Several years ago I had a conversation with another believer after a Sunday worship service about a believer’s relationship to the government. We differed on when it was appropriate to disobey the government. He was refusing to pay taxes. I wrote a follow-up letter, which I reproduce below (with some modifications) as a reflection on this morning’s Scripture reading — Romans 13.
[Brief and personal introductory remarks removed.]
I also would like to offer a couple Biblical responses to your question about the government. After many years of discussing a variety of theological issues, it has become apparent to me that many arguments arise because people fail to consult the Scriptures. In any discussion of theology, Scripture is the final authority. Frankly that is one reason I stressed what I did about Philippians 2:12-13 during my sermon. Logically, the truths about God’s sovereignty and my responsibility are incompatible, yet Biblically they are completely compatible, so rather than attempting to reconcile them to one another, we accept them both as true, and preach them both with boldness.
Regarding my specific relationship about the government, I would whole-heartedly affirm with you that when the government demands me to do something contrary to Scriptural principles, I must disobey. We find two excellent examples of that in Acts 4:18-20 and 5:18-20, 29. When commanded to stop proclaiming the gospel, Peter, John and the other apostles would not submit to the government because God as the higher authority had commanded otherwise. Daniel 3:8-18 is another good illustration of this principle.
However, the broad Biblical position is that God establishes government — every government — and that men (believers and non-believers alike) are to submit themselves to that authority. Let me quote for you Romans 13:1-7. There God says,
Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore he who resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil. Wherefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor. [NASB]
Let me make a couple of observations from this passage: if there is a government in existence, it exists through the hand and will of God. Period. No government has any authority except that God has given it (v. 1). [You might also consider Daniel 4, which is a most remarkable illustration of this truth.] That means that we not only do not need to fear the government (see also vv. 3-4), but also that we do not need to be anxious about the government that is over us, since God has placed it there. Furthermore, every government is not only appointed by God, but it serves God (vv. 4, 6), much as a believer serves God in the body of Christ. Government is God’s divinely appointed authority to carry out His will. Also, when an individual disobeys and does not submit to the government (with the exception noted above), he is not only opposing the government, but he is living in opposition to God (v. 2)! Thus, Scripture not only commands submission to the government, but a failure to submit to the government is an indication of an unsubmissive heart — a heart that will neither submit to the government or God.
In fact, Scripture even goes on to say that it is my responsibility to pray for the government both on behalf of them (i.e., asking for wisdom for governmental authorities) and to be thankful for them (1 Tim. 2:1-2)! And when one submissively prays for the government with thankfulness, it will lead to a spiritually tranquil and peaceful life. And the opposite also is suggested: when we fail to submissively pray for the government with genuine thankfulness, we will not be at peace spiritually.
Christ Himself reiterated these principles in Mark 12:13-17. Rather than protest the oppressiveness of the Roman government, He commanded His followers to pay the taxes of the government. No word from Christ was spoken about abortion, euthanasia, political corruption, or lack of “godly” leadership (all of which were abundantly present in the Roman culture and government, plus many more atrocities far worse than anything we are currently experiencing in America).
If you were to ask me what I think about any number of governmental policies, no doubt we would be in agreement about our concerns with many of them. I would suggest that governmental policies exist that are financial burdens, unjust, and even at times, immoral. However, until the time that the government commands me to engage in immoral, ungodly activities or commands me to stop proclaiming the gospel, I am Biblically bound to submit to the government as unto Christ.
Let me also add that because God has appointed every government, no government can suppress the will of God. Nothing can thwart the plans and purposes of God (poor old Nebuchadnezzar learned that lesson the hard way)! I think one of the reasons there is so much spiritual hand-wringing about the government in our culture is because of a general lack of trust in God. I can give God my every anxiety and He will fully accomplish His protection of me. I have no need to fear the government or anyone else (1 Pt. 5:7).
Several times over the past few years, people have expressed to me great concern over a variety of Biblical or theological issues. Very often I have found that the concern came from reading a particular book addressing that issue. As I stated earlier, the authority is not a book, but God’s book — the Scriptures. I would challenge you to diligently search the Scriptures (Acts 17:11) rather than basing your theology on the arguments and logic of man.
Thank you for taking the time to read this letter. [Brief personal remarks removed.]
In His grace,