The recent movie The Essential Church is an excellent illustration of the conflict between church and state during the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020-21. It addresses the important issue of if and when Christians must disobey civil government. The institution we call government is one of the three main institutions ordained by God. The other two are the family (Genesis 2:22-24) and the church (Matthew 16:18). Each of these three institutions plays a separate role in society and should not infringe on the other’s authority. Government was set up by God in its infancy in Genesis 9:6, when He told Noah that society is responsible to protect human life which is made in His image. Man has had and still has many forms of government.
The founding fathers of America had the opportunity to set up a new government. Knowing the sinfulness of men, they patterned our representative republic after Isaiah 33:22, which says, “For the LORD is our Judge, The LORD is our Lawgiver, The LORD is our King; He will save us.” They instituted checks and balances by separating the powers of government into three branches: Executive (King/President), Legislative (Lawgiver/Congress), and Judicial (Judges). Their intent was for the people, through their representative legislators, to enact laws, for the executive branch to enforce the laws, and for the judges to rule whether the laws followed the constitution. But as President John Adams said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” We are seeing this truth of inadequacy played out today in America’s moral decay.
God ultimately rules over all nations (2 Chronicles 20:6). He sets up governmental leaders as His delegated agents or ministers (Daniel 2:21, Romans 13:1-7). Examples of government leaders are tribal chiefs, kings, emperors, czars, presidents, prime ministers, and (communist) party chairmen. But due to the “fall” of man (Genesis 3), Satan, as “god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4), has a foothold in influencing these leaders, and sometimes these leaders are very evil. If leaders (God’s agents) are aligned with God’s Word, there is good government, and the opposite is true if leaders stray from God (Proverbs 29:2). Even so, we must understand that God ordains them as his instruments to accomplish His eternal purposes. The Egyptian pharaoh of the Exodus is a prime example (Romans 9:17). The best leaders are those who see themselves as being agents of God and subject to His will. Most leaders throughout history and today do not see themselves this way.
So, what is the purpose of government? Romans 13 tells us that government’s purpose is to praise good and punish evil:
Romans 13:3-5: “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. 4 For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. 5 Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake.”
Scripture also tells Christians to pray for their governmental leaders, “…that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life” (1 Timothy 2:1,2). Not only in Romans (above), but elsewhere, God’s Word encourages obedience and submission to government (1 Peter 2:13, 17; Titus 3:1).
However, it is evident that Christians can and should disobey governmental laws which require them to disobey or prevent them from obeying God’s Word, such as the command to not forsake assembling together (Hebrews 10:25). Two Old Testament examples of civil disobedience are found in the Book of Daniel. In chapter three, the three Hebrew children refused to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s idol. They were thrown in the fiery furnace but God preserved them. Secondly, in chapter six, King Darius (the Mede) made a decree that no one could pray to anyone but him for thirty days. When Daniel prayed to the one true God, he was thrown in the den of lions, where God preserved him. In the New Testament, when Peter was told not to preach, he responded that, “we ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:27-29). Many early Christians were martyred for not submitting to the requirement to worship Caesar or other gods. Throughout history, and even today, there are many examples of believers who must disobey civil government. Some of these faithful are delivered and some are imprisoned or even martyred (Hebrews 11:32-40). The truth is that over the centuries state/governmental leaders have often attempted to usurp the authority and kingship of Jesus Christ over His church (Colossians 1:18).
Inevitably, if we want to obey God and live godly, we will be persecuted (2 Timothy 3:12), either by family, associates, or the government. The world will hate us because it hated Jesus (John 15:19,20). In the future, our faith may force us to choose between man’s law and God’s law. May God give us the wisdom and grace to choose rightly.