When Can Christians Break The Law?

Last Updated: July 3, 2023By Tags:

The following article is a more in-depth and developed version of the talk given in the video above. It also includes some reflections in response to events that occurred after this talk was written

You may wonder what the topic of Christians and the government has to do with apologetics and Christian case making. Well, first and foremost, this site focuses on the concept of being an ambassador of Christ (that’s what Legati Christi means in Latin). We focus on interacting with nonbelievers and how to be representatives of Jesus Christ. With that focus in mind, it is important for us, as ambassadors, to know how we should handle ourselves in an increasingly secular governmental system that asks things of us that would appear to be counter to what God asks of us. So, today we are going to talk about two things my Mom told me to never talk about in public. Religion and politics.

Right now, we are going through times that are unprecedented here in the US. The world has been crippled by a pandemic that has forced almost every nation to disrupt its economy and drastically change how societies function. There are regulations on every aspect of life now. There are regulations on how to send our kids to school, regulations on who can and can’t work, regulations on how many people can and can’t be in a given area. 

The way we have done worship for hundreds of years has been forced to change. Here in California, the regulations for worship went from closed, to 25% capacity with social distancing, to no singing, and back to closed again. These regulations come from the state and federal government. And sometimes – often times – they don’t agree.

So, what are we to do? Make no mistake, our First Amendment rights regarding our freedom of religious expression and freedom to gather peacefully are being violated. The First Amendment states that:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

And yet, as I gave that message in the video above, I was speaking to a camera in an empty sanctuary apart from the skeleton crew needed to run the service.

Are we supposed to fight the system and disobey what the government is telling us to do? Or are we to sit on our hands and say nothing? Are those the only two options?

In order to figure this out, we are going to look at what is easily one of the most misused – and abused – passages in all of Scripture; Romans 13:1-7

The Historical Context

Scripture wasn’t written in a vacuum. Its authors were writing in the context of the times. Before we can begin to apply the lessons to our lives in the present, we must understand the lesson the author originally meant to convey. And, that starts with understanding the environment in which the author lived.

Paul wrote the letter of Romans around 56-58 AD. He was not writing these verses whilst living in a democracy. It was an autocracy; where the Caesars ruled and were worshiped like gods. Rome had conquered Israel and ran it by governors like Pontious Pilate. They would also let the nations they conquered keep their local governments as a way to maintain their culture and keep the newly subjugated people a little happier. For the Jews in the Gospel setting, these were the Herods – the line of Jewish kings.

Once a year, Roman citizens had to swear allegiance to Caesar and call him Lord. Then they would be given a certificate showing that they were loyal citizens. Failing to do this meant arrest, beating, and likely even death. As you can imagine, many Christians refused to bow the knee to Caesar.

Slavery was an epidemic. ⅓ to ½ of the people were slaves and they were treated horribly. Often, they were beaten, left table scraps, the women used as sex objects, and their cries of injustice to the authorities ignored.. It was nothing like what the Old Testament laws tried to regulate.

The government had a heavily oppressive tax system.  The office of tax collector was given to the highest bidder. And the Roman government didn’t care about how much you collected in taxes – as long as they go what they said they were due. Tax collectors were extortionists. The Gospel writers certainly had a lot to say about the tax collectors during the lifetime of Jesus.

Here is a sample of the taxes Rome levied against its citizens:

  • Poll tax- you were basically taxed for breathing the air in the Roman Empire
  • Income tax
  • Taxes for travel on roads and harbors
  • Import taxes
  • Ground tax – you had to give 1/10 of all the grain and ⅕ of all the wine you produced to the government
  • Fish tax – every time you tossed a net into the sea you were taxed. And every fish you pulled out of the water was taxed
  • Cart tax – you were taxed for every wheel on your transportation implements – carts, wagons, etc. I imagine lots of people used wheelbarrows!

