The question that I will be tackling today is very focused—when is it permissible for the Christian to disobey civil authorities? More specifically, in the current environment, in which secular authorities have already used their political power to shut down houses of worship all across the United States, when is it biblically permissible for the Christian to say, “Enough is enough” and act contra Caesar or against the State?
To develop a biblical answer, I will read verses from the New Testament that provide the most explicit and robust guidelines on how the Christian is supposed to interact with civil authorities. These verses are found in Romans 13:1–7. The text reads as follows (NASB):
Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore, whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. Therefore, it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’s sake. For because of this, you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.
The principle expressed in these verses is very straightforward: God is the One who establishes all authority, and therefore, God is the One who ordains the State. After all, there are no rogue elements in a reality governed by a sovereign God. Romans 13 therefore helps us formulate an idea of the “two kingdoms.” On the one hand, the regenerated person has their primary citizenship in the kingdom of God; that is a spiritual kingdom. For the Christian, Christ is his true King, and Jesus rules the hearts of all His subjects. He sets His throne where no other civil ruler does: Christ rules the mind, the heart, the will, and the affections, and He also binds the conscience. No authority is higher than God. However, when the Christian steps out, he physically enters into the other kingdom (of the world) but does so having the deed to his heart purchased by the shed blood of Jesus Christ on the Cross. Accordingly, the Christian’s example (by his love for his neighbor and his good works) in the subordinate kingdom of the world is designed to point others to the only kingdom that matters in eternity: God’s. The simple application to be made here is that by divine design, the church and the State are both ordained by God, but they operate in distinct spheres in reality; one sphere does not encroach upon the other. This is why the church is not called to enforce laws and why secular authority is not called to preach and teach about Christ.
Hence, the Christian, who is compelled to do the will of God, submits to the governing authorities that a holy, righteous, and omniscient God has predetermined. Also, let us not forget the immediate historical context of the apostle Paul’s words: he was writing to a church (in Rome) roughly twenty years after the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ—and who crucified Jesus? The Romans did. So does Paul encourage the elect to revolt against the Roman authorities? He doesn’t. He tells those in the church in Rome to respect what God has established. Furthermore, the apostle Peter also expresses sentiments similar to what Paul writes in Romans 13. In I Peter 2:13–17, the apostle writes:
Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right . . . fear God, honor the king.
Consequently, the overall idea as a general rule is that Christians ought to honor civil authority. Notice that our texts do not say that we have to delight in or like civil authority. Peter says that we must submit to authority, and Paul writes that we ought to be in subjection to the governing authorities. The Greek verb used by both writers is the same—hupotasso, which conveys the meaning of placing oneself under something else. We do so primarily out of reverence for the Lord, who established the State for a reason. Furthermore, the overriding biblical principle is that the Christian is called to be an exemplary, obedient citizen regardless of the type of government that rules over them and regardless of the character of their leaders. As Paul says in Romans 13:1, “there is no authority except from God.” That means a Christian who rejects or dishonors civil authority is, in essence, rejecting and dishonoring God. This helps explain what Paul means in Romans 13:2 when he writes, “Therefore, whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.”
Let us also not forget that having an intact civil authority, whatever form of political organization that may take, is a good thing that benefits society overall. Civil authority is tasked with maintaining law and order so that lawlessness and chaos do not reign. The State has marching orders to protect virtue and to punish vice. God ordained several means of restraint in human society: the conscience (a moral restraint), the family (moral and familial), the church (moral, familial, group, and authoritative elders), and the State (coercive). Without an intact civil authority, everyone is free to do what is right in their own eyes. The result is what is described in the Book of Judges: godlessness, barbarism, violence, immorality, malice, and perpetual conflict.
So is that the end of the discussion? Not at all. We live in an age when many Christians invoke Romans 13 as a blanket, reflexive response that validates submission to civil authorities regardless of what the State is asking us to submit to. In such cases, the part interprets the whole, and Romans 13 is submitted to without consideration of the whole—that is, the full canon of Scripture. So first, let’s take a closer look at what Romans 13 actually says. The text makes it very clear that what God has ordained is a moral State. This means that Caesar is not called by God to act like a devilish tyrant; he is called by God to reflect God’s morality: to be good, to protect good, and to punish evil. This perfectly coincides with who God is: One who is holy, who is good and is the source of all good, and who abhors evil. Again, Romans 13:3–4 says (italics mine):
For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.
