Sunday, February 28, 2010

Obeying the "Authorities." What does the Bible REALLY say!

One of the areas of real confusion for me for years was what does the bible say about obeying the authorities, particularly in Romans chapter 13. Does it really teach obedience to government is unconditional as many churches suggest?

I found for the most part, much of the "organized" church hasn't given a great deal of critical thought to this very important question (which is becoming increasingly important due to the breakdown of morality in American culture as well as in government). Therefore I wrote this a few years back and expanded it right after teaching through the book of Romans in 2009. If you like what I have written, I highly recommend you also read "The Establishment and Limits of Civil Government" by James M. Wilson.

The Bible and Obeying Authorities
Rom 13:1 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. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 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. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. (ESV)
The bible clearly teaches in the above passage as well as I Pet 2:13 we are to obey the authorities. Few Christians would dispute this. However, it is often assumed by many Christians that a government’s validity and the requirement to obey it come simply by virtue of its existence and we are therefore required to obey them unconditionally.  Those who take this view site Romans 13:1b, “…For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” Some assert this passage teaches that government has unconditional authority without restrictions; that Christians must obey government no matter what it does or demands of its citizens. Part of the reason for this is many consider obeying the authorities only from the vantage point of the Christians responsibility to government. As a result, rarely do they stop to ask whether Government has a responsibility to God or the citizen, Christian or otherwise and what that might be.

Do these passages really teach that obeying the authorities is absolute and stands alone in a vacuum? That anything told to us or asked of us by government is a mandate from God Himself with whom we must comply, simply because government mandates it. Are there any other passages that indicate otherwise? Are there any conditions within the context of Romans 13 that put restrictions on Romans 13:1b and I Peter 
2:13? The fact is those who are quick to advocate unconditional obedience and cite only Romans 13:1-2 as an absolute standard must ignore not only other clear teaching of scripture but the immediate context.

Within the rest of chapter 13 certain qualifications or restrictions are clearly indicated that are seldom considered by “unconditional obedience” advocates much less discussed. As an example, in Rom 13:7 we are told, “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.” Many may not consider that this clearly implies something may not be owed, otherwise why use the word “owed?” Why not simply say, “pay all taxes. Show anyone in authority respect etc.” instead of according to whom or what is owed. It should be clear that we are not to pay taxes that are not owed or to give respect or honor to those who don’t deserve it. As the saying goes, authority may be given but respect is earned. Though this saying isn't scripture I think it is supported by scriptural principle and hope to demonstrate that in this paper. 

On the tax question, a simple example would be whether we should honor a tax bill sent to us from the government of China. The answer obviously is of course not. This might seem like an silly illustration but I use an extreme example to show there must be a binding legal arrangement between the “taxer” and the “taxee” before an obligation exists and we should not assume we have an obligation simple because someone claims there is one or asserts they have the authority to make a claim or demand. Obviously, the only taxes that apply to us here in America are those our law requires of us, hence the instruction to pay taxes to whom they are due and not just to anyone for any reason.

The overall point is the commands in this passage are not absolute or without conditions and we must stop and consider what we are being told and what those conditions are and not assume a meaning outside the immediate context of the passage as well as the rest of scripture.

For example one condition mentioned, though not apparent at first, is in Rom 13:1 “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers." (KJV) The word “power” (or “authorities” in some translations) is exousia in the original which carries the idea of “privileged” or “delegated” authority. A “higher power” in this passage is not referring to independent powers (as would be the case with dunamus, the other common Greek word for power) where power is inherent within the power holder. Exousia is a power that is assigned or delegated making the holder of it accountable to the assigner.  It is a power given that must be exercised within the sphere of it’s delegation.

Also because all legitimate power comes from God, “for there is no (delegated) power but of God…” whatever power that exists legitimately is only because it is granted by God or “of God.” Indeed the next phrase “and those (delegated authorities) that exist have been instituted by God…” clarifies this even further.

We see another condition when Paul goes on to explain why obedience must only be to higher delegated powers. Higher is “excellent” in the original which is another qualification set upon government. So the powers of government are not only delegated but must be excellent.

What is meant by excellent or **higher powers in verse one (translated "governing" in other translations)? Since the powers here are delegated, we must ask who or where do these authorities look to for instruction on how to conduct themselves excellently? Are they merely to look to themselves?

