Romans 13 says to submit to the governing authorities. What if the governing authorities are corrupt and evil? Are there any situations in which a Christian does not have to submit to governing authorities?
There are three passages in the New Testament that command Christians to submit to and honor governing authorities (Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Pet. 2:13-17; Tit. 3:1-2). Historically, all of them were written while Nero was emperor of Rome. Nero was a tyrant, an extremely immoral pagan who is best known for persecuting Christians, including ordering the deaths of Paul and Peter, the apostles who wrote these passages to submit to and honor the emperor and other rulers. It is said of Nero that he was so depraved that he would light Christians on fire while they were still alive simply to provide light to see his garden at night. Other rulers who were in power around the time Paul and Peter were inspired to write these passages include Pilate, the governor who ordered Jesus’ death although he knew he was innocent; the Jewish council, who tried Jesus illegally and found him guilty of wrongs he did not commit and later persecuted and ordered the deaths of many disciples in the early church; and Felix, who held Paul in prison for two years because he was hoping for a bribe.
Yet in spite of the fact that corrupt and evil men were in power at the time, God still inspired Paul and Peter command Christians to “be in subjection” (hypotasso, “to rank under,” “to subject oneself, to obey, be subject,” “to subordinate,” “to submit to one’s control”) to the governing authorities (Rom. 13:1, 5; Tit. 3:1; 1 Pet. 2:13). Paul also brought out that governing authorities “have been instituted by God” and that those who resist them “resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” and “God’s wrath” (Rom. 13:1-2, 5). Peter likewise commanded that Christians be “subject…to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him” for “the Lord’s sake” (1 Pet. 2:13-14), calling it “the will of God” (v. 15).
Are there any exceptions to this? The New Testament shows only one. The Jewish authorities had specifically said to the apostles, “We strictly charged you not to teach in (Jesus’) name” (Acts 5:28; cf. 4:18). Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29; cf. Matt. 28:19; Mark 16:15). From this we gather that if a governing authority specifically commands a Christian to do something that directly is in opposition to what God has commanded that Christian to do in the Bible, the Christian is not under any obligation to obey that ruling authority. However, that does not give the Christian license to disobey the ruling authority because of that ruler’s personal unrighteousness or because of dislike of that ruler’s policies which may or may not be wrong but yet do not directly require that Christian to personally sin. It must also be noted that the early Christians did not call for revolution and secession against the Jewish ruling authorities after they had given them that sinful command. They simply chose to not obey the command and obey God instead, but they didn’t call for the church to fight with arms against the Jewish council or against the tyranny of Rome (cf. John 18:36).
Additionally, Peter also commanded that Christians “honor everyone,” even going so far as to also command, “Honor the emperor” (1 Pet. 2:17). Contextually, he associated giving honor to governing authorities with “doing good (so that) you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people” (v. 15). Paul likewise commanded to “pay…respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed” (Rom. 13:7) in the context of speaking of governing authorities whom he calls “God’s servant” (v. 4). Like Peter, Paul also associated “speak(ing) evil of no one” and “show(ing) perfect courtesy toward all people” with rulers and authorities (Tit. 3:1-2).
At the time of this writing, many Christians are very politically-minded and are dissatisfied with the state of government and who is in power in America. Over the years, I had observed many Christians insult and dishonor governing authorities with whom they disagree politically and whom they personally dislike. I have seen this done both to authorities who are personally evil and those who are personally moral. This is causing some to either ignore or try to twist these passages we’ve looked at into things they don’t mean. I’ve been recently told that the governing authorities we are told to submit to are principles, not specific individuals who are in power. That is not true. Peter spoke specifically of the emperor and the governors under him (1 Pet. 2:13-17). Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar clearly had the king in mind in passages like Daniel 2:21, 4:25, and 5:21. I find it no coincidence that this re-imagining of what these scriptures mean is happening when those who are very unpopular with most Christians are in power.
In recent years from time to time, I’ve also seen several Christians promote disobedience to the government in the form of revolution. These mindsets and habits go against God’s inspired commands to us through the pens of writers who were referring at the time to rulers who were far more evil and tyrannical than anything currently seen in America today. When we are more inclined to go to man-made documents like the Declaration of Independence instead of focusing on what God has commanded of us, that’s a problem. Personally, I love the Declaration of Independence and the freedoms we have in this country which came about because of that document. I am a proud American and I do not like the direction in which this country is headed in several ways. However, my first allegiance must be to God and his revealed will in the New Testament (Matt. 6:33). My first and highest citizenship is in his kingdom. He is my King and Lord, not only mine but also over all who bear the name of his Son. He wishes all of his followers to honor rulers instead of insulting them and mocking them. He commands us to submit to the governing authorities in all things, with the only exception being if those governing authorities directly tell the Christian to personally violate God’s revealed will in Scripture. Let us all follow his commands, setting our minds on the things above rather than on the things of the earth (Col. 3:1-2).
As Peter wrote while speaking of submitting to and honoring governing authorities: “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God” (1 Pet. 2:16).