In Romans 13: 1-6, Paul teaches Christians how to conduct themselves towards those in authority. He writes, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” Paul’s words seem clear—Christians must obey the laws of the land.
But what can Christians do when they do not agree with those in power? What if those in authority are corrupt? Can there be holy resistance?
Let’s find out.
The Pauline Context
Paul wrote the book of Romans to—surprise—Christians residing in the city of Rome. At this point, the Roman government had been a powerhouse for over a hundred years, having conquered the Persians, Egyptians, Ethiopians, Greeks, and many more. Rome was the center of an ethnically diverse empire of more than a million people.
Although Roman citizens could sometimes vote on political matters, those of conquered nations had no such right. Roman law was absolute for them, and they had very little power over their lives. Caesar was the undisputed head of this mighty nation, and only he and the Senators truly made the decisions in this autocratic society.
This is the type of society that Paul writes to in Romans—one that more resembles modern North Korea than the idealistic society we so often imagine the Roman Empire to be. When Paul refers to “governing authorities,” he is writing about a government in which these Christians had few or no rights, and in which Roman law was enforced harshly. This was a world in which people had no way of affecting the course of their country or government without resorting to violence and open rebellion.
Think, now, about what Paul says in verse 8, where he writes, “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.” This seems like a strange change of topic, but it is the key to understanding these previous verses on obeying governing authorities.
Chapter 13 of Romans isn’t Paul’s treatise on the Christian response to government—it’s Paul teaching the Roman Christians the appropriate response to an unyielding government that might kill them for resisting. He is also teaching, in general, the correct way for a Christian to engage with a difficult situation, such as a corrupt or oppressive government.
That appropriate response is love. It’s kindness, respect, and hospitality. It’s the fruits of the spirit. It is an effort made toward peace, rather than violence.
And that, it seems, leaves room for righteous resistance.
The Biblical Context
So what does the Bible, as a whole have to say about Christian obedience to government? Does God, as many believe Romans 13: 1-2 says, personally appoint each and every leader?
After even a quick read-through, the answer seems to be no.
Think about the Israelites in Egypt—they fought against Pharaoh’s rule, disobeying his commands. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow to an idol, even when commanded by Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel was thrown into a lion’s den for disobeying King Darius. Nearly every one of the prophets disobeyed their rulers.
And then there’s Jesus, who constantly criticized the decisions of the Sanhedrin, even going so far as calling them snakes and mocking them. After His death and resurrection, the disciples were ordered by their rulers to stop spreading Christ’s teachings, but refused, subverting the desires of those rulers at every opportunity.
Paul, himself, when he was imprisoned, had no qualms about escaping.
The Bible is rife with examples of every kind of resistance against corrupt rulers—and all of these examples were sanctioned by God, Himself. Thus, we can surmise that simply because a ruler is in power does not mean that God wants that person to stay there. God allows them to rule, but doesn’t necessarily appoint them or endorse their actions.
To bring these examples into our modern age, would you submit to North Korea’s Kim John-un? Would you allow yourself to be subject to Stalin or Genghis Khan?
Would you obey Hitler? Would you give up your Jewish friends or family on the sharp command of an SS soldier?
No—you wouldn’t. That wouldn’t be the love that Paul writes about in verse 8. That wouldn’t be Biblical. That wouldn’t be of God’s character. You would resist, because that would be the only good and righteous choice.
In our contemporary American society, we face a much different world than that of the Roman Christians. We can protest, speak out, march, write, and even be arrested and sent to jail for what we believe—and it makes a difference.