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Recently, Pastor Aaron Rock published a lengthy essay calling on “the church in Canada to divine obedience over civil obedience.” In it, he offered nine reasons Christians must disobey the Provincial legislation to limit their in-person gatherings for worship to ten persons. I was glad to read his arguments and ponder them during the last few days. It is a bold thing to put other Christians under a moral obligation, in this case, to disobey a Provincial law.

While I appreciate Dr. Rock’s zeal and his thoroughness, I disagree with certain points of his Biblical exegesis. This is the only concern I would like to deal with here. While there are other issues in the article that I disagree with, I thought it might be helpful to engage what I consider to be Dr. Rock’s strongest argument—“#6 Because unconditional submission to civil authority is not Christian.”

I agree completely with that sentence as stated. And, I think the majority of pastors I know who are continuing to submit to the Provincial Government would agree with that statement. Actually, I cannot think of any Christian I know who would disagree with that statement!

However, it is under this heading that Dr. Rock makes at least one uncommon interpretation of Romans 13 that I have now seen popping up in other places in this pandemic. Hence my desire to interact with it.

Argument

Essentially, the argument is that Romans 13 presents an “idealized” (my word, not his) expression of civic authority. As in, this is what God prescribes for governing authorities to do, and we should obey them for as long as they do only that. As he states it:

“… the passage actually presupposes that the authority is functioning justly, that he is God’s servant for your good and carries out God’s wrath on the evildoer (13:4).”

This leads to the conclusion that:

“The call to be subject then is null and void if the magistrate does not fulfil these duties, or steps beyond them (as illustrated in the disobedience of the apostles in Acts 5:27-32).”

In other words, a Christian is not required to obey a governing authority when that Christian determines the governing authority is not doing good and/or avenging evil.

Is this what Romans 13:4 teaches?

Before we get there, let’s briefly examine the Acts 5 text that Dr. Rock cross-references. I am not convinced that is the right passage to use as further support for his position. In that text, the religious leaders strictly charged the Apostles of Jesus “not to teach in this name.” In other words, the Apostles were commanded by an unjust civil/religious authority to stop preaching the Gospel.

The reason why these leaders are repeating this prohibition is that these same Apostles had been thrown into prison the day before for the same “offence.” Amazingly, they were divinely rescued in the middle of the night and told by an angel:

“‘Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life.’ And when they heard this, they entered the temple at daybreak and began to teach” (Acts 5:20–21).

So, the Apostles had received general instruction from Jesus to preach the Gospel (Matthew 28:16-20) and a follow up explicit command (from an angel!) to do the same in a specific place on a specific time. Thus, when the leaders ask what on earth these preachers think they are doing, “…Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than men’” (Acts 5:29).

This is the classic go-to text when we consider any form of disobedience to an authority. If that human authority instructs me to stop doing something God has clearly told me I must do, then I am compelled to obey God even if that infuriates men and leads to my suffering. So, yes, “unconditional submission to civil authority is not Christian.” There is always a possible exception and no serious student of the Word would argue otherwise.

However, I am moving slowly through this text for a reason. It is too easy to miss that a very clear and direct command from God had been given. The Apostles were reacting to divine revelation, not their own opinions or interpretation of current events. Jesus had told them to evangelize and an angel audibly reaffirmed that directive — right down to the location! The mandate was clear and unequivocal. That is a very different thing than disobeying a governing authority because it is failing to adequately serve my good and punish evildoers. Acts 5 is certainly not making that case.

Yet, if I am understanding him correctly, this seems to be the crux of Dr. Rock’s argument. The governing authority only needs to be obeyed when it is serving us for our good and faithfully carrying out wrath on evildoers. This is a “just” government and only a just government needs to be obeyed by a Christian.

This may not be the point of Acts 5, but is this what Paul was getting at in Romans 13?

