Back in 2019, I submitted an article to ET about our duty to the ruling authorities. In that article I tried to show from the Bible that we must have an attitude of willing submission to the government, but also that there are situations in which we must be prepared to disobey its commands. Since then I – and perhaps all of us – have had reason to reflect further on the principles involved and how they work out in practice. So maybe it’s time to revisit the subject.
Some Christians said that we should follow the government’s do-nots, regardless. And they gave many reasons for saying it. ‘This isn’t persecution,’ they argued, ‘the rules apply to everyone.’
First, let’s emphasise once again how important it is to submit to the authorities. Romans 13:1-7 is the most often quoted passage on the subject. If you’re not familiar with it, get out your Bible and read it through carefully. But Titus 3:1 is equally clear: ‘Remind them [the members of the churches] to be submissive to rulers and authorities.’
And here is 1 Peter 2:13-14: ‘Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good…’
The message of these verses is very clear. Believers and churches should aim to submit to whatever government is in place.
However, that is not a simple command to apply. The Bible also makes clear that there are situations in which we need not, or must not, submit to the people who are in power. Let me list out seven scenarios, three in which we must disobey the government; four in which we are free to disobey the government if we judge it best to do so.
We must disobey governments if they tell us to do things which God has commanded us not to do.
Pharaoh ordered the midwives to kill every male child that was born to the Israelites. ‘But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live… So God dealt well with the midwives’ (Exodus 1:17-20).
Nebuchadnezzar ordered everyone to fall down and worship the golden image that he had set up (Daniel 3:8-10). Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego gave their answer:
‘…be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up…’ (Daniel 3:18).
If a government orders its citizens to blaspheme, to commit cruel acts, to make statements that are untrue, or to worship idols, Christians must be prepared to disobey. Suppose the midwives had killed the baby boys and said, ‘We were only obeying orders.’ Would the Lord have accepted that as an excuse for murder? Surely not. They were right to disobey the ruler of the land.
We must refuse to cooperate with governments when their intention is to harm innocent people, and especially God’s people.
I am thinking of situations where the government is not telling us that we ourselves must do evil against the innocent, but it is requiring us to facilitate its evil plans. Again you will find many examples in the Bible.
Jonathan discovered that his father the king was determined to kill David. He not only refused to help his father; he actively helped David to escape (1 Samuel 20).
The governor of Damascus had set guards on the city gates to prevent Paul from leaving the city. The believers in the city let Paul down in a basket from a window in the wall (Acts 9:23-25; 2 Corinthians 11:32-33).
Rahab did not cooperate with the authorities in Jericho who were searching for the spies; instead she hid them (Joshua 2).
The wise men did not follow Herod’s instructions to report back to him; instead they returned to their own country by another way (Matthew 2:12).
When the authorities sent officers to arrest Jesus, the officers returned without obeying the command (John 7:43-48).
When the Nazi party came to power in Germany, should Christian policemen or soldiers have cooperated in rounding up Jewish people who would then be deported and murdered? Or should they have done what many Christians did and hide them away?
If a government were to pass a law requiring that elderly people who had become a burden on the state should have their lives terminated, should Christian nursing-home owners, police officers, or town hall officials cooperate with that law, or do everything in their power to frustrate it? I think the Bible’s answer is clear.
We must disobey governments if they order us not to do things which God has commanded us to do.
A clear example of this is the order that was issued by king Darius. He was persuaded to issue a decree saying, ‘whoever makes petition to any god or man for thirty days, except to you, O king, shall be cast into the den of lions’ (Daniel 6:7). The decree applied to everyone, not just believers.
And it was amazingly comprehensive. It applied to every citizen and to every sort of petition. No one was permitted to make any request to anybody except the king. No one could go to their boss and ask for a pay-rise. No one could go to an official and ask for permission to leave the country. All requests, of any sort, must be addressed to the king.
No doubt, the reason given was to establish in people’s mind that Darius was indeed supreme. The officials who persuaded Darius to pass the decree will have told him that it was necessary for the good of the country. And they argued that it was only temporary: ‘Just thirty days, then life can return to normal!’
