Jesus and Paul, Martin Luther King, Jr. opposed tyranny out of a motive of love and truth. He resisted government (the “authorities”) that enforced unjust laws that were contrary to the dignity of what it means to be a human being made in God’s image. He, and many others, lovingly contested and pleaded their case, speaking of the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice. They were compelled to do so out of love for both the victims of oppression and their oppressors.
To narrowly interpret Romans 13:1–5 through the lens of absolute and indiscriminate submission to “authorities” creates a problem for Christians. Such a rigid interpretation eliminates a Christian obligation to “resist evil” in the forms of laws and rulers that degrade the dignity of humans, all of whom are imago Dei — created in the image of God. It would also discredit the positive changes wrought by people who resisted tyranny, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
As I study the many executive orders signed by President Biden in the last few days, two issues in particular concern me: a militant advancement of transgenderism and abortion. Both are attacks on human dignity, misrepresenting even what it means to be human. Promoting transgender experience advocates for a distorted view of personhood that denies the very biological DNA given by God, bending reality into a lie. Abortion legitimatizes the killing of a human being when he is deemed an inconvenience.
Advocating for transgenderism and abortion are therefore the opposite of loving one’s neighbor, let alone loving one’s family or even loving oneself. Christians, therefore, are compelled to stand up against such injustices, for “the arc of the moral universe is long,” but it still “bends toward justice.”
I plan to pray for President Biden. I plan to continue praying for our elected officials. I plan to strive to be a faithful citizen of our nation. I plan on submitting to “the rulers of our age” as if to God, but only as long as my absolute allegiance is not required of them above God.
And let me be clear: as long as laws exist that strip the dignity of any human being made in the image of God, I plan to contest such evil. I will attempt to do this in a loving manner, with an eye that sees the God-given potential in every human being, from the child in the womb to those affected by the decision to abort a child to those enslaved by a distorted vision of themselves that rebels against who God made them to be.
I will do this, whether or not I am harassed, ridiculed, disenfranchised, or de-platformed by the “rulers” and “authorities” of our age, whether by governmental, corporate, or social coercion.
Why? Because the moral universe still bends towards justice, and because Jesus is still Lord!