Responding to Government, and to the One Sovereign over Every Government

By Dudley Hall Published on April 20, 2015

DUDLEY HALL — “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)

I don’t think that I am a rebellious person, and I don’t want to live without government, but I admire many Christians who have disobeyed the law — from Martin Luther in the Reformation to our forefathers in the American Revolution to Martin Luther King Jr. in the Civil Rights movement. So what are we to do with the verse in Romans 13 that seems to tell us that we should obey all laws?

There is something in every sane person that detests the idea of no government. Many of us would like for it to work like we want, but we wouldn’t opt for no government. Even gangs and mobsters have government. Even those of us who decry overgrown government are not arguing for the absence of government, but only that it exists within proper limits.

It helps to put the Apostle Paul’s Romans 13 admonition into context. He has spent the previous 12 chapters of his letter to the Romans describing what kind of people would be produced by the gospel. It would be a people defined by faith in God and love for both God and mankind. These people would be the image bearers of God on earth. They would be misunderstood and persecuted because they operate from a whole new reality. They are under allegiance to the ultimate Lord and to the kingdom he represents. Much of his kingdom will be in opposition to the values of sinful mankind and its structures in society.

But the fact that Jesus is Lord and that he has a kingdom means that God is not against government, or perhaps we should say “governance.” He ordered the world in the beginning. He reorders the world as his gospel is embraced by mankind. But as the new community of God on earth, we are to respect the existence of governmental authority. We are not to be troublemakers unnecessarily, Paul is saying. We are to trust that our God is sovereign over all and is working through his appointed institutions to accomplish his purposes.

At the same time, we are to seek to influence earthly government toward justice and peace. When its policies oppress people and violate justice, we must confront it and, if need be, even suffer, to bring change. We should remember that in God’s kingdom, however, ultimate change does not come except through the heart, which in the biblical idiom does not mean mere emotion but rather the seat of our will, the core of our being.

As the salt of the earth and the light of the world, we are expected to influence every aspect of our life on earth. We preach the gospel as we practice it in our daily lives. We equip those who will work in government to think with minds liberated by the gospel. We support those who promote justice, and not just our pet issue of the moment.

If there comes a confrontation between the competing kingdoms because civil government won’t listen, then we must ask if this a moment when we ought to suffer for change. In Acts, we see this when the apostles were ordered by the governing authorities to keep silent about Jesus. They refused, even if that means prison, beatings and death.

Sometimes the Godly response will be obvious, and sometimes there will be gray areas that call for prayer, fasting and discernment. But in the midst of everything, one thing should remain clear to every member of the body of Christ: the most powerful force is not any earthly government but the God who ordained it. And on this side of God’s Kingdom, the gospel is the greatest force. It changes people — who can in turn change government.


Further Study: On the necessity of sometimes standing against certain laws and policies, while following a higher law, see Martin Luther King Jr.’s response to criticism on this issue. His eloquent “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is an important treatise on when to obey government and when not to.

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