It stands to reason these subordinate or delegated powers/authorities (exousia) must be subject to the source of their delegation i.e. God Himself, since it is God who has ordained or instituted them. Simply stated, they must exercise authority only in the manner prescribed by the one who gives them their delegation. This is what is meant to rule excellently for they rule according to the excellent standard of God’s law, not by their own standards.  

We get a further clue of the nature of their authority in Rom 13:3 which says, “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad…”

In Rom 13:4 we are told, "...Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 

So what happens when you do good and receive governments disapproval. This verse along with its context clearly indicates civil authorities are operating as a Gods appointees when punishing wrongdoers. And if so what does this say if they are punishing those who do good? Have they not abandoned their assignment? What is our obligation to them when they do so? The context would suggest there would be no obligation to such authorities. We hope to prove this more clearly from additional points in the context of Rom 13 and other passages as we go on. 

Legitimate government is that government which punishes evil and rewards good. If it rewards evil and punishes good, then it is no longer carrying out the roll God has assigned.

This same condition is mentioned in the Peter passage as well

1Pe 2:13  Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme,  1Pe 2:14  or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.

Who ultimately decides what is good or bad conduct if not God Himself. Certainly this is not determined by fallen men placed in authority regardless of how high their station. Since God is the ultimate Judge and the only one who determines what is “good” or “bad conduct” and these authorities are instituted by Him, it stands to reason they are required to administer justice only as God defines it, not as they define it. This may not necessarily address every specific law implemented but all laws must be in harmony with God’s overall moral law and not contrary to it. It would go contrary to everything taught in scripture for the authorities to be authorized to punish folks for good conduct and reward them for bad conduct. How could a “minister of God” carry out actions contrary to God’s commands and remain God’s true minister? Would a righteous, legitimate God-fearing authority approve wickedness or condemn righteousness? Would God have wrath toward someone practicing righteousness instead of wickedness or approve of judgment or punishment toward someone practicing righteousness instead of wickedness? The answer should be obvious.

Also note Paul happens to define righteous behavior from verse 8 through the rest of the chapter 13. In fact in verses 13:9-10 he refers specifically to some of the 10 commandments of the OT and the 2nd greatest commandment to love others as yourself. Given this is the immediate context addressing the role of government leaves no doubt as to what God means by “good” or “bad” behavior for anyone, particularly any government official who might happen to read this passage and looking to it to justify their conduct and authorize their authority.

Paul repeats what Christ had already asserted when he states in both 13:8 and 10 that loving one another is the fulfilling of the law. Is there any doubt this should also be the standard by which governments are to operate. Would not the overriding guiding principle of good government be to insure doing onto others as you would have them do unto you i.e. punish evil doers and reward those who do good?

Not only are instructions given on how to treat our fellow man in 13 but at the end of chapter 12 as well.

Rom 12:9  Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.
Rom 12:10  Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.
Rom 12:11  Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.
Rom 12:12  Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.
Rom 12:13  Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.
Rom 12:14  Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.
Rom 12:15  Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
Rom 12:16  Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.
Rom 12:17  Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.
Rom 12:18  If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
Rom 12:19  Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord."
Rom 12:20  To the contrary, "if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head."
Rom 12:21  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Unfortunately, since many chapter divisions made by men separate what God intends to be connected we can miss the connection. The end of chapter 12 is clearly connected with chapter 13. This is obvious now that we consider it but it is rarely acknowledged as significant among those who advocate unconditional obedience to all authorities. However, it is very significant that the first part of Romans 13 dealing with obeying the authorities is sandwiched between clear instructions at the end of chapter 12, as well as instructions through the remainder of chapter 13 on what constitutes “good conduct.” Romans 13:1-2 is surrounded before and behind on how to treat our fellow man. You get the sense that Paul, under the inspiration of God’s Spirit, was deliberately making sure there was no doubt as to the standard by which governing authorities must rule. 

It is clear from the immediate context that good or bad conduct is determined by God alone, not government. God doesn't give government Cart Blanche to do whatever they wish and act contrary to His word. He is the ultimate authority and they are His ministers accountable to Him to rule as He calls/delegates them to. How could it be any other way and how could the authorities be true “ministers of God” otherwise?

