The COVID19 Pandemic has led to some of the harshest limitations on people’s civil liberties in living memory.
In fact, the State of Victoria, Australia, has endured the toughest restrictions recorded: at least 262 days in lock-down since March 2020. Understandably, these kind of restrictions have taken a toll on people’s psychological and physical wellbeing. With emotion’s already at breaking point, the prospect of permanently enshrining these draconian practices into state law (with the Victorian government proposing to introduce a new Pandemic bill, granting the State even more power to restrict personal liberty) seems unbearable for many. Frustrations have boiled over into staunch resistance to the government in some quarters. Not only within the State of Victoria, but is manifesting in jurisdictions around the world; often materializing as overt forms of civil disobedience.
Christians, as members of these civil jurisdictions, cannot avoid being drawn into these issues. But what is the Christian approach to resisting the State? Should Christians resist the government authority along with other citizens? Or, should they, out of loyalty to a higher authority, discount civil disobedience?
Thankfully, we are not without guidance on the subject. The Apostle Paul, in writing to the first century Roman Christians, addressed this exact issue. He writes…
” 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. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.” Romans 13:1-5 (ESV)
What is Paul saying? Well, basically this…
Because God is the ultimate source of all authority, and because he has sovereignly established human government as his agent to administer law and order in this world, the Christian should submit to the State’s authority. The Christian is not to see themselves as above or beyond the rule of law, but should humbly live as a law-abiding citizen under the State’s jurisdiction, willingly submitting to its governance out of respect for authority and for the sake of a good conscience.
However, for those loyal to Christ, life in a hostile world not always that straightforward. A greater understanding is required, and in this regard, understanding the context is the key…
The Kingdom context: It must be noted that Paul does not view subjection to state authority in abstraction. His view of Christian life in the world is always framed within the larger context of the universal Kingdom of God. Whilst the nature of the kingdom of God is only seldom taken into account in matters pertaining to the Christian’s engagement with the State, it is absolutely essential for making sense of the subject matter.
Notwithstanding Paul’s acknowledgment of the State’s divine imprimatur and the basic requirement for the Christian to submit to its authority, Christian’s primary loyalty lies with the Kingdom of God. But how does the rule of God’s Kingdom rule intersect with the rule of the secular state power?
Let’s consider the views of Jesus and Paul (which are really the same)…
Jesus view: In regard to relationship with God’s kingdom and the ‘kingdoms of the world’, Jesus said this, ‘ “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”‘ John 18:36 (ESV)
This was said in response to Pontius Pilate, who asked him whether he was the King of the Jews. Jesus responds by stating he is a king, but not a king in the manner of ‘this world’–not within the epoch of this worldly age and not within the methods of this world! Worldly kings (State rulers) use political power to lord it over their subjects, but Jesus is a servant-king, one who was born and lived in humility and led from below. Moreover, his kingdom is not a kingdom of force, power, or coercion. As he suggests, if his kingdom was of the ‘type’ of this world, his subjects would have been fighting for him against the State. Jesus’ kingdom transcends ‘this world’, it does have as its principal focus the agendas of the world, and does not operate like the power-structures of this world–it is an eternal kingdom that will transcend this age and all in it.
Of course this ‘other worldly’ kingdom has an ethic that works like nothing like the ethics of this world, as Jesus’ prior teaching states…
‘”You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles….But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.’ Matthew 5:38-45 (ESV)
Worldly kingdoms (civil states) operate on the basis of power : Countering evil with force, resisting malevolent authority, refusing to comply with enemy requests, and using all kinds of coercion (active or passive) to accomplish their will. Not so the kingdom of God.
The Kingdom of God operates entirely on contrarian ethics: Not resisting evil, not retaliating, not ‘only’ complying with enemy requests but going beyond what is required. It is an ethic that responds to evil with grace, a rule that seeks to disarm selfish power with the power of self-less love.
Paul’s view: In a similar vein to Jesus, Paul views the Christian as one loyal to this transcendent kingdom. The Christian is a sojourner, one whose kingdom/homeland is not this world, he writes: ‘ But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. Philippians 3:20 – 21 (ESV)
Like Jesus, Paul’s transcendent view of kingdom loyalty is also attended by an ‘otherworldly’ kingdom morality.
