How can a Christian know when to submit to government authority, since there are at least a couple of scriptures that indicate Christians should submit to government authority, but there are also several scriptures that suggest it is sometimes appropriate for Christians to disobey government authority?
We will first consider some scriptures that seem to indicate that Christians should submit to government authority. [Note: When we quote Scripture in this article, we use the wording in the New King James Version of the Bible, unless we indicate otherwise.]
Mark 12:17a: Then Jesus answered and said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” [Luke 20:25 says essentially the same thing.]
Insofar as submission to government authority is concerned, Mark 12:17 is limited in scope. This scripture instructs people to give a portion of their income to pay the taxes that they owe to the government, as well as giving a portion of their income to God. In modern America, paying taxes would include those owed to state and local governments, as well as taxes owed to the federal government. And, giving to God can be done through a church and/or through other Christian ministries.
The Wycliffe Bible Commentary explains Mark 12:17, as follows:
For the privileges provided by the Roman government, the people were indebted to help support that government (cf. Rom 13:1-7). By the same token they were also to pay their obligations to God. And there is no incongruity in paying the two debts, for both payments are for the accomplishment of God’s will.
Romans 13:1: Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.
Wycliffe says with regard to this scripture, “Obedience to the state [i.e., government] is an ordinance of God. . . . Nothing is said here about form of government. The passage emphasizes government itself and its administrators when these function properly.”
Titus 3:1: [B]e subject to rulers and authorities, to obey, to be ready for every good work.
John Gill’s Exposition of the Bible has the following liberal interpretation of this scripture:
To obey magistrates . . . in all things that are according to the laws of God, and right reason, that do not contradict what God has commanded, or break in upon the rights and dictates of conscience; in all things of a civil nature, and which are for the good of society, and do not affect religion, and the worship of God. . . .
Gill has imposed qualifying conditions not mentioned by Paul in regard to being subject to rulers and authorities. We agree to some extent with Gill, because Paul’s unqualified comments seem to suggest that Christians should generally obey even the most evil government authorities. Our reluctance to strongly agree with Gill is because he infers that we need to place our own qualifications on scriptures that do not agree with our point of view. Nevertheless, Gill’s qualifying conditions seem to have merit, in light of the fact that several other scriptures in the Bible record instances in which men of God chose to do what they believed was God’s will, rather than do what government authorities told them to do. [Note: We will discuss these other scriptures later in this article.]
Hebrews 13:17a: Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive. . . .
Although it may seem that this scripture deals with the issue of submitting to government authority, a number of authoritative sources believe it pertains to obedience to church leaders, rather than to secular (i.e., government) leaders. Therefore, this scripture does not seem to be relevant to this article.
1 Peter 2:13-14: [S]ubmit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good.
With regard to this scripture, Wycliffe states,
A Christian is law-abiding, meticulous, and self-disciplined. This doctrine is comparable with Paul’s teaching in Rom 13:1-7 and Tit 3:1, 2. It is, of course, not to be understood as compelling compliance with evil. Peter’s own words to the Sanhedrin answer this: “Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye” (Acts 4:19). [Note: We will subsequently discuss this response by Peter.]
Wycliffe indicates that even though we have a general obligation to obey the laws imposed by our government, that obligation does not necessarily apply to civil laws that conflict with God’s laws, the most notable of which are the Ten Commandments. The scriptures that follow deal with several such situations.
Exodus 1:15-17: Then the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives . . . ; and he said, “When you do the duties of a midwife for the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstools, if it is a son, then you shall kill him; but if it is a daughter, then she shall live.” But the midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the male children alive.
Hebrews 11:23: By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden three months by his parents, because they saw he was a beautiful child; and they were not afraid of the king’s command [i.e., that the newborn children of the Hebrews be killed].
Both of these last two scriptures pertain to situations that would necessitate murder, which would be a violation of the sixth Commandment that is cited in Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17. Therefore, there is valid reason to believe that it is not necessary to obey such government decrees or those that are likely to result in murder, such as the past decrees by the Nazi government of Germany to report the location of all Jews.
The next two scriptures pertain to the worship of one or more pseudo gods, rather than the one true God. Worshiping false gods would be a violation of the first and second Commandments, which are found in Exodus 20:3-5 and Deuteronomy 5:7-9. Such worship may involve a person or one or more manmade idols, but in a modern society, it is more likely to involve giving the highest priority to a person, a job, personal objectives, etc., rather than to God.
Daniel 3:4-5, 18: Then a herald cried aloud: “To you it is commanded, O peoples, nations, and languages, that at the time you hear the sound of the horn, flute, harp, lyre, and psaltery, in symphony with all kinds of music, you shall fall down and worship the gold image that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. . . .” [Subsequently, when Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego were brought before the king because they had not obeyed this command, they said to him,] “[L]et it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up.”
