#WCSK Episode 2.11b: The Christian and the State

#WCSK Episode 2.11b: The Christian and the State

Picking up from last week

The Christian in subjection to the State

Romans 13:1-7 is perhaps the most specific and practical text in Scripture regarding what the Christian’s stance should be toward the State:

“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’ 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.”

Civil disobedience State Evil Law Government Subjection Authority

Granted, the hard part about applying these verses is that Paul never says that the “governing authorities” are righteous, that they have any idea about what the Bible says, or that they have any idea about who Christ is.

Regardless, here within the first two verses of Romans 13, we have the most succinct and pervasive answer to what the Christian’s relationship to the State ought to be: civil obedience. That is, generally speaking, we are to be model citizens who obey the law and are examples to all those around us.

This way, people who do not know Christ can look to Christians as upstanding exemplars of citizenship, and this behavior testifies to how our faith molds and shapes us in positive and distinct ways. Others will also realize that Christians are not incessant agitators and rabble-rousers. Our unique reasoning as to why we act through civil obedience simply rests on the recognition that God is the ultimate source of the State in human society.[1]

Out of obedience to The Lord, we obey the State. If we look at the life of Jesus, for example, He had all the power and ability to wipe out the pagan Roman government in the blink of an eye, but He never did such a thing. In fact, Jesus encouraged civil obedience to the Pharisees and Herodians in that He said it was perfectly lawful to pay the Romans taxes.[2]

In Luke 22:47-53, Jesus cooperated and did not resist when a crowd came to arrest Him, even though He had committed no crime. In fact, when violence ensued, Jesus told everyone to stop and healed the ear of the high priest’s slave after it had been cut off. My point is that throughout Jesus’s life, even though the Romans were the ones who were going to crucify Him, He never worked explicitly against the Roman authorities; rather, He practiced civil obedience in the midst of Roman governing authority in Judea and Samaria.[3] At the end of His life, the Bible provides no evidence that Jesus had broken any Roman laws.

When Paul writes, “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities” in Romans 13:1, he uses the Greek word hypotassō, which means to be subordinate, to submit, or to be obedient. Hence, if we resist the State, then, in essence, according to Paul, we are resisting God who ordained the State. Resistance will bring condemnation, and the Old Testament is loaded with stories of people who rebelled against God to whom God sent evil rulers with the intent that they would repent. Even more, Paul is writing this letter to the church in Rome, the center of the empire that crucified Jesus and the people who would eventually execute Paul as well. So, why does Paul write that Christians must obey this same government? Because God ordained the State (even the idolatrous Romans government) and they must respect The Lord’s sovereign providence.

The apostle Peter, in I Peter 2:13-15, echoes the same sentiments:

“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. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men.”

Note how this clarifies that if Christians are model citizens and obey, this behavior will commend Christ to others and prevent “foolish” people from criticizing God.

Furthermore, submission to others is, itself, a service to Jesus.[4] Being in subjection to authorities also empowers us to be effective witnesses of Christ to a world that does not yet know Him.[5] Paul even writes in I Timothy 2:1-3 that we should always keep our leaders in our prayers because such a course of action is “good” and it will enable us to live quiet and peaceable lives in godliness.

Now, let’s make sure we are clear: when Paul uses the word hypotassō (subjection) to guide Christians, he is not encouraging them to follow the State blindly and to do everything that they are told. Christians are never meant to be spineless, brainless robots who sheepishly obey every whim of the State. Scripture clearly teaches us that submission is required so long as doing so does not violate God’s Law.[6] Hence, civil disobedience can be a sound Biblical course of action, and this will be discussed in the next section. So, what subjection does imply is that we have to voluntarily subordinate ourselves out of honor and respect. Furthermore, the State is never inherently “better” than its people, and because God stands above humanity and the State, our ultimate allegiance always belongs to The Lord. God is the one who assigns authority to the State, which is why Christians should always show honor to a person that represents the State, even if you are not a fan.

For example, before David was king of Israel, he was being hunted down by the current king, Saul. On one such mission to kill David, Saul entered a cave in the wilderness of Engedi to relieve himself. David and his men were hiding in the cave, and David had the chance to assassinate Saul, but he didn’t. Why? David tells us when he says, “Far be it from me because of the Lord that I should do this thing to [Saul] the Lord’s anointed, to stretch out my hand against him, since he is the Lord’s anointed.”[7] The text says that David persuaded his men not to take lethal action. The group then left the cave without harming Saul and went on their way.

