As the church in the West increasingly inhabits a post-Christian culture, conversations about the role of church and state in America have become commonplace. Many Christians now question our responsibility to submit to the government—especially in the aftermath of COVID lockdowns—or have begun to consider the benefits of civil disobedience.
While living under those opposed to biblical values may seem new for many in America, that’s not the case for most of our brothers and sisters around the world. This presents us with an opportunity to learn from them as we seek to be faithful as strangers in a strange land.
To that end, I reached out to church leaders from around the world, asking how they apply Paul’s command to “be subject to the governing authorities” (Rom. 13:1). These believers hail from all sorts of countries—where persecution is overt and political or more social, where Christians are an extreme minority or nominalism is normal, where there’s relative peace and security or rampant political instability.
What I found is global Christians don’t agree on everything. For one, they took different approaches toward church gatherings during pandemic lockdowns. But in their attempts to understand and apply Romans 13, I observed four points of clear agreement.
1. Romans 13 doesn’t assume a good government.
The church leaders I spoke with don’t think the command for Christians to submit to governing authorities is conditioned by the quality of that authority. As one Iranian brother, Nima Alizadeh, explains, “Some think that Paul is picturing an ideal government in Romans 13.” But he disagrees. Because Paul acknowledges there’s no authority except that which God establishes (Rom. 13:1). Whatever the authority—good or evil—we know it’s from God and thus falls within the purview of Paul’s command.
In fact, Alizadeh sees Romans 13 flowing directly from the previous imperative: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21). He believes we should expect that “most governments are evil and corrupt,” making our humble submission a sort of Christian subversion of that evil authority.
As Paul writes his letter to the Romans, he isn’t being idealistic, envisioning submission to a Christianized state that promotes biblical morality. He’s writing to believers in pagan and godless Rome.
Paul wasn’t naive about the evils of the Roman Empire. Yet he still calls for submission to them.
Josh Manley, a pastor from the United Arab Emirates, notes that Paul was “well aware of rulers who had mistreated people, including himself, in the past. He certainly understood that unjust rulers had wrongfully crucified Jesus.” As someone who’d been hunted, beaten, and imprisoned by governmental authorities, Paul wasn’t naive about the evils of the Roman Empire. Yet he still calls for submission to them.
2. Romans 13 applies in every context.
Since Paul’s instruction isn’t contingent upon a just or benevolent ruler, the logical conclusion and consensus of the church leaders I spoke with is that Romans 13 applies in every context.
Ricardo Libaneo, a pastor in Brazil, says he “can’t imagine any situation where it doesn’t apply.” As Rajesh (name changed) from India shared, “If Romans 13 could be valid in Paul’s day when Nero was the emperor, it’s hard to imagine any situation where it wouldn’t be valid today.” According to Evgeny Bakmutsky of Russia, Romans 13 “applies to all times and systems as long as the sinful world requires such a structure as human authority.” In other words, wherever there is human government, the normal Christian response will be submission.
Kees van Kralingen from the Netherlands takes it a step further. He believes these instructions from Paul are “grounded in creation” (Col. 1:16). God built organization and authority—both human and spiritual—into the structure of the universe. The powers that be are instituted and installed by God (Dan. 2:21). According to Alizadeh, such a recognition of God’s ultimate rulership enables believers to submit to lesser kings, czars, and sheikhs.
In fact, one primary way Christians demonstrate submission to God is by being subject to human authorities, whether emperors, masters, or husbands (1 Pet. 2:13–3:6). Christians do so not because those lesser authorities are necessarily worthy of such treatment but to maintain the good reputation of the gospel and so others might be saved (1 Pet. 2:11–12).
3. Romans 13 suggests Christian disobedience of the government is rare.
According to Manley, “It is normal for the Christian to be marked by obedience to the authorities over us. Governments can act wickedly and overstep their boundaries, but normally Christians should be understood by the government to be good citizens.” However, he admits, there are exceptional cases where Christians can and must obey God rather than governments.
