When looking at scripture we cannot isolate the text. We must look at it in its surrounding context, but we must also look at it in the context of the Bible as a whole. After all, the Bible is really just one story with one author! This is by no means an exhaustive discussion or commentary on this particular subject, but I want to take a quick and practical look at what scripture as a whole has to say. In other words, what does it look like in my life to both submit to the will of God and submit to the governing authorities?
Roman 13:1-7 makes it very clear that government and the authority it carries are instituted by God. So, we must understand what the purpose of government is and why does it carry this authority. Government is put in place to regulate morality according to the will and law of God; when it is functioning properly. However, government is not the primary means by which God’s commands and laws should be taught and enforced. There are three basic levels to authority. First, the family; second, the church; third, the government. The family should be the primary facilitator of teaching God’s laws (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). Then the church should supplement the family with the job of teaching and enforcing. This is where bearing each other’s burdens (Galatians 6:1-5) and church discipline (Matthew 18:15-20) come into play. Finally, comes the role of government as a way of enforcing the law on a national scale. An important note is the fact that each of the three levels of authority all come from God and are based on His law for the purpose of obedience to His will.
Paul also tells us in Romans that the governing authorities carry the sword. Therefore, government carries the authority to punish those that break the law and enact justice for the victims of the lawbreakers. It also rewards those that adhere to the law. If we obey the laws of God, which should also be the “law of the land”, then we have nothing to fear from the governing authorities and can gladly submit with a clear conscience. Peter echoes Paul’s sentiments in 1 Peter 2:11-17 and even gives us further reason for our submission. In verse 15 he says, “For it is God’s will that you, by doing good, silence the ignorance of foolish people.” Proper submission to ruling authorities in accordance to God’s will is a good thing and by doing this we bring glory and honor to God.
The issue arises when sinful man gets involved. In our rebellion we think we can decide for ourselves what is right and wrong, good and bad, and we make laws according to our preferences that are in opposition to God’s law. It is at this point that we must understand that God’s will and God’s law supersedes that of man. It is at this point that we realize that, occasionally, we must go against the “law of the land”.
Before I move on I want to make one thing clear. I am not talking about a violent opposition or rebellion to ruling authorities. I am speaking strictly to issues that are in opposition to God’s will and with the understanding that we must accept whatever consequences or punishment that may come upon us because of our actions. Even if it costs us our lives; just as Paul and other disciples laid down their lives for going against the governing authorities.
That being said, I want to offer a couple of examples illustrating the point that sometimes we cannot go along with what is deemed acceptable by those in power.
Daniel 3:8-30: This is the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. King Nebuchadnezzar has issued a law that everyone must bow down and worship a gold statue made in his image. The three young men saw that God’s law pertaining to idols and worshipping only the One True God trumped the king’s law to worship the statue. Their rebellion caused them to be thrown into a furnace. In this instance God spared their lives and protected them from the flame, thus affirming they made the right decision to honor God instead of man.
Daniel 6:1-28: King Darius issued a decree that for 30 days no man could pray to any god, but could only pray to the king. Daniel rebelled by praying to the living God and was thrown into the lion’s den. Just as with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, God spared Daniel’s life.
Acts 5:21-32: The apostles are brought before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish religious authority of their day, because they had been ordered to stop preaching Jesus and the gospel message, but they continued to do so. Verse 29 records their response when questioned; “But Peter and the apostles replied, we must obey God rather than men.”
We are to submit and show respect for everyone in authority over us. We are to obey the “law of the land” as long as it in accordance to God’s will and does not cause us sin by obeying it. In any instance where obeying or accepting the rule of the government would cause us to sin, we are to obey God rather than men, but we must be ready and willing to accept whatever consequences may come as a result of our actions. Even if our obedience to God means losing our jobs, being thrown into prison, or even laying down our lives!
Author: Sherwon Williamson