The Roman taxes supported the army that oppressed its citizens, the public bathhouses where all sorts of debauchery took place, and many other things the Jews of the time would consider immoral and unholy. The Jews still had to pay these taxes but had no voice in government.

There were 2 major political groups of the time. First, there were the Herodians, who gave loyalty to Herod. They advocated honoring Herod, their king, and paying his taxes. And there were the Pharisees, who hated the Romans and didn’t want to pay taxes to Rome. Both sides hated Jesus and tried to trap him one day and asked him about paying taxes (more on that later).

At the time Paul wrote this, Christians were already being viewed very suspiciously. They wouldn’t bow the knee to Caesar, they thought there was only one God (by contrast, the Romans were pantheists), and they had strange morals – like not getting drunk, having only one wife and no mistresses!

Dealings with Christians (“Christian” started out as a derogatory term, by the way) would quickly go from one of suspicion to one of persecution. In 64 AD a fire broke out that destroyed much of Rome. The Caesar in charge at that point was Nero. Nero had a healthy dislike of Christianity. He blamed the fires on the Christians as a way to focus the public’s rage onto a culprit. It is also under Nero’s authority that Paul would be arrested and later executed somewhere between 64 and 68 AD.

It is to this moment in history that Paul authors the letter to the Roman church. He hasn’t been arrested yet. But, being both a Roman citizen himself and a Jew, he has most certainly felt the weight of the Roman government.

What Is The Christian View Of Government?

Source Of Authority

All leaders are appointed by God (Romans 13:1). Kings, queens, presidents, governors, mayors. And, I know what you’re thinking; this is a really hard pill to swallow right now. I mean, like a pill the size of a watermelon hard to swallow. But, just remember that God is sovereign and in charge. Because of this, power has only one source and that is God.

Jesus acknowledges this fact when he tells Pilate “you could have had no power over me unless it had been given to you from above” (John 19:11). God also makes it perfectly clear to Pharaoh why Pharaoh is in the leadership position he is in when he says “For this reason, I have raised you up; that my power might be shown in you” (Exodus 9:16). These are two of the villains in the Bible. They didn’t accidentally come into power. God has a plan and every leader that gets appointed – good or evil – is part of that plan.

This passage should not be taken as God has given them authority therefore they are right in everything that they do. Many rulers/government officials have used this passage to validate their appointment – as if they are blessed by God in everything that they do because he put them in charge. But, this appointment does not make them automatically righteous and holy.

When Paul says that God ordains human government and invests it with authority, he does not mean to suggest that government is therefore free to do as it pleases. It is subject to God and His will. Government is not morally autonomous. 

The Government’s Job

Governments are instituted to serve a purpose and that is the well being of its citizens. The government’s job is to stop evil through laws, police forces, judicial systems and even armies. It needs to protect the public and punish evil.

Paul actually calls government officials ministers. He uses the Greek word “deokinas” which is the word we get the office of “deacon” from. In the same way that ministers from the church are there to meet the needs of their congregations, government officials are in place to meet the needs of the citizens.

No government is perfect. All governmental systems have flaws. There is no “Chriatian government” anywhere in the world. The Bible does not lay out a specific form of government. It doesn’t promote Divine Monarchy, nor socialism, nor a democratic republic as much as we in America wish it did. Instead, we are given principles by which we are to govern and be governed. If a monarchy can live up to these principles and meet the needs of its citizens then so be it.

Rules For Government

Just because God has appointed people to roles of leadership does not mean they get to do whatever they want. There are rules that they have to follow and will be held accountable for.

  1. They need to understand that they serve a divine purpose.
  2. They need to be humble, serious, diligent, truthful, and just
  3. They need to maintain order by just and firm law enforcement. Failure to enforce the law is a crime in God’s eyes
  4. Rulers/government officials are warned not to seek their own welfare and riches.
  5. They must sympathize with a needy
  6. They must treat others with kindness and decency
  7. Rulers are required to speak the truth as God has revealed the truth
  8. Must enforce public morality

The Citizen’s Responsibility

After Paul outlines where the government’s power comes from and what its job is, he tells us our responsibility as citizens. Our responsibility is to be in subjugation to the government (Romans 13:5). The Greek word used here is “hupotaso” – hupo meaning “under” and taso meaning “to line up”. This was a military term used to describe how soldiers should fall into ranks in order to be organized. Paul is using it here to tell us that we need to fall in line in an orderly fashion under the authorities.

