God Wants More For You. So Do We.

Do Christians Always Have to Obey the Government?

Ask Pastor Alex, Ep. 41

This is the Ask Pastor Alex podcast with your host, Pastor Alex. All right, everybody. Welcome back. We’re here with another episode and another question. And the question for this episode is, do Christians always have to obey the government? And that’s a really good question. This question is interesting because for some reason it tends to be controversial. I don’t exactly know why it’s controversial. I’ve never really understood why it’s controversial, but it is. It’s also a fairly relevant question. I mean, it was far more relevant during 2020 when governments around the world were enforcing shutdowns and imposing all sorts of restrictions on people in general, in the church in particular. If you’ll remember, the governments at the time-imposed regulations that went directly against God’s Word. And so, Christians all around the world were forced to ask, what do I do? Am I supposed to submit to the government or am I supposed to do what the Bible says, even if that leads to consequences and punishments? And when people think about this question, usually the first passage they think of is Romans chapter 13, which addresses the Christian’s relationship with and responsibility to the government.

So, you might think that’s where we’re going to start, but no, actually we’re going to begin in the book of Ecclesiastes, specifically Ecclesiastes chapter 8 verses 2 through 6. This is what the Bible says. I say, keep the King’s command because of God’s oath to him. Be not hasty to go from his presence. Do not take your stand in an evil cause for he does whatever he pleases. For the word of the King is supreme and who may say to him, what are you doing? Whoever keeps a command will know no evil thing. And the wise heart will know the proper time and the just way. For there is a time and a way for everything, although man’s trouble lies heavy on him. Now that seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? It seems clear that the Bible is saying there we are to keep the King’s command. In other words, we are to obey our leaders and not take a stand in an evil cause by defying our leaders or disobeying them. However, when we actually dig into the text, it’s not that clear. For instance, many people think that verse 2 is super clear when it says keep the King’s command. Many people think that that verse is telling us that as Christians we must always obey and submit to the laws, mandates, and executive orders of our governing bodies. Here’s what’s interesting though. The word command isn’t even present in the Hebrew text. In Hebrew, the verse literally reads observe the King’s mouth. So rather than being a call for absolute submission and obedience, the Bible there is actually saying you need to use careful discernment. It’s a call for careful discernment. The Bible is saying that we are to observe, pay careful attention to, and practice discernment when it comes to the orders of our governments, which also helps us make sense of verse 3 because again verse 3 says be not hasty to go from his presence, meaning don’t rush into defiance or disobedience. Take your time, pay attention, use discernment, but do not rush into defiance.

 I really do think that we should pause here and say that this is something that many people in our world need to hear today, including many Christians, because it seems like defying the government is the new cool trend. It’s the hip thing to do. And I’ve even noticed many Christians who seem more eager to defy the government than they are to obey God. Now they will justify this and they’ll say, well, I’m defying the government in order to obey God. But if you actually pay attention to their motives and what they’re saying and how they’re saying it, it does seem like they’re more motivated by this desire to disobey the government than they are to obey God. And so that’s an issue because we should remember that this was not Jesus’s attitude towards the government at all. Jesus had a very high view of the government. When the Pharisees tried to entrap Jesus with regard to the government of Caesar, Jesus replied in Matthew 22, 21, render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s. In other words, Jesus was not saying, yeah, Caesar’s evil, so just go ahead and not worry about him or anything he says to do. No, Jesus taught people to respect the governing bodies because ultimately God created governments for our good. And listen, I know that’s hard to believe today. I know many people have just heard me say that and they’re thinking, what in the world is this guy talking about? I know it’s hard to believe, but it is true. God created governments for our good in order to bring about order and structure to a chaotic world. If we didn’t have any sort of governing structures, if we had no governments at all, our world would be a disaster in chaos. It’s still like that with many governments in place today, but that’s because they are not living up to their responsibility and doing what they are supposed to do as governments, which we’re going to get into just a little bit later.

All that to say, since governments were created by God, governments are meant to reflect the character of God and act in accordance with the word of God. So all this is to say that the Christian’s first impulse with regard to the government should not be to rush to defiance, but rather to use careful discernment. But then let’s read the second part of verse three again. The second part of verse three says, do not take your stand in an evil cause for he does whatever he pleases. Now again, many people have looked at this and they’ve said, well, this means that to take a stand against the king or against a government and their commands would be an act of evil. And they say, this verse is saying, don’t do that. Don’t take your stand in an evil cause by defying the government and going against the government. But here’s what’s interesting. The verse is literally saying the exact opposite. The verse is saying, hey, listen, the king or the government, whatever is the case for you in your particular location, the king, the government, they can do whatever they want. They can do good, they can do evil, they do whatever pleases them. And because they can do whatever pleases them, you need to use your discernment to assess whether he is acting in an evil manner. Because if he is, or if the government is, then the Bible is saying here, do not take your stand in an evil cause. So once again, notice how this is a call for discernment. If our governments are acting in a way that would cause us to take a stand with them in an evil cause, we are not to do that. The Bible literally says, do not take your stand in an evil cause. Use discernment to figure out whether what they are doing aligns with God’s character and God’s word and God’s ways. And so even though Christians are not to rush into defiance or disobedience, we are also never to comply with tyrants or take part in evil. So just think about it like this. Think about a Jewish man working in Herod’s court. Herod gives the order to go and murder every single male baby two years old and younger. Now, as a faithful God follower, what is this man to do? Must he submit to the king’s order? Because we know that the Bible says murder is sin. We know that God hates sin. This man knows that, but then he remembers these verses from Ecclesiastes. Keep the king’s command. Be not hasty to go from his presence. Do not take your stand in an evil cause. If that man interprets these verses to mean that God followers must always submit to and obey governing authorities, then he will be forced to take part in an evil, sinful act. Do we really think that that’s pleasing to God? Absolutely not. God says, don’t murder. So if the king says to murder, then Christians must do what God says, not the king.