Continuing on this same point, verse 3 begins with "For..." This is the word gar in the original and means, “assigning a reason” and can be translated “because” or “therefore.” i.e. the grounds or reason for the validity of the authorities mentioned in the proceeding verses is because or “for” they are a terror to bad conduct, not good. This clearly suggests if they are not such an authority, all previous commands to obey them do not apply. Remember, “…respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.”  Again our obligation is to obey the authorities that are a terror to bad conduct and a rewarder of good as defined by God, the Giver and Standard of all law and the ground for all morality.

A different point worth mentioning is who does “every” apply to when it says, “let every soul be subject…” in verse 1. Every means every, right? You might be thinking about now "well duh!" My point is wouldn't that include those in authorities as well as any other citizen? If “every” didn't apply to the authorities themselves then what or who would in fact be the authority they are answerable to, themselves? What law would the authorities themselves be subject to if they are the law? Would they not need to be subject to someone outside themselves? Given mans propensity away from God and towards being self serving, the answer should be obvious.

It makes no sense they would answer only to themselves, particularly since they are delegated authorities and ministers of God. Than would they answer to their fellow authorities? For one, man is fallible at best. It would also make it too easy for one authority to “look the other way” for the sake of a “brother.” In fact isn't this what already goes on today and why we see so much corruption in high places. In either case, no man, whether in a ruling position or not, is above the law; not man’s law and certainly not God’s.

In light of the above points we could legitimately arrange verses 1-4 as follows:

Rom 13:3 because (gar) rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad and... 4 because (gar) he is God's servant for your good... 1 Let every person be subject to the(se) governing authorities. For (gar) there is no (delegated) authority except from God, and those (such authorities) that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists (such) authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist (such authorities) will incur judgment. ...Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 ...But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For (gar) he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer.

Obviously God inspired Paul to write it as is in it's original form. However a straight word for word rendering of Greek to English does not always clearly convey the intent of the original. Which is why the Greek can be helpful. The order can flow differently in the Greek which is why you will see a different rendering of a passage between different translations (the various translations of Rom 8:28 would be a good example of this). The above order is merely offered to help bring some clarity to what God intended via his agent Paul while remaining true to the original meaning within it's context. I recommend you to study this passage and make sure my arrangement does so. 

We do not need the Greek however to clearly see that the solution to not having a fear of government but rather being approved by it, is simply by doing good. Is this not a clear indication that government is to rule according to God’s law? If so, what does this say about our obligation to government that rules contrary to God’s law?

Christ addressing "ruling authorities" 

In considering Christ, how did Jesus handle the Jewish authorities of His day? Did he always agree with them and blindly submit to them? Did he ever speak out against misuse or abuse of authority? Did he simply ignore the misapplication of Jewish law when he saw it taking place? No! He challenged these leaders on several occasions. In fact His most scathing words were for the religious leaders of the Jews, the Scribes and Pharisees. See Matthew chapters 6:1-5,16 chapter 15, and 23Joh 8:43,44. Though they were not the ultimate civil authority in their given circumstance (Rome was), these leaders within Israel carried out limited civil oversight as well as a spiritual authority. They certainly had enough influence to persuade Pilot to have Christ crucified. 

He called these leaders snakes, fools, self righteous, murderers and hypocrites; the blind leading the blind. And these are only some of the descriptions He gave them. Pretty scathing words considering these were authorities/leaders of his day within 
Israel. (Might Christ’s scathing rebukes suggest that due to their unique role and influence, leaders are actually to be held to a higher standard?) So were Christ’s actions in conflict with Romans 13? Obviously they could never be as Christ was completely righteous in all he said and did. If they were not, why not?

The simple explanation of this apparent contradiction is we are to obey the authorities unless 

1.      They ask us to directly violate God's clear law taught elsewhere or 
2.     They are acting in clear violation of God’s law and truth themselves.  

The point is Romans 13 must be interpreted in the context of ALL of scripture. How Christ handled the authorities is something most who take the position of unconditional obedience rarely if ever even bring up. It doesn't even occur to them that Christ do not always and blindly obey these authorities but in fact rebuked and chastised them on many occasions when they were in violation of God’s word.

