We are admonished in Scripture to honour and respect those in authority and to pray for them, because they are ordained of God and are God’s servants. However, there are circumstances under which Christians are to lawfully disobey those in power and disregard decrees and laws of governing authorities. There is also a time to speak truth to power. We shall examine Scripture to know when it’s lawful in the sight of God to disobey those in power, as well as when it’s appropriate to speak out against rulers.
Romans 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.
Romans 13:2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.
Romans 13:3 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,
Romans 13:4 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.
Romans 13:5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.
Romans 13:6 For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.
Romans 13:7 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.
Romans 13:8 Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law (ESV).
Scripture makes us understand that governments are God’s delegated authorities to ensure peace and good behaviour, through the making and enforcement of good laws. All governments derive their authority and legitimacy from God, and all are to rule on his behalf. Governments are therefore to make laws in line with divine laws, and are to enforce such laws strictly, to ensure God’s will is done on earth. To the extent that human governments align with God’s government and make laws that are in accord with God’s laws, Christians are to support such governments and obey laws made by them. Support for government comes in various forms: respecting and honouring government officials, payment of taxes to maintain government officials, and obedience to laws made by government officials.
Governments are ordained of God, but not all governments act in God’s interest at all times. There are times when governments step beyond the bounds of the authority given them by God, and begin to act contrary to God’s will. At such times, they are are no longer acting as God’s agents. At such times, they have become rebellious to God! When government authorities become rebellious to God and make laws that are contrary to the laws of God and of nature, how are Christians to respond to such governments and such laws?
Daniel 3:13 Then Nebuchadnezzar in furious rage commanded that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego be brought. So they brought these men before the king.
Daniel 3:14 Nebuchadnezzar answered and said to them, Is it true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the golden image that I have set up?
Daniel 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?
Daniel 3:16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter.
Daniel 3:17 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.
Daniel 3:18 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 (ESV).
Nebuchadnezzar, appointed by God as king of Babylon and of the known world at that time, had overstepped his delegated authority and made a law that compelled God’s people to worship idols. He made a law that compelled all in his kingdom to worship an image or be put to death. Now, it was time for true believers who had hitherto obeyed and served Nebuchadnezzar to show him where their true allegiance lied. Babylon was a pluralistic and multi-cultural society with different religions co-existing peacefully up till this moment. God’s people tolerated other people practising their different religions in that multi-cultural society, as long as they themselves were not compelled to worship other gods. The moment a law was made to compel them to worship anything other than Jehovah the only true God, it was time to rebel against a rebellious delegated authority. The three Hebrew children refused to bow down before Nebuchadnezzar’s image, even at the threat of death. They defied the king in their obedience to the King of kings! When it comes to choosing between obeying a king or obeying the King of kings, there should be no hesitation for a Christian! We should rather die first than choose to obey a mortal king instead of God! Civil disobedience becomes the right thing for a Christian to do at such a time! And God will stand by you at such a time, when you stand for him!
Exodus 1:15 Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah,
Exodus 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.
Exodus 1:17 But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live.
Exodus 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?
Exodus 1:19 The midwives said to Pharaoh, Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.
Exodus 1:20 So God dealt well with the midwives. And the people multiplied and grew very strong.
Exodus 1:21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families (ESV).
The Hebrew midwives were given a commandment by the king of Egypt that was contrary to the commandment of God. They were instructed by the king to kill all male children born to the Jews, whereas the King of kings forbade them to commit murder! As God-fearing midwives, they placed God’s commadment above that of the king of Egypt. They refused to kill those innocent baby boys born to the Hebrews. They preserved those innocent lives at the risk of their own lives. God saw their allegiance and rewarded them accordingly.
The Acts 4:18 So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.
The Acts 4:19 But Peter and John answered them, Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge,
The Acts 4:20 for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.
The Acts 5:26 Then the captain with the officers went and brought them, but not by force, for they were afraid of being stoned by the people.
The Acts 5:27 And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest questioned them,
The Acts 5:28 saying, We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.
The Acts 5:29 But Peter and the apostles answered, We must obey God rather than men.
From the portions of Scripture quoted above, the apostles were threatened and warned by the Jewish leaders not to preach in the name of Jesus. However, Jesus had given the Apostles the commision to preach his Gospel to every creature and to deliver men from the powers of darkness through his name. I love the apostles’ response to the threat not to preach anymore in Jesus’name: “we must obey God rather than man”! When the laws of a human government conflict with those of heaven’s government, we must obey God rather than man! It didn’t matter that the apostles were threatened, beaten, imprisoned and humiliated. It didn’t matter that their very lives hung in the balance. Where the word of God was involved and the Gospel of Christ was at stake, their lives didn’t matter to them! They were ready to hazard their lives for the sake of the gospel! They were literally obeying the command of their Lord concerning losing their lives for his name and for the sake of gospel.