When it comes to those exceptions, the church leaders I spoke with want the bar to be high for Christians to disobey. Rajesh says his church would only disobey the government in extreme situations. Of course, what’s “extreme” to one person may not be to another. For example, he’s aware of churches in India that are asked by the government to report the names of their congregants and church attendance. He says he’d need to think “twice and thrice” before disobeying such an order. In fact, he’d likely comply.
Such an act would be seen by many Americans as an extreme form of capitulation to the government. But in difficult situations such as these, Van Kralingen suggests believers shouldn’t make decisions on their own. They should seek the counsel of the church. All the leaders I interviewed agree that disobeying the government should be rare. However, they also agree that laws against preaching the gospel and those directly prohibiting gathered worship must be disobeyed (cf. Acts 5:29).
Yet even when a Christian or a congregation decides to go against a governmental order, it need not be a public act of defiance. Many churches around the world choose to meet in secret. Evangelism also continues in private homes and personal meetings. According to Bakmutsky, “Insubordination may be covert, because the main goal is not to die heroically, but to show love effectively.”
4. Romans 13 teaches our disposition is more important than governmental decisions.
In all their answers, the pastors I spoke with emphasized what Paul does: a Christlike response of love, even toward our political enemies (Matt. 5:44). Libaneo sees the commands of Romans 13, like all Christian ethics, as an “implication of the gospel.” He reads the imperatives of Romans 13 and the Christian’s relationship to government as the continuation of Paul’s instructions about the gospel’s implications on all interpersonal relationships (Rom. 12:3–21).
Even when a Christian or a congregation decides to go against a governmental order, it need not be a public act of defiance.
Reading Paul’s command in the broader context is also important for Bakmutsky. He notes Christians are called to “love . . . without hypocrisy” in Romans 12:9 (CSB), a theme that resurfaces and continues in Romans 13:8: “Owe no one anything except to love each other.” Thus, he encourages Christians to understand their relationship to governing authorities as subsumed in Paul’s broader appeal to love.
What does that look like practically? This love is expressed as Christians pay honor and pay taxes to governmental authorities (Rom. 13:7; cf. Matt. 22:21; 1 Pet. 2:17). Libaneo emphasizes that believers should avoid disrespectful comments about politicians. It requires honoring them, as he personally concludes, “Especially when I don’t agree with them.”
In that same vein, Manley insists “we should not fight lawlessness with lawlessness.” That’s why his church deliberately seeks opportunities to “show thanks and gratitude to [their] rulers.” They also regularly pray for them by name in their corporate gatherings. Again, this demonstrates the church’s primary responsibility is to do good—whether the authorities over them are good or not. The believer’s fundamental disposition in a world of opposition must always be love.
What We Can Learn
No matter the country or authority Christians live under, Scripture teaches we can and should work for the good of society (Jer. 29:7). That work includes our necessary submission to human governments as an expression of our ultimate submission to God. In America, even if the church’s social influence fails and evil prevails, this won’t give us the automatic right to revolt. Instead, we should seek to subvert evil with the good of Christian honor and obedience.
Of course, such a perspective depends on the ongoing validity of Romans 13. These days, American evangelicals often question this passage’s relevance because of our challenging situation (i.e., “Things are getting so bad”) or because of our constitutional government (i.e., “The real authority in a democracy is the people”). In essence, they’re saying Paul’s command is conditioned by culture. But if cultural context can relativize a biblical passage on human government, then can’t the same be true for passages addressing gender and sexuality? When it comes to applying Romans 13, I fear many conservative evangelicals are making the same hermeneutical error as their progressive counterparts.
That’s not to say there are no exceptions to Paul’s command in Romans 13. Christians can and must disobey any human law that would force us to violate the moral law of God. Yet gray areas will remain, as will room for discussion among faithful Christians on these issues. Therefore, the church should labor to articulate why and when disobeying the government is appropriate. We should also strive to keep the bar high for such an act. If unjust laws or leaders aren’t the proper grounds for disobedience in another country, should they be so in America?
As we consider the Christian responsibility toward human authority, we must remember that Scripture calls us to love and pray for our enemies, including governments and rulers opposed to Christianity (1 Tim. 2:1–4). While disobedience may be required in certain cases, we should go out of our way—even and especially in those situations—to demonstrate humility, gentleness, respect, and love for all.