In Romans 12 Paul says this, ‘ Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect…. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honourable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.’
Paul is asserting that the Christian is not to conform to the ‘ways’ of the world, but be transformed by a renewed transcendent kingdom mindset; a new way of thinking in step with the ethics of Jesus–a non-resistant way that seeks to overcome evil with good! No resistance, no rebellion, no retaliation, no coercion, no manipulation, but responding to evil with good and overcoming tyranny with genuine love.
Kingdom priorities and ethics underlie all the teachings of Paul. Therefore, any interpretation of Romans 13 cannot dismiss or ignore Paul’s prior theological assumptions regarding the Kingdom of God and their radical implications for concrete social engagement.
By way of practical application, then , the kingdom context allows and prompts the Christian to see themselves as something akin to a foreign ambassador, whose primary loyalty belongs to another ‘heavenly’ kingdom, yet who respectfully submits to the laws of the dominion of their temporary ‘appointment’ country. In so doing, there are two goals in mind: Firstly, to represent their own King with dignity towards the subjects of that land, and secondly, to graciously win the loyalty of those subjects, enticing them to submit to my King and seek a better homeland (Heb 11:16).
The Empire context: Paul’s letters, though theological in nature, were principally pastoral in orientation, and were written to particular Christians in a particular context. So what was the political context of Romans and in particular chapter 13?
During the time of Paul’s writing, Nero (who would later persecute Christians) was Caesar (Emperor), and life in Rome was relatively stable. Though founded as a Republic, Rome had morphed into something more akin to a imperial dictatorship, as a excerpt from this journal article highlights…
” The political life of Rome was now the life of the court. The popular assemblies no longer met to vote upon laws or to hold elections. The senate nominally shared with the emperor both legislative and administrative power, but practically the will of the monarch, or rather of his advisers, was law, so long as he was supported by the army and the favor of the people. Public officials owed their positions to favouritism, and used them to advance their personal interests. Criticism of the emperor or of his agents was construed as treason, and hosts of informers enriched themselves or satisfied private hostilities by accusing innocent and guilty alike. All this created an atmosphere of distrust that stifled freedom of thought and speech and paralyzed all true public spirit. Yet the system of government, so well established during the long reign of Augustus, was reasonably efficient, even under Nero, and the administration of justice, not-withstanding individual cases of oppression, was in general systematic and equitable” Rome in Paul’s Day (Henry F. Burton, Biblical World)
In many ways, the ancient Rome of Paul’s day bears a striking resemblance to many modern democracies, which seem to be transitioning toward a more authoritarian style of government. This was the Roman government Paul knew and understood, and this is the government he is referring to when he wrote Romans 13! Moreover, Paul did not view the Roman authorities through ‘rose-coloured’ glasses and was under no allusions as to the kind of retribution they could administer to non-conformists; he himself had suffered much under the Roman whip and been imprisoned many times for proclaiming the gospel.
Nevertheless, Paul calls Christians to recognize the Roman State as operating under the authority of God and encourages compliance to their laws, sternly warning them against resisting State authority, ‘Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.‘ Rom 13:2 (ESV)
Whilst many commentators construe the notion of resistance as exclusively violent resistance, the text itself lends no weight to such an interpretation. Indeed, as was previously suggested, even criticising the emperor was deemed as treason, which would attract the harshest penalties. Paul wanted to leave no room for doubt in the mind of Roman Christians, resisting government authority at any level was outside the bounds of acceptable Christian behaviour.
Summing up then, Paul recognizes the authority of two dominions: The Kingdom of God ( under the direct authority of God) and the Empire of Rome ( under the indirect authority of God). Whilst priority went to God’s kingdom, obedience to God was also expressed through lawful conformity to the state.
But, what happens when the Empire turns against the Kingdom? What is the Christian to do when loyalty to God is set at odds with loyalty to the State?
This brings us now to the heart of our discussion on civil disobedience, and whether it is ever a right option for a Christian.
