Christian statists like to drag out St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans to demonstrate that disobedience to government is not an option:
“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 he who 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 him 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.” Rom. 13:1-4
Some laws must be disobeyed
Long recognized, however, are certain exceptions to this “always obey the government” rule. While St. Paul here equates obedience with “doing what is good,” no one argues that governments have ever confined their conduct to what is good. We find the famous standoff recorded in the Acts of the Apostles where St. Peter and the apostles defy the rulers saying: “We must obey God rather than men.” Acts 5:29. Numerous other approving recitations of civil disobedience occur in both the Old and New Testaments.
Some must always (and everywhere) be obeyed
So first of all, we must disobey some laws, but even the government gets many laws right. This second sort of law are those that seek to prevent or correct harm to others; such prohibitions would have to be obeyed in any society.
Unjust Nanny-state Laws
Finally, alongside the protective laws (which must be obeyed) and the laws which command us to do evil (which must be disobeyed) we still have that great morass of laws designed either 1) to steal from us; or 2) punish us unless we conduct our own lives according to the ruler’s demands.
It may well be wise to obey this third sort of law (if only out of self-defense), but as to any Christian moral obligation to obey, a closer look at St Paul’s epistle to the Romans suggests another layer to the analysis and raises the question as what duty—if any—is owed to the authorities:
For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. Rom.13:6-7.
How much honor is due?
The rulers might read this passage as satisfying homage, but the subversive undercurrent of this verse is barely beneath the surface for any objective reader. Indeed, justice might cry out that no taxes are due; that the bloody hands of the ruler merit no respect; and his thefts deserve not honor but punishment. Only a fool feels honored at having been wished “all the respect he is due.” St. Paul’s words are reminiscent of Bilbo’s speech at his birthday party:
I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.
~ J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings.
It’s hard to make out whether he is insulting or paying a compliment.
As with so much of scripture, the writings of St. Paul are rich with multiple levels of meaning. It turns out that the stern apostle possessed a perilous sense of humor, quite capable of lampooning the king.
Nero runs his race
In the year 66 A.D., the Emperor Nero left Rome to compete in the Olympic games and make a concert tour of Greece. At Olympia, he competed in the four-horse chariot race. The historian Suetonius, in The Twelve Caesars, reported that Nero drove his chariot with at least 10 horses. The emperor was thrown from his chariot during the race and had to be picked up and put back at the reins.
The emperor was unable to remain in his seat and gave up the race before the finish. Since he was the emperor, the judges crowned him the winner anyway. Nero generously declared the whole province a free country and gave the judges large sums of money.
This humiliation would have been fresh news when the buffoonish emperor returned to Rome and soon afterward had the apostle Paul beheaded. Could there be a connection between Nero’s race and a letter St Paul penned from a prison cell in Rome? The apostle wrote this in his last letter to his young friend Timothy,:
An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. . . . [T]he time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day. 2 Tim. 2:5, 4:6-8.
Nero the athlete had also competed, but he never finished the race. Nero did not compete according to the rules, yet was awarded the crown. Can there be any doubt that St Paul combined his bittersweet farewell to Timothy with a joke at Nero’s expense? If Nero was due respect simply for being the emperor–as Romans 13 is so often read–then St. Paul failed to follow his own rule. It is something to ponder when we consider one’s duty to any ruler or government.
Read the related post: “Does the Bible Approve of Violent Government” here.