There seems to be a lot of confusion about civic government for Christians today. What is a faithful, Christian response to government edicts? Does the justness of the edict have any bearing on how we answer that question? The way Romans 13:1-7 has been pulled out and slapped over the mouth of any believer who dares even to ask such a question, we might assume that the answer is no. Romans 13:1-7 says, “obey.” End of story, right? Except for the fact that the same Paul who wrote this letter to the Roman church about the Roman government was beheaded by this same Roman government. I think we can safely assume that whatever the executioner said, it was not, “Since you are obeying us, your civic rulers, we are sentencing you to death.” So, what gives?
In order for us to understand God’s purpose for civic government, we need to see it within the overarching context of the three spheres of government ordained by God: familial, ecclesial, and civic. So, let’s take a look at them, shall we?
3 Principles Regarding 3 Spheres of Government
Principle #1: each sphere overlaps, but is nevertheless distinct. For example, the Church can and should inform and instruct members regarding marriage and parenting. A large portion of what I do as a pastor involves this very thing. But ultimately, the Lord will hold the families responsible for how they operate. I am charged by God to teach fathers and mothers how to be faithful fathers and mothers, but God will hold fathers and mothers (particularly, fathers) responsible for their own household. It is clearly within my bounds as a pastor and fellow church member to confront a father about the ungodly discipline of his kids, but I’ve crossed a line if I go into the member’s home and start disciplining his kids for him.
Or again, you can imagine a scenario in which a church member is brought through the process of church discipline on account of an unrepentant sin that so happened to have also been a criminal offense. The fact that the church brought said member through discipline doesn’t mean that no further actions need to happen. If the thing the member did to be disciplined is also criminal, then we have not done our duty until we have also reported him to the state. The same person, who committed the same action falls in the jurisdiction of two different spheres of government. The state can’t tell the church if this member must be excommunicated, and the church can’t tell the state if the member must be fined or jailed. So, these spheres are distinct, and yet they do overlap in some areas.
Principle #2: Each sphere has its own set of offices and relationships. Families have husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, children. Churches have elders, deacons, members. Civic government has various kinds of magistrates (presidents, prime ministers, Kings, police officers, governors, tribe leaders, chiefs) and the people are represented in various ways, depending on the nature of the civic structure (subjects, civilians, tribe-members, etc.).
God has ordained for the various governments to have specific roles and responsibilities within their designated spheres: the husband/father’s role and responsibility is to be the head of his household; spending himself to provide for, protect, and lead his family through self-sacrificial initiative. He is to take responsibility before God for his family. It’s not the Church’s responsibility to feed and lead and educate his family, nor the state’s; it’s his. That doesn’t mean others may not help, but God won’t hold those helpers responsible in the same way that the husband/father will be held responsible. Likewise, his wife is supposed to be his helper in this endeavor; she is to submit to him, to have the glad-hearted disposition to celebrate his leadership, to be—per Titus 2:3-5—a homemaker and one who rears the young children. She essentially adorns and harmonizes with her husband’s leadership—that’s how she is his glory (1 Cor 11:7). He bows, she curtsies. He leads, she follows. And the children are to honor and submit to both of their parents. That’s their role.
In the church government sphere, pastors are to shepherd the flock of God, primarily through the ministry of the word and prayer. And deacons are to serve the flock of God, primarily through the ministry of practical needs to help lighten the load for pastors to flourish in their role. Members, too, have various responsibilities, both authoritative (i.e., they wield the keys of the kingdom of heaven to bind on earth that which is bound in heaven and loosen on earth that which is loosened in heaven, practice church discipline, and install and remove pastors) and submissive (i.e., they are to submit to their God-ordained leadership). Even within this sphere, there is some overlap. Pastors and deacons are also members, and are responsible for submitting to their God-ordained leadership just like the other members. They are accountable to the rest of the members as members too.
Romans 13:1-7 describes what the role and responsibility of civic rulers is. In short, their responsibility is to punish the bad and reward the good. Now, there are a lot of implications here, and this job description is not enough specification to tell us in every respect what a government should and must look like, but it gives a broad description of what God will hold civic rulers responsible for. This is the standard God will judge them by on the last day. They are servants of God—deacons of God, ministers of God—who bear the sword in order to safeguard their people in their creation mandate to subdue and take dominion of the earth, and these servants do this by punishing the evil, and rewarding the good.