Daniel 6:10: Now when Daniel knew that the writing [i.e., a decree by King Darius that whoever during a period of thirty days petitioned any god or man, other than himself, would be cast into a den of lions], he went home. And in his upper room, with his windows open toward Jerusalem, he knelt down on his knees three times that day, and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as was his custom since early days.
In the next scripture, the Disciples Peter and John were technically not being told to violate any of the Ten Commandments. However, the Bible makes it clear that God is sovereign, which infers that what He instructs us to do should take priority over what anyone else, including the government, tells us to do.
Acts 4:18-20: [The rulers, elders, scribes, the high priest, and others called Peter and John to appear before them] and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered and said to them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.”
Certainly, Peter and John wanted to do what God instructed them to do. Matthew 28:18-20 records that they and the other nine remaining original disciples of Jesus Christ, had been told personally by Jesus, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you. . . .”
Remembering what Peter and John said in Acts 4:18-20 should be a source of encouragement to do what God wants us to do, if we sincerely believe that God wants us to do something that may violate what we are told to do by our government, particularly if what the government dictates is not consistent with biblical teaching.
In this regard, Billy Graham says on page 58 of his book entitled The Journey, “As long as we are on this earth, we possess dual citizenship. On one hand we owe allegiance to our nation and are called to be good citizens. But we are also citizens of the kingdom of God. Our supreme loyalty is to Him.”
What about swearing (i.e., making a solemn promise) to tell the truth in a court of law? If we are obedient to government authority when asked to do this, would we be disobedient to biblical instruction not to swear in the name of God?
The New International Version of the Bible (NIV), which we believe provides a better translation of Leviticus 19:12 than that of the New King James Version, cautions, “Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the Lord.” Note that this scripture does not say that all swearing is wrong. It states that if a person does not tell the truth after swearing by God’s name to tell the truth, that person is guilty of profaning the name of God, which would be a sin.
However, Matthew 5:33-37 seems to indicate that it is never appropriate to swear. In this scripture, Jesus Christ admonishes,
“[Y]ou have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.’ But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.”
A footnote in the NIV Bible with regard to this scripture states, “The OT allowed oaths except those that profaned the name of God. Jesus would do away with all oaths, in favor of always speaking the truth.” [Webster’s Dictionary states that an oath is “(1) a solemn, usually formal, calling upon God or a god to witness to the truth of what one says or to witness that one sincerely intends to do what one says; (2) a solemn attestation of the truth or inviolability of one’s words.”]
Matthew Henry’s Commentary says that “all rash, unnecessary swearing,” as well as false swearing, is forbidden, but not all swearing is sinful.
And Unger’s Bible Dictionary states, “The prohibition of swearing does not refer to official oaths, but to private conduct, for none of the oaths referred to by our Lord are judicial oaths.”
Norman L. Geisler, Ph.D., and Thomas A. Howe, M.A., have a point of view that is similar to Unger’s. On page 529 of their book entitled When Critics Ask, they express the belief that “Nothing in the Bible condemns taking a courtroom oath ‘to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.’”
On the other hand, Wycliffe asserts, “[N]o believer should employ an oath to authenticate his statements. Even the state will usually allow an affirmation instead of an oath if requested.”
What about James 5:12, which cautions, “[A]bove all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath. But let your ‘Yes,’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No,’ lest you fall into judgment.”
A footnote to this scripture in the NIV Bible says that the writer of James 5:12 “is not condemning the taking of solemn oaths. . . . Rather, he is condemning the flippant use of God’s name or a sacred object to guarantee the truth of what is spoken.”
With regard to the same scripture, Matthew Henry asserts, “All customary needless swearing is undoubtedly forbidden. . . .” Swearing to tell the truth in a court of law does not fall in this category.
In light of the foregoing considerations, we believe that a person’s allegiance to God should always take priority over his (or her) allegiance to government authority. Probably, the best way to do this appropriately is to follow the teachings of the Bible with regard to moral and spiritual matters, but to obey the government with regard to all other matters. And, when not submitting to government authority, a person should be careful to avoid taking any actions that are contrary to biblical teaching, especially if those actions might be harmful to other people.
Swearing to tell the truth in a court of law is probably not an act of disobedience to biblical teaching, provided that the person taking the oath is sincere when doing so. Nevertheless, people who are not convinced that swearing to tell the truth in a court of law is condoned by the Bible may be more comfortable requesting to be allowed to give an affirmation that they will tell the truth, rather than compromising their belief that swearing, even in a court of law, is not condoned by the Bible.