None of that made any difference to Daniel. He knew that God commands believers to pray. He could not stop doing what God had commanded, even for a limited period.
In fact he refused to alter his practice of prayer at all: ‘When Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open to Jerusalem. He got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God as he had done previously’ (Daniel 6:10-11).
In the New Testament, the authorities in Jerusalem summoned the apostles and ‘charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard”’ (Acts 4:16-20).
They returned to their preaching and were soon arrested and questioned again as to why they were disobeying the command they had been given. ‘But Peter and the apostles answered, “we must obey God rather than men…”’ (Acts 5:27-29).
You will see the relevance of this principle immediately. Early last year, the Covid-19 virus reached the UK and we were plunged into a state of crisis. The government’s response to the threat of Covid was to introduce a host of laws, regulations, and recommendations telling us that we must not do all sorts of things.
The problem is that many of those things were things that God has told us that we must do. For example, during the first ‘lockdown’ we were told that all baptisms were forbidden. But the Lord Jesus has given us a clear command: we must ‘make disciples of all nations, baptising them’ (Matthew 28:19).
For months, people were forbidden to visit or care for elderly relatives, however great their need or whatever precautions were taken. But God has commanded us to do so (1 Timothy 5:3-8).
Some Christians said that we should follow the government’s do-nots, regardless. And they gave many reasons for saying it. ‘This isn’t persecution,’ they argued, ‘the rules apply to everyone.’
But that was true when Darius issued his decree. Daniel still knew he must disobey it. ‘But it’s only for a short time.’ Again, that was true of Darius’s decree. ‘It’s for the national good.’ But every government says that about every order it issues! We can be sure that Darius’s law was pushed on that basis.
It may be that in an emergency, we – as individuals or churches – would be right to suspend some God-commanded activities because we judged that they could not be practicably performed. God has commanded that churches should assemble regularly. But if a church knew that terrorists intended to attack its meetings, it might well decide that it’s not practicable to meet.
Likewise, there are times when we have to set aside one command of God in order to keep a greater command that he’s given. As churches or as individual believers we may have to decide which command takes priority. But it is for us to make those decisions. How can a secular government decide which of God’s commands takes priority in a particular situation?
We cannot accept that the government has the right to ban us from doing things that God has explicitly commanded us to do. If God has commanded us to do things, we must do them regardless of what the government says.
We may disobey governments if they forbid us to do things that God has authorised us as human beings to do.
No government has the right to forbid us to do things that God has already authorised us to do. Some of those ‘authorisations’ were pronounced at creation before any government was instituted.
Think about the words he spoke to Adam and Eve (Genesis 1:28-30). He authorised human beings to have children: ‘Be fruitful and multiply…’ He authorised them to move from one place to another: ‘fill the earth…’ He authorised them to work: ‘and subdue it’. He authorised them to govern the animal creation and to eat plants. God has given us as human beings freedom to do – or at least to attempt to do – these things.
At creation God gave human beings the right to marry: ‘A man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh’ (Genesis 2:24). He authorised us to stop working for one day in seven and to set that day aside as holy: ‘God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation’ (Genesis 2:3).
And there were other freedoms that he conferred at other times. After the flood he authorised us to eat meat, as he had earlier given us freedom to eat plants: ‘Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything…’ (Genesis 9:3).
Individuals may choose not to benefit from those permissions – for example, by choosing not to get married. But did God ever say that a government – even a democratic government – has the right to take away from its subjects the right to do what God had already authorised them to do?
If a government forbids its citizens to get married, or to set aside one day in seven as holy, or tells us all to stop eating meat, we are entitled to say, ‘God has already told us we can do these things. No government has the right to stop us.’
Sadly, the present government in the UK has decided that it can override God’s authorisations and take away even the most basic God-given freedoms.
Remember: for much of 2020, all weddings were forbidden. It was not just that there was a restriction on the number of guests: a man could not even leave his home in order to be married to his chosen bride. No government has the right to make such a rule. No Christian has the obligation to keep it.
