According to Romans 13, is it wrong to resist a government if they are acting unjustly (violating human rights, not honoring democracy, etc.)? Are protesting and even civil wars things in which a Christian should participate?
May grace be yours and peace in Christ Jesus.
You actually have a whole lot of concepts and questions in one, so, I’m going to try to unravel them before answering. Perhaps the easiest way is to begin with biblical examples of disobedience, and then proceed to the broader implications.
We read in Acts 5:26–29, “Then the captain went with the officers and brought them without violence, for they feared the people, lest they should be stoned. And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest asked them, saying, ‘Did we not strictly command you not to teach in this name? And look, you have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this Man’s blood on us!’” The principle here is, I think, rather clear. If the government commands us to disobey God, we must disobey the government and obey God.
We read in Exodus 1:15–17, “Then the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, of whom the name of one was Shiphrah and the name of the other Puah; and he said, ‘When you do the duties of a midwife for the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstools, if it is a son, then you shall kill him; but if it is a daughter, then she shall live.’ But the midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the male children alive.” Here again, the king has commanded them to do that which is disobedient to God (to kill the male children). The Hebrew midwives feared God, and disobeyed the king.
We read in Joshua 2:3–6, “So the king of Jericho sent to Rahab, saying, ‘Bring out the men who have come to you, who have entered your house, for they have come to search out all the country.’ Then the woman took the two men and hid them. So she said, ‘Yes, the men came to me, but I did not know where they were from. And it happened as the gate was being shut, when it was dark, that the men went out. Where the men went I do not know; pursue them quickly, for you may overtake them.’ (But she had brought them up to the roof and hidden them with the stalks of flax, which she had laid in order on the roof.)”
Now this passage is not nearly so easy, because Rehab is in fact betraying her country and people (Jericho) to save the spies alive, for she recognized that they represented the true God. But twice in the New Testament she is commended for her actions, as we read in James 2:25, “Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?” And in Hebrews 11:31 we read, “By faith the harlot Rahab did not perish with those who did not believe, when she had received the spies with peace.” She seemed to understand that the way to obey God was to lie and keep the spies alive.
But notice something about all three of these examples. In no case was there a call to revolution or to violence against another, and in every case they disobeyed man in order to obey God. There are other examples we could look at which indicate disobedience: for example, David fleeing from Saul, which could be seen as disobeying. But, interestingly, when David had a clear opportunity to kill the king, he refused to do so, saying, “The Lord forbid that I should do this thing to my master, the Lord’s anointed, to stretch out my hand against him, seeing he is the anointed of the Lord” (1 Sam. 24:6). And we have a number of other examples when God men obeyed foreign oppressors who were ungodly and unjust, as in the case of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego. And the word of the Lord through Paul in Romans 13 is quite consistent with this, since he is urging us to be subject unto the higher powers, which is especially striking when you consider that the highest power in Rome was an unjust Roman emperor, who I believe was Nero—not exactly an example of godliness and piety!
So what should we do? As the Lord says through another apostle in 1 Peter 2:12–14, “… having your conduct honourable among the Gentiles, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation. Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good.” And again, through Paul the Lord says in 1 Timothy 2:1–3, “Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior,” and Titus 3:1, “Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to obey, to be ready for every good work.”
Does that mean we should just sit passively by and do and say nothing about unjust governments and rulers? By no means! Not only must we disobey at times, but we should speak out. The Old Testament prophets spoke out loudly against the immorality and ungodliness of their leaders, to the point where some were put to death. The last of the Old Testament prophets, John the Baptist, clearly infuriated the rulers of his country by pointing to their rebellion against God, to the point where he too was executed (cf. Mark 6). We are obliged to speak the whole Gospel—every part of it. When our government endorses adultery or homosexuality or racism or abortion or unjust wars, we are obliged to speak out, even at the cost of our lives. Because, in the end, we must obey God rather than men, and our obedience to men is based on our obedience to God.
One final note. You say, “not honoring democracy” as an example of possible disobedience. I was born in and lived most of my life in the United States, which is and always has been a republic (although an imperfect one), not a democracy. There are, in fact, very few democracies in the world, and none that I know of. If that were the basis for obeying a government, surely Rome was not, and very few modern countries are. Some countries have democratic aspects to them, but, I doubt there have been many democracies in the world, now or in the past.
I’m not sure I’ve completely answered your question, but perhaps it’s a start. There is, of course, much more that can be said. Please write again if you have further questions.
May the Lord bless you in his grace, now and forever.
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