Here then is the question: what happens when Caesar is not a cause of fear for evil behavior but for good? What happens when Caesar is an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices good and preserves the one who practices evil? What happens is the Christian then understands that the State is no longer acting like the State and is violating the edict of God. In the same way that a church is no longer a biblical church when it does not preach and teach sound Christian doctrine, the State is no longer a legitimate State when it uses its power to encourage vice and discourage virtue.
At the beginning, I asked a question: when is it permissible for the Christian to disobey civil authorities? The answer is whenever Rome commands the Christian to do something that God specifically forbids. Caesar loses all legitimacy when he commands a Christian to do something contrary to the will of God. In such cases, not only may a Christian disobey; he must disobey, for his ultimate allegiance is to God, not to Caesar. The inverse is also true: the Christian must disobey the State when it commands the Christian not to do something that God commands them to do. As Jesus says in John 14:15, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.”
This idea of biblical civil disobedience is perfectly highlighted in the Book of Acts when Peter and John were arrested by the authorities (evil) for preaching the gospel (good). In Acts 4:18, when the authorities summoned the two men, they commanded them “not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.” What was Peter and John’s response? Verse 19 tells us:
Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.
The text tells us that the apostles continued to preach the gospel throughout Jerusalem. Next, in Acts 5, Peter and John were subsequently arrested and imprisoned for teaching the people about Christ. When they were again ordered by the authorities (the council and the high priest) to stop telling others about Christ, in Acts 5:29, they said, “We must obey God rather than men.”
Consider also the Old Testament examples of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, who refused to obey the king’s edict to worship and idolize (Daniel 3:1–16), and Daniel, who refused to obey Darius’s statute to not make a petition to any god or man other than the king (Daniel 6:1–15). We know that in both cases, civil disobedience was in the will of God because the three friends were subsequently delivered from the fiery furnace and Daniel was delivered from the lions’ den. It is reasonable to conclude that if the Christian actually does obey Caesar while disobeying God, what they profess in practice is that Caesar is Lord. Thus, putting everything together, it would be irresponsible to act based upon what Romans 13 says without also considering everything else that God has revealed from Genesis to Revelation.
To drive the point of virtuous civil disobedience home, let us consider a few hypothetical examples. I will not make any declarative statements, only ask questions. Pharaoh gives the order to murder every newborn Hebrew male child (Exodus 1:15–22). Do you throw baby Moses into the Nile? You are a Roman soldier. Herod gives the order to kill all male children, two years old and younger, in Bethlehem and its vicinity (Matthew 2:16). If you found baby Jesus, would you follow Herod’s orders? The year is 1820 in the United States. The State says that slavery is legal. Do you buy a slave? The year is 1950 in the United States. The State says that segregation is legal. Do you deny service to a paying customer if they are the wrong color? The year is 2020 in the United States. Caesar says that gay marriage is legal. Would you consent if the State says that you (or your pastor) must marry two members of the same sex?
When analyzing all of Scripture, it is clear that the greatest threat outside of the church has always been secular power: for example, the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, and the Romans. Have we forgotten that corrupt, immoral secular power crucified Jesus? Have we also forgotten that the religious leaders of His day brought Jesus before Pilate to accuse Him (Luke 23:1–2)? In other words, when religion becomes the most abominable, it appeals to Caesar and not to God. Have we also forgotten that God has already told us what Caesar’s final manifestation will be—the beast from the sea (Revelation 13:1–19) that will have power and authority over the whole earth (v. 3), promote the worship of Satan (the dragon, v. 4), blaspheme God (v. 5–6), and murder the saints (v. 7)? Some may think that going from Romans 13 to Revelation 13 is a long leap, but let us be diligent in meditating on what God has told us about what will be in the future and allow that to temper our steps right now. After all, if the holy God of the universe saw it fit to tell His children what Caesar will become, do you not think that He had a good and sanctifying reason for that revelation? Beloved, right now, if we were to remain “under” the authority of an immoral State without the consideration of our ultimate allegiance to our true King (Christ), then biblical and secular history teaches us that sooner or later, the State will force the church to remain under its boot of tyranny and will drive the faithful Christian six feet under the ground.