Many traditional evangelical interpretations of Romans 13 take the line that the resistance Paul referred to was exclusively violent resistance, because only violent resistance would incur capital punishment, ‘But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain.’ Rom 13:4 ESV . As such, this reasoning implies that Paul would endorse passive resistance against a malevolent State.
In response I want to say that an argument from silence is not valid, and secondly, as we know from the crucifixion of Jesus and Nero’s persecutions, the death penalty was handout out against anyone who was deemed a threat to State authority, whether they were violent or not. In fact in the second century, simply ‘being’ a Christian would attract the death penalty.
Moreover, resistance against authority does not have to be violent in order to qualify as resistance or disobedience. Allow me to illustrate. Imagine the parents of young children asking their children to eat their greens at the dinner table and meeting some resistance ( a scenario that does not require a vivid imagination). After being asked politely the children passively resist, refusing to eat; even after the standard threat of no sweets and a stern warning they still refuse to comply. Even though they did no violence, would it be fair to say that their actions constituted a resistance to authority? Were they disobedient? Yes!
In fact, in God’s eyes even partial obedience is deemed as wilful resistance and rebellion. You may recall the story of Saul’s failure to follow Samuel’s word from the Lord to destroy the Amalekites. He did 90% of the job, but spared the king and some of the choicest spoil. On account of his failure to comply his received this stinging rebuke, ‘ For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has also rejected you from being king.’ 1 Sam 15: 23 (ESV)
The argument that Paul only condemns violent resistance to authority, but would endorse non-violent civil disobedience to an tyrannical state is simply incompatible with the sentiment of Romans 13.
Of course, other arguments mounted for a case in favour of non-violent wilful civil disobedience is drawn from accounts of God’s servants, who allegedly resisted human authority in order to obey God. The Israelite midwives defying Pharaoh, Shadrach/Meshach/Abednego refusing to worship the image of Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel refusing to submit to the law forbidding freedom of worship, and the Apostles disobeying the command not to preach by the Jewish authorities, are all cited as examples.
These examples are often used as justification for defiance of the state and civil legislation that Christians might feel is unacceptable to them.
But a closer reading of these accounts reveal a different nuance. People like Daniel and his friends did not simply rebel against the State because they didn’t like legislation that limited their freedom of religion. Rather, being torn between loyalty to their King and their God, they were bound to acquiesce to the higher authority and respectfully render non-compliance to the lesser authority. Faced with an impossible conundrum, they did ‘not’ act out of wilful disobedience, but rather out of submissive obedience to the God from who all authority is derived.
Again, the example of the apostles indicates the same disposition of obedience…
‘So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” And when they had further threatened them, they let them go, finding no way to punish them, because of the people, for all were praising God for what had happened.’ Acts 4:17-21
In this case Peter respectfully places the onus of deciding the rightness or wrongness of their unswerving obedience to Jesus on the Jewish authorities. Being respectful of their authority, they nevertheless were conscience-bound to obey the higher law–the great commission of Jesus Christ. Again, they exercised respectful non-compliance, set within the context of divine obedience.
Thus we may conclude from these examples that the notion of Christian civil disobedience against God-ordained government is wrong, or at the very least an insufficient way of describing the Christian’s appropriate response to the conundrum of conflicted obedience.
When having to chose between loyalty to God and his kingdom and loyalty to the state authorities, the Christian must be careful never to approach the dilemma with a disposition of disobedience–disobedience is ‘never’ right. Rather, in recognizing that divine authority exists on both sides of the dilemma, they are to render absolute obedience to God first, whilst simultaneously rendering respectful and honourable non-compliance to the lesser authority–in so doing honour God on both accounts.
Now that we know this. What occasions might the Christian be justified on rendering respectful non-compliance to a Government or State authority?
- When the State demands worship: That is when the State deifies their leader and expects its subjects to render religious devotion to him/her (e.g. Roman emperor worship)
- When the State forbids the exercise of God’s explicit commands: That is, when the State forbids the Christian to exercise Jesus’ command to proclaim the gospel, administer charity, teach Christian doctrine, gather for worship and/or discipleship.
