The current pandemic has Christians grappling with the balance between submitting to civil and state officials versus submitting to the Bible like never before in our lifetime. It is not an easy issue. There are two extremes to avoid. The first is when Christians utterly defy the government outright through public disturbances, vigilantism, and public protests without biblical warrant. The other extreme is when Christians passively submit to everything the government demands at the cost of abandoning righteousness and obedience to God’s Word. Let’s survey the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27, NKJV) to glean some guiding principles on this complex and challenging matter.
1. Christians need to obey God (Exod 19:5)
This is clearly priority number one for us as believers. This is the overarching principle under which all other principles are subject to. God is the Creator and King of the universe. Jesus Christ is Lord of lords and the Head of the Church and the Judge of every soul. All things we do are “laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do” (Heb 4:13). Before anything else, believers are to “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matt 6:33). The world hates God (Rom 1:30), hates Christ (John 7:7), hates His truth (John 3:20), and hates His people (John 15:19). Therefore, conflict with the world on our part is inevitable. So, there will be times that we need to obey God despite being embarrassed, ignored, harassed, ostracized, rejected, slandered, physically assaulted, punished, arrested, tortured and even murdered (2 Tim 3:12).
2. Christians need to obey the governing authorities
Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 clearly command Christians to submit to the governing authorities. Paul said, “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities” (13:1).
Similarly, Peter commanded Christians to “submit…to every human institution” (2:13). These two apostles wrote these divine imperatives when Nero was in power—the same Nero who would later kill both Paul and Peter for preaching the gospel. They explain that we need to submit to all governing authorities (kings, governors, etc.) because anyone who occupies a seat of authority was placed there by God. Daniel said the same thing in 550 BC: “He removes kings and establishes kings” (2:21). Jesus taught these same principles. He commanded His followers to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Matt 22:21). By this He meant that Tiberius Caesar had limited, legitimate delegated authority from God that deserved due honor.
3. Divine authority and human authority will clash
Because humans are sinful and because there is no pure biblical theocracy on earth today, at some point human government will clash or be in conflict with God’s laws. Even though every person who is in authority was put there by God, there is no guarantee that person won’t abuse their God-given authority. Authority figures routinely abuse their delegated authority. God raised up Pharaoh (Rom 9:17) and then cut him down for his abuse of power (Exod 14:28). God made Saul king, yet he abused his authority by crossing the line of his jurisdiction (1 Sam 15). The pagan King Nebuchadnezzar got his power from God, but he abused that power (Dan 4:30). King Herod misappropriated the ruling authority given to him by God (Acts 12).
4. There is an appropriate time to appeal to the human authority
Sadly, some Christians think the only thing the Bible has to say about the authority of government is: “Romans 13 is clear. We need to obey! End of story!” But that is not the end of the story. That view is myopic and neglects much that Scripture has to say on the matter. We are not called to just roll over to every word passed down to us from the government. The Bible teaches there is an appeal process. Human leaders make mistakes and are fallen. They are prone to distorting, misapplying, and ignoring the law.
Leaders who have integrity, even those who are not saved, will at times admit their mistakes and shortcomings and welcome input, advice, complaints and even formal appeals. Moses appealed to wicked Pharaoh repeatedly and Pharaoh finally conceded with request number ten (Exod 13:17). Nehemiah appealed to the pagan king Artaxerxes and the pagan king allowed Nehemiah to go to Jerusalem (Neh 2). Daniel appealed to evil Nebuchadnezzar’s commander, asking for a different diet of food, which was granted (Dan 1:8). Esther appealed to the pagan ruler, King Ahasuerus, and the king amended the law of the land as a result (8-9). The elders of Israel appealed to the pagan ruler, King Darius, asking him to change the previous law that prevented the Jews from building their temple (Ezra 4-6). When Paul was arrested by the Roman soldiers for preaching in the Temple, Paul appealed to the commanding officer based on his rights as a Roman citizen. The commander stopped in his tracks, decided not to beat Paul and unshackled him on the spot (Acts 22).
