Submitting to Authority vs. Standing against Unrighteousness in the Government

In the sermon this past Sunday about Living as Citizens I raised the question on whether there are times followers of Jesus should ignore the teaching of the text on the submission to the governmental authorities.  Sadly, there are many who claim the name of Jesus who also ignore this passage altogether.  Some do not pay taxes, which Jesus himself commanded us to do (Matthew 17:24-27, Matthew 22:15-22).  Others use hateful language and negative personal attacks as they voice opposition toward certain policies and political positions.  Way to many times I have heard those who claim to know Jesus attack our President and other leaders who are on the other side of the political aisle on a personal level, calling names and treating him without honor.  This is a clear violation of 1 Peter 3:17, and therefore sinful and needs repentance.  As I mentioned, the little defense attorney in our mind that always goes off when we are asked to submit to authorities will make the claim, “But our government is ungodly and stands for the wrong things.”  May I remind all of us that nobody in our government holds a candle to the cruelty and unrighteousness of the Roman Empire with leaders such as Herod the Great and Nero.

The New Testament has a consistent call made to believers in Jesus as they relate to the government.   Followers of Jesus are to submit to the governing authorities, obey the laws, and pray for their leaders (Romans 13:1-5, Titus 3:1-2, 1 Timonthy 2:1-4, 1 Peter 2:13-17).  As we submit to those in authority over us, we are to remember two key ideas made clear throughout scripture.  First, we are to know that Jesus is our true King, and we are citizens of the Kingdom of God first and foremost.  But as citizens of God’s Kingdom, we are to live as exiles and sojourners in the kingdom of this world under the authority of rulers and human powers here.  In other words, being good citizens of the Kingdom of God includes being good citizens of the kingdom of the United States for the glory of God and advance of the Gospel.  The call is for our conduct as citizens to represent Jesus and value the need for those in our culture to know Him.  We live in a democracy that allows for free speech and involvement in the government.  This is a trust given by God and we are stewards of this trust, but we should use this trust to advance God’s Kingdom and not our agendas.  Second, the entire Bible has a consistent chime about rulers and governments, and that ring is that God is sovereign, He puts leaders into power and he removes kings.  This is not to mean that God just allows certain powers come to be.  No, the text of Scripture is clear, God puts kings and kingdoms into power and rules over them, accomplishing His eternal purpose through them (Psalm 22:28, Psalm 47:8, Daniel 4:25, Isaiah 40 Job 12:23, Daniel 2:20-23, Proverbs 21:1).  While we may vote for our leaders, the sovereign God is orchestrating all of history for his ends.  We may not understand God’s purpose in a given leader, but our understanding does not negate the truth of it.  So, when leaders are wicked and unrighteous we are to find our hope in the reality that God is sovereign over every kingdom of the world, He is accomplishing His eternal purpose even through wicked reigns and rulers, and He will one day assert His Kingdom as sovereign and judge every ruler.  Jesus demonstrates the correct attitude towards this sort of ruler as he stands before Pilate, a brutal Roman governor who held the power of execution in his hand (see John 19:10-11).

But the question here is if there is any time to disobey and even to join a revolution?  The answer is yes, but it is limited, I believe to three issues.  For many of us, we want to oppose the government because we believe their decision will lead to harder lives, removal of comfort, or even persecution for us.  So let me start this by saying that none of these are the reasons.  We are not to defend ourselves and our own personal rights via civil disobedience or law breaking.  In fact, the Scriptures tell us that persecution will come for believers in Jesus.  He was persecuted, so will those who truly follow Him.  And this persecution may come from rulers and the government. When it does, we are to rejoice and hope in God (Matthew 5:10-12).  But there are three specific times when followers of Jesus should and must reject the commands of a government and may even need to join efforts to oppose the government peacefully.