This paradigm of living “in subjection” extends into many other relationships in the Christian walk, including marriage and church leadership. So, in the same line of thought, husbands are not inherently better than wives, and church leaders are not inherently better than church members, but in all these relationships, the latter party submits to the authority of the former.[8] Why? Because God has assigned authority in these relationships, and any Christian in a position of authority therefore realizes that his or her authority assignment has been delegated by God and is derived from Him only. This follows the Biblical pattern of hierarchical authority and is perfectly exemplified by Jesus, whom the Father assigned all authority in heaven and on earth,[9] and who also emptied Himself and was obedient to the point of death on the Cross.[10]

The Christian in the midst of an evil State. The State is not autonomous, meaning it is not a law unto itself. Therefore, the State can never commit evil and that evil be “okay.” Because God ordains the State, it is accountable to God. We also must realize that just as an ill-informed Bible teacher can do tremendous harm in “teaching” people false doctrine, people in positions of secular authority are much more vulnerable to abuse of their power, which can harm others and destroy life as opposed to protecting it. Ephesians 6:10-12 even informs us that spiritual powers are at work in the natural order to bring about evil by “schemes of the devil.” This is what compels us to not only pray for our leaders, but to equip ourselves with the armor of God so that we may be strong in The Lord. Accordingly, when an evil State acts malevolently, it does not act in service to God. The Bible is riddled with evil States—such as Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, and Rome—who elected to destroy life and thus failed to obey God’s command to govern properly. After all, it was the State (Rome) that killed the Son of God.

Even more, the Bible cautions us about putting too much faith in and reliance upon the State when such trust comes at the expense of faith in God. That is exactly what happened with the Israelites in I Samuel 8:10-18. Instead of chasing after God, the people wanted a human king to rule over them—just like the other nations around them. The people were told that the king would abuse his power, unfairly tax them, and steal their property. Cognizant of these facts, the people still wanted a king, and, for the most part, the people got exactly what they asked for and more: a legacy of kings that for the rest of history were characterized by idolatrous behavior.

One crucial point that I want to make that is often overlooked in modernity is that we can never allow evil States and the wickedness of rulers (both domestic and foreign) to distract us from our own sin, both individual and corporate. Throughout all the Old Testament, for example, the Israelites rebelled against God and failed to live in subjection to The Lord. As a result, God punished the Israelites by subjecting them to wicked rulers and evil States. Back then, the Israelites could have lamented for decades about evil foreign oppressors, but if they failed to look inward and address their own corporate sin and repent, God would still have a just reason to allow them to be exposed to evil regimes. The classic example would be the sacking of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. A Jew living in the city at the time could have asked God, “How could you have allowed this to happen?” or “Why us? Are we not your chosen people?” Yet, these questions would ignore the idolatry, sin, and overall lawlessness executed by the Israelites that provoked God to anger. Consider what God tells the prophet Jeremiah on the verge of the Babylonians conquering Judah:

“It shall come about when they say, ‘Why has the Lord our God done all these things to us?’ then you shall say to them, ‘As you have forsaken Me and served foreign gods in your land, so you will serve strangers in a land that is not yours.’”[11]

Consider what the prophet Zephaniah said about the people of Jerusalem before the city was conquered by Babylon:

“Woe to her who is rebellious and defiled, the tyrannical city! She heeded no voice, She accepted no instruction. She did not trust in the Lord,
She did not draw near to her God. Her princes within her are roaring lions,
Her judges are wolves at evening; They leave nothing for the morning. Her prophets are reckless, treacherous men; Her priests have profaned the sanctuary. They have done violence to the law.”[12]

In other words, in focusing on the imminent threat from the outside, the people failed to realize that the root cause of their calamity was on the inside. A more specific example can be seen in the book of Habakkuk, where the prophet speaks directly to God and expresses deep concern over the iniquity of the people—they are characterized by their lawlessness, and injustice is rampant.[13] God then responds by saying the following:

“I am raising up the Chaldeans, that fierce and impetuous people who march throughout the earth to seize dwelling places which are not theirs. They are dreaded and feared; their justice and authority originate with themselves.”[14]

So, God responds to the sins of the Israelites by raising up an army that will serve as an instrument of His divine justice. Ironically, because the Israelites are lawless, God raises up a people whose standard for authority is themselves. Habakkuk can’t seem to reconcile how a God who cannot tolerate evil is using a wicked people.[15] Ultimately, though, Habakkuk rests in the sovereignty of God and finds joy in an expected future salvation through which God’s faithfulness to His covenantal promises will be revealed.[16] Thankfully, in II Chronicles, God tells His people what they ought to do in order for God to restore them, and it is not praying for the oppressors to go away. In times of hardship, God offers the following remedy:

“And [if] My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”[17]

Even in relationship to the State, the Christian is wise to pursue a course of self-scrutiny.