We may disobey governments if they issue commands which are contrary to, or have no basis in, the law of the land.
When a king was crowned in Old Testament Israel, he had to accept that he would operate under the law of the land, and that he himself was not above the law.
‘When he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers…’ (Deuteronomy 17:18-20).
He had to realise that he was not ‘above his brothers’: he was subject to the law in just the same way as everybody else. The principle was clear. The government is under the law, not above it.
If the authorities, national or local, issue decrees which have no basis in the law of the land, do we have to obey them? We may choose to, if we judge it wise to do so. But if we believe that such mandates are unwise or unnecessary, we are free to resist them.
So, for example, when the Israelites were fighting the Philistines, Saul ‘laid an oath on the people’, cursing anyone who ate anything before the battle was won (1 Samuel 14:24). When his son Jonathan ate some honey, Saul sentenced him to death. There was no legal basis for such an oath or such a sentence. It was simply an example of the king’s growing egomania.
Saul’s men would not allow him to carry out the sentence. ‘As the Lord lives, there shall not one hair of his head fall to the ground, for he has worked with God this day.’ Were they wrong to disobey Saul? No: his edict had no basis in the law of the land.
Or take a New Testament example. The authorities in Philippi broke the law when they ordered Paul and Silas to be flogged and imprisoned them without ascertaining their status or allowing them a formal trial. But then they added insult to injury by sending a message the following day saying that the missionaries could be set free to move on.
Should the missionaries have submitted meekly to their treatment and left without delay? That was not Paul’s view! ‘They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and do they now throw us out secretly? No! Let them come themselves and take us out’ (Acts 16:37).
Paul was not going to take any instructions from the authorities which had no legal basis. It was his right and duty to uphold the law even if that meant causing embarrassment and difficulties for the magistrates.
The fact that the authority of governments is subordinate to that of the law is recognised in the UK. There have been numerous occasions in recent years when the government has passed a law or issued a regulation, it’s been challenged in court, and the court has found that the government command has itself been unlawful.
In March 2021, the Scottish courts judged that the Scottish government had acted unlawfully when it told churches to stop meeting. Many legal experts would now say that the Westminster government was also acting unlawfully when it forbade churches in England to meet.
Some other aspects of the regulations brought in by the government have been of doubtful legality. In some cases the government simply issued orders to the nation. But the legislation to back those orders had not yet been passed by Parliament.
As Christians our loyalty is first to God, secondly to the law of the land, and only thirdly to the government. If the government issues decrees that have no legal basis, we may – and sometimes we must – disobey them.
We may resist governments – and work to overthrow them – if they have no lawful basis for their existence.
Imagine that you are living on a huge housing estate in a great city. For years it has been a hotbed of crime and violence. And finally the police have given up trying to police the estate. They have pulled out and left the locals to their own devices.
What happens? A gang of thugs take control of the area. They kill or beat up everyone who stands in their way. Shop-keepers pay ‘protection’ money or their premises are burned down. Anyone who disobeys an order from the gang-leaders gets kneecapped.
The thugs have become the effective government of the area. They make the rules. They drive out rival drug dealers. They punish burglars and car thieves. But they themselves are answerable to nobody.
Remember, there are places which are run in that way. For example, after the Good Friday agreement was signed, paramilitary gangs took over some areas of Northern Ireland and ruled them by force. And there have been many instances in history where a gang of criminals has taken over not just one housing estate, but a country.
Well, is it your duty to submit to such a ‘government’? When Paul said, ‘Let every person be subject to the governing authorities’, was he saying that Christians on that housing estate should be subject to that local mafia? The answer is no. The Bible distinguishes between constitutional, legitimate governments and self-appointed, unlawful governments.
A clear example in the Old Testament was the government of Athaliah. King Ahaziah of Judah was killed in battle. His mother (a princess from the rival state of Israel who had married into the royal family of Judah) seized the opportunity to grab power. She destroyed every member of the royal family she could lay hands on and installed herself as queen.
