Q&A 4: Should Christians Obey the Government?

10.4.11

Question: There are multiple Biblical Mandate’s, from Moses onward through Hebrews, regarding a Christian’s responsibility to ‘obey’ the government, rulers, laws, authority, etc. of the State or Country in which the Christian resides. As an American who resides in the United States, the highest authority concerning civil liberties and the role of govt. is the US Constitution and Bill of Rights, however, many leaders, who vow to uphold the Constitution in their oath of office, do the precise opposite and go so far as rejecting it with the laws, ‘orders,’ and mandates, they create, and actions they take forbidden by the Constitution.

As a Christian, what, or whom, do we obey in instances of conflict between the Constitution, and national (and state) leaders?

Reply: I asked my friend Dan Heimbach to help me with this question. The answer provided is almost completely his.

To be clear, this question really involves two parts. The first regards the extent to which Christians have a duty to obey the authority of whatever civil government we live under, and the second regards conflicts that might someday arise between what a civil leader orders and fidelity to the United States Constitution. These questions are related but not the same, and must be handled separately.

First regarding biblically defined obligations to accept and submit to what civil authority requires, the important thing to understand is that while obligation to respect the authority of civil government is unconditional, obligation to obey depends on fidelity to God. This means there is no exception to a Christian’s moral obligation to respect the authority, role and responsibilities of human government no matter how bad it gets. But there are exceptions to what Christian’s can obey. This distinction is made very clear in the response Peter and John gave to the Sanhedrin when they respectfully refused to accept and obey a sinful order saying, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). This qualification of Christian duty to obey civil authority applies to all forms of government including ours. So, even if the Supreme Court of the United States were to rule that our Constitution requires Christians to oppose something God requires, Christian citizens would have to obey God over the Constitution.

The second question does not dispute what the US Constitution requires, but asks how Christians who are good American citizens should respond if a government leader were to issue orders that are directly and openly outside boundaries of power delegated by the US Constitution. This question is easy to answer but could become hard and perhaps risky to carry out. Biblically the answer is that no human government has moral power to order wicked behavior, and Constitutionally the answer is that no US official has any legitimate legal power outside what he or she is given by the US Constitution and can therefore never legally demand or require anything of citizens contrary to the US Constitution. It other words there can be no moral obligation to act immorally and no legal obligation to act illegally.

But the reason this “easy to give an answer” to the second question could become hard to live by is that should persons ever come to occupy civil office in our land who oppose God’s moral law and the US Constitution at the same time, then a Christian’s mere refusal to obey their illegal-immoral demands, however respectfully and politely stated, will make them very unhappy and could result in persecution. In that case Christians should prepare to go to the lion’s den with Daniel.

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