Christians are law-abiding almost by definition. At the very beginning we were told by Christ to “render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar”, without of course rendering to him what belongs not to him, but to God (Matthew 22:21). Furthermore, Christians believe that they inhabit a hierarchically-governed universe. That is, even before (Pseudo) Dionysius penned his works in about the late fifth century and painted a portrait wherein all grace flows down from a superior source above it, they knew that everything in life had a place and rank that should be respected. Parental and governmental authority came ultimately from God (compare Ephesians 6:1-3, Exodus 22:28), so that to defy and reject that authority was in some way to defy and reject God. That is why St. Paul pulled in his rhetorical horns after inadvertently defying the high priest (Acts 23:5).
In many ways this is perfectly clear. To honour a man’s messenger and delegate is to honour the man himself. Thus when the king of Ammon dishonoured King David’s delegates by shaving their beards and cutting off their garments in the middle as far as their hips, he was rightly perceived by David as not just dishonouring his delegates, but as dishonouring him (2 Samuel 10:1-5). All governments understand this, so that to imprison or shoot the ambassadors of another nation tantamount to a declaration of war, and to treat their ambassadors well was a way of respecting their nation. The Lord Himself assumed this principle: He said to His apostles as He sent them out, “He who welcomes you welcomes Me, and he who welcomes Me welcomes Him who sent Me” (Matthew 10:40). Thus to welcome Christ’s apostles meant to welcome the Father Himself, and to insult them was to insult God. The world was hierarchically-ordered.
It is not surprising therefore to find that the apostles wrote to their new converts that they should respect the governmental authorities as a way of respecting God. St. Peter wrote, “Fear God. Honour the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17). St. Paul wrote, “Let every soul be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore he who resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God” (Romans 13:1-2). Taught by the Lord and His apostles, it is hardly surprising that Christians have a predisposition to be law-abiding citizens—something that the Apologists continually stressed in their defenses of Christianity during days of persecution.
But the whole story of a Christian’s relationship with the State involves more than this. As said elsewhere, as well as Paul’s words about the State in Romans 13 we also have the picture of the State in Revelation 13. In Romans 13 we read that the State (i.e. the principle of government) has been established by God to curb chaos and as the only real alternative to the law of the jungle in which the land is not ruled by We The People, but by rival gangs and warlords.
There the authority represents God’s διάκονός/ diakonos, His servant for the good (Romans 13:4). But the State can become tyrannical and bestial; it can become not God’s διάκονός, but His enemy, the Beast that arises from the abyss and makes war upon God’s saints (Revelation 11:7, 13:7). These two views of the State—Romans 13 and Revelation 13—are not two options, but two poles, and the Church in this age lives its life between these two poles, along this sliding scale, this continuum.
That is why merely citing a proof-text to compel Christians to obey the State is wrong. As said before, “A text without a context is a pretext”, and the words of Christ and His apostles are intensely contextual. Discernment is required to understand just where along this continuum between Romans 13 and Revelation 13 we are at any given moment. This is especially so because sometimes things change very quickly.
One way of trying to avoid the necessity for such discernment is to build a border—of course using yet another proof-text. In Acts 4:19-20 we read that the apostles were ordered by a hostile and persecuting Sanhedrin that they must cease preaching that Jesus was the Messiah whom they had unjustly killed. That is, the Sanhedrin demanded that the apostles do something which was clearly sinful and wrong and in flat opposition to the commands of Christ. The apostles memorably replied, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge, for we cannot stop speaking what we have seen and heard”. From this reply some conclude that here we find our line in the sand: we must always obey the government no matter what, so long as they do not ask us to deny our faith or do something which is clearly sinful and contrary to God’s Word. This is, I suggest, a fairly fragile foundation on which to build such a large ethical edifice.