I mean, again, think about Acts chapter five. The governing authorities are angry with the apostles for disobeying them. They say to them, we strictly charged you not to teach in this name, the name of  Jesus. Yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching. And so how did the apostles respond? The Bible says that Peter and the apostles answered, we must obey God rather than men. Note that Christians, our ultimate responsibility is to God, not the government. If we are forced to choose between the two, we choose to obey God rather than men. Notice that again. If we are forced to choose between obedience to God or obedience to a government that would cause us to take part in an act of evil that goes against God’s ways, we are to obey God rather than men. And the passage from Ecclesiastes backs that up further in verse six, because verse six says, for there is a time and a way for everything. In other words, there actually is a proper time and a just way to defy the government and practice civil disobedience. It takes wisdom. It takes discernment. It takes prayer to know that time in that way. But the Bible is saying they do exist. They are there. There is a proper time and a just way to go against the government. But then what about Romans 13? That’s what people say at this point, right? What about Romans 13? Doesn’t Romans 13 say that we are to submit to the government? Well, let’s see what Romans 13 says.

Romans 13 verses one through two. This is what the Bible says. Let every person be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. So notice that these verses teach us that there is ultimately only one authority, and that authority is God. Every other authority that exists, exists as an extension of God. He is the one who instituted the concept of government in the first place. But here’s something I really want us to pay attention to and focus on. Before we get to our responsibility to the government, we have to first consider the government’s responsibility to God. Not a lot of people think about this today. They think that we are the only ones who have a responsibility and that governments do not. They are ultimately not responsible to anyone but themselves. But the question I want to ask is, what is the government’s responsibility to God? Again, many people would say there isn’t one. They have none. But these verses say that that’s not true. These verses say that since God created government and instituted government, and since they exist as an extension of God’s own authority, governments are ultimately responsible to God to act in accordance with His character, His word, and His ways. Any government that fails to act in this way fails to uphold their first and primary responsibility. So whenever a government issues mandates and decrees and laws that would force someone to act in a way that is contrary to God’s character, His word, and His ways, Christians are to practice civil disobedience and refuse  to obey man in order to obey God. If the government fails to uphold its first and primary responsibility, Christians have every right biblically to disobey and act in accordance with God’s will and God’s ways so that they can obey God rather than man. But again, many will protest at this point. They’ll say, well, hold on, pastor. Didn’t these verses say that we’re to submit to the government? How then can you tell us to disobey them when the Bible clearly says to submit to them? Well, actually, if you’ll go back, the verses we read said that we are to be subject to them. And for some reason, we have equated subjugation with obedience. In other words, people think that to be subject is to obey, but that’s not the case.

In Greek, this word, it simply means to be under the authority of another. So here’s the all-important question. Is it possible to practice civil disobedience while also at the same time remaining subject to the government? And the answer is yes. You might be wondering, well, how’s that possible? How can you disobey the government? How can you defy the government? How can you practice civil disobedience and still in some way be subject to them? And it’s very easy to answer. The way that we practice civil disobedience for the sake of Christ while also remaining subject to the government is by humbly submitting ourselves to the consequences of our civil disobedience. In other words, we recognize that the government is the authority, that they are an extension of God’s authority, and that they say if we don’t do what they tell us to do, there are punishments that will happen to us because of our disobedience. Well, the Bible says we are to obey God rather than man, so we do that while also being subject to the government by humbly accepting the punishments for our disobedience. And we see this all throughout the Bible, right? I mean, think about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who humbly submitted themselves to the punishment of a fiery furnace for defying the king’s order to commit idolatry. Or think about Daniel, who humbly submitted himself to a den of lions for defying the king’s order to commit idolatry and pray to him and no other God. I mean, think about Jesus, who humbly submitted himself to Rome’s cross. Think about the apostles, who humbly submitted themselves to prison for defying the government’s orders to stop doing what Jesus told them to do. Think about so many Christians throughout church history who have submitted themselves to prison, whippings, torture, and even death for defying governments in order to be faithfully obedient to Christ. That is a clear and perfect example of people who were obedient to God while practicing civil disobedience towards the government, but also at the same time remaining subject to the government’s.

So, are Christians supposed to obey the government at all times? And the answer is no, but with nuance, right? First, we have to pay careful attention to what’s going on and use wisdom and discernment before we defy the government or practice civil disobedience. Second, the Bible says that there will actually be a proper time and a just way to defy the government. And so, we must pray and seek God’s wisdom for that time in that way. We don’t rush into it. We don’t act according to our own will and our own desire. We seek God and we look for that proper time in that just way. Third, we are responsible to God first and foremost. And so, we must obey Him at all times rather than obeying man. Fourth, something we have to remember is that governments are also responsible to God. So, any government that fails to act in accordance with his character, his word, and his ways has failed in upholding its primary responsibility. And finally, it is actually possible to defy governments and practice civil disobedience while still remaining subject to those governments. And that’s by humbly submitting ourselves to the consequences of that disobedience. So, no, you don’t actually have to obey the governments at all times, but you do remain subject to the governments at all times, even if that means you must humbly submit yourselves to the punishments of that disobedience. So, I hope that this answer has been helpful. I hope it helps you understand the subject a little bit better and give it some nuance and clarity that we need around this topic. And as always, thanks for the question. I look forward to answering more in the future.