Peter backs up Paul’s statement in 1 Peter 2:13-17 where he says

13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

Now, keep in mind the government that Paul and Peter lived under. Nero would famously tie Christians to poles, drench them with oil, and set them on fire to be used as light sources in the night for his garden parties and chariot races. This is the guy the apostles are asking Christians to submit to.

Being in Los Angeles, I live in a political climate at the state and local level that is in direct opposition to the current presidential administration. But, Christianity has no political party. I don’t get to pick and choose which policies I will follow based on which party I am a part of. I have to try and navigate both pathways

I don’t get to violate current pandemic regulations – even if I think they are oppressive, in violation of my rights, and aren’t backed by accurate science and data (which I’m not saying).

I also don’t get to ignore requests of law enforcement – even if I think the officer ticketing me or pulling me over or cuffing me has no reason to do so, has a total attitude about it, and is being a jerk.

I don’t want to make it sound like following the law is easy. There are certainly laws that make it feel like they are just designed to catch you and give you a ticket. For example, you can get a ticket for speeding, but, if you are going the speed limit, and everyone else around you is going 5-10 OVER the speed limit, you could get a ticket for impeding traffic by going too slow.

Look, I’m a Gen Xer. One of the tenants of being a Gen Xer is a healthy distrust of authority, organized institutions, regulations, and people telling me how to live my life. Most Gen Xers spent their early lives walking around giving the mental middle figure to The Man. And the Establishment.

Make no mistake, I still have a healthy distrust of government. But, I am bound by Scripture to honor and pray for the authorities. Even if it’s a person whom I am in opposition to who is currently in office. All the way up the chain.

Being in submission does not mean blind obedience. We can still disagree with the government. We can criticize our leaders. Jesus certainly did. In Luke 13:32 Jesus refers to Herod Antipas as a “fox” which was a reference to his slyness and cunning and not on his physical beauty and attractiveness. This was not a compliment.

We are also to hold our leaders accountable. This plays out over and over again in the Old Testament with the prophets and the kings of Israel. We should still work towards, seek and even demand change. But, it must be done peacefully, respectfully, and within the law.

Pay To Caesar What Is Caesar’s

My family hears me rail about taxes all the time. How excessive they are in California. And especially in Los Angeles county. How I can’t believe my tax dollars are going to fund this program or that project. But, I don’t get to pick and choose how much I pay because I know a portion of it will go towards causes I do not support. I still have to pay them.

No matter how morally wrong I think the government may be, it is still my obligation to pay taxes. Jesus even paid his taxes. In Matthew 17:24-27, he paid the temple tax when he arrived in Capernaum. And he paid it to the same system he had earlier called a den of thieves and robbers. The same authorities that were going to kill him, he paid taxes to. And he knew they were going to kill him.

Matthew 22:15 is the famous scene where the Herodians (who wanted people to pay taxes) and the Pharisees (who DIDN’T want to pay taxes to Rome) cornered Jesus. They both wanted to trick him and use his response for their own political gain. Jesus responds with “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”

How the money gets used is the sin of the government and not the sin of those paying the taxes. The money belongs to the government already. The government lets its citizens have money in order to be able to participate in the economy. But, the money still belongs to them.

So, we have to pay taxes.

Why Should We Obey The Law?

In v5, Paul tells us why we need to follow the law. Good Christians are good citizens for conscious sake. We are to be blameless in the eyes of the law as a way to serve God. As uncool as it may be, we should be a bunch of goody, goody rule followers. We are supposed to be an example for the rest of society to follow as a way to bring people to a closer relationship with God. We forfeit that testimony when we disobey the law

This does not mean we should live our lives to please the world. There are exceptions for us regarding when we can disobey and break the laws (more on that later). This just means that we are to live as exemplary citizens.

