In seeking to understand the relationship between the Christian and the civil government, we started by looking at God's directions on the topic in Deuteronomy 17. There we observed that civil government is a phenomenon that arises from the people with God's approval, rather than being handed to the people by God. Consistent with this, the historical accounts show that, even in Israel's theocracy, making a king required both anointing by the prophet or priest and coronation by the people. The authority of civil government is established by means of a covenant-like relationship between governed and governor, with obligations and accountability for each. Due to the nature of this covenant, civil authorities are limited in their purview.
The topic before us now concerns practical guidelines to help Christians relate to authorities that may be more or less unjust.
A Word of Caution
A word of caution is in order at this point. As sinful humans, we are prone to rebellion and may often seek to throw off authority. This is why Paul exhorts his readers in Romans 13:1 so strongly. We need to be constantly reminded to remain in submission to those in authority over us. As we consider these guidelines, we must do so with an awareness of the deceitfulness of our own hearts. It would be all too easy to seize upon a governor's unjust action as justification that we have no further obligation to submit to him. That would be sinful rebellion and is not what is being advocated here.
Examples from other authority-based relationships might be helpful to consider. In a marriage relationship, for example, a wife whose husband makes demands that are unjust or simply outside his purview should not simply throw off all submission to him. She may even be willing to submit in certain ways to his unreasonable and unjust demands. In the areas where he goes too far, however, she might seek redress from the appropriate authorities, whether church elders or even, in extreme cases, law enforcement. She should not be seeking liberty from her submission to her husband, but, I believe, she may resist when and where he has overreached his authority.
Likewise, church members might be willing to put up with a certain degree or certain types of overreach from elders. However, elders who persist in wrongdoing or overreach ought to be corrected and, I am arguing, in areas where they have overreached their authority, may be disobeyed.
These analogous authority-based relationships may be helpful to keep in mind as we move forward.
How can we determine when someone in authority has asserted his authority in an inappropriate way that may be resisted without sin?
First, following the apostles' example in Acts 5:29, in the case where someone in authority would require us to disobey God, we must obey God rather than man.
Next, there is the matter of purview. Authority is given in spheres. It is not the husband’s purview to determine what taxes the family will pay to the state. It is not for church elders to determine the details of the marital relationship or specifics of parenting strategies for church members beyond what the Bible teaches. It is not for the civil authorities to determine how the faithful are to worship God. The principle? Where an authority attempts to rule outside his rightful purview, disobedience to him in that area is not necessarily disobedience to God. Of course, we must be prepared to face the consequences for disobedience but disobeying where he is attempting overreach is not inherently sinful.
A third way to recognize overreach that may be disobeyed without sinning is when the authority begins to rule in a way inconsistent with the covenant agreement established between ruler and people. This may relate to purview, above. Interestingly, we see an example of this in Acts 16:35-39. There we have a case of civil authorities governing contrary to existing law and being rebuked for it. Paul and Silas, both Roman citizens, have been arrested in Philippi, publicly beaten, and thrown in prison overnight. By Roman law, un-condemned Roman citizens should not be treated so, an argument implicit in Paul's words in 16:37. The apostle insists that the authorities release them according to the law and stop acting contrary to it. He holds the governing authorities accountable to the law under which they are bound to govern.
What form should appropriate resistance take and to what extent ought it be carried out? We will look at four examples from Scripture that should help us answer those questions.
The first and most basic form of resistance is a passive one: private refusal. This is where an unjust or overreaching demand is made upon a citizen, and he simply refuses to comply with the demand. First Kings 21:1-3 tells of Naboth refusing Ahab’s demand to sell him his vineyard, essentially refusing eminent domain. Naboth simply refuses the king's offer, saying, "The LORD forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my fathers" (v. 3). The demand is made of a private citizen and the refusal is private.
A more active means of private resistance involves personally acting in opposition to the authority's demands. A clear example we have seen previously is 1 Kings 18:3-4 where Obadiah, who is over the household of King Ahab, aids and abets 100 prophets of the Lord in direct defiance of the king and queen. Obadiah works in close relationship with Ahab and Jezebel while at the same time harboring and caring for a hundred prophets who have been targeted by Ahab and Jezebel! In Obadiah's estimation, the danger to the prophets was so severe and unjust that he had to take personal action to save them.
We have previously considered the case of Saul's rash vow that caused him to order Jonathan's execution (1 Sam. 14). The people refuse to carry out Saul's order and effectively stop Saul from executing his son. Their action is simply a passive refusal but done in a public sphere because of the public context of the order.
One of the clearest and most extreme examples of active public resistance is another we have already considered, that of Queen Athaliah in 2 Kings 11:4-12. In that case, Athaliah has been reigning as a usurper queen for six years. When the time is right, the captains of the priests, along with their men, led by Jehoiada, publicly declare Joash to be king, instead. In this case, Athaliah, the former sovereign, is even executed by the lesser magistrate (cf, 2 Chron. 23:15). The very public and ongoing usurpation of the throne by Athaliah called for public and active resistance.
In all this discussion, we must keep in mind that our sinful nature is inherently rebellious. We need to be very cautious in how we think about authority. It would be all too easy simply to look for reasons to cast off any and all shackles of authority that would hold us down. That is why God in the Scripture clearly and repeatedly commands us to "be subject to the governing authorities."
While keeping that commandment in mind, however, we are still left with the questions of just how absolute God would have us be in that subjection. I have argued that there are times and situations where the response of the Christian to governing authorities might be, and even sometimes ought to be, resistance to one degree or another, in one way or another. Governing authorities have their authority from God, for sure, but not from God alone! The authority they wield is on loan from the very people they govern, theirs by covenant arrangement. Under that covenant, not only are the people accountable to the government, but the government is likewise accountable to the very people governed, the reality of which the government must at times be reminded for the good of the governed.
Brennen Behimer (BA, Moody Bible Institute; MA, Wheaton College) is a pastor at Parkside Bible Fellowship in Fallon, NV. He is husband to Stephanie and father of six.
Note: The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of other contributors on this site.