God has ordained government to uphold justice and given its agents power; governments are empowered by Satan to advance the purposes of the powers and principalities of this age. These statements seem contradictory, and yet are both revealed in the New Testament and operative at the same time. We do well to consider the fraught nature and challenges of the relationship between Christians and civil government.
Jesus encountered opposition and hostility unto death for manifesting God’s character to the world and upholding truth and righteousness. He wished to prepare His disciples to prepare for the same. The potential is always there; we must always be ready to bear witness to Jesus in word and life even unto death.
“If the world hateth you, ye know that it hath hated me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love its own: but because ye are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you. Remember the word that I said unto you, A servant is not greater than his lord. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. But all these things will they do unto you for my name’s sake, because they know not him that sent me. If I had not come and spoken unto them, they had not had sin: but now they have no excuse for their sin. He that hateth me hateth my Father also. If I had not done among them the works which none other did, they had not had sin: but now have they both seen and hated both me and my Father. But this cometh to pass, that the word may be fulfilled that is written in their law, ‘They hated me without a cause.’
But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall bear witness of me: and ye also bear witness, because ye have been with me from the beginning.
These things have I spoken unto you, that ye should not be caused to stumble. They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the hour cometh, that whosoever killeth you shall think that he offereth service unto God. And these things will they do, because they have not known the Father, nor me” (John 15:18-16:3).
Jerusalem was in disrepair, lowly and humiliated. Nehemiah had a heart to restore its standing. God would support and sustain them; the people needed to work; they needed to be encouraged. And they needed each other.
But it came to pass that, when Sanballat heard that we were building the wall, he was wroth, and took great indignation, and mocked the Jews.
And he spake before his brethren and the army of Samaria, and said, “What are these feeble Jews doing? will they fortify themselves? will they sacrifice? will they make an end in a day? will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish, seeing they are burned?”
Now Tobiah the Ammonite was by him, and he said, “Even that which they are building, if a fox go up, he shall break down their stone wall.”
Hear, O our God; for we are despised: and turn back their reproach upon their own head, and give them up for a spoil in a land of captivity; and cover not their iniquity, and let not their sin be blotted out from before thee; for they have provoked thee to anger before the builders.
So we built the wall; and all the wall was joined together unto half the height thereof: for the people had a mind to work.
But it came to pass that, when Sanballat, and Tobiah, and the Arabians, and the Ammonites, and the Ashdodites, heard that the repairing of the walls of Jerusalem went forward, and that the breaches began to be stopped, then they were very wroth; and they conspired all of them together to come and fight against Jerusalem, and to cause confusion therein. But we made our prayer unto our God, and set a watch against them day and night, because of them.
And Judah said, “The strength of the bearers of burdens is decayed, and there is much rubbish; so that we are not able to build the wall.”
And our adversaries said, “They shall not know, neither see, till we come into the midst of them, and slay them, and cause the work to cease.”
And it came to pass that, when the Jews that dwelt by them came, they said unto us ten times from all places, Ye must return unto us. Therefore set I in the lowest parts of the space behind the wall, in the open places, I set there the people after their families with their swords, their spears, and their bows.
And I looked, and rose up, and said unto the nobles, and to the rulers, and to the rest of the people, “Be not ye afraid of them: remember the Lord, who is great and terrible, and fight for your brethren, your sons, and your daughters, your wives, and your houses.”
And it came to pass, when our enemies heard that it was known unto us, and God had brought their counsel to nought, that we returned all of us to the wall, every one unto his work. And it came to pass from that time forth, that half of my servants wrought in the work, and half of them held the spears, the shields, and the bows, and the coats of mail; and the rulers were behind all the house of Judah. They all builded the wall and they that bare burdens laded themselves; every one with one of his hands wrought in the work, and with the other held his weapon; and the builders, every one had his sword girded by his side, and so builded. And he that sounded the trumpet was by me.
And I said unto the nobles, and to the rulers and to the rest of the people, “The work is great and large, and we are separated upon the wall, one far from another: in what place soever ye hear the sound of the trumpet, resort ye thither unto us; our God will fight for us.”