The Christian in defiance of the State

So, as I hope I have made clear thus far, the Christian’s primary mode of engagement with the State is civil obedience. Yet the question must be asked, “Is it biblically permissible to ever disobey the State?” The answer is yes—with a qualification. That is, not only are there instances when a Christian may disobey the State, but in some instances, Christians are required to disobey the State.

So, then, when is civil disobedience required? When the State compels a Christian to do anything that goes against God’s Law, he or she ought to obey God rather than the State.

For example, when Pharaoh (the Egyptian king) ordered the Hebrew midwives to murder newborn male Hebrew babies, the midwives purposely disobeyed and did not follow the orders of Pharaoh because they feared God.[18] God’s Word tells us that life is sacred and commands that “thou shall not kill.”[19] We know that the midwives did not sin in disobeying Pharaoh’s decree because the text tells us that God dealt “well” with them. In Matthew 2:16, Herod ordered that all male children in Bethlehem under the age of two be murdered. If you were a Roman soldier and given the order to kill innocent children, disobeying that order would have been right and obeying it would have been wrong. In Acts 4:13-20, Peter and John were specifically told to stop preaching the gospel by local authorities. The two responded diplomatically, saying that they could not stop preaching that to which they had been eyewitnesses.

If you were living in the American South in the early 1800s and a lynch mob, led by the local sheriff, showed up looking for slaves—slaves you happened to be protecting and hiding in your basement—and the sheriff asked you, “Have you seen these slaves?” you would be a fool for telling him the truth and subjecting yourself to his authority. These men intend to do evil and to violate the sanctity of life, and therefore they do not deserve the truth. In honoring God, loving your neighbor, and attempting to protect life, this act of civil disobedience to the law is just. Why? Because American slavery and the law that enabled it was unjust. In fact, Deuteronomy 23:15-16 makes the explicit command to grant asylum to a runaway slave and further clarifies that the runaway shall not be mistreated.

Essentially, then, the State can err when it comes to God’s Law in two ways: (1) the State can compel you to do something that God’s Law tells you not to do; (2) the State can compel you not to do something that God’s Law tells you to do. In either of these scenarios, God’s Law always trumps the State. Therefore, if a direct, pressing, and indisputable conflict exists between God’s Law and the State’s Law, you must obey God and disobey the State. It is the State that will pass away; God’s kingdom endures forever. Ultimately, we are only temporary citizens of natural kingdoms, but our eternal citizenship is in heaven.[20]

When we look to the most recent national movement in which civil disobedience was executed persistently and non-violently—the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th century—it becomes clear that if those who were victims of unjust discrimination would have simply kept their heads down and obeyed, no crisis would have arisen, and thereby no reason for anyone to take action. In this case, prejudice was codified into law through segregation, and roadblocks had been established that unfairly hindered people of color from voting in the South. Leaders such as the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., inspired people of color to embrace their inherent sense of dignity and self-determination, which fueled a longing to end unjust oppression. This longing and resultant awareness of the present was necessary because, as history tells us, those who oppose true freedom and liberty are those in positions of power who stand to lose much when justice is properly executed and unjust oppression is not tolerated. When everyday people realize exactly who they are—worthy human beings formed in the image of God—what becomes crystal clear is that no secular authority can either take away or demean that divine identity.

