“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God,” says the beginning of Romans Chapter 13. “Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”
This passage is often quoted by those who say that governments are to be obeyed, even when they are in conflict with the commands of Christ to love and care for all humankind. There are many weaknesses to this position.
If we are charged to always obey governments, then the Germans who committed the atrocities of the Holocaust could not be held accountable for the persecution of the Jews, because Hitler, the government, ordered it.
Saddam’s Republican Guard would be innocent of any wrong doing, because they were only acting under orders.
Russian dictator Joseph Stalin was responsible for the murders of millions of his own people, but because he was the government, were those who committed the slaughter doing the will of God because God appointed him?
Following that line of thought, the American Revolution was wrongly fought. King George was the legitimate government at the time.
Like Jesus before them, Peter and Paul were subject to the authorities of the day, but they did not always obey them. They were nonetheless subject to the law, in that the Roman authorities exacted the penalty of death for their disobedience.
According to Acts 5, when the Sanhedrin tried Peter, he said he must obey God rather than human authorities. He would not remain quiet. Tradition says he was finally crucified upside down because he refused to obey Roman law.
Paul spent much time in Roman jails. Indeed, he introduced himself as a prisoner of Jesus on at least four occasions, the result of his not being an obedient Roman citizen. Spared the horrible pain of crucifixion, Paul’s Roman citizenship allowed him a more humane death. He was beheaded.
Paul and Peter were not unlike Gandhi and Martin Luther King, who submitted to government authority by going to jail, even as they broke unjust laws.
Peter and Paul stood firm in their faith against the injustice of the Romans and, in the end, along with others persecuted and killed by crucifixion or beheading, overcame the empire.
Gandhi and his followers freed India from British rule by non-violent protest. The laws were stripped of their power by those willing to submit to the state while refusing to obey evil invectives.
People who read this Pauline passage as a call to always obey government do not take into account that Paul refused to obey his government. We cannot hide behind this passage giving government an allegiance that Jesus, Paul and the other disciples gave only to God.
Andrew Jackson’s unjust leading of the “Trail of Tears,” which caused the deaths of so many Native Americans, deserved no obedience. Laws from America’s past that disenfranchised women and “Jim Crow” laws that made people of color second-class citizens deserved only disobedience.
Governments are necessary to protect us from rampant lawlessness. The violence in Iraq is an extreme example of a country without an adequate government to provide safety and welfare for its people. Government regulations that limit and direct the proper use of resources are greatly needed. I am profoundly grateful that the police force will be at my home in very short order if I need them, and I am thankful for armed services that can be on called on to protect defenseless people. There is a great need for government, but it should not have our ultimate allegiance.
First-century Christians struggled to answer the question, “Who is Lord, Caesar or Jesus?”
Peter, Paul and all of the apostles were killed because the ultimate authority for their lives was not Rome but Jesus. The principles of the Kingdom of God that Jesus brings–love, grace, humility and forgiveness–were so contrary to the power of empire that Romans rightly saw them as subversive.
Christians thrown to the lions, crucified or beheaded ironically showed the weakness of Roman power. Rome lost the battle for hearts and minds to a people who would rather die than give ultimate allegiance to a government that dealt in the power of death.
True patriots must warn their country that when it does not work for peace and justice, it is up against insurmountable odds. For Jesus is Lord!
Larry Wilson is pastor of First Baptist Church in Biscoe, N.C.