Mark 8:34 And he called to him the crowd with his disciples and said to them, If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.
Mark 8:35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.
Mark 8:36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?
Mark 8:37 For what can a man give in return for his life? (ESV).
Paul taught Christians to pray for rulers and kings and those in authority, so that we may live in peace and preach the gospel freely. Some have taken that passage of Scripture to mean that Christians are not to oppose or speak against any form of government authority. Let us carefully examine Paul’s instruction concerning praying for those in authority to see the extent of subservience required of a Christian towards worldly rulers.
1 Timothy 2:1 I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people —
1 Timothy 2:2 for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.
1 Timothy 2:3 This is good, and pleases God our Savior,
1 Timothy 2:4 who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (NIV).
According to the passage above, the purpose of praying for kings and those in authority is so “that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness”. We pray for kings and those in authority so that they will make good laws and create the enabling environment for us to live in peace and practise our religion without hinderance. Our prayer is not for God to prosper them in evil ways or to sustain them in ungodliness. But praying for political leaders to do the right thing and govern justly is not enough. Servants of God are to stand up to evil rulers and speak truth to power, in order to resist evil and check social injustice and ungodliness in government. From Samuel through Elijah to John the Baptist, we see prophets of God rising up against evil rulers and condemning ungodliness among kings, even at the cost of their lives. We ought to follow the example of Samuel in his relationship with king Saul. Samuel rebuked Saul harshly in public for his rebellion against God, but continued praying for him privately for mercy and repentance. Though appointed king by God, Saul had abandoned God and was no longer God’s agent! God was angry with him, and so should every loyal servant of God!
1 Samuel 15:23 For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has rejected you as king.”
1 Samuel 15:24 Then Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned. I violated the LORD’s command and your instructions. I was afraid of the men and so I gave in to them.
1 Samuel 15:25 Now I beg you, forgive my sin and come back with me, so that I may worship the LORD.”
1 Samuel 15:26 But Samuel said to him, “I will not go back with you. You have rejected the word of the LORD, and the LORD has rejected you as king over Israel!”
1 Samuel 15:27 As Samuel turned to leave, Saul caught hold of the hem of his robe, and it tore.
1 Samuel 15:28 Samuel said to him, “The LORD has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today and has given it to one of your neighbors —to one better than you.
1 Samuel 15:29 He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a human being, that he should change his mind.” (NIV).
When Christians don’t speak up against evil policies and social injustice, when Christian leaders fail to speak truth to power, they fail God and disappoint their calling as preachers of righteousness. You cannot be a preacher of righteousness and look the other way when political and social leaders act unjustly and ungodly, in ways that undermine God’s purpose on earth! Christians are the moral compass of any nation. We are the light and salt of the earth.To fail to lead or guide a nation morally is to fail God and society. As we pray for God’s will to be done on earth and for his kingdom to come, we should also not hesitate to condemn anything that’s contrary to his will and that opposes his government. The Christian is to be both a prayer warrior and a moral crusader, combating evil forces both by prayers to God and by rebukes to men!
The entire Old Testament was a continuous history of true prophets standing up to ungodly kings, while false prophets cozied with them and looked the other way, at the height of national idolatory, immorality and social injustice. John the Baptist confronted king Herod for his ungodly lifestyle and for snatching away his brother’s wife while his brother was still alive. Herod hated him for that and eventually had him imprisoned and killed. The bulk of Jesus’ message was against the hypocritical Jewish leaders who had made the word of God of none effect by their ungodly traditions. He just couldn’t stand to see the moral decadence and injustice in his day! He never missed an opportunity to speak truth to power!
St. Matthew 23:13 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.
St. Matthew 23:15 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.
St. Matthew 23:23 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices —mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law —justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.
St. Matthew 23:24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
St. Matthew 23:25 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.
St. Matthew 23:26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.
St. Matthew 23:27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.
St. Matthew 23:28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.
St. Matthew 23:33 “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?
In conclusion, the command to obey those in authority is predicated on the assumption that the authority is itself subject to God. As long as an authority does not go contrary to God’s will, but seeks to maintain law and order and create an enabling environment for peaceful and godly living, such a power should be respected, honoured and obeyed. However, the moment an authority becomes ungodly and makes laws that are inimical to the Christian faith and the principles of natural justice, such power should be disobeyed and resisted. Above all, governments are run by human beings who can easily lose focus; they should be constantly reminded of their godly duties by Christians who should not hesitate to speak truth to power always.