When Paul wrote to the church in the city of Rome, he labored the point of submitting to governing authorities for a reason. All authority comes from God and if we are to remain a faithful light of Christ in a dark world of rebellion, one means of consistent Christian character is faithful submission. Faithful submission to governing authorities glorifies God. Paul goes on to make the point that the government is a blessing for all people—including the church of Jesus (Rom. 13:1-7).
However, it is quite possible for the government to become a burden for the church of Jesus—and at whatever point the ruling authorities demand something from God’s people that would cause us to actively or passively disobey God—we must obey God rather than man. While our primary calling is to submit whenever possible, there are times where submission would be sinful and rebellion would be glorying to God. Wisdom and discernment is necessary at this juncture, because the stakes will be high when it’s time to rebel against the very people who bear the sword and have the authority to use it.
America and the Story of Rebellion
Four hundred years ago, in the fall of 1620, more than one hundred colonists sailed for the New World on a well-known sea vessel known as the Mayflower. These Separatist Christians renounced the religious practices of the Church of England and believed that the Church of England was beyond redemption. In 1630, another group would join the Separatists in the New World. This group is known as the Puritans.
During the “Great Migration” of the 1630s, some 21,000 English settlers came to New England. This group was made up of farmers, fisherman, merchants, lawyers, and entire families. When they came off the ship, they brought their personal belongings—including an important book. It was the Geneva Bible. The Geneva Bible was birthed out of the Protestant Reformation and was the very first study Bible—complete with study notes in the margins that pointed out the errors of the Roman Catholic Church.
The United States of America has a rich history of rebellion against ungodly leadership and the pursuit of religious freedom. The First Amendment of the Constitution provides us luxuries that the church in other nations do not enjoy.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
We the people have freedom to exercise religion and the US Government is not free to prohibit the practice of our religion. We likewise have an ability to petition the US Government regarding grievances—which is not a luxury for the church in China.
According to the Second Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, we have a right to form a militia and to bear arms.
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
This is a unique freedom established from the beginning in order to have a built-in system of free rebellion against the Government in order to prevent overreach and burdensome rule that would be harmful and potentially dangerous to the welfare and religious freedom of the people in America.
Can God Be Glorified Through Rebellion?
While submission, even during difficult circumstances, is glorifying to God; is it possible to glorify God through rebellion?
When the midwives were given the charge to murder the Hebrew babies, rather than obeying the command of Pharaoh, they defied his wicked command and spared babies (Ex. 1:15-22). The Hebrew midwives had God’s law written on their hearts and they knew that murdering those babies was wrong. At that point, they chose to obey God rather than the king.
When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were accused of not falling on the ground and worshipping the golden image of King Nebuchadnezzar, as they had been instructed to do upon hearing the music from the instruments, they were brought before the king to answer the charges and subsequently threatened with the fiery furnace. At this point, the three men responded by saying:
If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up (Dan. 3:17-18).
In the New Testament, the apostles were arrested for preaching the gospel of Jesus (Acts 5). They were released by an angel in a miraculous covert operation, and the very next scene they’re in open defiance of the rulers by preaching the gospel in the most public venue possible—the temple. After being arrested again and threatened, they responded, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
Five hundred years ago this year, Martin Luther was summoned to stand before the Diet of Worms to answer for his preaching and writing. After requesting for additional time to consider his answer, on the following day as he stood before the hierarchy of the Roman Empire—Luther answered with brilliant clarity by stating the following:
I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant of anything since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise. Here I stand – may God help me. AMEN.
As Luther was being escorted out of the room the loud shouts calling for Luther’s life were ringing in his ears. As he was taken back to his private quarters—upon entering the room he was instantly relieved that he had made his stand. He then turned to a friend and said, “If I had a thousand heads I would rather have them all lopped off than to abandon my gospel.” The Roman Catholic Church had the authority to execute Luther. They had already done so with Jan Hus in 1415. Yet, Luther openly defied their teaching and their authority. In essence, he was standing on the shoulders of the apostles who were unwilling to disobey God in order to obey man.
Resistance Results in the Sword
Several years ago, I was in Amsterdam and I had the privilege to visit the Rijksmuseum. I was able to stand in front of the famous painting by Rembrandt known as “The Night Watch.” However, one of my most vivid memories of that museum was a painting that was hanging in an adjacent room to the Rembrandt masterpiece. It was much smaller, but it was a painting that delivered a very sobering message. The painting is a vivid picture of Herodias’ daughter holding John the Baptist’s head on a platter. It was a striking reminder of the cost of faithful preaching and the results of resistance. While the sword can be a blessing to God’s people, it can likewise become a burden.
When a wicked plot was devised and set in motion by the servants of King Darius as a trap for Daniel, he was subsequently cast into the den of lions as a result of his faithful daily prayers to God. There are consequences to disobeying laws and orders given directly by the ruling authorities. Although God is the one who places the sword in the hand of rulers—sometimes they will wield the sword in a way that is sinful and ultimately destructive. We see this with Pharaoh, Herod, and various other rulers throughout history such as Hitler and other monstrous figures who surface from time to time.
Paul would eventually be arrested for faithfully preaching the gospel of Jesus. The very man who penned Romans 13:1-7 would be imprisoned in Rome. Paul understood well that no system is perfect and that no ruler is perfect, but when possible we are called to submit to their rule and glorify God. When their rule conflicts with the rule of Christ—a different path is mandated. When the kingdom of darkness clashes with the Kingdom of Christ—we are called to bow to Christ and accept whatever consequences may come our way.
Such persecution was promised by Jesus. This allegiance to Jesus’ throne is what caused James to be cast off the pinnacle of the temple and subsequently clubbed to death, Peter to be crucified upside down on a cross, and Paul to be beheaded in the streets of Rome. Such a commitment to the kingship of Christ is what cost Polycarp his life and is likewise what caused John Bunyan to be imprisoned for 12 years in Bedford, England.
There is a cost to obeying Christ and resisting evil rulers—and yet the cost is well worth it and the persecution—even the bloodshed of saints is particularly glorifying to God. Tertullian once said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
No matter if it’s imprisonment for “hate speech” or the loss of tax exemption status for openly defying wicked laws and defying government restrictions upon the regular gathering and worship of the local church—we must be prepared to accept whatever consequences will come our way as a result of defying Caesar.
Until Christ comes—we render unto Caesar what belongs to him, and we render unto the Lord what belongs to him. When we understand that principle properly—we see that Christ’s throne is far superior to Caesar’s throne and our ultimate commitment must be to Christ our sovereign King.
Even so, come quickly Lord Jesus!