Q&A: Balancing Civil Obedience & Disobedience

Q: “For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Ro 13:3,4).

Paul wrote this when Nero was emperor. So all the Christians who were tortured and murdered by Nero had nothing to fear from him? What about all the Christians who have been martyred over the century? All they had to do was do right and they would be commended by Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot? These butchers were God’s servants to do good? I’m having real trouble with this.

A: Great question, thanks. Paul is of course speaking in general terms. Vv.3-4 are generally true. Government in general is ordained by God to establish order and prevent anarchy, just as he has established the human family with a hierarchy to defend and nurture children, etc. Even a corrupt government is better than none (even in Stalin’s Russia, people still had to stop at red lights and murderers were prosecuted– even though Stalin himself was the worst offender). However, that does not mean that any specific government is always good or that it cannot overstep its boundaries and become utterly corrupt. Just like the human family, even the best government is tainted by the sin of a fallen world.

There is a tension in the New Testament between the idea of being a “good citizen” for the sake of the gospel (Ro 13:7) and “obeying God not man” (Ac 5:29) Paul wrote Romans in the 50s A.D., before Nero’s utter deterioration (the fire at Rome and Nero’s subsequent persecution of Christians was in AD 64). Revelation, written in the 90s during the persecutions of Domitian, when conditions for Christians had deteriorated significantly, shows this tension dramatically.

Bottom line, we are to obey government in as much as it asks us to do things that are right, or at least not against God’s law (such as paying taxes), but no believer is expected to obey an unjust law (such as when the Roman government required us to worship the emperor). “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”– Jesus understood that tension very well. The Bible is filled with commands for God’s people to confront corruption, greed and injustice wherever it festers but to do so in a way that is respectful, peaceful and humble. The concept of civil disobedience is a completely biblical one. The apostles were “civilly disobedient” when they were ordered by the Sanhedrin to stop preaching the gospel (Ac 4-5).

Now, regarding the Bible’s saying things that are “generally” true, consider the book of Proverbs. It contains wisdom sayings that are usually true, but aren’t there many exceptions? For example, God blesses those who live righteously. But what of the suffering of the righteous? Job and Ecclesiastes deal with the problem of unjust suffering and help to balance this. Compare Prov. 4:6-9 and Eccles 9:11. We need to balance Scripture with Scripture.

True, one should begin to study any passage within its own context first, but there are a few safeguards that help provide balance (otherwise, we’d have millions of cults), one of which is to understand any passage within the whole counsel of Scripture, and another is not to build essential doctrines based on only one passage. See how Eph 2:8,9 & Jas 2:24 at first seem to contradict each other, but really balance each other out.

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