So we wrought in the work: and half of them held the spears from the rising of the morning till the stars appeared. Likewise at the same time said I unto the people, Let every one with his servant lodge within Jerusalem, that in the night they may be a guard to us, and may labor in the day. So neither I, nor my brethren, nor my servants, nor the men of the guard that followed me, none of us put off our clothes, every one went with his weapon to the water (Nehemiah 4:1-23).
A deceived king; a blasphemous decree. Daniel proved faithful; Daniel was vindicated. But what is the story of Daniel and the lion’s den all about? What ought the people of God learn from the experience?
It pleased Darius to set over the kingdom a hundred and twenty satraps, who should be throughout the whole kingdom; and over them three presidents, of whom Daniel was one; that these satraps might give account unto them, and that the king should have no damage. Then this Daniel was distinguished above the presidents and the satraps, because an excellent spirit was in him; and the king thought to set him over the whole realm. Then the presidents and the satraps sought to find occasion against Daniel as touching the kingdom; but they could find no occasion nor fault, forasmuch as he was faithful, neither was there any error or fault found in him. Then said these men, We shall not find any occasion against this Daniel, except we find it against him concerning the law of his God. Then these presidents and satraps assembled together to the king, and said thus unto him, King Darius, live for ever. All the presidents of the kingdom, the deputies and the satraps, the counsellors and the governors, have consulted together to establish a royal statute, and to make a strong interdict, that whosoever shall ask a petition of any god or man for thirty days, save of thee, O king, he shall be cast into the den of lions. Now, O king, establish the interdict, and sign the writing, that it be not changed, according to the law of the Medes and Persians, which altereth not. Wherefore king Darius signed the writing and the interdict. And when Daniel knew that the writing was signed, he went into his house (now his windows were open in his chamber toward Jerusalem); and he kneeled upon his knees three times a day, and prayed, and gave thanks before his God, as he did aforetime. Then these men assembled together, and found Daniel making petition and supplication before his God. Then they came near, and spake before the king concerning the king’s interdict: Hast thou not signed an interdict, that every man that shall make petition unto any god or man within thirty days, save unto thee, O king, shall be cast into the den of lions? The king answered and said, The thing is true, according to the law of the Medes and Persians, which altereth not. Then answered they and said before the king, That Daniel, who is of the children of the captivity of Judah, regardeth not thee, O king, nor the interdict that thou hast signed, but maketh his petition three times a day. Then the king, when he heard these words, was sore displeased, and set his heart on Daniel to deliver him; and he labored till the going down of the sun to rescue him. Then these men assembled together unto the king, and said unto the king, Know, O king, that it is a law of the Medes and Persians, that no interdict nor statute which the king establisheth may be changed. Then the king commanded, and they brought Daniel, and cast him into the den of lions. Now the king spake and said unto Daniel, Thy God whom thou servest continually, he will deliver thee. And a stone was brought, and laid upon the mouth of the den; and the king sealed it with his own signet, and with the signet of his lords; that nothing might be changed concerning Daniel. Then the king went to his palace, and passed the night fasting; neither were instruments of music brought before him: and his sleep fled from him. Then the king arose very early in the morning, and went in haste unto the den of lions. And when he came near unto the den to Daniel, he cried with a lamentable voice; the king spake and said to Daniel, O Daniel, servant of the living God, is thy God, whom thou servest continually, able to deliver thee from the lions? Then said Daniel unto the king, O king, live for ever. My God hath sent his angel, and hath shut the lions’ mouths, and they have not hurt me; forasmuch as before him innocency was found in me; and also before thee, O king, have I done no hurt. Then was the king exceeding glad, and commanded that they should take Daniel up out of the den. So Daniel was taken up out of the den, and no manner of hurt was found upon him, because he had trusted in his God. And the king commanded, and they brought those men that had accused Daniel, and they cast them into the den of lions, them, their children, and their wives; and the lions had the mastery of them, and brake all their bones in pieces, before they came to the bottom of the den. Then king Darius wrote unto all the peoples, nations, and languages, that dwell in all the earth: Peace be multiplied unto you. I make a decree, that in all the dominion of my kingdom men tremble and fear before the God of Daniel; for he is the living God, and stedfast for ever, And his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed; and his dominion shall be even unto the end. He delivereth and rescueth, and he worketh signs and wonders in heaven and in earth, who hath delivered Daniel from the power of the lions. So this Daniel prospered in the reign of Darius, and in the reign of Cyrus the Persian (Daniel 6:1-28).
