With politics taking center stage in our society due to a divisive Supreme Court confirmation and pending midterm elections, maybe it is time we consider what the Bible has to say about political matters. For the record, this will not be an investigation or critique of political ideologies, platforms, or parties; instead, it will be a three week study of some key biblical principles affecting the Christian’s relationship with the government.
Two weeks ago, we observed the relationship between God and government. In particular, we noted that according to Romans 13:1-4, God is the Instituter and Appointer of “governing authorities,” and they function as His servants by maintaining societal order. In last week’s article we discussed the responsibility Christians have toward government, and we showed that Scripture presents an expectation of submission on the part of Christians(Romans 13:1-2; 1 Peter 2:13-17). However, is there ever a context in which we are not expected to submit to the government as Christians? The answer is yes.
While Scripture instructs us to “submit [ourselves]…to every human authority” (Romans 13:1), it also instructs us to “submit [ourselves]…to God” (James 4:7). Thus, Scripture clearly instructs us to submit both to government and to God. A problem arises whenever the will of these two “authorities” clashes, and we know they will clash at some point in time because God declared that our ways are not His ways (Isaiah 55:8). So, the question we need to consider is whose will do we obey when the will of government contradicts the will of God? To answer this question, let us consider a couple of statements made by the Apostles during their time of persecution in the book of Acts.
On one occasion, Peter and John were arrested “because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead” (Acts 4:2). The day after their arrest they were brought before the “rulers and elders and scribes [who were] gathered together in Jerusalem [along] with Annas the high priest and Caiaphas and John and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family” (Acts 4:5-6). This group of religious leaders “charged [Peter and John] not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:16). Obviously this was an order that contradicted their God-given assignment, so Peter and John responded by saying, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20). The religious leaders responded by “further threaten[ing] them” before “let[ting] them go” (Acts 4:21).
Shortly thereafter, the apostles were collectively arrested and imprisoned by the high priest but were miraculously released that night by “an angel of the Lord” who instructed them to “Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life” (Acts 5:17-20). The next morning, “the high priest…called together the council [as well as] all the senate of the people of Israel” and had the apostles brought before them (Acts 5:21-27). The high priest criticized the apostles for disobeying the charge not to teach in the name of Jesus that had been previously given to Peter and John. They responded by saying once again, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). This time the religious leaders “beat them” before “let[ting] them go” (Acts 5:40).
In both appearances before the governing authorities of the Jews, the apostles declared that obedience to God trumped obedience to human institutions. Therefore, their example teaches us that when obedience to government brings one into conflict with obedience to God then obedience to God must always take precedence.
This is not the only biblical situation that demonstrates the primacy of obedience to God. Consider those Hebrew midwives who in Exodus 1:15-21 defied Pharaoh’s order to kill all the male newborn babies because they “feared God.” Another example would be Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who in Daniel 3 refused to bow down and worship the golden image that King Nebuchadnezzar erected because to do so would have been in violation of the third command, which says, “You shall not bow down to [a carved image] or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God” (Exodus 20:4).Additionally, we have the example of Daniel who in Daniel 6 refused to stop openly praying to God at his regularly scheduled times despite the fact that King Darius had signed a decree forbidding his subjects from praying to anyone other than him for the next thirty days. All of these biblical accounts reveal a decision on the part of God’s people to obey Him instead of the governing authorities, and, in so doing, they established a precedent for us to follow, which is to obey God rather than man when obedience to both is impossible.
What are the implications of obeying God rather than government when obedience to both is not possible?
First, such obedience implies that our affiliation with God supersedes our affiliation with any other entity or institution. In other words, our identity as Christians supersedes our nationality, our race, our gender, our generation, our political party, and all other worldly identifications. This seems to be the point Paul was making when He said, “for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26-28). Paul in effect says what unites us, namely our “in Christ” identity, is greater than anything that divides us. However, this can only be the case if our affiliation with God supersedes our affiliation with all other entities or institutions.
Second, such obedience implies that our submission to God may result in worldly consequences. Despite their submission to God, the apostles were beaten, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were thrown into the fiery furnace, and Daniel was forced into the lion’s den. All of them faced the reality of a consequence that was meted out by the governing authority they disobeyed, even though some of them were miraculously delivered by God. Interestingly, these heroes did not know whether or not God would save them from such consequences in this life. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego acknowledged God’s ability to deliver them but also accepted that it might not be His will (Daniel 3:17-18). Thus, we should be prepared to face the consequences of our decision to submit to the will of God when it contrasts with the will of human government.
In conclusion, Scripture indicates that submission to governing authorities is not the expectation of Christians when such submission prevents or contradicts their submission to God. Thus, the policy for Christians when it comes to politics ought to be the same as it is with every other issue: God comes first. Those who implement this policy by remaining “faithful until to death,” even when it comes to political matters, will receive “the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10). So, while God does not promise protection from consequences or persecution in this life, He does promise a reward in the next life for those who faithfully prioritize His will even when doing so brings them into conflict with governing authorities.