5. When is the right time to appeal?
The many examples in Scripture make it clear that an appeal about a law can be made when it is a bad law. A bad law is a law that is contrary to an existing just law or when the bad law is in conflict with the Bible, God’s Law. Paul did not just allow the ruling Roman authorities to arrest him unjustly, beat him with no hearing and then throw him in prison. Paul challenged their operational protocol with existing just law by asking them publicly, “Is it lawful for you to scourge a man who is a Roman and uncondemned?” (Acts 22:25). Paul pointed out the inconsistency of the expedient ad-hoc law of squelching a public disturbance versus the two long-standing written Roman laws that allowed Paul protective rights as a Roman citizen along with the guarantee of a fair hearing before being punished. He appealed to a higher human law to override the immediate unjust law. And he was granted justice.
Peter did not just roll over and passively comply with every injunction that came down the pike from those who ruled on high. The same Peter who commanded Christians to submit to human authorities is the same Peter who justly defied the human authorities when it was appropriate. Peter was arrested by the “rulers” (Acts 4:5) and was thrown in jail for preaching Jesus. After being interrogated and threatened, the rulers told Peter to stop preaching. Peter said he must obey God. Upon being released, Peter went back to preaching and then was arrested again (5:18), interrogated, threatened, beaten and told to be silent. Peter defied the ruling authorities, saying, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Jesus taught this same truth when He declared, “render to…God the things that are God’s” (Matt 22:21). Human governing authorities have no right to usurp God’s authority.
On several occasions the apostle Paul appealed to the highest law of the land among the Romans (i.e., Caesar’s word) and the Jews (i.e., the Old Testament) to make an appeal for justice, defend his rights, to expose error and bad law, with the goal of winning his freedoms. He gave a formal legal defense of himself on trial before the Jewish Supreme Court in Jerusalem (Acts 23), before Governor Felix in Caesarea (Acts 24), at the tribunal in Caesarea before Governor Festus (Acts 25), culminating in his declaration before the court, “I appeal to Caesar!” (Acts 25:11).
Appealing to Caesar was akin to saying, “I have my legal rights!” or “I want a new trial!” or even, “I am going to sue!” That seems scandalous and in conflict with 1 Corinthians 6, but it’s not. Paul had legal rights that were not in conflict with Scripture which were being trampled on and he wanted those rights exercised. Listen to his testimony before his accusers and the judge: “I am standing before Caesar’s tribunal, where I ought to be tried. I have done no wrong to the Jews, as you also very well know. If, then, I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything worthy of death, I do not refuse to die; but if none of those things is true of which these men accuse me, no one can hand me over to them” (Acts 25:10-11).
Paul was not afraid to speak up for his legal rights. He was not afraid to go to court. He was not afraid to challenge unjust leaders. Without hesitation he believed as a Christian he could use the law in his defense if he was innocent. At the same time, he respected those in authority (Acts 23:5) and he was even willing to suffer for being a Christian (Phil 1:13). He also respected the Law. But he did not stay silent when the law was being abused. He said, “we know that the law is good if one uses it lawfully, realizing the fact that the law is not made for a righteous person, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners” (1 Tim 1:8-9).
Today we have laws being issued that are in direct opposition to this truth from God in 1 Timothy 1. Laws are being disseminated right now meant to restrain those who are innocent and law-abiding instead of the guilty. The Bible commands man from Genesis 1 to Revelation “to work,” while the government commands people “not to work.” We have laws being issued now that shut down pro-life counseling centers while at the same time keep open and even fund abortion clinics. The list goes on.
6. God is on the Throne
Many of these matters are confusing and upsetting. The good news is that God is sovereign. He is in total control. He is the omnipotent just Judge. Nothing happens apart from His permission (Job 1-2; Ps 115). He promises to make all things right (Rom 12). He has a master plan. Everything is moving in the right direction for your good and His glory (Rom 8:28). We just can’t see it most of the time. That is why we walk by faith and not by sight (2 Cor 5:7). Rest is the words of Jesus our Savior who said, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28).