Whether we’re talking about nonviolent drug offenders or illegal immigrants it seems to be becoming more popular among some to use the law as justification to mistreat nonviolent individuals who commit victimless crimes. Christians, especially on the evangelical right, even go so far as to invoke the scriptures to back up their authoritarian stances. But does God require all Christians to obey and agree with the government no matter what? Do we find justification in harshly punishing nonviolent individuals for breaking the law even if it didn’t hurt anyone?
The source of this debate comes from a passage in the scripture found in one of the Epistles, the letters of the apostle Paul. The very first verse of Romans 13 states:
“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.”
The problem with the idea that every government in the world is established by God and therefore should obeyed is that government is both inconsistent and contradicts itself. First, the government competes with itself in its various jurisdictions in establishing the universal standard for what’s wrong and right. The laws in China are completely different from what they are in the United States or even Japan. The laws in Iran or Saudi Arabia are very different than those in Canada or France. Does God have multiple personality disorder or are there multiple gods establishing multiple governments? For that matter why is God waging wars and murdering other governments’ people? Why is he trying to hurt his own governments’ economies by having them wage trade wars and enacting sanctions and travel bans against each other?
The bible tells us in Matthew 12:25
“Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, ‘Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand.'”
But of God’s kingdom Daniel 2:44 tells us
“In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever.”
Daniel is not only saying God’s kingdom will never fall he is saying His kingdom is actually going to overthrow every government. Therefore God’s government cannot be synonymous with the governments on earth. Furthermore, governments have changed over time, but God and His laws have not. Crossing the border without papers was not a criminal act until 1929. Using hard drugs was not a crime until 1914. Why did God change His mind on these things? The bible tell us “God is the same yesterday, today, and forever” Clearly, the federal government is not.
Not only that but religious authorities in Jesus’s time, who seemed to act as something of a provisional government were constantly trying to undermine him. They went out of their way to stop his teachings from spreading on earth even to the point of infiltrating his inner circle to conspire to have him executed. It’s very clear that God was not working through the Hebrew authorities.
As for the passage in Romans 13 most Christians ignore the actual reasons Paul says to submit to the authorities. In Romans 13:3 he places a criteria on what defines a legitimate ruler.
“For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended.”
In other words if a ruler is righteous and established by God that ruler will not punish an innocent person for doing nothing wrong. Therefore an unjust and unrighteous ruler or law is NOT established by God and we are not required to obey. I would also advise Christians when quoting these scriptures to consider the source.
The apostle Paul was the member of an illegal religious sect. He was a major leader in a growing cult that was banned by both Jewish and Roman law. He even tried to turn the Roman emperor against the empire by persuading him to convert. He was an enemy of the state. Many of his Epistles written to the churches established by him are written from prison and indeed he spent the majority of his life in and out of jail. He would eventually be executed by Emperor Nero himself, who as “God’s established ruler” sought to deflect criticisms directed against him after a major fire consumed most of the Roman capital, sought to use the Christian faith and its saints as a scapegoat. In any case if Paul really meant that all Christians should obey all government all the time he was wretched hypocrite for he clearly didn’t practice what he preached.
Jesus and his disciples taught many things, but unconditional obedience and authoritarianism are not among them.