I’m not going to lie – I’ve often wondered how awesome it would be to take the ones I love and find a quiet place to live our lives disconnected from all of this craziness. But, we were never meant to hide in caves or sequester into monasteries or communes or isolated villages. In Matthew 10:16 Jesus tells us “Behold I will send you out as sheep among wolves”. We are meant to live amongst those who think we are weird, or backward, or wrong as a way to shine the light of the Gospel to nonbelievers.

All aspects of society need Christians in them in order to show examples of living a holy life. We need Christian school teachers, school administrators, school board members, college professors, leaders in the workplace, in the sciences, in the arts, and most definitely the GOVERNMENT.

I’m not advocating for a Christian takeover, either. But, one of the things we complain about is how people misunderstand what it is we believe. Or have wrong images of what Christians are like. Well, if we aren’t taking part in the major areas of society to show them what Christians are like, then that problem is on us.

When Can We Disobey The Law?

Now, we come to the issue of the day. The part EVERYBODY wants to hear right now. No matter which side of the political spectrum we fall on  When can we disobey the law? If the deck is systematically stacked against us, when can we burn down the deck and make new cards? When our rights are clearly being violated, or we feel the system is unjust, is that the time where we go against what has been asked of us to do?

America is a society that has bucking authority and not following the rules as one of its founding principles. We formed our nation by breaking the law and going to war with the oppressive empire to which we belonged. America loves a rebel. 

We need to exercise caution, however, when we seek justification for not following a law. Jumping to quickly to thinking we know better and therefore this law should not apply to us.

I also want to caution us – myself included – from seeking to vilify leaders we disagree with so that we can justify not following the laws and policies they set in place. This is a party agnostic statement and it applies to mayors, judges, governors, and presidents.

There is a difference between “I disagree with how this law is being interpreted” and “forget this law, I know what it says but I’m not going to do it”. I’m not talking about disagreement here. I’m talking about willful disobedience. When is that OK?

So, what if a government passes laws or policies that oppose God-given laws? Here is the rule: we submit to the government up to the point where it means disobeying God. When the government says “don’t do this” and God says “do it”, you do it and disobey the government. Or vice versa.

Some Guidelines

When one is faced with a situation in which it may be OK to disobey, John Jefferson Davis in his book Evangelical Ethics: gives several guidelines that should be observed. First, “the law being resisted must be unjust and immoral, clearly contrary to the will of God”, and not just inconvenient or burdensome  This is admittedly harder today because not even the church can agree to what is and isn’t unjust. Or what is and isn’t immoral. My advice to you would be more study of the Word and less paying attention to talking heads on TV and the Internet.

Second, “legal means of changing the unjust situation should have been exhausted. Civil disobedience should be seen as a method not of first resort, but rather of last resort, when legal channels have already been pursued”.

Paul gives us a great example of this in Acts 21-22, Paul arrives is Jerusalem and the crowds turn on him. He is arrested. He doesn’t resist. It is when he is about to be punished that he exercises his rights as a Roman citizen and the authorities let him go because he is innocent. Paul wasn’t arrested because he broke any laws. He went through the process the Roman government had laid out and was set free.

Third, “the act of disobedience must be public rather than clandestine”. No hiding your identity. No making fake social media profiles to tell people how you really feel and keep your true identity secret. No behind the curtain deals. No dirty politics. Not even for “the greater good”.

Fourth, “there should be some likelihood of success, particularly when the intent is to produce changes in laws and institutions”. If you’re going to break the law, don’t so it just to become a “martyr for the cause” when the point you are trying to make will never be heard or seen or do any good.

Finally, “those who consider civil disobedience should be willing to accept the penalty for breaking the law”. Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time. You need to be ready for the consequences of your actions before you do what you are about to do.