Paul Does Not Limit Obedience to Just Or Idealized Governments

This interpretation, in fact, is an uncommon limitation which the vast majority of commentators reject.[1] There is nothing in the text to suggest to the reader the Paul is limiting obedience to “just” or “idealized” governments. Engaging this argument Schreiner observes that such an interpretation basically erases all Christian civic responsibility and opens wide the door to anarchy.

The text simply does not qualify the exhortations in the way Porter [another author] suggests. In addition, virtually every person could exempt themselves from the exhortations found here by pointing out the injustices present in all governments.[2]

Rather, as Stott writes, Paul is establishing in principle what our Lord Jesus lived out in His humanity:

Paul means rather that all human authority is derived from God’s authority, so that we can say to rulers what Jesus said to Pilate, “You would have no power [exousia authority] over me if it were not given to you from above.” Pilate misused his authority to condemn Jesus; nevertheless, the authority he used to do this had been delegated to him by God.[3]

This is a very important illustration of the point. Jesus submitted to an authority that was in no ways out for his good nor punishing those who were acting wrongly toward Him. Here is a model to all Christians.

Does this require absolute obedience to the state? Not if we have understood the Acts 5 reference correctly.

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.[4]

And this strikes at the true meaning of civil disobedience.

This is the strict meaning of civil disobedience, namely disobeying a particular human law because it is contrary to God’s law… Whenever laws are enacted which contradict God’s law, civil disobedience becomes a Christian duty.[5]

And such action must be taken with one overarching motive:

In each case it’s purpose was “to demonstrate their submissiveness to God, not their defiance of government.”[6]

Considering this, RC Sproul notes:

The principal is easy; the application is difficult. We are not free, however, to disobey the civil magistrate when we disagree with it or when authorities make us suffer or experience inconvenience. It is ironic that this master text on civil obedience was written to the Roman Christians who were under the heavy hand of imperial Rome.[7]

Sproul’s point is that Rome was no friend to the church. Which is why this warning from Leon Morris is so timely:

We should be clear that Paul is writing about the existing state, not some ideal state that he hoped would appear. Every state has its faults, and first century Rome had many. But it still had to be treated as the ruling authority and as such as the servant of God.[8]

Moreover, Morris continues:

Paul owed a good deal to the protection the Romans had afforded him, but he was not unaware of the fact that the state could be unjust. No Christian could, for the atoning death of Jesus lay at the very heart of the faith and that death had been brought about on the human level by evil and unjust people (though even here the early Christians saw God at work even in the deeds of evil men Acts 4:24-28). [9]

And it strikes me that this is the real rub of the issue.

Rulers may misuse the authority God has given them, but Paul’s point is that that does not alter the fact that it was God who gave it to them. People are often tempted to evade their civic responsibilities (and not only in the first century); Paul reminds them of the significance of those responsibilities. Order is important, and the state embodies order.[10]

Moreover, Morris explicitly rejects the logic of Dr. Rock’s assertion:

On what Paul says the Christian is not justified in refusing obedience to the state because he has his doubts about the legal standing of the government.[11]

Thus, as Schreiner says:

Christians should submit to such authority and carry out its statutes, unless the state commands believers to do that which is contrary to the will of God.[12]

When commands or prohibitions of the state cross our desires, we are easily tempted to read more in to (or out of?) the text of Romans 13:1-7. John Murray, in what might be regarded as the best commentary in the English language on Romans, expressed it so well.

The implication is that no person is exempt from this subjection; no person enjoys special privileges by which he may ignore or feel himself free to violate the ordinances of magisterial authority. Neither infidelity nor faith offers immunity.[13]

Just as an infidel (unbeliever) is not justified to disobey his governing authorities because he does not believe those authorities “derive their origin, right and power from God,”[14] all the more so the person with faith in Christ! Neither infidelity nor faith offers immunity. Neither do either require absolute obedience to a human agent.

The magistrate is not infallible nor is he the agent of perfect rectitude. When there is conflict between the requirements of men in the commands of God, then the word of Peter must take effect.[15]

John MacArthur has written more on this issue than almost anyone else. In his commentary on Romans he makes the point crystal clear that governing authorities are to be obeyed even when they stray outside of their idealized role of doing good and avenging evil.

