Can one be a libertarian or liberty-minded individual and be a Christian at the same time? For believers who are also political, this has been a pressing question, especially as people become increasingly disenchanted with the two-party system.
For decades, American Christianity was most associated with the Republican Party and the conservative movement. Even now, it appears both of these entities have a near monopoly on Christian support – especially when it comes to evangelicals.
But as I have been gravitating away from the GOP and conservative movement to focus more on liberty, I have been more deeply chewing on this question. In this piece, I will focus on what appears to be the most common biblical argument against the principles liberty-minded folks espouse: Romans 13:1 – 5.
Here is the New International Version’s translation of the verse:
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. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 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. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
Some have used this particular passage to argue that advocating against the government is a transgression against biblical teachings. It has been leveraged to persuade believers not to outwardly oppose the state and to be submissive to governmental authority. Indeed, the text of the verse appears to imply this very thing if one is taking a more superficial approach to the matter. Therefore, it is essential to fully understand what Paul is truly saying in this writing. This requires more biblical and historical context.
Let’s take the first part, where Paul exhorts us to “be subject to the governing authorities” and notes that “there is no authority except from God.”
Author Dr. Norman Horn noted that the apostle’s message “is not that states are specially instituted in the same way as the family and church, but rather that the state is not operating outside of the plans of God.”
In this sense, the state is divinely instituted in the same way that Satan is divinely instituted. God is not surprised when states act the way they do. As noted specifically in the Gospels, the state is understood throughout Scripture as being intimately tied to Satan and his kingdom, and patently opposed to the Kingdom of God. The state’s status within God’s ultimate plan does not legitimize the evil the state commits.
Put simply, God does not appoint governments for the purpose of carrying out evil acts, but allows them to exist just as He does other forms of evil. “The command is to obey in general, but sometimes we will disobey public policy because of personal and Scriptural conviction,” Horn notes. “Christians are to obey most policy whenever directly requested to do so, but ensuring active compliance with every public policy is unnecessary.”
At the time Paul wrote his letter to the Roman church, Nero was the emperor. History teaches us that he was one of the most wicked men who ever lived. He is guilty of murdering his wife and mother, as well as carrying out the brutal persecution of Christians. He also brought about the great fire of Rome.
Does Nero come even close to resembling any of the characteristics Paul lays out? Was he “God’s servant” who held “no terror for those who do right,” as the apostle describes? History tells us the opposite.
Another indicator that Paul was not advocating for adhering to every law or mandate handed down by the government is that he was one of several who enthusiastically broke the law every time he preached Jesus Christ as Lord. The Roman Empire at this time had outlawed attempts to convert people to religions of which they did not approve. Indeed, Paul and the other apostles were often punished by beating, imprisonment, and eventually execution for persisting in the preaching of the gospel.
These people were not the only ones. Even in the Old Testament, people violated the laws of the land to affect God’s purposes. The Hebrews living in Egypt refused to obey Pharoah’s order to kill their babies. The book of Judges chronicles the story of Ehud, who viciously assassinated Eglon, King of Moab. The prophet Daniel, along with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, disobeyed the king’s decrees several times. The prophet Elijah did the same against King Ahab and Jezebel, even going so far as to call fire from heaven to kill their prophets and soldiers.
Does it make sense that Paul would exhort us to follow every jot and tittle of the laws our governments have foisted upon us when he and his compatriots were avid lawbreakers? Of course not.
So why would the apostle write these words? The answer is simple: He understood the environment in which he and his comrades were living. The bottom line is that it is better to obey the law to avoid having the force of the government used against you. It is sensible to obey traffic laws even if you disagree with them to avoid having to contribute to your local government’s fundraising program after you get a ticket. We can work against these oppressive laws while making sure we do not fall victim to them.
As stated earlier, when one comprehends the context of Paul’s words, it is easy to see that he was not advocating for blind submission to governmental authority. Instead, he was giving practical advice to the church in Rome and the rest of Christendom. I believe God would support pushing back against unjust laws just as German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke out against Hitler. In fact, it is our duty as followers of Christ to oppose the malevolent excesses of the state, especially when it contradicts God’s Word. If we, as believers, are unwilling to push back against the evils in our society, who will?