Biblical Examples Of Lawbreakers

Attempting to learn lessons from history is both commendable and wise. But, before we get into our examples from Biblical times and from modern history, I want to caution us not to immediately seek examples from history that have the outcomes we desire in the present without also understanding the context in which these examples occurred. In other words, don’t just seek out people who broke the law “for the greater good” to justify your own actions as being “for the greater good”. You and I sitting here are going to have an easy time deciding what is right and wrong. Hindsight is 20/20 as they say. But, in reality, it’s much more complex most of the time. We have to acknowledge that.

There are certainly examples in the Bible of disobeying authority. Pharoah commanded the Jewish midwives to kill all of the firstborn males but they refused because they feared God. Nebuchadnezzar commanded Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to bow and worship an idol that had been built. They refused and were sentenced to death. The Sanhedrin passed a law that made it illegal to speak the name of Jesus in public. Peter and John disobeyed and did it anyway, saying “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). And there are many more.

Historical Examples

William Wilberforce

William Wilberfoce was a British politician who lived between 1759 and 1833. One of the leaders of the movement in England to abolish the slave trade. He became a Christian in 1785 and this dramatically informed his drive for reform. He sought change through policy and not by breaking laws. His work lead to the Slave Trade Act of 1803 and then the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 which in turn lead to the abolitionist movement in the US and then to emancipation. He used his station in life as a politician to correct a wrong he saw in society and he used the principles he learned in the Christian tradition as the basis for that change.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor and theologian who lived through Nazi rule. He was a self-avowed pacifist and wrestled quite a long time with what he saw going on in Germany and with passages like Romans 13. Eventually, he was imprisoned in a concentration camp and hanged for the ultimate act of treason that can be done by a citizen – taking part in an assassination attempt on that government’s leader.

Bonhoeffer has gained tremendous fame recently by politicians and the media as the representative of Christian government dissent. Few people argue that what Bonhoeffer attempted to do was the right thing. Because of that, everyone wants to ask “is this our Bonhoeffer Moment?” Everyone wants to wonder if this thing that this leader has done is the final straw that allows us to take drastic measures for the sake of our conscious. People will equate President Trump to Hitler because of his bent towards nationalism and his policies that affect immigration, therefore we should be like Bonhoeffer and try to overthrow him. The other side wants to say California Governor Gavin Newsome is like Hitler because he is trying to silence the church and tell it what to do. Therefore, maybe this is the Bonhoeffer Moment where we overthrow the governor.

But, this act of disobedience was not one that Bonhoeffer took so lightly He even thought at one point he would accept his fate of damnation and hellfire for doing what he chose to do. Sacrificing his eternal soul to save those of others. He didn’t take the consequences of his actions lightly. And neither should we.

Is Now The Time To Disobey?

I wanted to keep this message as timeless and universal as possible. But, now is the point where we have to get specific about our situation in 2020. Now we can answer the question that I’m sure a lot of us have on our minds: can we in California (or anyplace else being given the same order) disobey our governor and get back to church?

If you made it this far and are hoping to hear me comment about statistics and death rates and testing methods and possible cures then I am sorry to disappoint you. I’m not jumping into that swamp here.

But. Decisions are being made and things are being enacted that affect how we can live our lives based on those things. So, that’s what we are going to talk about now. We can – and should – certainly educate ourselves and have opinions about these things.

But, we are not here to justify breaking the law and returning to activities because we think the numbers are wrong. We are asking if .we can break the law because it goes against God’s law for us.

Right now, I think the answer to that is no.

We are not at that point like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were where we are being asked to do things that go against God. We are not at that point like Daniel where we are being arrested for praying. We are not at that point like Peter and John where it is illegal to proclaim the name of Jesus in the streets

Again, the example of Hitler and the churches of Nazi Germany often gets brought up in this discussion. As a warning for the church not to sit back and let things happen. But, I don’t think we are there yet.

