And of course we should all know that Christians ought not to be scofflaws. We are to be among the best citizens a magistrate ever had — we should be diligent and hard-working, dutiful and responsible, so that we might put to silence the ignorance of foolish men. We should bake the best cakes in Colorado, but not for the homo-fest, sorry.
But wait . . . doesn’t the Bible say that we must do whatever they say we must do — cakes, flowers, incense to Caesar, the works? Well, no (Acts 5:29).
“Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well. For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men: As free, and not using your liberty for a cloke of maliciousness, but as the servants of God. Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king” (1 Pet. 2:13–17).
So let’s take a look at some of the actions of the man who wrote those words — and not in order to charge him with hypocrisy.
“And, behold, the angel of the Lord came upon him, and a light shined in the prison: and he smote Peter on the side, and raised him up, saying, Arise up quickly. And his chains fell off from his hands. And the angel said unto him, Gird thyself, and bind on thy sandals. And so he did. And he saith unto him, Cast thy garment about thee, and follow me. And he went out, and followed him; and wist not that it was true which was done by the angel; but thought he saw a vision. When they were past the first and the second ward, they came unto the iron gate that leadeth unto the city; which opened to them of his own accord: and they went out, and passed on through one street; and forthwith the angel departed from him” (Acts 12:7–10).
Peter then went over to John Mark’s house, left a message, and disappeared from the book of Acts a wanted man, on the lam, with his picture in all the post offices.
This was what we might call a jailbreak, and it was not just a bit of innocent fun. The guards involved were executed for negligence they had not been guilty of (Acts 12:19), and yet, despite the seriousness of the issues, Peter did not consult with a bunch of modern Christians, who would have urgently advised that he turn himself in — citing, as they did so, with tears in their eyes, 1 Peter 2:13-17.
What we desperately need in these times of amoral chaos is recognize that the obedience of the Christian man will frequently be taken by tyrants as something other than the righteous obedience before God that it actually is. What did Jehoiada do? He honored the king. What did Athaliah call it? She called it treason (2 Kings 11:14). While we are not surprised that she would call it that, we are surprised that lots of modern Christian political theory listens to her.
I am reminded of that great line in Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood. “Sir, you speak treason!” “Fluently.”
So now let’s take a quick look at the man who wrote Romans 13.
“In Damascus the governor under Aretas the king kept the city of the Damascenes with a garrison, desirous to apprehend me: And through a window in a basket was I let down by the wall, and escaped his hands” (2 Cor. 11:32–33).
This is what we would call, in modern parlance, evading arrest, and, depending on how close the window was to the nearest gate, running a road block. The apostle Paul failed to show them his papers. He neglected to have those papers stamped. He didn’t pay the fee. And he did all this in full harmony with what he wrote for us to observe in that famed passage, “Romans 13.”
Who honored the royal dignity of King Saul more than David? And who was more uncooperative with Saul’s tyrannical designs than David? Had Romans 13 been written then, would we say that David honored it?
“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour” (Rom. 13:1–7).
There are many things that need to be unpacked from this passage, but let me start with just two of them. That will do for starters.
First, the magistrate here is assumed to be operating to enforce a moral order that is not inverted. You see the same assumption in the passage from 1 Peter — “as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well.” These rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil (v. 3). Doing good wins their praise (v. 3). The magistrate is a minister of God for good (v. 4). He is an agent of wrath for those who do evil (v. 4). What they command lines up with the believer’s conscience (v. 5). We pay tribute because they work at doing good constantly (v. 6).
Second, the magistrate is called the servant of God three times in this passage. He is the minister (diakonos) of God (v. 4), and again, the diakonos of God (v. 4). The word diakonos is the word for deacon, servant. A few verses later, another word for servant is used (leitourgos).
Now, where do we go in Scripture to find out how to respond to rulers who punish the good and reward the evil, and who insist as a matter of dogma that there is no authority above them, that they are secular, the servants of no God? Anyone who believes that Romans 13 offers a blank check to tyrants is someone who simply has not read it carefully, and is not comparing Scripture with Scripture (Is. 5:20; Ps. 11:3).
There is a vast difference between the dutiful Christian citizen and the craven Christian who cites passages out of context in order to justify a continuation of his cowardice. There is no biblical way to be a friend of true authority without being, simultaneously, and for the same reasons, a deadly foe of tyranny. Never forget that Peter and Paul, the men who wrote the passages above, were both executed by authorities who abandoned the station assigned to them in Scripture.
When we come to understand their words as they understood them, we will be a lot closer to seeing how something like that could have happened. It was not all a big misunderstanding.
It turns out that it really is true — resistance to tyrants actually is submission to God.