Principle #3: In a fallen world, all governments are corrupt to varying degrees. Now, all I’ve said so far have been a description of the various governments and the roles and responsibilities therein—family, church, civic. Authority and submission exist as a responsibility in all of these governments: wives submit to husbands, children submit to parents, members submit to pastors, subjects or citizens submit to ruling authorities. Further, all are to submit to Christ. Which means, there is not a single office that is not under authority—we all must submit to Christ (yes, even the secular kings and the rulers of this earth are commanded to swear allegiance to Christ; Psalm 2 doesn’t give much room for political indifference toward Christ). And yet we know that in a fallen world, authority is often abused, and people rebel against what they are called to.
What that means is, while God’s word is absolutely binding on the believer, no single earthly authority is absolute. Remember, this whole section of Scripture appropriately falls under the qualifier of Romans 12:18: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
So, for example, we should not hesitate, nor be embarrassed to insist that a wife must absolutely have the kind of submissive posture and disposition that celebrates the headship of her husband and delights in his leading initiative. That’s what God wants of her, always. But what if her husband’s leading initiative is inherently sinful? What if he instructs her, to give an extreme example, to deposit millions of dollars he has embezzled from his company into a private checking account in her name? What if he initiates in various kinds of sexual perversions and invites her to join? Is she being un-submissive or disobedient to the biblical command to submit to him when she refuses?
Absolutely not! Why? Because the only absolute authority is God, and she must obey God rather than man. God intends for her to be a submissive wife, but he does not intend for her to be sinful. Life obviously works best, and functions according to God’s design, when, on the one hand, submission to her husband and, on the other hand, obedience to God describe the same action of following her husband’s lead. Things are going according to plan when she can honor God by submitting to her husband’s godly leadership. But in a fallen world, sometimes you have derelict husbands who wickedly force their wives to choose between following them and following God. In such cases, God will hold such husbands accountable not only for their sinful negligence in their ordained responsibility, but also for forcing their wives to resist them in order to stay faithful.
The same is true for the abuse of authority in the church government, and the same is true for ruling civic authorities as well. Paul tells the Roman Christians that obedience of their ruling authorities leads to reward and disobedience leads to the sword. But what happens when the ruling authorities aren’t functioning in the way God intended? We are told that they are ministers of the Lord for our good—but what happens when they are faithless ministers? What happens when the good is punished and the evil is rewarded? What happens when they force on their subjects the choice between obeying them or obeying God? This is not an abstract issue for Paul. Let me remind you that the person who penned Romans 13 found himself in Roman prisons nearly everywhere he went, often for doing the good, and was eventually put to death according to these same conditions. Which means either Paul changed his mind at some point, and decided to take back this command to obey, or this command isn’t absolute.
A Hall of Faithfulness
So, what happens when the state oversteps its bounds? What happens when the state no longer demands that you give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and instead demands that you give to Caesar what belongs to God alone? Answer: you, with a heavy heart, do what you don’t relish doing—you disobey your rulers—so that you can do what you are required to do—you obey God. You do this without vitriol or malice. You do this with heavy-heartedness and love toward your rulers, and pity for the divine wrath they are incurring by forcing you to do it. This has been the faithful witness of all who have gone before us.
What happens when the state tells you that you must bow down to a golden idol of King Nebuchadnezzar in worship? Answer: you disobey the government and are thrown into a fiery furnace (Daniel 3).
What happens when you are commanded to pray to a pagan King and are forbidden to pray to Yahweh publicly? Answer: you decide to open your windows and pray out to Yahweh nice and loud, three times a day in pious defiance of a wicked edict, and you get thrown in the lion’s den for it (Daniel 6).
What happens when you are strictly charged to stop preaching the name of Christ, even at the threat of being beaten and imprisoned? You say, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20), and you keep on preaching and get thrown in prison for it.
What happens when you’re a Christian in the second century and you’re required to offer a pinch of incense to Caesar or the pagan deities in order to go about your business? Answer: you refuse to give even an inch of what’s God’s to Caesar and you’re fed to lions in the Colosseum. (Now, you may be thinking that this choice is an obviously stark choice of idolatry vs. faithful Christianity–and in a sense, you’d be right–but it’s hard for me to emphasis how little of a deal a pinch of incense was for the pagan mind in the Roman world: Christians were viewed as foolish, insolent, rebels who made mountains out of molehills in refusing to offer a pinch of incense. “What’s wrong with you Christians? It’s not a big deal. You’re making a mountain out of a molehill!”).
