To Obey or Disobey the Government? - A Christian Dilemma

At what point does civil disobedience become not simply morally allowable but morally required? How do we know when to follow Romans 13, and how do we know when to follow Revelation 13?

Should we refrain from denouncing error and immorality if the State bans such criticism as “hate speech”? If the State bans gathering indoors for worship, must this order be obeyed? . . .

Originally appeared at: Pravmir

An old proverb says that whoever dines with the devil must use a long spoon—i.e. one should be very careful and keep as much distance as possible. I suggest the same advice is suitable for dining with Caesar. When Caesar is unfriendly to the Church (as he has often been in history) we Christians have cause to be a bit nervous. When he is friendly to the Church we have cause to be even more nervous. For if there is one thing the long history of Byzantium has taught us it is that there is a definite down side to being a State church, and that Caesar has a disturbing tendency to over-reach himself. Everyone knows that he who pays the piper calls the tune. And when Caesar begins to pay our bills—or gives us a break economically—he often feels more than a bit entitled to run our show. That is why the word “Caesaropapism” has such an ugly ring to it.

The Church’s relationship to the State of course did not begin with Constantine, Justinian, and the rest of the Imperial gang. It began long before that. Our charter for such a relationship was set by the Lord when He said (in response to a “heads I win, tails you lose” question about paying taxes to Rome), “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s—and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:13-17). The trick is, of course, to figure out which things are which. It is not always easy.

Conflict with the State began soon after the Day of Pentecost (if you don’t count the Crucifixion). The high priest had legal authority from Rome to run Jerusalem and the Jewish nation in Palestine. Everyone acknowledged that the high priest had this authority from God, and everyone respected him—including St. Paul (see Acts 23:1-5). But when the high priest and the other chief priests who ran things ordered the apostles to cease publicly preaching that Jesus was the Messiah, they firmly declined. In response to the very legal orders to shut up and sit down, Peter drew a line in the sand which has never been erased: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

In happier and more ideal situations, those with divine authority (such as the high priest) use it properly, and in such cases the necessity of having to choose between obeying God or obeying men does not arise. But when the State misuses its authority (such as when it orders those under them to do immoral or ungodly things), then the choice must be made. The Church knows this well. That is why there have been so many martyrs.

The Church’s stance vis-à-vis the State has swung between two opposite poles—that of obedience and that of reluctant but determined disobedience. We see these two poles in the New Testament, and one may perhaps speak of “the two 13s”.

In Romans 13 St. Paul writes about one of the poles. There he says, “Every soul must be in subjection to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those which exist have been established by God. Therefore, he who resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God” (v.1-2). His point is that the alternative to the rule of law is the law of the jungle, and that government authority exists to allow for the peace and stability that everyone needs in order to live. For (he goes on to say), “Rulers are not a cause of fear for good behaviour, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same” (v. 3). His point again is the obvious one—that generally speaking the government leaves you alone if you mind your own business and do not engage in criminal behaviour.

This message finds an echo in the teaching of St. Peter as well, for Paul was not writing idiosyncratically, but passing along the common apostolic teaching of the Master that we must render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. Thus Peter writes: “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right” (1 Peter 2:13-14). This precept is apostolic and no Christian may reject it.

But as we saw above in the behaviour of the apostles when faced with ungodly rulers, it was not the only apostolic precept. As well as Romans 13, we also have Revelation 13. In the Book of Revelation we see in lurid apocalyptic images what happens when lawful and divinely-given authority is badly misused. For the earliest part of the Church’s life, the Roman state could be depended upon to act fairly and justly. That is why when Paul was treated badly by a persecuting Jewish state, he appealed to the Roman one. Rome had already saved him once when he was being lynched by a Jewish mob in the Temple (Acts 21:27-36), and he looked for more help from Rome when he appealed for a trial before Caesar later on (Acts 25:11). But soon enough Rome was transformed from being a good authority helping the innocent Church to a ravening Beast intent upon destroying the innocent Church. In Revelation 13 the State is the Enemy, the tool and instrument of the devil, and the Eternal City could no longer be relied upon to praise the person who did good and punish only the evildoers. Rome was now Babylon the Great, the mother of harlots and of the abominations of the earth (Revelation 17:5).

Of course ungodly State behaviour is not confined to persecuting the Church. Even apart from its lack of enthusiasm for the Church, the German State in the 1930s was very ungodly indeed. So catastrophically ungodly in fact that some Christians felt it was their moral duty to assassinate the State’s ruler. In their own different ways, the soldier Claus von Stauffenberg and the pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer were both wrestling with the same issue. Both acknowledged that killing a head of state was terrible, but felt that letting Hitler live would result in even more terrible things happening, so that killing him was the lesser of the two evils. Germany—hailed as “holy Germany” by von Stauffenberg in his final words before being shot—had become the Beast.

Of course it is not a matter of “either-or”—either we offer complete and passive submission to the State or we treat it like the Beast. Romans 13 and Revelation 13 are not two stark alternatives, but two ends of a pole, and our Christian life in this age is lived along that continuum. We acknowledge that the State has its authority from God and so we live as law-abiding citizens. But we also know that the State’s authority is not absolute, and although it must always be respected, it must also sometimes be resisted.

This is where things get tricky, for life is complicated and some moral questions require prayerful thought and long discernment. Should one allow oneself to be drafted and to fight in what is clearly an immoral war? If in the military, should one fire upon unarmed civilians if so ordered? If the State bans gathering indoors for worship, must this order be obeyed? Should one refrain from denouncing error and immorality if the State bans any such criticism as “hate speech”? At what point does civil disobedience become not simply morally allowable but morally required? Should one offer civil disobedience even if one feels it will not accomplish anything? Like I said, things can get tricky.

The task of wrestling with these important questions belongs to Christian theologians and bishops (whom I note are not always the same people). Their conclusions do not always bind the consciences of the faithful as if the leaders were immune to critique themselves. Christians must always respect their hierarchy, but this respect does not entail putting their own minds in a bag and letting others do all the heavy lifting. I suggest that the Church as a whole should wrestle with these issues, led by its leaders.

Caesar will always be around, and here in the West at least for a while we will be invited to dine with him at his table. We cannot forego the invitation (as the Amish classically have done) and live as if Caesar does not run the world and we could hide from him. We must take our place at the table for as long as we are asked. But we must be critical as well as respectful, having read both Romans and Revelation. And we must remember to bring a long spoon.

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