Q. Today, Election Day, my daily Bible verse from BibleGateway.com was Romans 13:1, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” I am struggling with how to understand and accept this. Was Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrong to actively work against the Nazi government? Was Martin Luther King, Jr. wrong to (peacefully) break the law in order to protest racial injustice? Is it wrong for citizens to (peacefully) protest government actions or passively resist going along with such policies?
We get the full counsel of God from the Bible about any given matter not from a single verse, but by putting the various things that the Bible says about it into conversation with one another. While the Bible does say in the book of Romans that believers should be subject to the authorities, it reports in the book of Acts how the apostles refused to obey the orders of their governing officials when they told them not to teach in the name of Jesus. The apostles insisted, “We must obey God rather than human beings!” And the book of Revelation was written to warn Christians living in western Asia Minor under the reign of Domitian that they needed to resist the emerging Roman government policy of emperor worship even at the cost of their lives. There was to be no submitting to the governing authorities on that matter.
So how do we sort this out? I think the context in Romans is quite clear about the basis on which followers of Jesus are being told to obey government officials there: “They are God’s servants to punish those who do wrong.” So Christians are to support the government and cooperate with it in its role of maintaining the rule of law and punishing wrongdoers (even to the point of willingly paying taxes to support the government, Paul adds).
It is an entirely separate question what Christians should do when the government instead punishes those who do right, for example, those who teach in the name of Jesus, or those who refuse to worship a human being. Other parts of the Bible address that separate question, and the answer seems to be that Christians need to obey God, rather than people, when what people want conflicts with what God wants. Christians even need to be willing to suffer for doing right the kinds of punishments that the government would ordinarily inflict on a wrongdoer.
The examples you have given of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr. represent Christian leaders who have followed this course in more recent years. (Regarding Bonhoeffer specifically, you may want to read this post.) And I would say that peaceful protest and non-violent civil disobedience are other examples of measures that Christians can take to help call the government back to doing right and punishing wrong. These are loyal measures, taken in the best interests of the government itself, not acts of defiance against the government.
However, I really should distinguish between peaceful protest and non-violent civil disobedience in one important sense. Peaceful protest is actually something that is encouraged and protected by law in free countries. So it should not be seen in any way as failing to submit to the government. Rather, it is doing exactly what the government says it hopes its citizens will do. Governments of free countries also hope that their citizens will exercise their rights to vote, assemble, and speak out. Christians should be doing all of these things, and none of them represent a failure to submit or obey, even when they represent working within the system to change existing policy.
There may be other circumstances in which Christians will need to obey God by disobeying laws and policies that are contrary to God’s ways. As I said earlier, when they do that, they need to be willing to suffer if necessary, trusting that God will ultimately use their obedience to him to bring about transformation in the society and culture.
I hope these thoughts are helpful. I also hope that you voted today! I did.