What happens when you’re a Reformed French Huguenot in the 16th century and your homes are raided and destroyed by the Roman Catholic police unless and until you convert back to Catholicism? Answer: you keep worshipping and suffer the consequences of a government that, in some cases, besieges you and you starve to death.
What happens when you are a member of the ten Boom family in Nazi occupied Netherlands, when you are considered an enemy of the state for housing refugee Jews who are being rounded up and brutally murdered? Answer: you disobey your governing authorities in the name of Jesus Christ, own the title of “treason,” and get sent to a nightmarish concentration camp (and, incidentally, you may get to see prisoners and prison guards radically saved by grace as a result).
What do you do when you’re a Christian living in the 20th century under the communist regimes of Stalin and Lenin, where Christianity is illegal (and it is illegal not, by the way, because the government is “targeting Christians,” but rather because they are targeting “dissent from the party”)? Answer: you keep meeting in secret until you are found and throne in the gulags where you will likely meet an ugly death.
What did pastor Wang Yi do when he was warned by the Communist Chinese party not to speak out against his tyrannical overlords? Answer: he boldly preached that Christ is Lord, and therefore that Caesar (or rather, Xi Ji Ping) is not, and he was sentenced to nine years in prison as a result.
What did pastor James Coates do when he and his church were told by the Albertan government to stop meeting? Answer: he preached Christ, and him crucified to a room full of unashamed followers of Christ, and was jailed for over thirty days for it (while his church continued to meet in his absence). What happened when the Albertan government doubled down (after failing to break Coates’s—and the church’s—spirit) and confiscated the church building (with two fences and 24/7 armed surveillance)? Answer: they met anyway, at an “undisclosed location.”
To bring matters home to where we are today: Romans 13:1-7 teaches us that we should aspire to be the world’s best citizens. We should labor to support and pray for and delight to obey our governing authorities insofar as we are able. Christians in America should have an instinctive reaction against the prospect of civil disobedience in general. Our knee jerk impulse, as godly citizens, should be to submit—just like our knee jerk impulse as godly Church members should be to submit to our elders; and the knee jerk impulse of godly wives should be to submit to their husbands etc. But that impulse is ultimately birthed out of a desire to honor Christ above all else. And when a godless civic government starts to insist on our rendering to Caesar what only belongs to God—whether by requiring what God forbids, forbidding what God requires, or overstepping its God-ordained authority—we must fear God and not man, stand up with steel-spine resolve, and obey Christ.
Of course, it’s always a serious question about where that line is, and Christians obviously can and do disagree about where it is. But that line exists somewhere, and no matter where it is, whenever Christians draw it, you can be sure they will be accused of being insubordinate and unruly, rebellious citizens. That’s ok. We must not actually be those things, but we may not be able to help being accused of those things. God is our vindicator. Peter tells the Christian diaspora in 1 Peter 2:12 to “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.”—which is not today. That day is the end of days, so faithful Christians may be slandered their whole lives and not be vindicated until the last day. We ought to be content with that.
The road of Church history is paved with the blood of martyrs, most of whom were put to death by their own governments, not because they were ignoring Romans 13, but rather because they saw Romans 13 within the broader scope of God’s word, which requires God’s people to always honor Christ. But from the broader scope of the whole Bible, we see that the city of man—the city we sojourn through, the city in which we are mere pilgrims and resident aliens—is also called a harlot named Babylon (Revelation 20). She wants us dead. Sometimes that Babylon will try to devour us—she may even do this in the name of “public safety,” whereby Christians are designated a threat to society.
I was struck recently by something C.S. Lewis once wrote: “Persecution is a temptation to which all men are exposed. I once had a postcard saying that anyone who expressed and published his belief in the Virgin Birth should be stripped and flogged. That shows you how easily persecution of Christians by the non-Christians might come back. Of course, they wouldn’t call it Persecution: they’d call it ‘Compulsory reeducation of the ideologically unfit’, or something like that.”
But even if that happens, we are more than conquerors. G.K. Chesterton wasn’t wrong when he quipped, “Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a god who knew the way out of the grave.”
 C.S. Lewis, “Answers to Questions on Christianity.”
*This is an elaborated section from a sermon I preached at Emmaus Church. You can listen to the whole sermon here.