There is little disagreement among those who esteem the Bible as the very word of God that it teaches the responsibility of Christians to be in subjection to civil authorities that are instituted by God for the benefit of men in a fallen world. It is a far-reaching injunction, affecting many aspects of our lives, particularly under more authoritarian (and therefore less libertarian) governments. But there is a limit to the obedience that a man or woman of faith is bound to render to earthly authorities, and the concept of some such theoretical limitation is also almost universally agreed upon by serious Christians.
It is this tension of the sometimes-conflicting responsibilities of being subject to civil authorities on the one hand, and to obey and fear God on the other, that takes real exercise of faith before the Lord, and patience and understanding among believers. As always, in matters of Christian faith and practice, it is best to begin with the scriptures, and then to ask God for wisdom from above to apply them to the situations He brings into our path through this world. Listed here are most of the pertinent New Testament texts:
Be in subjection therefore to every human institution for the Lord’s sake; whether to the king as supreme, or to rulers as sent by him, for vengeance on evildoers, and praise to them that do well. Because so is the will of God, that by well-doing ye put to silence the ignorance of senseless men; as free, and not as having liberty as a cloak of malice, but as God’s bondmen. Shew honour to all, love the brotherhood, fear God, honour the king. (I Peter 2:13-17)
Let every soul be subject to the authorities that are above him. For there is no authority except from God; and those that exist are set up by God. So that he that sets himself in opposition to the authority resists the ordinance of God; and they who thus resist shall bring sentence of guilt on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to a good work, but to an evil one. Dost thou desire then not to be afraid of the authority? practise what is good, and thou shalt have praise from it; for it is God’s minister to thee for good. But if thou practisest evil, fear; for it bears not the sword in vain; for it is God’s minister, an avenger for wrath to him that does evil. Wherefore it is necessary to be subject, not only on account of wrath, but also on account of conscience. For on this account ye pay tribute also; for they are God’s officers, attending continually on this very thing. Render to all their dues: to whom tribute is due, tribute; to whom custom, custom; to whom fear, fear; to whom honour, honour. (Romans 13:1-7)
Put them in mind to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient to rule, to be ready to do every good work. (Titus 3:1)
And having called them, they charged them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answering said to them, If it be righteous before God to listen to you rather than to God, judge ye; for as for us we cannot refrain from speaking of the things which we have seen and heard. But they, having further threatened them, let them go, finding no way how they might punish them, on account of the people, because all glorified God for what had taken place. (Acts 4:18-21)
And when they had brought them, they set them before the council: and the high priest asked them, Saying, Did not we straitly command you that ye should not teach in this name? and, behold, ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us. Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men. (Acts 5:27-29)
Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not? . . . And [Jesus] said to them, Pay therefore what is Caesar’s to Caesar, and what is God’s to God. (Luke 20:22-25)
(All quotations above are from J. N. Darby’s New Translation of the Bible.)
We sometimes hear this conflict of competing responsibilities solved abstractly in this way: “Christians must obey civil authorities unless doing so would cause you to sin.” But I do not believe this brief statement sufficiently captures either the essence of the conflict or all that issues from the attempt to frame it that simply. This is especially true if we are thinking of the verb “to sin” in the way people normally think of it — as committing an act of disobedience or rebellion against God. But even with the definition of sinning broadened to include acts of omission or failure to obey a command of God, I believe it is still possible to miss the spirit of what it means to give “what is God’s to God.”
Let us consider a couple of examples. Very often in the history of the church of God, Christians have been forbidden to meet together for worship, teaching, and prayer. Now, few among us would consider it a sin for a believer, if forbidden by government fiat from meeting with other Christians, to stay at home and worship God the Father and the Son in the safety of his private room. But at the same time, many of us would appreciate the faith that would risk arrest and punishment so that Christ might be honored in having saints gathered around Himself, unto His name (Matthew 18:20). Our consciences, when instructed in the claims of God upon us, discern instinctively that this is doing nothing other than rendering to God what is God’s, for Christ must in all things have preeminence. God never intended that His church should meet, break bread, sing, or be taught, at the dispensation or pleasure of a king or governor, although as individual believers we are to be subject. However, “being subject” does not imply unqualified obedience;¹ rather, it refers to the conscious attitude of ranking or placing oneself under another in a God-given authority structure.
What would faith do when singing praises to God is forbidden? Surely it is not a sin to cease singing for a time. The godly once refrained from singing the songs demanded of them by their tormentors while consciously under the judgment of God in a strange land (Psalm 137). But we enjoy beautiful English hymnody with lines like this: “He justly claims a song from thee”, and “the Savior’s love demands our song”, and again, “Should we refuse our songs to raise, the stones might tell our shame abroad.” Paul and Silas sang praises at midnight when it was perhaps annoying to others and risky for themselves in that Philippian jail (Acts 16:25), for they enjoyed in their souls the same spirit of praise that moved these hymn writers. It is recorded that Anabaptist martyrs of the 16th century lost their tongues before they lost their lives at the burning stake for their boldness in singing during the hour of their deepest distress.