Hitler knew that for his plans to work, he had to play mind games with the people of his nation and convince them what he was doing was right. He knew the church would be a problem for him, so he planted members of the Nazi party into the heads of the churches. They began spreading his doctrines and the church largely stayed silent. Those who didn’t fall in line were chased out, arrested or sent to concentration camps.

For us, we aren’t in danger of this happening because the state has no power over the church and its doctrines. They certainly have no ability to put their officials in positions of power within our church bodies.

Now, we should certainly speak up right now about the unjust application of the law. We should let our voices be heard by writing and calling our government officials. Or filing lawsuits if you want to take it that far. Or maybe even protesting in front of his office.

Yes, we are at a point where we are being forced to change worship – but not stop worshiping entirely. God gives us specific things we are to do as a church but he does not tell us specifically how they are to be done. This is one of the beauties of Christianity. It isn’t tied to any specific forms. We are told that we must take communion, that we must be baptized, that we must gather, etc. But how that is to be done is never specified. Most of the forms within worship are cultural and not prescribed by Scripture.

The Bible doesn’t say that we have to get together in big buildings to worship Him. The first church services were held in private homes.

This isn’t about agreeing with policy. This is about doing God’s will in the framework He has set for us. This is the time for us to get creative and re-imagine what worship looks like.

Let’s not kid ourselves – doing worship through Zoom or Facebook Live is NOT the same as gathering together to worship. Not even CLOSE. But, this is the time for enterprising individuals to come up with solutions to problems.

If you want to talk about being American, that’s being American. Being forced to come up with creative solutions in dire situations. How much of a blow would it be to officials if you found a way to stay within the rules and still accomplish or achieve what it is you are after.

We can still find ways to take an offering without passing the plate. People have come up with individually packaged communion packets in order for members to take communion. Maybe we do worship in small groups in our homes. Maybe we set up chairs in the parking lot. Maybe we sit in our cars drive-in movie style and listen to our pastors preach.

The point is, I think we can still find ways to gather together and worship without having to break the law.

After Thoughts

The majority of the study for this message was done at the end of July 2020. I was pretty confident I had this issue right and that the vast majority of people would agree with it. After all, churches were still closed at that time.

And then… John MacArthur opened his services back up to the public with no restrictions. He had packed services full of people desiring to gather together and worship the Lord.

And then… a week later Calvary Chapel in Thousand Oaks opened its doors and served over 4000!

And then… Pastor Dudley Rutherford announced Shepherd of the Hills (a local megachurch here in the Los Angeles area) will be opening services this week. There will be thousands there as well. No question.

These are just the ones within 30 minutes of me. I am sure there are many more that I don’t know about.

Even though I spent 5000 words making my case that we are not at the point where we are justified in disobedience, my heart cannot help but be overjoyed by this show of love and desire to worship our Lord again!

What I have come to realize is that the move to open here in California needs to be evaluated on a church by church basis and no one blanket statement covers all. We cannot say “everyone should keep their doors open” anymore than we can say “everyone should keep their doors closed”. There are some churches who remain closed because their congregation isn’t comfortable getting back together yet. There are some churches who have gone through the proper legal channels to reopen and yet still they remain closed.

That we need to gather everyone is in agreement on. How we should gather is where the disagreement occurs. And one thing that we cannot do is get divided over this issue. This is not one of those core doctrines that determines one’s salvation. This is not a time for other Christians to condemn one another for taking one side or the other on this issue. Which I’ve seen done. By people on both sides.

As individual churches decide to open or close, let us realize that they, too, are not taking their decisions lightly and have hopefully taken this decision before the Lord for prayerful consideration. Whatever the response may be, may God’s Glory and His Kingdom be made known through these trying times.

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About the Author: David W. Gilmore

Dave Gilmore is the founder and editor-in-chief of Legati Christi. Over the past few years he has developed a passion for Christian Apologetics and theology, and enjoys talking to others about the Christian world view

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