For one thing, the apostles were here not dealing with sweeping, comprehensive, and complex issues of Church vs. State, but only responding to a single order that they be quiet. It is eisexegetical in the extreme to extrapolate from this simple refusal an entire model of Church-State relations. Secondly, such an approach takes no account of the political context of the first century pagan state in which the Church found itself and the differences between then and now. The text is here ripped from its context. Like the apostolic admonitions to obedience, we need first to situate it in its first-century political context and only then see what conclusions can be drawn from it to help us in our current situation.
Let us review that first-century political context. Christ had been executed as a dangerous threat to Roman order, as the King of the Jews, as someone planning revolt against Rome. The Christians nonetheless hailed Him as their King, and as someone whose rule would extend over all the earth, and this made us appear as faintly treasonous before we even opened our mouths. Also, because the Christians avoided idolatry, they found themselves at odds with almost everything in their culture, and were therefore despised as a people that were impious, misanthropic, and dangerous. The very name “Christian” was rapidly becoming not just a designation, but an insult and an accusation (see 1 Peter 4:16).
Remember too that all real political power in the Roman Empire was concentrated in the Emperor, and he had the power of life and death over all his subjects. The rule of law (such as it was) consisted largely of his will and decisions. In other words, everything that we in the modern West understand by democracy, the rule of law, and the State could scarcely be found there—at least not in the same form as we experience it. There were precious few of what Americans consider “checks and balances” in the Roman system, and any opposition to the Emperor was dangerous, if not treasonous. If one objected to his laws, but one might perhaps incite a riot and attempt assassination, but that was about it. Legal forms of protest as we understand them did not exist.
We can see now more clearly both the motivation and the scope of the apostolic counsels to subjection to the authorities. They were motivated by the practical desire not to appear dangerous, treasonous, or threats to the existing political order. And we can see some of the scope of what Paul was enjoining by the examples of obedience he gives: “Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom [i.e. border tax] to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour” (Romans 13:7). In other words, pay your taxes and be respectful of authority. Don’t give them any excuse for thinking that Christians refuse to pay their taxes and that they hate everyone in authority, wishing for their death and downfall.
We note that this is a fairly limited and circumscribed degree of obedience that is being enjoined—and that it says little about questions that concern us in a modern western democracy where organized protest is allowed and perhaps even encouraged. In a western democracy resistance to government edicts in the form of protest and non-violent resistance (such as characterized the resistance offered by Dr. Martin Luther King) is allowed in a way that it would not have been in first-century Rome.
In our modern western democracy with its venerable tradition of popular protest against both perceived injustice and tyranny, one cannot simply apply the apostolic admonitions to obedience in a blanket way, saying that no resistance, protest, or disobedience is allowed unless it pertains to our freedom to worship. That is getting more out of those texts than the apostles put into them, and ripping radically them from their cultural context. There are all sorts of things which we may protest, resist, and disobey if such seems necessary to the health of our nation—as the history of resistance to racism in America has amply demonstrated.
More than that, blind obedience to all laws and non-protesting submission to tyranny adversely effect the democratic health of a free people, and lead slowly to varying degrees of totalitarian control. Governments usually exercise self-restraint in their decrees because they know that eventually its citizens will respond not only with verbal protest, but with active disobedience and resistance. That is how the Berlin Wall finally came down. Christians saying that they will obey every government law so long as it does not restrict their freedom to worship is a gift to budding dictators. Recent experience in Canada has proven this.
Discernment concerning when to resist and disobey and what form this will take is, of course, not a precise science, and it is easy to make mistakes. Rushing into the street in order to join a riot with its burning of cars and smashing of windows is always wrong, since one’s aim is to eliminate unjust and tyrannous laws, not the rule of law itself. And historical experience has revealed that violent revolutions—with its smashing and burning—pretty much always result in a worse situation than the one the revolution tried to remedy.
Christians are law-abiding people. But obedience to the State here in the modern west has its limits. In times of injustice and tyranny, those limits challenge us both to patience and to prayer as we strive to exercise the necessary discernment.