The bottom line is God's word not only within but also outside of Romans 13 gives examples that qualify and even supersede the view of unconditional obedience taught by some within the church today. That is because God is the ultimate authority of all men and to whom all must ultimately give an account, especially those in authority. Because of their unique role and calling as God’s special servants/ministers of justice, they have an even greater accountability to God. Rom 13:4 “…he is God's servant” and Rom 13:4 “…the authorities are ministers of God…” We must ask ourselves when those in authority are disobeying God or asking us to do the same, are they still serving God or have they abdicated their delegation and God’s calling? When we stop to consider it, it would make no sense for God to have qualifications or guidelines for spiritual ministers, yet have none for civil ministers of justice?

In summary of Romans 13, it should be apparent that obeying the authorities does not stand alone in a vacuum. The simple but oft overlooked fact is their authority is delegated and not absolute. The basis for their authority does not reside within them, it comes only from God and therefore they are particularly responsible to act according to God’s law as His representatives, just as those God has delegated as his spiritual representatives, such as pastors and teachers. 

If a spiritual minister can be disqualified from his sphere of ministry should not a civil minister be also? If they do not act according to God's law they are acting outside the sphere of their God given authority; hence the admonition of Paul to give honor to whom honor is due. By their violation of God's requirements as we have laid out, they disqualify themselves by not doing what is needed to illicit due honor. 

Now we will look at other passages to see if the above understanding is just isolated within Romans and Christ's handling of leaders or is it also supported elsewhere.

Do we find any concrete examples that we are to obey the authorities if we are commanded by them to violate God’s higher authority? Yes. Are we to obey them? No, we are not. As Peter said, I must obey God rather then menAct 4:18-21Act 5:27-29. These passages are clear indication if someone in a position of authority asks us to disobey God they are acting as mere men and no longer as God’s representatives and delegates. Their role of authority is not absolute but conditional. No man is above God's rule/law, especially those who are called to administer it.

So where does this notion of unconditional obedience come from if it’s not supported in scripture and why is it so prevalent among many in the church. I suggest it is lingering remnant rooted in a fallacious notion that comes from the Roman Church and was picked up by the Anglican Church and not from scripture. The Anglican Church taught “the divine right of Kings” which in essence held that when the King spoke He was speaking “ex cathedra” or the very words of God Himself, not unlike the view the Roman Church held of the Pope. Before England merged church and state into one authority figure, this was believed only to be true of the Pope. The Anglican Church took it a step further and vested this notion of “ex cathedra” in the King as well, since he was both head of the church and state. I would suggest that absolute and unconditional rule and authority by the King (or anyone in authority) is not rooted in scripture but from this notion of the Roman Church which saw men as mediators between God and men. (It's worth noting that the King James translation was written under such conditions. If you read it against some newer translations you can see some subtle differences). 

However, absolute and unconditional authority can only lie within God Himself, not fallible man. All men must be measured by the same infallible standard of God’s word. They are not themselves that standard. This whole notion of man needing an earthly mediator between himself and God, either spiritually or civilly, is another idea that is a direct contradiction of scripture. Yes men are used in both cases, but they are not God, only the messengers/ administrators sent by God to do God's bidding, not their own. 

Delegated authorities are not nor ever were intended to be mediators but rather administrators; God’s servants to administer justice and punish those who violate His law, not spokesmen on behalf of God.  

Context is always key

Using Romans 13 to support unconditional obedience, like all other misapplications of scripture is a classic example of taking a passage out of its immediate and extended context and making it an absolute and isolated standard. To do so you must violate the rest of scripture.

On a separate but related question, when you have an apparent contradiction within the bible, what do you do? How do you determine which is the correct interpretation? Doesn't it make sense to simply determine what is clearly taught within the context of the all of scripture and interpret the passages that are unclear or appear to contradict accordingly.

For example if the government ordered you to commit murder, should you? No one would dispute the Bible clearly teaches we are not to murder. The Hebrew midwives certainly understood this when the king of Egypt instructed them to kill the first born males of the Hebrew women. Not only did they disobey this command given by of the civil authority, God blessed and honored their “disobedience.”  

Exo 1:15 Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, Exo 1:16  "When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live." Exo 1:17  But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live. Exo 1:18  So the king of Egypt called the midwives and said to them, "Why have you done this, and let the male children live?"