Democracy and political freedom are commonly identified with Christianity. For such reasons it is difficult for many Christians to be clear, or even objective and honest, about a passage so unambiguously restrictive as Romans 13:1-7.[16]

We should be grateful to God for civil freedom to worship, to preach and teach the gospel, and to live our lives almost without restriction. That is a nice privilege, but it is not necessary to the effectiveness of the gospel truth or to spiritual growth. We also should be grateful for, and, within reason, take advantage of our many legal and effective resources for changing bad laws and bad governments and for promoting good ones. But that has nothing to do with the Christian’s priority of proclaiming the gospel and living a holy life to demonstrate that God is a saving God.[17]

Yet neither the Lord nor his apostles give any justification for political revolt, rebellion, or civil disobedience. There was no effort on His part to eliminate social or political injustice.[18]

Like individual believers, a local church is obligated to observe civil laws such as zoning, building codes, fire safety regulations, and every other law and regulation that would not cause them to disobey God’s word.[19]

Because civil government is an institution of God, to rebel against government is to rebel against the God who established it.[20]

In many ways, MacArthur is simply modernizing the arguments made by that 18th century commentator, Robert Haldane.

No expedient to explain away the meaning of any part of Scripture were ever more forced than those adopted to make this chapter accord with the right of resisting the powers that be.[21]

When the government is wicked, cruel, and oppressive, in the inscrutable ways of his sovereign providence, it is overruled by God so as to forward the object he has in view. Without exception, it is true in every age, and in every country, that the existing civil powers are ordained of God. It follows, then, that whosoever resisteth the powers, resisteth the ordinance of God. This verse, as has just been remarked, does not state the reason of submission according to the first ground, but it assigns the reason why God has appointed civil government, and is another reason for the subjection before inculcated. Here there is no limitation of anything previously spoken. It is characteristic of civil government which is universally applicable. It is true of the worst government, that it is not a terror to good works, but to the evil.[22]

Thus, to argue that we may disobey an authority on the basis that “the magistrate does not fulfil these duties, or steps beyond them” is neither exegetically warranted nor within the realm of historical evangelical interpretation. Again, this is not to suggest that a Christian may never disobey an authority, only that the argument as stated above is not valid.

If a case could be made that the Provincial Government’s lockdown order was prohibiting Christians from obeying God, then there would be good reason to consider civil disobedience. But the onus is on the church to prove this and even then careful consideration would need to be given to what steps ought be taken prior to calling on our own church (let alone all the churches in a Province!) to break the law.

While I think his interpretation of Romans 13 is lacking, Dr. Rock does bring up a number of issues that thoughtful Christians should consider. Not the least of these is trying to discern whether or not obeying a public health directive would cause us to sin. While I do not agree with his conclusion at this stage of things (December 16, 2020), I still maintain we Christians can disagree about the application of when civil disobedience is required without judging one another. Knowing Aaron a little in person, I am confident of that with my brother.

 


[1] In fact, it is very difficult to find any commentators that hold to Rock’s interpretation.

[2] Schreiner, Romans, 688 footnote 32.

[3] Stott, Romans, 340

[4] Stott, Romans, 342

[5] Stott, Romans, 342

[6] Stott, Romans, 342 quoting Colson.

[7] RC Sproul, Romans 442

[8] Morris, Romans, 460

[9] Morris, Romans, 459

[10] Morris, Romans, 459

[11] Morris, Romans, 461

[12] Schreiner, Romans, 688

[13] Murray, Romans, 147

[14] Murray, Romans, 148.

[15] Murray, Romans, 150-151

[16] MacArthur, Romans, 206

[17] MacArthur, Romans, 208-209

[18] MacArthur, Romans, 211

[19] MacArthur, Romans, 216

[20] MacArthur, Romans, 220

[21] Haldane, Romans, 577

[22] Haldane, Romans, 580

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