Let these examples of faith temper our understanding of what it means to “obey God rather than men”. Peter and John answered thus when commanded not to be teaching in the name of Jesus, after also having given this testimony as our example: “We cannot refrain from speaking of the things which we have seen and heard.” Later it was Paul who exhorted the saints to continue “speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and chanting with your heart to the Lord”, and to be “teaching and admonishing one another, in psalms, hymns, spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to God” (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16).
The examples we have looked at should not be seen as exactly transferable to the present circumstances. But what then should be the response of faith in a day when civil authorities proscribe certain activities long valued by saints, and which are patterned by the holy scriptures as the normal corporate answer of the body of Christ to His claims? I suggest that it is not so simple as asking whether a certain rule or regulation would cause you to sin. This is the time and place where the exercise of faith is needed in a special way among Christians in the West. There is no legal answer that will suffice to satisfy the situation here, or to solve the dilemma. Some may by faith and in good conscience do as Daniel did in Medo-Persia long ago, who, knowing full well the prohibition on worshiping the God of heaven, “kneeled on his knees three times a day, and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he did aforetime” (Daniel 6:10).
Others may seek wisdom from God to direct their steps and have their faith exercised in a more cautious or incremental manner. We find differing exercises of faith and courage among the faithful in the Bible, and even among Paul’s compatriots. Saints have differing levels of natural boldness or timidity as well, but each of us answers to one Lord. “Each of us shall give an account concerning himself to God” (Romans 14:12). We ought to have expanded hearts toward each other as members of the body of Christ, and especially during times of difficulty and distress, rather than using a narrow or legal framework to evaluate the moves or motives of others (II Corinthians 6:11-13).
I want to consider yet how faith might act in a foreseeable future, if the Lord Jesus does not come soon to take His own out of this increasingly evil world. Have you thought about how you might respond by faith under a creeping authoritarianism? I realize that some Christians do not see current restrictions and possible future epidemic mitigation tactics as anything but a reasonable response to a dire situation. I hope they are correct that things will soon return to “normal” and remain that way until the Lord comes.
What if Satan, with thousands of years of experience and a desperation due to the shortness of his time (Revelation 12:12) — what if he might be slowly but steadily getting Western Christians used to giving up their liberty to worship God (collectively, for now), under the guise of legitimate public health concerns? What if liberties are further encroached upon when a vaccine is produced and all are ordered to receive it under pain of house arrest or something akin to it? We might submit to such mandates simply to avoid the government’s “wrath”², with conscience unaffected. But how should we respond if political will or bureaucratic momentum catch up to the existing technology for imposing tracking devices or chips in order to keep citizens “safe” from disease, or perhaps at some point from psychological harm (read: Bible teaching)? What if you become responsible by law for reporting your neighbor’s “antisocial” activities? What if your child is denied a Christian education in a private school or homeschool because of political maneuvering in the context of fear, and your faith prompts you to reject the state’s agenda of indoctrination? A year ago, it would have seemed strange to most Christians in North America to be asking these questions, but now they can be found in news reports as that which society will be facing in the future. There is nothing but God’s restraining goodness that can slow the insidious progression of an authoritarian technocracy that could, in our lifetimes, serve to put to the test the faith of every true saint of God.
At some point along the short or long slide into authoritarian rule (in which evil will increasingly be called good and good, evil), people of faith will find it necessary to decline to comply with the mandates or restrictions that impinge upon the practice of their faith, as have millions of Christians throughout history outside of our narrow frame of reference that is 19th and 20th century Western civil society. And our outlook must not be limited by present experience; we must look ahead and prepare our minds by faith for what may come, and be determined in our hearts to practice what would be due to Christ, should we face incrementally more restrictive circumstances.
Dear Christian brother and sister, I wish not to appear lawless, divisive, or dramatic, but rather, I hope to encourage faith and faithfulness in view of difficult times to come. Whatever our individual perception of how quickly things will develop toward the turmoil and panic and despotism we know must come to pass at some point (for it is plainly foretold in the book of the Revelation), let us each be stirred up to have Christ Jesus our Hope before us as the Morning Star rising in our hearts.³ At the same time, let us begin to consider these words of the Lord to His little flock: “Watch ye therefore, and pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man” (Luke 21:36).
¹ Different words are used to give the respective senses of “to be subject” (hupotasso) and “to obey” (hupakouo), even as the subjection of the wife to her husband differs from the obedience called for by a child to his parents, or of Christ’s obedience.
² Romans 13:5
³ I Timothy 1:1; II Peter 1:19