The bible even goes on to tell us in Heb 11:23 that, “By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents..." Why did his parents hide him? To avoid the godless decree given by Pharaoh to have the all first born male children killed. The hiding of Moses was in direct disobedience to the instructions of Pharaoh, the leading authority of Egypt, whose authority Israel was under, yet God called it an act of faith and not an act of disobedience to Him, though it certainly was to Pharaoh.

We have another example in the case of Daniel.

Dan 6:7  All the presidents of the kingdom, the prefects and the satraps, the counselors and the governors are agreed that the king should establish an ordinance and enforce an injunction, that whoever makes petition to any god or man for thirty days, except to you, O king, shall be cast into the den of lions. 8  Now, O king, establish the injunction and sign the document, so that it cannot be changed, according to the law of the Medes and the Persians, which cannot be revoked." 9  Therefore King Darius signed the document and injunction. 10  When Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem. He got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously. 11  Then these men came by agreement and found Daniel making petition and plea before his God. 12  Then they came near and said before the king, concerning the injunction, "O king! Did you not sign an injunction, that anyone who makes petition to any god or man within thirty days except to you, O king, shall be cast into the den of lions?" The king answered and said, "The thing stands fast, according to the law of the Medes and Persians, which cannot be revoked." 13  Then they answered and said before the king, "Daniel, who is one of the exiles from Judah, pays no attention to you, O king, or the injunction you have signed, but makes his petition three times a day."

Not only did Daniel not comply with the Kings ordinance, he took a very open, almost “in your face” posture in his disobedience. Of course, we know the rest of the story. Daniel was thrown in the lion’s den for his disobedience. Yet God delivered him only indicating his “disobedience” honored God.

Dan 6:22  My God sent his angel and shut the lions' mouths, and they have not harmed me, because I was found blameless before him; and also before you, O king, I have done no harm."

It is interesting that Daniel did not say he was blameless before Darius as he did regarding God but that he had not harmed Darius suggesting he clearly understand he acted in disobedience to Darius. 

We see a similar act of resistance to the governing authorities in Daniel when Daniel’s three friends refuse to bow down to image the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar had set up.

Dan 3:15  Now if you are ready when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, to fall down and worship the image that I have made, well and good. But if you do not worship, you shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?" 16  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, "O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter17  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. 18  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."

Again we know the outcome. God not only delivered them from this ordeal but was actually present with them in the fire.

Another example is in Esther. Mordecai, the father of Esther refused to bow and pay homage to Haman, the King’s right hand man. Haman, finding out that Mordecai was a Jew and filled with fury, went to the king to request all Jews to be destroyed.

Est 3:8  Then Haman said to King Ahasuerus, "There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom. Their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king's laws, so that it is not to the king's profit to tolerate them. 9  If it please the king, let it be decreed that they be destroyed, and I will pay 10,000 talents of silver into the hands of those who have charge of the king's business, that they may put it into the king's treasuries." 10  So the king took his signet ring from his hand and gave it to Haman the Agagite, the son of Hammedatha, the enemy of the Jews. 11  And the king said to Haman, "The money is given to you, the people also, to do with them as it seems good to you."

Mordecai being the father of Esther who was also the wife of King Ahasuerus, approached Esther and commanded her to illegally approach the king to address this.

Est 4:8  Mordecai also gave him a copy of the written decree issued in Susa for their destruction, that he might show it to Esther and explain it to her and command her to go to the king to beg his favor and plead with him on behalf of her people.

Est 4:10  Then Esther spoke to Hathach and commanded him to go to Mordecai and say, 4:11  "All the king's servants and the people of the king's provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law--to be put to deathexcept the one to whom the king holds out the golden scepter so that he may live. But as for me, I have not been called to come in to the king these thirty days."12  And they told Mordecai what Esther had said. 13  Then Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, "Do not think to yourself that in the king's palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. 14  For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father's house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?" 15  Then Esther told them to reply to Mordecai, 16  "Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish."

Esther was willing to suffer the consequences of her “illegal” action. But again, God delivered her and her fellow Jews and had Haman executed. To help understand this we must distinguish between what is lawful and what is “legal.” Laws passed by men may be “legal” but that does not automatically make them lawful i.e. according to God’s true moral law.

