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What it Means to Obey Romans 13 in America

Nathan Skates /

“Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.” Romans 13:1-2. 


In a Covid-19 world you have likely seen these verses used as the reason you are to obey every command in regard to the virus without argument. Christians in America are absolutely required to respect and obey authority just as Christians in Paul’s day were but what does obedience look like in America?


Consider the situation of government commands that contradict those of God. A biblical example is found in Acts 5:29. The apostles had been commanded to stop preaching the gospel, “But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than men.’” 


Likewise in countries that have made Christianity illegal, where Christians can be imprisoned, tortured, or killed for practicing their faith, should they cease to do so? The early church disobeyed the government often by habitually meeting together and preaching the gospel. Christians like Polycarp were martyred because they would not worship the emperor. Yet if any American makes this comparison they would be quickly scolded by the “blind obedience” crowd in Christian media. “We don’t know anything about persecution! We have not been subjected to the violence of many believers around the world.” It is true, American Christians have graciously been spared the persecution our brothers and sisters have faced around the world for nearly 2000 years. Persecution, however, can take multiple forms, including when our government oversteps its bounds. A recent example is Governor Andy Beshear of Kentucky decreeing that churches could not partake in the Lord’s Supper, one of the two ordinances given by Christ. Christians should disobey such orders, we must obey God rather than men. These and other governors have been slapped down by multiple federal judges on the brazen unconstitutionality of such orders.


Whether a law is constitutional supersedes the whims of any current political leader for one essential reason. The Declaration of Independence states, “


We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, 

that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,

 that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, 

deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, —

That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of 

these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, 

and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such 

principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall 

seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. (emphasis added)


The founders were heavily influenced by the philosophies of men like John Locke. They believed, as Locke did, that government exists to serve people, not the other way around. This was in direct opposition to the monarchies of Europe who were thought to have been put in place by God and that they ruled by divine right. It was this belief in self-governance that led them to create the most unique experiment in political history. They created a government, as Abraham Lincoln would say nearly a century later, of the people, by the people, and for the people. What that means for the average American is you have rights not only given to you by God, but staunchly entrenched in the very fabric of the nation. Our government exists to protect those rights. That government was limited by design to ensure power remains in the hands of the people. 


One may reply that the founders simply had an incorrect doctrine of God’s relation to government, that as Romans 13 clearly says that it is God who establishes authority and He is sovereignly in control. To that I say, Amen! God is sovereign over the governments of this world and it is by His sovereignty that He has placed each of us in the United States as citizens of a federalist republic where you have a legal system to redress grievances and to hold fast to your rights. 


Many evangelicals proclaim the belief that involvement in the political process or trying to bring about change in our society through political advocacy shows a lack of trust in God and an idolatrous trust in the temporal power of government. These same people will argue that Christians should never protest, should never get involved in a campaign, should never speak out about political issues and should never exercise civil disobedience. This is a straw man. Having concern for the well-being of others and the future of liberty is not in opposition to serving the Kingdom of God. Our system of government not only allows, but hinges upon our involvement in the political proces. You are not a more pious Christian to remain totally aloof from politics, instead you are practicing bad citizenship and casting asunder rights won for you by much toil and blood of our forefathers. 


Getting involved doesn’t mean you stage an armed revolt or that you put your faith and trust in political power or politicians instead of Christ. Getting involved means exercising your right to peaceful protest, free speech, the free exercise of religion, challenging unconstitutional laws in court, and practicing your solemn duty of holding politicians accountable at the ballot box. When a governor declares liquor stores essential while commanding churches not to meet, it is not only appropriate to take the legal actions afforded us, it is the obligation of every Christian. 


Thankfully, President Trump has recognized the importance of the free exercise of religion and has declared places of worship “essential”. If you live in a state where attending a church service is prohibited, you have the God-given right/command, the Constitutional right, and the approval from the head of the Executive Branch to meet together to worship. Romans 13 says that there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. In America that means yes, respect and obey political leaders; but it also means that ultimately authority rests in the Constitution and in the people because God has sovereignly established a system of, by, and for the people. All must be subject to that authority, even its leaders