“The powers that be are ordained of God” (Romans 13:1, KJV). Rulers are his ministers (13:4, 6). Therefore, anyone who rebels against government rebels against God (13:2). Rebellion is like witchcraft, which is an abomination and will be punished (13:2, 1 Samuel 15:23). The earthly reason is simple. All governments are instruments of social order, which includes providing goods and services through taxes and punishing lawbreakers. I don’t want to live in a world without government. It would be anarchy and chaos, not “freedom.” The divine reason is even simpler. God himself is a lawgiver (Isaiah 33:22, James 4:12). Through his servant Moses, “from his right hand came a fiery law for” Israel (Deuteronomy 33:2).*
Unfortunately, the current U.S. government is our enemy, not our friend. It’s filled with wicked people who crave money and power and who hate Christians. So when a government official tells us to say or do something that violates God’s law, we should say like Peter, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). When the government passes a law that requires our obedience but violates God’s law, again we must say, “We ought to obey God.”
We need courage to suffer the earthly consequences of disobedience to human governments in these instances, i.e. prison. But they’re the only times we should disobey. Otherwise, we must submit and “not only to the good and gentle, but also to the harsh” (1 Peter 2:13-14, 18). Therefore, we shouldn’t harass government officials or disobey laws we dislike. Nor should we refuse to pay taxes! We’re not the first to suffer under a wicked government and we won’t be the last. This fact doesn’t change our moral obligation to submit, except for matters of conscience.
First-century Jews suffered much worse things under imperial Rome than we ever have. The idolatrous empire crucified criminals, hanged troublemakers, and made slaves of children if the parents couldn’t pay taxes to Caesar. The incestuous Herod Antipas, governor of Judea, called himself “king of the Jews” and slaughtered toddlers in the name of Rome (Matthew 2:16).
Jewish Zealots chose to fight Rome through subversion and terrorism. Jesus Christ probably knew some Zealots while growing up in Nazareth. He could have joined them as an adult, but he didn’t. Instead, Jesus chose to submit to the Father, and by extension Rome. He followed the example of his earthly parents, who went to Bethlehem to obey a census tax (Luke 2:1-5). Early in his ministry, Jesus healed a centurion’s servant and was willing to enter his home (Matthew 8:5-13). He also told the Pharisees to pay taxes to Caesar (22:16-21). Jesus didn’t protest King Herod’s arrest of his first cousin John the Baptist; nor did he avenge John’s murder (14:3-13). Jesus even chose a Zealot and a tax collector as two of his disciples (9:9, 10:3; Luke 6:15).
Jesus’ trial and death were no different. The night he was arrested, Jesus could have called “twelve legions of angels” to his rescue, but he didn’t (Matthew 26:53). He knew that the governor Pontius Pilate “could have no power at all against [him] unless it had been given … from above” (John 19:11). So Jesus let agents of Rome crucify him and asked the Father to forgive them (Matthew 27:24-35, Luke 23:34).
What would happen if the U.S. government were suddenly transformed into a 21st-century imperial Rome? What if Christians were oppressed like the Jews? Would we join a terrorist organization like the Zealots, or Mossad or Hamas? Or would we be like Jesus and submit?
* All Scripture verses are NKJV, unless otherwise noted.