Summary: What are the limits of obedience owed to the state when state and church are in conflict?
“Whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement.”
The Book of Judges concludes on a gloomy note. The last verse of the book reads, “In those days there was no king in Israel.” Then, this dark assessment is appended “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” [JUDGES 21:25]. Tragically, the verse describes anarchy in high dudgeon. The author describes an ungoverned, and what is worse still, an ungovernable, society. Paul, in our text, is teaching us that the state is God’s provision for avoiding anarchy; and thus, it is good.
The FIRST VERSE of ROMANS 13 instructs us that we who are Christians are responsible to obey the governing authorities; the following two verses provide reasons why we should obey, while at the same time defining the role of government. If we fail to be subject to the governing authorities, we are disobedient to God, and He will punish us [VERSE TWO]. However, the Apostle also cautions us that disobedience to government will lead to punishment meted out by the government itself.
In the message for this day, I am focused on the SECOND VERSE of this chapter, “Whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement.” This particular statement raises significant questions for those of us who think deeply concerning our role in the particular society wherein God has placed us. Thoughtful believers are compelled to ask whether there exist conditions which would negate this command. In other words, is this teaching absolute? Can we imagine conditions which would make rebellion against the existing authorities justified? What if a government is tyrannical? Suppose the state violates human rights? Where are the limits of obedience for us as Christians? Must Caesar always be obeyed?
JESUS ADDRESSES GOVERNMENTAL AUTHORITY — Jesus addressed the issue of the authority of the state on at least two occasions. One of those occasions was examined in a previous message. Jesus had been brought before Pilate, the Roman procurator of Judea. Pilate appeared agitated by the fact that the Master neither grovelled before him nor attempted to mount a vigorous defence for Himself. The procurator asked Jesus whether He was aware of the authority over the life of individuals that was held by the state. The Master appears to have startled Pilate with His reply, “You would have no authority over Me at all unless it had been given you from above” [JOHN 19:11].
Jesus, showing respect for the position Pilate occupied and showing respect even for the government represented, nevertheless held Pilate accountable for sin. The Master acknowledged that Pilate did indeed possess authority; but we saw that it was a delegated authority. Since governmental authority Pilate wielded was given by God, Pilate was responsible to God for how he used that authority. With these words, Jesus lays the groundwork for the limits of the authority wielded by the state. The authority of the state is delegated authority, and representatives of government must ultimately answer to God.