Power and privilege are seldom relinquished voluntarily, and so strong, unrelenting resistance in the form of civil disobedience is required to dismantle power and systems of privilege that benefit the strong at the expense of the weak. Of course, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a fierce proponent of non-violent civil disobedience, and the overwhelming Biblical emphasis on the sanctity of life validates this claim. Evil begets evil, and violence will only beget more violence—and the lingering effect will be countless generations filled with strife. As Christians, when we practice civil disobedience, we do so knowing that we are in pursuit of a moral, peaceful, and righteous end, and, as a result, the means to arrive at this destination must be as moral and pure as the future we seek to materialize. The ends and the process of getting to those ends must match, for the process is simply the end not yet fully grown. As Dr. King once wrote,

“We cannot believe, or we cannot go with the idea that the end justifies the means because the end is preexistent in the means … immoral destructive means cannot bring out moral and constructive ends.”[21]

Hence, just as a fruit of the Spirit is peace,[22] we are called to walk in the Spirit of peace and not one in which we are plagued by internal violence that seeks violence against others. If it is peace that we seek, then we ought to walk in peace, by peace, and through peace in pursuit of justice and righteousness for all.

This is where violence and non-violence actually have a common thread in that both perceive that suffering is beneficial. Violence says that suffering is beneficial as it can be inflicted on others. Non-violence says that suffering is beneficial as it can be endured by the self in an attempt to deprive others of suffering and end the cycle of hate and destruction. Suffering endured by the self is perfectly embodied by Jesus on the Cross, who, in order to quench the fires of violence that sought to destroy a Man of peace, took the suffering of humanity upon Himself. Here, we see that the love (agape)[23] of God and our love for our neighbors is not a mushy, emotional, or fleeting feeling that is contingent on circumstances or reciprocity. Love is the purposeful intent to see good triumph over evil and to see justice triumph over injustice, regardless of scorn from others and independent of the strong, recalcitrant injustice that seeks to maintain the status quo. Just as Christ endured the Cross, we are called to endure suffering and injustice in order to bring about transformation. Of course, the transformation of evil situations never perceives people as targets, but rather views systems and institutions as vehicles of injustice that just so happen to involve people. Such individuals are not enemies; they are potential allies in disguise.

The thrust, then, behind civil disobedience mimics the activity of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit regenerates a totally depraved human being, cognizant that in order for a person to respond to and be awakened to something wholly good and pure, divine action is required. Similarly, when we, as Christians, look out into the world and see total depravity, immorality, idolatry, and injustice, we realize that it will require acts of sincere love to awaken a dormant sense of righteousness and to inspire the transcendent good written onto the hearts of humankind. Ultimately, in a world consumed with self, violence, competition, scarcity, fear, and injustice thrive. In a world where the elect dedicate themselves to God’s purposes, peace, cooperation, abundance, love, and justice can thrive.

More next week in Part III.

Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal


[1] Daniel 2:21; Proverbs 8:15, 16

[2] Mark 12:13-17 (c.f. Matthew 22:20-22)

[3] Consider also Matthew 8:5-13, where Jesus helps a Roman centurion who is an exemplar of faith. Jesus heals the servant of the solider who was lying paralyzed in the centurion’s home.

[4] Colossians 3:23-24

[5] Acts 1:8

[6] Matthew 22:21; Acts 4:19, 5:29

[7] I Samuel 24:6

[8] Ephesians 5:22-33; Colossians 3:18-25. Of course, it goes without saying that if a husband or a church leader abuses their authority—like beating their wife or fornicating with church members—that their sin is never a mere matter of keeping one’s head down and “submitting” to it.

[9] Matthew 28:18

[10] Philippians 2:1-8

[11] Jeremiah 5:19

[12] Zephaniah 3:1-4

[13] Habakkuk 1:4

[14] Habakkuk 1:6-7

[15] Habakkuk 1:13

[16] Habakkuk 3:17-19

[17] II Chronicles 7:14

[18] Exodus 1:17

[19] Exodus 20:13 (KJV)

[20] Philippians 3:20

[21] James W. Washington, ed., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Harper Collins, 1986), 45

[22] Galatians 5:22

[23] There are three words for love in Greek. (1) Eros: this is most immature form of love and is the erotic love of passion. Eros is captivating and is based in biology. It is conditional and arises only because of something else (like beauty or pleasure); it does not give and seeks only self-satisfaction. (2) Phileō: this is “brotherly love,” or the love of a companion—like a good friend. It is relational and does give, but phileō is still based on reciprocity. It is more resilient than eros but lacks the endurance of agapē. (3) Agapē: this is the most mature form of love and is how God loves us. It is the purposeful love of esteem or evaluation. It is not based on merit, is unconditional, and keeps on giving even if the love-giver is rejected and the target is unresponsive. Agapē seeks redemptive good for others and delights to act for the well-being of another.

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