The first is when the government commands its citizens to do things that would violate the clear teaching of Scripture or their conscience as they are led by the Holy Spirit.  Clarity is needed here.  What I am saying is that if the government commands you to participate in activities that are forbidden by God or a violation of your conscience, you should not do those things.  If you were a Chinese citizen and were told that you must abort your child, you should not do it, and then trust God with the outcome.  If you lived in a culture that forced you to embrace their religious view or at the very least include their dominant view in your religious activities you should not obey, but you should worship and serve the One True God alone.  Let me get this straight here.  Our Biblical right to disobey comes if the government commands ME to do something that is against Scripture or conscience.  I am not allowed to disobey the government when it allows freedom for others to disobey God.  I have to be careful how I explain this.  In our culture right now there is a drift away from the morality of the Scripture and toward total sexual freedom and sexual identity.  But our Constitution allows for Freedom of Speech and the right to vote.  So, as the government allows people more freedom to live in open disobedience to God, we should use the freedoms given to us to voice opposition, to take these issues to the courts, and to vote for those who hold values and views that you believe represent righteous values.  These rights are afforded us and doing these things is not disobedience to the authorities over us.  But any Christian expressing their views should do this with the spirit of 1 Peter 3:17 in their words, which includes honoring all people (including those whose values, views, and lifestyle you disagree) and honoring the King (or for us the President and other elected or installed leaders).  But, if there comes a day when you are forced to celebrate and affirm lifestyles in a way that violates Scripture and conscience, you should not do this.

The second issue involves times where the government commands us not to proclaim the Gospel.  In Acts 5, the apostles were arrested for preaching Jesus.  The Jewish ruling council commanded these men to stop preaching Jesus.  Their response in Acts 5:27-29 is amazing.

27 And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest questioned them, 28 saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” 29 But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. 30 The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32 And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”

In the Old Testament it is the prophets who model this to us, continually calling people and kings to repent, come back to God, and live in obedience to Him.  Even when kings tell them to keep silent they will not.  For us, we have to be careful about this.  The win is not the right to preach and proclaim when we want, the win is sharing Jesus with people.  So there are times and places when we need to be gracious for the purpose of relationship in the city.  For example, we know we are not allowed to openly evangelize at the Gift of Love Christmas Store.  We have a partnership with the school and do this in the school.  We limit our freedom to preach there because we want the relationship with the Principal and with the people we can serve.  But the know that our goal is to start of conversation with these people that will eventually lead to us sharing the Gospel with them.  We limit our freedom to proclaim at the event in order to gain a greater hearing at another time.  For some of us, this needs to be our posture at the job, or if we serve in the city or school.  But if the government came to us and said that we could no longer teach the exclusivity of Jesus, preach the atonement, point out the reality of human sin and depravity, or rejoice in the resurrection, we must keep preaching Jesus!  This may not seem to us like something that can happen, but we must realize that there are believers all over the world suffering persecution because they refuse to stop preaching Jesus.

Finally, the third Scriptural reason for civil disobedience is to stand against injustice for the oppressed, poor, and broken in our culture.  The issue of justice is one of those things that shows up everywhere in Scripture, but is so easy to ignore and miss (Ecclesiastes 5:8, Jeremiah 22:3-5, Amos 5, Psalm 106:3, Isaiah 56:1, Dueteronomy 16:19-20, James 2 to name just a few of a myriad of passages).  Jesus speaks of doing it to the least of these is equivalent to doing it for Him (Matthew 25:40).  The big idea is that when we are Jesus’ people, and Jesus is our King, then His values are our values.  As you read the Gospels, Jesus is clearly seeking out those who are poor, broken, outcast, and weak.  This is not just a phenomenon in the Gospels, it also takes place throughout the Scriptures, as God defends the weak and calls his people to do the same.  Most often, it is the government itself that creates the injustice, and it is Jesus’ people who speak out and act against this justice.  The clearest examples of this can be found in the Old Testament prophets who are continually openly opposing the kings for their injustice (see Jeremiah 22 for an example).  The outcome is that followers of Jesus should be advocates for those in our culture who have injustice perpetrated against them.  It is impossible to know, since I didn’t live then, but I would hope that I would have stood with those involved in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s or abolitionist movement of the 19th century.  One of the beautiful things that can be seen in the Christianity of this generation (especially among the young) is participation and advocacy for so many justice issues and people.  So, as Jesus, we should include in this group of weak, poor, and powerless the unborn, immigrants, the poor, sex slavery, the homeless…  We should be advocates, but when the government is involved in the oppression we should stand against it, no matter where we are in party lines.  This means that we should have sat at the lunch counters with African-American friends in 1960 or on the bus with Rosa Parks on the bus in 1955 even though the government said we should not.  And it means we should stand for life for the unborn and stand against injustice for the immigrant.  Oddly, when we really enter into issues of justice, we will often find ourselves finding agreement with opposing political parties on different issues.  We may find ourselves in agreement with the right on issues of life and morality while we find agreement with the left on poverty, homelessness, and sex trafficking.  But that is a great reminder that no politician or party has a hold on the truth, and that only Jesus is our true King.

Thanks for reading, and feel free to throw out a response or two.

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