What is particularly interesting about all of these passages is they all take place in a political or civil setting. 

Now let’s look at a more current historical example. It is apparent God has blessed the founding of America. So how do we handle the American Revolution? In declaring their independence the founders disobeyed the King of England. Benjamin Franklin clearly understood the implications of their “rebellion” when he said "We must all hang together, gentlemen...else, we shall most assuredly hang separately." So was the manner of America's founding a violation of Romans 13? You might consider reading the "Declaration of Independence" again as a lesson in understanding how to address tyranny of unrighteous ruling.

Addressing tyrannical government was not just a problem for the founders of this great country but is also increasingly becoming a problem in today’s political/legal climate. More then ever we must search and study the scriptures and think long and hard about these things as we find ourselves more and more unable to avoid these very same challenges faced by the Egyptian midwives, Moses's parents, Daniel, his friends, Esther and Peter.

As a practical example now facing the church, due to the “hate crimes” bill passed by Congress in 2008, a pastor can be “legally” locked up for preaching against homosexuality. Most missed this entirely (in part I would suggest, due to a misunderstanding of what it means to "obey the authorities"). Nothing is being done on a large scale yet, but the law is on the books and unless God revisits our nation, the enforcement of this law is now a real possibility over time.

  • Now let’s take a look at the related and specific issue of taxes.
Why discuss taxes in this paper? Because we are told to pay taxes to whom they are due and it is governments roll to collect them. 

17:24 and following says,

24 "After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax came to Peter and asked, "Doesn't your teacher pay the temple tax?" 25 "Yes, he does," he replied. When Peter came into the house Jesus was the first to speak. (The idea of “first to speak” in the original suggests Christ spoke in anticipation of Peter raising the matter. Other translations and particularly "The Message" give a good sense of the original and render it,” But as soon as they were in the house, Jesus confronted him...") "What do you think, Simon?" he asked. "From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes--from their own sons or from others?" 26 "From others," Peter answered. "Then the sons are exempt," Jesus said to him. 27 "But so that we may not offend them, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours." (NIV)

There are several things to note in this passage.

1.   Christ's quick querying of Peter was a mild rebuke to Peter for speaking before thinking. (A common characteristic of Peter). 

2.    Christ used this as an opportunity to instruct Peter.

3.    Kings do not collect taxes from their own but others and therefore the sons are exempt. Most Christians simply read right over this focusing on a text and ignoring the context. What Christ is saying is both Christ and Peter, who were "sons" of Israel, are not obligated to pay but are exempt from this tax. But if they were exempt this raises the question, why did Christ instruct Peter to pay it. We will address that shortly.(It just so happens the son's being exempt is also the case in our system when you study what our tax law REALLY says. You may not be aware of this if you have not taken the time to study what the law actually says. It is the foreigner, the non-resident alien, the "other" who are required to file and not the sons (sons being the offspring of the country if you will, i.e. its citizens. It makes one wonder how aware the founders were of this passage when writing the Constitution. You could make the argument that they patterned our tax system after it)

4.    Christ did not use his or Peters own money or even money from the disciples "treasury" to pay this tax but Peter got it out of the mouth of a fish. (As a humorous aside could we say that it takes nothing short of a miracle to pay taxes? Just a thought.) Why didn’t Christ simply instruct Peter to pay with their own money? In addition why didn't Christ have Peter pay for the rest of the disciples and not just for Himself and Peter?

How Christ handled this whole event, as well as his querying Peter and then accepting his reply, all indicate that paying the tax in this instance was not a requirement. Christ's reason for instructing Peter to pay the tax appears to be for other reasons.

First, Christ used Peter's presumption and error in judgment as an opportunity to teach Peter an important lesson. As he often did, Peter spoke without thinking, creating a problem. Since Peter created this problem Peter needed to resolve it as well, therefore Christ's unusual instructions for Peter to find a fish and get the money out of its mouth and pay it.

Secondly, since Peter had already committed the Lord to paying this tax by saying, "yes he pays it…" obligating both himself and Peter, Christ had Peter pay it to avoid offending someone for the sack of the gospel. (Have you ever had someone volunteer you for something without getting your permission?) This makes even more sense when you consider Jesus said earlier in Matt 5:37 "… let your "yes" be "yes" and your "no" be "no". 