We may get weary and fainthearted at times in our faith in Christ. The Hebrew Christians did as well. The author the Hebrew letter did well to encourage them to maintain their race and their discipline.
Therefore let us also, seeing we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising shame, and hath sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider him that hath endured such gainsaying of sinners against himself, that ye wax not weary, fainting in your souls. Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin: and ye have forgotten the exhortation which reasoneth with you as with sons,
“My son, regard not lightly the chastening of the Lord, Nor faint when thou art reproved of him; For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, And scourgeth every son whom he receiveth.”
It is for chastening that ye endure; God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father chasteneth not? But if ye are without chastening, whereof all have been made partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons. Furthermore, we had the fathers of our flesh to chasten us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live? For they indeed for a few days chastened us as seemed good to them; but he for our profit, that we may be partakers of his holiness. All chastening seemeth for the present to be not joyous but grievous; yet afterward it yieldeth peaceable fruit unto them that have been exercised thereby, even the fruit of righteousness. Wherefore lift up the hands that hang down, and the palsied knees; and make straight paths for your feet, that that which is lame be not turned out of the way, but rather be healed. Follow after peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no man shall see the Lord (Hebrews 12:1-14).
John is given a vision of what Christians will endure. Earthly powers empowered by the Evil One are strong and will make war on the saints. Christians can overcome the beast in faithfulness to God. What does it all mean?
And I heard a great voice in heaven, saying, Now is come the salvation, and the power, and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ: for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, who accuseth them before our God day and night. And they overcame him because of the blood of the Lamb, and because of the word of their testimony; and they loved not their life even unto death. Therefore rejoice, O heavens, and ye that dwell in them. Woe for the earth and for the sea: because the devil is gone down unto you, having great wrath, knowing that he hath but a short time (Revelation 12:10-12).
And I saw as it were a sea of glass mingled with fire; and them that come off victorious from the beast, and from his image, and from the number of his name, standing by the sea of glass, having harps of God. And they sing the song of Moses the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, “Great and marvellous are thy works, O Lord God, the Almighty; righteous and true are thy ways, thou King of the ages. Who shall not fear, O Lord, and glorify thy name? for thou only art holy; for all the nations shall come and worship before thee; for thy righteous acts have been made manifest” (Revelation 15:2-4).
We live in interesting times. We may have been born and raised here, or have made this our adopted country, but we still do not exactly feel at home. Should we try to take back the country? Or should we recognize that we never really truly fit in–nor should fit in–but should live as sojourners and exiles in the land?
Christians and Government: Civil Disobedience
Christianity was established during the days of the Roman Empire with a radical claim: God made Jesus of Nazareth Lord and King, declaring Him the Son of God through His resurrection (Acts 2:36, 17:6-9, Romans 1:4). All Christians, therefore, recognized they were part of the great spiritual and trans-national Kingdom of God in Christ over whom Jesus rules as Lord (Philippians 3:20, Colossians 1:13, Revelation 1:12-20). Yet subjection to God in Christ in the Kingdom did not automatically mean rebellion and resistance against the earthly Roman power: Paul explained how earthly authorities have been empowered by God for their purpose, and both he and Peter encouraged Christians to honor the Emperor and remain subject to civil authority (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17). Early Christians were therefore expected to maintain primary loyalty to Jesus, the King of kings, while remaining subject to the Roman Emperor. But what was to happen if and when a Christian would be forced to disobey the commands of God through the Lord Jesus in order to obey the decree of Caesar or his appointed local or regional authority?
