God or government?
There is growing concern over laws passed in government and high court rulings which are hostile to Christian belief. Public reaction to the Asher’s (gay cake) Bakery case and the issue of abortion in the Trump vs Clinton presidential race has shown the cultural sphere has become polarized. Many evangelical Christians are feeling alienated and torn by the stances of secular government on key political and moral issues. But does that leave us in a dilemma? Doesn’t the Bible say that God has established government as an authority that believers should submit to? But what if the law of the land undermines God’s commands? What do we do then? Do we submit to God over government?
Where does the Bible teach us to submit to the government?
'Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.'
Romans 13:1-2 (ESV)
The Bible is very clear that every Christian (without exception) must submit to the rule of government. The apostle Paul says there are no authorities except what God has established. He is absolutely sovereign and in control of all the powers of the earth. Even Jesus made this clear to the gentile Roman governor, Pontius Pilate when he stood trial before him.
'You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.' John 19:11 (ESV)
Submitting to God over government
While it’s clear that there are consequences for anyone who resists the will of the government, what about when the government resists the will of God?
Nowhere in the Bible does it say the rule of government is infallible. That attribute belongs to God alone. It’s painfully obvious that the world's governing bodies don’t always act within Christian interests. We only need to think back to the Iranian government’s attempt to execute Christian pastor, Youcef Nadarkhani for his alleged apostasy from Islam. This is to be expected in a fallen world where man’s judgement is corrupted by sin and the devil (Romans 3:23, 2 Corinthians 4:4).
"And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest questioned them, saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man's blood upon us.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.”
Acts 5:27-29 (ESV)
It may be a shocking to some western Christians living in a postmodern age to see the early church in such open confrontation with the ruling authorities. Acts 5 records the high priest of the Pharisee’s (the ruling sect of Israel) rebuking the apostles for defying his command not to preach about Jesus. Peter’s response is clear. God is the ultimate authority and his commands must take precedence, especially when the government resists his will.
Imagine a platoon of soldiers on a morning run through a obstacle course with a drill sergeant. The soldiers are under the sergeants watch and care because of his rank. He has authority over them. But suppose half way through the run, an army general pulls up in a jeep and immediately commands the soldiers return to base. For the sake of argument, let’s suppose the sergeant snaps, pulls out a gun and demands the men continue to follow him instead. Who should they obey? Answer: The general, for two clear reasons. Firstly, the soldiers can recognise the sergeant has clearly lost his mind by resisting the generals will. Secondly, the general has a greater rank than the sergeant and so they must always submit to him as the higher authority. This would still remain the case, even if the psychotic sergeant started firing his weapon and killed them all.
'We must obey God rather than men.' Acts 5:29 (ESV)
The Higher Authority
So while it’s true that Christians should submit to the ruling authorities of the land, there are instances where submitting to the higher authority, God, must takes precedence. Whether that means being fined for refusing to bake a cake in support of gay marriage, or defying rulings from governments which contradict biblical commands, so be it. In many cases, this could lead to serious consequences such as time in prison or execution. The persecution of underground churches in China or North Korea where freedom of speech has been largely suppressed are clear examples. But as the apostle Peter declares, “We must obey God rather than men.”
Of course, this is by no means an easy pill to swallow. The Apostles faced serious persecution for their faith and submitting to God’s authority, and we shouldn’t consider ourselves exempt in the west. It’s easy to become intimidated or worried about what this could mean for the future of Christianity. But when we also reconsider God’s sovereignty of the ruling authorities and his role as the final judge and Lord of all mankind, we can see things from their proper perspective.
Adam Brennan is a Digital Producer at Premier