Let us now consider the other question I asked at the beginning: in the current environment, in which secular authorities have already used their political power to shut down houses of worship all across the United States, when is it biblically permissible for the Christian to say, “Enough is enough” and act contra Caesar or against the State? Ever since God called His people out of Egyptian bondage, He has always operated through the “called-out ones” or the church (which is a people, not a place). So yes, while there is no other commandment in Scripture (other than Hebrews 10:25) that says that “the church must meet,” what we do find in Scripture is the assumption that the church is always meeting, everywhere and all the time. Then of course, one book in the New Testament (Ephesians) is focused on ecclesiology (the study of the church) because God’s design is that the earthly church would always be active and in perpetual operation until Christ returns (see especially Ephesians 4:11–16). My point is this: I think it is very obvious that Caesar has no God-ordained authority to tell Christ’s church that it cannot meet. That is simply haughty overreach, and the sphere of authority that God ordained the State to have does not encroach upon the sphere of operation of the church regardless of the circumstances. Similarly, God never ordained the church to tell the State what to do (like closing all businesses on the Sabbath). For either to command the other would be overreach, and even more, for the church to bend to Caesar’s immoral edicts would be to legitimize and illegitimate authority. So as of this writing (October 27, 2020), if governing authorities command (for the second time) that churches cease to have worship services and, in essence, Rome tells the church, “You can’t have church,” the obvious biblical response is quite clear: virtuous civil disobedience.
However, this begs another question: how far can the State go in regulating how the church meets while still not commanding that the church stops meeting? I do not think that the answer to this question is as clear. For example, in the state in which I live (New York), as of June 2020, civil authorities have said that churches can meet, but if they meet indoors, they cannot exceed 33% capacity, and attendees must wear masks if they come within six feet of one another. To argue a point here would be a distraction, and I am sure that many sincere believers have made sound arguments on both sides of the issue, with different local congregations coming to different conclusions.
Here now is the more important matter to discuss. Many Christians will read the words I have written and stand firm in their conviction that in the midst of a so-called global pandemic, for the sake of public safety, the State is right and just in yielding its political power to shut down and/or regulate houses of worship. They would say that the “Christian” thing to do would be to obey the State for the sake of public safety. Here then is my response: what about spiritual safety? Truly, eternity matters more than the present. So, if we were to begin sacrificing eternity (the preaching of the gospel and the teaching of the Word) for right now (health), then something is terribly wrong. The greatest threat to any human being since the Fall of Adam has never been a physical sickness; the greatest threat for any sinner has always been falling into the hands of a holy God whose justice demands that all sins be punished. I know that Jesus redeems sinners from the wrath of God (and I presume you do as well), but there is someone else who doesn’t. That means they are dangling by a thread and are one step away from falling into an unrepentant abyss unless rescued by the Messiah. Even if there is a 0.1% chance that said person will hear the gospel on any given day that a church is wide open, those are fantastic odds considering the final destination of the one who does not know Christ. Speaking of odds and also speaking as a medical doctor, the threat posed by COVID-19 does not—in any way, shape, or form—mandate the closing or restricting of houses of worship at all considering that the survival rate for COVID-19 for those younger than sixty-five is greater than 99%. It is complete madness to not open up a church and settle for a paradigm in which many will die forever (no gospel) because of a virus from which almost everyone will live.