What was the duty of God-fearing people? Should they have said, ‘Well, she is now the queen, however she came to that position. We must now submit to her’? No. She was holding a position that she had no lawful right to hold. The law of the land was clear that the throne should have passed to one of Ahaziah’s sons.
The godly high priest Jehoiada knew that he must resist this unlawful government. Unknown to Athaliah, he hid away Ahaziah’s youngest son Joash. Six years later he launched a revolution, installed Joash on the throne, and executed Athaliah.
Read through the book of Judges. It recounts a series of episodes when foreign nations invaded the land of Israel and took it over. Were the Israelites to submit to their new rulers? No, they had gained power in unjust and illegitimate ways. The Israelites were entitled to reject them.
Read especially through chapter 9. It tells the story of Gideon’s son Abimelech who murdered his 70 brothers, hired a gang of ‘reckless adventurers’ and established himself as ruler of Israel for three years.
Should his fellow-Israelites have recognised his government and accepted his authority? Should the woman who dropped a millstone on his head and killed him have been prosecuted for rebellion and murder? Hardly. Abimelech’s government could not be regarded as lawful. Every Israelite had the right to work for its overthrow.
It may be that while an unlawful government holds power, believers may judge that it is right to obey the mandates it issues, in as far as those mandates are good in themselves. So, if the gang of thugs I pictured running an area were to enforce its own speed limits on the citizens, believers might do well to obey them.
But we must reserve the right – and at times duty – to take action to remove the unlawful government, if necessary by force.
We may judge for ourselves whether to submit to the government’s wishes when it offers advice rather than legal commands.
‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s’ (Mark 12:17).
When the government tells me that I must wear a seat-belt, I have to obey. When it tells me that I must not use a wood-burning stove in a smokeless zone, I have to obey. These are legally binding commands.
But as well as commands, governments issue advice on all sorts of subjects. Eat five portions of fruit or vegetables every day. At the kerb, look left, look right, look left again. Stop smoking! Install smoke alarms and test them regularly! Use sunscreen if you’re outdoors on a hot summer day!
These may all be good pieces of advice. But that is all they are. They are not legally binding on us. Successive governments, including the present one, have listened to their advisors, weighed up the pros and cons on these matters, and issued these directives.
But it has decided that they should be optional. We have been left free to use our own judgment on all these matters. And we must. The Bible never suggests that we should follow every bit of advice that the authorities may issue. On many issues, the people in authority are no better qualified to advise us than anyone else.
The Lord hasn’t given wisdom only to government experts and advisers. Would you trust government experts when they advise you about how to discipline your children? Would you trust them when they tell you how to maintain ‘sexual health’ and avoid STDs? Their advice on these matters is based on what we know to be completely false premises.
In fact, on many issues, our government and its advisers are utterly unqualified to give sound advice. Especially that applies when they seek to advise churches. What do they know about worship and the part that it plays in the life of the believer? What do they know about the significance of the Lord’s supper or of baptism? What do they know about the way that Christ is present when believers meet together?
When the New Testament tells us to submit to the authorities, it does not mean that we should follow all the advice that the authorities give, however ignorant or whimsical. There are times when we should say, ‘Thank you for your advice. We have considered it carefully. But we have decided to act otherwise.’
So there you are. Seven situations in which we may or must, as Bible-believing Christians, defy the will of the authorities. None of them give us an excuse for selfish, wilful disobedience. I cannot disobey the government just for my convenience or pleasure. After thinking through all those scenarios, I know that I must still observe the speed limits. I know that I must pay my taxes. I know that I must not fly a kite in the airport flight-path. These are rules that the UK government has made and has the right to make.
But I cannot promise that I will obey every edict that any government may issue. To do so would be to give to government the obedience that is due to God alone. ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s’ (Mark 12:17).
How important it is that we as individuals and as churches should have these matters clear in our minds! We have lived through two difficult years in which we have faced many dilemmas. The decisions we have to make in coming months and years may be more difficult yet.
May the Lord grant wisdom to every believer and every church.
Bible quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, published by HarperCollins Publishers © 2001
This article first appeared in the monthly bulletin of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport.
Stephen Rees is pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport