During the ministry of the apostle Paul, the church was living through a time of political distress and blatant religious persecution. The church in the Roman Empire was suffering greatly at the hands of Emperor Nero. It must have shocked these believers to read what Paul had to say to them in his letter: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1).
A better understanding of this passage is the key to our relationship with government. According to this text, Christians are to obey every law of an earthly government, so long as it does not require them to violate or disobey the scriptures.
The word “subject” in this passage literally means “to fall under the rank of another;” in this case, the “rank of another” is the governing authorities.
Both Paul in this passage and Jesus during his time on earth practiced this principle and directed their followers to do the same, telling them to pay their taxes, honor those in authority and follow the customs of their nation, as long as they weren’t in violation of God’s commands. In America, the term for not following a law is called “civil disobedience,” and there are examples of that in the Bible, most notably with Daniel in the Old Testament.
When Daniel arrived in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, he drew a moral line in the sand: he would compromise with every request made of him except those that violated God’s commands given in scripture to the Jewish people. For instance, the Babylonians changed his name from Daniel (God is my Judge) to Belteshazzar (Baal’s prince). This was part of Nebuchadnezzar’s psychological attempt to wean these Jewish boys away from their godly heritage and any mention of Yahweh’s name. This name-change certainly troubled Daniel and no doubt irritated him deeply every time someone called out his “new” name, honoring Baal. Still, Daniel did not resist or complain. He submitted to the will of the king.
But when Nebuchadnezzar requested that Daniel and the other captives consume the rich meat and wine from the king’s table, Daniel engaged in civil disobedience, asking instead to eat vegetables and drink water. Why? Because the king’s meat would have included unclean animals that had been forbidden by God in His laws. The wine was first offered as libation to false gods, and with this command, Daniel stood his ground.
This biblical example shows us that the criteria for disobeying the government is not because something makes us uncomfortable, or because they require something questionable that restricts our lifestyles, or because some ordinance or mandate makes our lives and ministries inconvenient. The criteria to go against the earthly government is when the earthly government requires us to go against God’s heavenly government.
As in all parts of life, the Christian is to live their life differently, to be set apart from the world as an example of God’s light in this earth. With that in mind, I would like to give you one more challenge: don’t begrudgingly submit to government or submit with vocal dissent. God’s command is to respect and obey authority, and we can do that with joy and eager willingness. The truth is, when we obey the government in this manner, we’re actually obeying God, who commanded us.
So long as civil authorities do not demand that we violate God’s commands, gracious cooperation is the command from God.