I think it's fair to say, if Peter had said, "you will have to ask my Lord", rather then speaking for Christ, Christ would have responded to the inquirers the same way he did Peter by asking them, "From who do the kings of the earth collect...?" If their response was correct, as was Peter's, their own reply would have acknowledged the tax wasn't required (the sons are exempt) and therefore neither Christ nor Peter would have needed to pay the tax.  But for the reasons mentioned Christ did instruct Peter to pay it, but not because it was required to be paid.

On a separate but related matter it is worth noting in Luke 19:2-10 that Zacchaeus the tax collector was hated by all and referred to as a sinner. Christ's response was that he had come to save those who were lost, i.e. sinners. This suggests that Zacchaeus was a better then average example. Instead of refuting the crowds view of Zacchaeus as a sinner he confirmed it by his reply.

There is not anything necessarily or inherently wrong with taxes or those who collect them, but it is interesting that even in Christ's day the tax system seemed to be a receptacle for the despised and unethical. Do we see any indication this may also be the case today? Zacchaeus was said to be a wealthy man yet his sole source of earnings was the collecting of taxes. He later acknowledged, by his willingness to pay back to those he had collected from, that he had illegally stolen from others, using tax collection as a guise. Is there a pattern we can learn from here?

  • Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's… 
Those who advocate that any and all taxes should be paid without question, appear to consistently rely upon the superficial translation of the following passage rather than the context in which this story is set. The key to properly interpreting this statement "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's" is to understand the context which clearly shows that Jesus was responding to a trap being set for him. How he avoided this trap is actually the focus of this passage, not taxes.  

Mark 12: 13-16

13Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words14They came to him and said, "Teacher, we know you are a man of integrity. You aren't swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? 15Should we pay or shouldn't we?" 16But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. (i.e. their question wasn't sincere and the real reason thy were raising it) "Why are you trying to trap me?" he asked. "Bring me a denarius and let me look at it." They brought the coin, and he asked them, "Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?" "Caesar's," they replied. 17Then Jesus said to them, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's." And they were amazed at him.

To be a trap, the intent was that any answer would result in a desired outcome by the trappers. If Christ’s answer was to not pay Caesar the tax (As probably anticipated by the questioners. It is very possible that Jesus was suspected of leading a group of tax rebels who would have disapproved of their leader paying taxes to Rome), Jesus would have convicted himself of a capital crime under Roman law and the questioners would now have reason to bring him before Pilot for sentencing. To protest the tax in that day was punishable by crucifixion. The fact that Caiaphas raised this issue later before Pilot to persuade him to crucify Christ supports this. (Lk 23:2 "We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Christ, a king.”) 

If on the other hand, Christ had said it was right to pay Caesar, they would likely have tried to accuse him of being unfaithful to God and therefore not truly the Son of God as he claimed but an impostor, worthy of death.

The Pharisees thought that had set a clever trap for Christ. No matter how he answered they "had" him, or so they thought. 

However the response by Jesus amazed them. Christ saw through their guise i.e. 16… Jesus knew their hypocrisy… and did not give them either response but completely eluded their question and therefore their trap. Christ instead turned the table and simply put the problem back on them. "Whose portrait is this...?" He asked. In essence, he was saying to them, you figure out what belongs to whom and if a tax is due, then pay it.

His answer was not at all an admission of a requirement much less a command (as some often suggest when quoting this this particular phrase) to pay taxes to the government of his day. To just take the isolated statement, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's" without looking at the context is to completely miss why he made that statement to begin with. He wasn’t giving a command, He was giving them an answer to their question in a way that avoided the trap they were trying to set.

All of us come to passages with preset ideas and have to always be on guard not to read into the passages what we have predetermined but instead prayerfully seek to see what any given passage is actually saying.  Our goal should be extracting from the context as well as the text the meaning, not reading a predetermined interpretation into it. As my Hermeneutics professor was fond of telling us, "a text without a context is a pretext."

Tied to this is that we are all prone to interpret the bible according to our fears and emotions. By that I mean if we are afraid of the responsibility certain passages place on us (such as taking responsibility for our choices) we will interpret a passage in such a way as to avoid facing those responsibilities and the subsequent fears. Instead of changing our thinking we “change scripture.” Interpretation of certain passages often has far more to do with our emotions then our correct understanding of a passage i.e. our fears and emotions often color our view/understanding of things.

