Can Christians Rebel Against Government?:
An Examination of Romans 13 and Submitting to Authority

Jun 27, 2009 Brian Tubbs Comments through the glasses of a "Vine & Fig Tree" Worldview

Does government derive its authority from the consent of the governed or from God? Can Christians rebel against a government? What does Romans 13 mean?

Government by consent of the governed is a fundamental premise in the U.S. Declaration of Independence and a bedrock principle of western government. This premise, however, appears inconsistent with Paul's exhortation to "be subject to the governing authorities" as well as Peter's admonition to "submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake." There is no inconsistency between "consent of the governed" and the command to be subject to governments which disregard the consent of the governed.
Is it possible that America's Founding Fathers were in direct violation of biblical principles concerning government and authority, when they rebelled against Great Britain? Was the American Revolution an unbiblical act? Yes, the American Revolution was unBiblical.
What about those nations that are clearly wicked? Must Christians submit to a Hitler or a Stalin or a Saddam Hussein? Is the Bible saying that Christians must submit unconditionally to every government official and every government ordinance? Yes, Christians must submit to dictators. That's exactly what Romans 13 commands: we are to overcome evil with good, not with violence.

Romans 13 and Submitting to Authority

In his letter to the church at Rome, Paul wrote that "every soul" should be "subject to to the governing authorities" and that there is "no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God." (Romans 13:1-2, NKJV). "Appointed" is an ambiguous translation of the Greek word, as is "ordained." Hitler and Saddam Hussein were both put into power by God. All kings are put in power by God, and all invading armies are sent by God. This does not mean they have God's ethical seal-of-approval, and need not repent of their evil deeds.
John MacArthur, an internationally-known and highly respected pastor and theologian, says that the Romans 13 principle of being "subject to the governing authorities" is "unqualified, unlimited, and unconditional." This is true. Though even MacArthur will admit that there are times when "we must obey God rather than man" (Acts 5:29).
Monarchs throughout history would have heartily applauded MacArthur's take on Romans 13. In fact, King James I, who ruled England and Ireland from 1603 to 1625, took MacArthur's point a little bit further. In his famous Works (published in 1609), the monarch wrote: "The state of monarchy is the supremest thing upon earth; for kings are not only God's lieutenants upon earth, and sit upon God's throne, but even by God himself are called 'gods.'"  
Does Romans 13 uphold absolutist power for monarchs? Is there perhaps an alternative understanding of Romans 13, one that would allow (at least in some circumstances) civil disobedience or even rebellion? No. The Bible does not prescribe absolute power, but says we are to submit to those who lawlessly claim it.

Understanding the Governing Authorities

Two questions leap out when examining the language of Romans 13. First, the passage on civil government doesn't stop after the first two verses. The entire passage (Romans 13:1-7) not only talks about a citizen's responsibility to the "governing authorities," but also spells out the duties and obligations of the government. What happens when a government doesn't fulfill those obligations? The passage is not addressed to magistrates, and does not "spell out the duties and obligations of the government." The main duty of the government (as well as other evil doers -- cf. the preceding chapter) is to repent of being "archists." Our duty is to submit, that is, overcome evil with good.
The second question deals with understanding the nature of the government itself. The classic King James Version translates Romans 13:1 as saying "higher powers" (as opposed to "governing authorities"). This raises the issue of hierarchy. Even if one takes a literal reading of Romans 13, such a person must consider the hierarchy within his or her government. Romans 13 is not addressing "hierarchy within government." The "powers" in both the Old and New Testaments were angelic forces overseeing empires. More here.
In the Roman Empire, the highest "power" (or authority) was the Caesar or the emperor. All other officials were subordinate to the emperor. Thus, if a Roman governor issued a decree and Caesar countermanded it, a Christian intending to follow Romans 13:1-2 would have to disregard or disobey the Roman governor and instead follow Caesar. The demonic powers are higher than man but under God (Hebrews 2:7-9, Jude 1:9).
What if a nation or empire, however, decides to make laws their highest authority as opposed to people? In the case of the United States, for example, the Constitution is the "Supreme Law" of the land, and those who occupy positions of power in government are required to take an oath to the Constitution. Should this framework not be incorporated into one's understanding of Romans 13:1-2? No. Constitutions and human government are still evil, and still to be overcome with good, not with violence.
David Barton, a Christian activist who specializes in the American founding era, argues that this framework was part of Britain's legacy, going back to Magna Carta. And it was this framework that informed the Founders, including those Founders who were devout Christians. Barton is generally reliable.
According to Barton, the theological understanding held by most colonial era Christians was that they must be loyal to the "institution" of government, but not always the specific individuals who occupied those institutions or policies that emanated from it. Exactly the opposite is the case. We are to submit to the specific people, but the entire institution is to be abolished. Government as an institution is a violation of God's Law. See, for starters, 1 Samuel 8.
In an article titled "The American Revolution: Was it an Act of Biblical Rebellion," Barton explains that "most Christian denominations during the Founding Era held that while they were forbidden to overthrow the institution of government and live in anarchy, they were not required blindly to submit to every law and policy." It is true that "We must obey God rather than man" (Acts 5:29). But the ideal, from the Garden to the New Jerusalem, is anarchy under God rather than living under tribute (Proverbs 12:24; Luke 23:2). Paying taxes is commanded; levying taxes is prohibited.

Model Citizens in Two Kingdoms

While the debate over Romans 13 is not likely to be fully resolved anytime soon, most Christians today acknowledge that they have a responsibility to pray for those in authority (I Timothy 2), give to government what it is rightfully due (Matthew 22:21), honor the government (I Peter 2), and to conduct themselves as "model citizens." Matthew 22:21 does not say that tribute is "rightful." The Bible says to pay it even though it is not right to demand it.
Some argue that these biblically-based responsibilities include the need to speak out and pursue policy changes. Yet Christians must be cautious. While John MacArthur's understanding of Romans 13 may lack an appreciation for political nuance and legal complexity, most would agree that he is on firm scriptural ground when he says that "there is no such thing as a Christian government," and thus Christians who spend too much time on political affairs neglect their responsibilities to the Kingdom of God.  
Indeed, Jesus said his kingdom was "not of this world." While it may be permissible for Christians (in certain conditions) to disobey or even rebel against government and while Christians should be "salt and light" in their communities, a Christian's principal focus must be on the Kingdom of God, and not on what will inevitably pass away.  

Related Reading

For more on John MacArthur's theological understanding of Romans 13 and a Christian's duty to government, read "The Christian and Government." MacArthur believes government is good. We believe government is evil. Both of us agree we should not overthrow the government by force. Agreeing on the duty of those subjected to tyranny does not address the moral legitimacy of subjecting others to tyranny.
Readers looking for a strong defense of the Founding Fathers and their decision to launch the American Revolution will find David Barton's article on the subject to be of great interest.  
Read more at Suite101: Can Christians Rebel Against Government?: An Examination of Romans 13 and Submitting to Authority
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