A Commentary by John Stott
How then, can it be shown that Paul’s demand for submission is not absolute? Granted that the authority of the rulers is derived from God, what happens if they abuse it, if they reverse their God-given duty, commending those who do evil and punishing those who do good? Does the requirement to submit still stand in such a morally perverse situation? No. The principle is clear. We are to submit right up to the point where obedience to the state would entail disobedience to God. But if the state commands what God forbids, or forbids what God commands, then our plain Christian duty is to resist, not to submit, to disobey the state in order to obey God. As Peter and the other apostles put it to the Sanhedrin: ‘We must obey God rather than men!’ (Acts 5:29). This is the strict meaning of civil disobedience, namely disobeying a particular human law because it is contrary to God’s law. To trespass and organize a sit-in, or to obstruct the police in their duties, may also in some circumstances be justified, but it should be called ‘civil protest’ rather than ‘civil disobedience’, since in this case the laws which are being broken in order to publicize the protest are not themselves intrinsically evil.
Whenever laws are enacted which contradict God’s law, civil disobedience becomes a Christian duty. There are notable examples of it in Scripture. When Pharaoh ordered the Hebrew midwives to kill new-born boys, they refused to obey. ‘The midwives…feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live.’ (Ex.1:17). When King Nebuchadnezzar issued an edict that all his subjects must fall down and worship his golden image, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused to obey (Dn. 3). When King Darius made a decree that for thirty days nobody should pray ‘to any god or man’ except himself, Daniel refused to obey (Dn. 6). And when the Sanhedrin banned preaching in the name of Jesus, the apostles refused to obey (Acts 4:18ff.). All these were heroic refusals, in spite of the threats which accompanied the edicts. In each case civil disobedience involved great personal risk, including possible loss of life. In each case its purpose was ‘to demonstrate their submission to God, not their defiance of government’.
I now site a moving modern example. In 1957 Hendrik Verwoerd, as Minister of Native Affairs the year before he became Prime Minister of South Africa, announced the Native Laws Amendment Bill. Its ‘church clause’ would have prevented any racial association in ‘church, school, hospital, club or any other institution or place of entertainment’. The Anglican Bishop of Cape Town at the time was a gentle scholar called Geoffrey Clayton. He decided with the bishops, although with reluctance and apprehension, that they must disobey. He wrote to the Prime Minister that if the Bill were to become law, he would be ‘unable to obey it or to counsel our clergy and people to do so’. The following morning he died, perhaps under the pain and strain of civil disobedience.
Further light is thrown on the ambivalent nature of the state’s authority when Roams 13 is compared with Revelation 13. Some thirty years have elapsed since Romans was written, and the systematic persecution of Christians has begun under the Emperor Domitian. Now the state is no longer seen as the servant of God, wielding his authority, but as the ally of the devil (pictured as a red dragon), who has given his authority to the persecuting state (pictured as a monster emerging out of the sea). Thus Revelation 13 is a satanic parody of Romans 13. Yet both are true. ‘According as the State remains within its limits or transgresses them, the Christian will describe it as the Servant of God or as the instrument of the Devil’.
To sum up, we are to submit to the state’s God-given authority, but it has been given for particular and not totalitarian purposes. ‘The gospel is equally hostile to tyranny and anarchy’.
Tomorrow: Romans 13:4-7. 2). The ministry of the state.