The New Testament provides two examples of such circumstances. In Acts 4:15-18 and Acts 5:27-28 the Jewish Sanhedrin, a recognized authority for intra-Jewish matters, commanded Peter and John to no longer teach in the name of Jesus. Had Peter and John obeyed the Sanhedrin they would have proven disobedient to the Lord Jesus’ command in Matthew 28:18-20. In both circumstances Peter responded by indicating that he and the others would obey God rather than man and could not stop speaking of what they had seen and heard (Acts 4:19-20, 5:29). Peter and John would go on to absorb the threats and beatings of the Sanhedrin but remained faithful to Jesus (Acts 4:21, 5:40-42). In Revelation John, in figures, speaks of the Roman authority persecuting Christians to the point of death (Revelation 2:12-14, 13:1-8. 15:2). Later documents make explicit what the Christians experienced: they would be sought out by the Roman authorities or denounced as Christians before them, told to curse Christ and offer sacrifices to the genius of the Emperor, or to suffer execution (ca. 111-113 CE; Pliny the Younger, Letters 10.96-97). Christian literature from the first three centuries are full of martyrdom stories of Christians who preferred to suffer death rather than deny the name of the Lord Jesus.
We can see from these examples that there are times when civil disobedience is justified. Nevertheless we do well to recognize that a spirit of disobedience or rebellion is never commended or justified in the New Testament: Peter, John, and others did not wish to disobey the authorities nor were they fomenting insurrection against the regime, but instead exhibited greater loyalty to the Lord Jesus and obedience to His purposes. In Acts 5:29 Peter does not speak explicitly in terms of disobedience or rebellion but of obedience: he must obey God rather than man. In every other respect Peter obeyed the civil authorities and exhorted others to do likewise (1 Peter 2:13-17); throughout Peter and the other early Christians respected the civil authorities, not resisting the punishments imposed as the consequence of civil disobedience, even if it meant death (Acts 4:21, 5:40-42, Revelation 12:10-11). Paul frequently insisted on his rights as a Roman citizen and strenuously disputed false charges against him, yet even Paul proved willing to suffer the consequences of the state if he had acted wrongly (Acts 25:10-11). Both Peter and Paul would be executed by the Roman authority for holding firm to their faith (John 21:19, 2 Timothy 4:6-8).
Many in our modern world maintain a strong skepticism of inherited authority and government. Yet there is no room among servants of the Lord Jesus Christ for spirits of disobedience, insurrection, and rebellion. Civil disobedience is only justifiable when Christians would prove disobedient to the commands of the Lord Jesus if they obeyed a given decree of the state (Acts 5:29). Civil disobedience should never be the goal; whenever possible Christians should seek ways of obeying both God and “Caesar”, for both have been commanded (Acts 5:29, Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17).
Christians have also been commanded to respect the civil authorities, and Peter speaks of the duly empowered people and not institutions (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17). In times past it has been fashionable to interpret Romans 13:3-4 so as to justify Christians rising in rebellion against what is perceived to be an unjust government, yet such an interpretation runs contrary to the commands and examples of the Lord and His Apostles. New Testament Christians suffered under the undeniably unjust and cruel regimes of Caligula, Nero, and Domitian; in Revelation John spoke of the Roman authority as having been empowered by Satan to persecute the people of God (Revelation 13:1-18); yet we have no commands, examples, or inferences from the New Testament to suggest that early Christians took up the pen or arms so as to try to overthrow the Roman authority and replace it with another. Christians do well to remember Romans 13:1-2: all authorities that exist have been ordained of God, and when God believes that a given authority is to be overthrown or toppled, He will see to it that it comes to pass. Nowhere in the New Testament has it been given to Christians to judge the earthly authority; instead they are to obey and respect no matter how the authority is disposed toward them (1 Peter 2:17).
Peter exhorts us to use our freedom not as a cloak for unrighteousness but as slaves of God in Christ (1 Peter 2:16). Let us take this exhortation to heart and prove willing to obey and respect earthly authorities, and practice civil disobedience only when necessary to obey God!
Ethan R. Longhenry