- When the State demands compliance with or endorsement of immoral behaviour: That is, when the State requires the Christian to act positively toward immorality or endorse acts of immorality (e.g. conduct or endorse practices such as abortion or same-sex marriage)
I must stress, that in exercising non-compliance, the Christian must always be mindful that even the State Magistrate demanding that which they cannot obey, is nevertheless remains under God’s authority and exercises it on God’s behalf–albeit disobediently. As such non-compliance to their evil demands must still be exercised with the utmost respect. A point the thoughtful theologian John Calvin endorses….
‘But let us, rather, pause here to prove this, which does not do easily settle in men’s minds. In a very wicked man utterly unworthy of all honour, provided his has the public power in his hands, that noble and divine power resides which the Lord has by his Word given to the ministers of his justice and judgement. Accordingly, he should be held in the same reverence and esteem by his subjects, in so far as public obedience is concerned , in which they hold the best of kings if he were given to them.’ The Institutes of the Christian Religion IV:25.
Should the Christian engage in political protests?
I will answer this question in three parts…
1. Does a political protest contravene Paul’s command in Romans 13?
Many contemporary Western liberal democracies allow for protests within their legislation. Unlike the Imperial dictatorship of ancient Rome, which would have deemed protests a form of resisting state authority, countries like Australia make provision for them. Indeed, Australia is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in which Article 21 states…
“The right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”
So technically speaking, a Christian (in Australia, at least) may attend a public protest and not contravene Paul’s command in Romans 13 of ‘not resisting the authorities’.
However, its not that simple.
2. Does a political protest contravene the ethos of the Kingdom of God?
No one seriously turns up at a protest without intending to ‘protest’, which by definition is expressing disapproval of the State. Once the motive for attendance is taken into account a different picture of the rightness of the endeavour may emerge.
Protests are always driven by an agenda, and any Christian who willingly and deliberately attends a protest is doing so with the intent of exercising that agenda. Of course, most protests are more than simply informative, they are seeking to galvanize the collective disapproval of the attendees in a purposeful way in order to precipitate political change of some kind.
In that regard, the very nature of protests, even if they are non-violent are nevertheless subtly coercive; that is, their intention is to force the hand of the incumbent government to acquiesce to their will. Yes, their public speeches might be couched in peaceful, non-violent rhetoric, but the very nature of the protest and the messages of the placards born by the attendees often paint a different picture, a picture of wilful resistance.
Whilst it is difficult to make an absolute pronouncement on the matter, inasmuch as it is impossible to discern the ‘actual’ motives of individuals involved, I would nevertheless suggest that the nature of a political protest is incompatible with the ethos of God’s Kingdom. A kingdom that is methodologically devoted to advancing truth in a non-coercive, non-resistant, wholly gracious manner.
3. The political protest and social media:
In todays modern world, there are other forms or mediums for protests other than the public gathering. Indeed, it seems that social media has become the public platform for protesting with a plethora of information and information flowing back and forth protesting all kinds of things. In this regard I want to offer the Christian a word of warning, based on my ongoing observations.
Disturbingly, Christians have become acculturated into the habit of posting all kinds of memes misrepresenting, slandering, and undermining the credibility of State leaders. I want to remind you, in light of what Paul has written in Romans 13 about divine authority and the State, that glibly slandering or misrepresenting leaders, or the government represents a direct offence toward God’s authority. Yes, it is as if you are slandering God himself.
As a practice completely out of step with God’s Kingdom ethos, let me admonish you, if you are involved in this type of thing and are serious about your devotion to God, then you should desist from it immediately. Why gain some material short term political advantage at the expense of God’s honour? Can you advance God’s cause by disrespecting him?
But, why protest, when there is a better alternative.
A Better Way: Lessons from History
With the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine, in the early 4th century, and the validation of Christianity by the Roman Empire, Christianity became acculturated into the realm of political power, enjoying State endowed political favour and privilege. Since that time, Christianity in the West, with a few exceptions, has not known a reality in which its influence has not been politically freighted.
As such when confronted by the State, the default position of the Church seems to be political resistance. political lobbying, or to appeal to the State powers in some way, to give it some form of immunity. However, this was not always the case.
