Must Christians Always Submit to the Governing Authorities?

Kim Davis took an oath to uphold the Kentucky Constitution which forbids same-sex marriage. As a result of her refusal, Judge David Bunning put her in jail until she complies. There are many Christians who are arguing that Christians must submit in obedience to every government decree. Here’s the question: can a biblical case be made for not complying with a government edict that violates a Christian’s governmental oath or forces him or her to violate some higher law principle?

Does Romans 13 forbid any form of Christian resistance?

Peter and John were arrested “because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead” (Acts 4:2). Even after their release, they continued to preach the gospel, “for we cannot stop speaking what we have seen and heard” (v. 20).

Some Christians conclude, based solely on their understanding of Romans 13 and Matthew 22:21, without any consideration of other passages, that Christians are obligated to obey those in authority no matter what the command or circumstances.

As Christians made an impact on society, they received harsh treatment from those who had “no king but Caesar” (John 19:15). At the preaching of the gospel, “Jason and some brethren” were dragged “before the city authorities” with the following charge made against them (Acts 17:6): “These men [Paul and Silas] who have upset the world have come here also; and Jason has welcomed them, and they all act contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus” (17:6-7; cf. 4:12).

There is nothing new under the sun. The early Christians faced numerous challenges by angry citizens and powerful ecclesiastical and civil rulers. The Bible does not support either anarchy or revolution as ways to advance God’s kingdom. The church has always been anti-revolutionary but pro-resistance.

“When Peter and the other apostles were arrested and imprisoned by the Sanhedrin for refusing to obey the order not to preach in the name of Jesus, their defense was, ‘We must obey God rather than men’ (Acts 5:29; cf. 4:19). As F. F. Bruce has commented, the ‘authority of the Sanhedrin was great, but greater still was the authority of Him who commissioned them to make this good news known.’”1

There is no doubt that Christians are to submit “for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do good” (1 Peter 2:14). This is the same Peter who said, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:27-29).

Often times when a general command is given, there are exceptions. Let’s look at some Old Testament examples.

The Hebrew Midwives

The Hebrew midwives were commanded by “the king of Egypt” to put to death all the male children being born to the Hebrew women (Ex. 1:15‑16). They resisted the edict of the king: “But the midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt had commanded them, but let the boys live” (v. 17). God shows His approval of their actions: “So God was good to the midwives, and the people multiplied, and became very mighty. And it came about because the midwives feared God, that He established households for them” (vv. 20‑21).

In 1982, a Juvenile Court judge, the Honorable Randall J. Hekman, “in direct opposition to the law of the land, which said women cannot be denied an abortion,” refused to grant permission for a pregnant thirteen-year-old to obtain an abortion. Was he wrong? His decision parallels that of the midwives who refused to follow the directive of the king of Egypt. In a letter to the editor of a Grand Rapids newspaper, Judge Hekman explained why he refused to grant the abortion to the thirteen-year-old:

“What if the law requires a judge to order the execution of a person known to be totally innocent? What if a judge is required by law to order Jewish people to concentration camps or gas chambers because the law says that Jews are non-persons?. . .

“Ten short years ago, a judge in Michigan would be guilty of a felony crime if he encouraged, much less ordered that a pregnant girl obtain an abortion. Then, in 1973, the Supreme Court ruled that all state laws making abortion a crime were unconstitutional. In one day, that which had been a reprehensible crime became a sacred right protected by the Constitution itself.”2

Judge Hekman “was severely criticized in the press and by judicial colleagues” for his decision. By 1982, the child was in grade school and was “presumably more supportive of the judge’s decision!”3

Jochebed’s Deception          

Jochebed, Moses’ mother, also disobeyed the edict of the king by hiding her child and later created a way of escape for him so he would not be murdered by the king’s army: “But when she could hide him no longer, she got him a wicker basket and covered it over with tar and pitch. Then she put the child into it, and set it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile” (Ex. 2:3). Jochebed even deceived Pharaoh’s daughter into believing that she, Jochebed, was not related to the child (vv. 7‑9).

“But when she could hide him no longer, she got him a wicker basket and covered it over with tar and pitch. Then she put the child into it, and set it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile” (Ex. 2:3).

Saying No to a King

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed‑nego refused to follow the command of the king to worship the golden statue: “These men, O king, have disregarded you; they do not serve your gods or worship the golden image you have set up” (Dan. 3:12). When the three were thrown into the furnace, the angel of the Lord came to their aid (v. 25). This shows that there are consequences in opposing an edict of a ruler. Some have suffered martyrdom because of their refusal to obey.

In similar fashion, “in the year A.D. 165 Justin Martyr and his companions refused to yield to the command of the emperor and sacrifice to the pagan gods. ‘Do what you will. For we are Christians and offer no sacrifice to idols.’ Justin and his companions were beheaded for their faithfulness to the Savior.”4

King Darius signed a document that prohibited anyone from making “a petition to any god or man besides” himself (Dan. 6:7). Anyone refusing to obey the order “shall be cast into the lion’s den” (v. 7). Daniel refused to heed the edict’s restrictions. The Bible states that Daniel went out of his way to disobey the order in a public way: “Now when Daniel knew that the document was signed, he entered his house (now in his roof chamber he had windows open toward Jerusalem); and he continued kneeling on his knees three times a day, praying and giving thanks before his God, as he had been doing previously” (v. 10).

From these few Old Testament examples, we can see that there are times when resistance to the governing authorities is biblical. Submitting to the government authorities is not always the biblical thing to do.

Kim Davis took an oath to uphold the Kentucky Constitution. She was keeping her oath. In reality, Kim Davis was submitting to the authorities.

  1. John Jefferson Davis, Evangelical Ethics: Issues Facing the Church Today (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1985), 211. []
  2. Judge Randall Hekman, “Letter to the Editor,” Grand Rapids Press (November 19, 1982). Quoted in Randy Alcorn, Is Rescuing Right?, 79-80. []
  3. Alcorn, Is Rescuing Right?, 79. []
  4. Davis, Evangelical Ethics, 211-12. []
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