Since its inception, the church was always meant to be a hospital for soul-sick sinners. So if the hospital closes yet people remain ill, where are people to go? Sadly, in many cases, the answer is sin. I know that my own experience is not normative, but in the congregation of which I am a member, the pastor has frequently said that in the last shutdown (Spring 2020), the number of people who have fallen away or fallen deep into sin has exploded. These are people who would’ve turned to the church but instead found locked doors. I am fearful about what will happen to said individuals if the church was forced to shut down again for any period. A simple take-home analogy can be stated as follows: if 9/11 happened again, can you imagine the pain and loss of life if emergency rooms across New York City were forced to close? I do not know what your personal thoughts are about where the United States is headed after the 2020 election. However, if things take a turn for the worse and soul-sickness reaches epidemic proportions, where will people go if they have always tended to flock to the church in times of crisis?
Christians are called to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). Therefore, if I or you or we (the church) were to bend to the edicts of an immoral State, then we are neither living God’s truth nor demonstrating our love for God. Being an exemplary citizen of both kingdoms means having the humble boldness to tell Caesar, “I will not consent” and to tell our neighbor that there is a God of heaven whose truth is eternal and whose edicts are settled in heaven forever (Psalms 119:89). Also, it goes without saying that many different Christians will walk away from Romans 13 with divergent assessments of how the text applies to day-to-day practice. It makes no sense to squabble over the routes different people end up taking as long as they are all headed toward Christ. Yet, it is not sincere Christians who helped to compel me to write this essay. It is those who are in the church but not of the church, those who know exactly what will happen if they persuade others to bend toward Caesar and allow the church to be overrun by the State. Many unfaithful servants are actively working against Christ and want God’s people to suffer, which is why, from within, they blindly submit to Caesar and encourage others to do the same knowing that he seeks to trample underfoot the people of God. As William Shakespeare once wrote, “There is no darkness but ignorance … The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.” Nevertheless, it is no Christian’s responsibility to discern between the wheat and the tares. That is a job reserved for the Lord Himself.
I will conclude by saying that Paul says something in Romans 13:7 that echoes one of Christ’s statements: “Render to all what is due them.” In Luke 20:21–26, the scribes and the chief priests were trying to trap Jesus. They asked Him if it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not. Jesus, detecting their trickery, asked them to show Him a denarius, a common coin of the time. He asked them whose likeness appeared on the coin. They said, “Caesar’s.” In verse 25, Christ then says, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” When we consider the Lord’s words and Paul’s instructions, it becomes clear that Caesar has been given a sphere of authority, and that domain includes (for example) paying taxes, voting, and following basic traffic laws. However, when you look in the mirror, in whose image and likeness were you made? The answer is God’s. Therefore, yes, Christian, render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, but render to the Lord yourself—your mind, your heart, your will, your affections, your life, and your ultimate submission. Caesar never gave up his life for his subjects, but for His elect, Christ died so that they could live. Christ is the King who reigns forever in His eternal kingdom. Caesar is merely a placeholder until the true King returns. Let us then live as joyful citizens of the kingdom of heaven and as imitators of Christ, stepping out into the world in which we also are citizens. Because Jesus holds the deeds to our hearts, when the time comes when compromise is no longer an option and Caesar demands that we violate our Christian conscience against Christ, what are we to do? I think the answer is very simple. Act contra Caesar. Sometimes it only takes one example to encourage the brother or sister next to you to stand. So I write to you today, dear reader, and exhort you—when the time comes, remember who your true King is.
Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal
 Throughout this discussion, I will use several terms interchangeably that refer to civil authorities that wield political power: Caesar, the State, Rome, secular authorities, civil authorities, and governing authorities.
 Leviticus 11:45; Psalms 22:3; Isaiah 6:1–3; I Peter 1:16.
 Psalms 34:8, 100:5; Micah 6:8; Nahum 1:7; Matthew 19:17; Mark 10:18; Luke 18:19; Romans 8:28; I Thessalonians 5:21.
 Psalms 5:4, 34:14, 97:10; Proverbs 8:13; Isaiah 5:20; Romans 12:9, 19; I Thessalonians 5:15, 22.
 See also Joshua 1:8; I Samuel 15:22; Matthew 7:21; Luke 6:46, 11:28; John 14:23; James 1:22, 4:7; I Peter 1:14; I John 5:3; II John 1:6.