Prior to Constantine, although the church embraced no political power and, indeed, had no desire to do so. Yet, its influence increased greatly within Roman society. So how did it do it?
In his work, The Early Church (Penguin Books, 1967), author Henry Chadwick gives us the clue to the churches paradoxical success…
‘ The paradox of the church was that it was a religious revolutionary movement , yet without a conscious political ideology ; it aimed at the capture of society throughout all its strata, but was at the same time characteristic for its indifference to the possession of power in this world’. Celsus was the first known person to realize that this non-political , quietist , and pacifist community had in its power to transform the social and political order of the empire.’ The Early Church, 69.
No political agenda, no power play, no protests, no State resistance, no state sponsorship, no political immunity; just a quiet resolve to get on the work of the Kingdom–in the ‘way’ of the Kingdom!
This early Christianity embraced no model of political activism, rather it went out of its way to avoid it, desiring to comply with the Gentile authorities, those very people it wanted to convert…
‘The primitive church refused to identify itself with the nationalist Jewish zealots’…Committed to the approval of the Gentile mission, they were not disposed to quarrel with the Gentile authorities for whose conversion they prayed.’ The Early Church, 23.
Moreover, the early Christians did not view the State as the enemy of the Gospel, but rather, in their respectful engagement with it, saw it as the means of actually advancing their mission…
‘The Gentile mission had every interest in the maintenance of public order, and none whatsoever in adopting an attitude of disaffection towards the state. In the Acts of the Apostles it was already implied that the Empire, under the providence of God, could be an instrument for the furtherance of the Gospel’ The Early Church, 24
Yet, just because the church took a passive attitude to political power does not mean that it was not active within society to transform it. So, where was it active, and where did it place its energies?
Well, in the lowly realm of charity and compassion.
The early Christians, in step with Christ’s ethics of the Kingdom, devoted their time and attention to the needy of society. In fact, this focus was probably the greatest cause for their success, as Chadwick writes….
‘The practical application of charity was probably the most potent single cause of Christian success. The pagan comment ‘See how those Christians love one another (reported by Tertullian) was not irony’ The Early Church, 56
How did they specifically apply charity, again Chadwick is informative…
‘Christian charity expressed itself in care for the poor, for widows and orphans, in visits to brethren in prison or condemned to the living death of labour in the mines, and in social action in time of calamity like famine, earthquake, pestilence, or war.’ 56
Of course, never let us forget the power of God through prayer. Something Paul knew, and specifically encouraged his disciples to practise, and this with a special focus on leaders of he civil state, whom, Paul cites, even God desires to come to a knowledge of salvation…
‘ First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.‘ 1 Timothy 2:1-4
When the history of the Christian church is written years from now, and discussion about the Christian response to the COVID19 pandemic is broached, I suspect the biggest criticism that will be levelled a the church of this age, is that it failed to see the pandemic as a monumental opportunity to advance the cause of Christ through charitable caregiving.
Rather than offering charity to the needy, the lonely, the stranded, the abandoned, the socially estranged and isolated; I fear that the church of this time will be largely remembered as those who either retreated out of self-interest or selfishly resisted the government, who complained and protested about the loss of their own privileges, who sided with fringe anti-authority groups at the behest of their own brethren, and, squandered the immense opportunity to turn the calamity of the pandemic into victory for Christ and the Gospel.
( I must qualify this by offering my apologies to Christians and churches who have taken the opportunity to show charity during this difficult time, may God bless you and your work)
However, its not too late to turn this around. There still remains an opportunity to redeem the time and extend the charity of Christ; perhaps we have a chance to change the text of future history books and be remembered as those who realized their folly, and rose to the occasion.
Like those in the 1st century, it is my desire that the Christians of the 21st century, will also be remembered for their indifference to the possession of political power, and their selfless desire to advance the cause of Christ in the manner of Christ through the lowly ministry to the needy.
Friend, will you avoid being pulled in the cultural currents of resistance and complaint, and resolve to stay on firm biblical ground, humbly playing your part in reclaiming a vision of Kingdom work done in the Kingdom way?