In addition, there is still the matter of WHO is Caesar and WHAT belongs to "him?"  As Christians we are not opposed to Government or the necessity of raising revenue under the specific conditions clearly spelled out in the Constitution. Local authorities do maintain "law and order" by preventing evil doers from reeking havoc on their fellow citizens (though things have often gone upside down of late when addressing the police). However we are opposed to those in Government violating the law and raising revenues outside of what the law allows. When they do, this is theft, not unlike what Zacchaeus committed. When this occurs we are not obligated to participate in such thievery but in fact as stewards, entrusted to manage the resources God gives us, we are responsible to resist it. As Jefferson once said, resistance to tyrants is obedience to God. Though Jefferson was just a man, and possibly not even a Christian, I trust you agree his wisdom was sound and scripturally based.  

When those in government overstep the law, whether the law of the very government they are appointed to uphold or more importantly the law of God, are we to comply? Peter did not think so when asked to disobey God's law in favor of civil law. He was instructed not to preach in the name of Jesus and his reply was "I must obey God rather then man".

In closing it should be pointed out that if we are civilly disobedient out of obedience to God, we are not necessarily protected from persecution. Peter was flogged for his civil disobedience, Act 5:40. But we should also remember at another time (Act 12:1-19) when Peter was imprisoned for his stand an angel sent from God delivered Peter from prison i.e. God honored Peters stand to honor Christ and His good news. On the other hand God may very well protect us and even bless us for obeying him rather then men, as he did the Hebrew midwives in Egypt.

Exo 1:17 But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them… 20 So God dealt well with the midwives… 21 And because the midwives feared God, (as opposed to fearing Pharaoh) he gave them families.

Not to mention Daniel and his friends as well as Esther.

Because of a wide spread misunderstanding of government’s responsibility to God first and then its proper role to us, many Christians have become passive in their attitude and conduct towards government. We have bought into the lie of “separation of church and state” thinking this means the church is not to speak into the affairs of the state when in fact as the church who is the bearer to God’s standard and word we must point out the basis for righteous government. Separation of church and state meant the state was forbidden to speak into the affairs of the church, not the other way around. The church is ruled only by Christ the King, not the state no matter what form it takes. To the extent the state is obedient to the laws of God we must obey it. But what is often not considered is equally true; the extent to which government is in violation of God’s law we must resist it and not only hold it accountable to God’s law but speak out when it's in violation of it. If the church had continued on this course (which it abandoned by submitting to a 501(c)3 non profit corporate status for tax benefits. Might this be similar to giving up our birth right for a bowl of lentil soup?) we may not be in the current condition we now find ourselves in as a nation. This does not mean we can dictate directly to government how it should conduct itself but it does mean we should faithfully preach God's word to the people of God when government act's in violation of it. 

In truth isn’t it the responsibility of all Christians to speak out about unrighteousness wherever it exists, whether within or without government. Not in an obnoxious way, but with wisdom and grace. To do so is not in violation of God’s command to submit to righteous government i.e. to obey the authorities. In fact, isn't this just the opposite by upholding God’s commands and advancing God’s kingdom on earth?

Because of a misunderstanding of what is taught in Romans 13 we often submit to unjust laws or illegitimate government believing we are commanded to when in fact we should not only resist unrighteous government but seek to hold it accountable. Again as Jefferson rightfully pointed out, “resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.” In great part, the reason government goes unchecked today is because Christians have misapplied “obeying the authorities” and misunderstood their proper relationship to it and their responsibility to not obey governments when they do not operate as God intends; according to His commands.

** "higher" or "governing"- huperechō. Thayer Definition: 2b) to excel, to be superior, better than, to surpass.
Used a total of five times in the New Testament and translated "governing" in many translations and "authority" in 1 Peter 2:13 but also translated "surpassing" in Philippians 3:8 and "surpasses" in Philippians 4:7

May God grant us the grace and strength to fear and obey Him instead of man as the world around us becomes more lawless.

If you have any questions or wish to discuss this further feel free to message me at  Ask for Jim.

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Grace to you
Jim Deal