Is it right to practice Christianity in countries where it is illegal to do so? Is it right for Christians to defy governments when it comes to distributing Bibles or evangelism? These questions can be difficult for us to answer. We live in a country that was founded on a revolution, which is also called a “rebellion” by those from whom we broke away. It is in our national DNA to defy oppressive governments.
Still, those of us who fear instability, chaos, and/or anarchy are likely to insist on Paul’s words in Romans 13:1: “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities.” But we are amazingly schizophrenic at this point, sometimes dodging taxes or pushing the speed limit, sometimes encouraging other nations to overthrow tyrannical governments and sometimes insisting on the rule of Law. It should also be pointed out that there is still another possible motivator behind how we will answer this question and it is reminiscent of what the Apostle Paul said to the Galatian Church who was being pressured to conform to the cultural norms of circumcision “simply so that they will not be persecuted.” (Galatians 6:12). We too might be insisting on the rule of law simply to escape the commands of our Lord. The Chinese government is apparently fond of quoting Romans 13:1 to Christians who defy their rules about conversion, Bible distribution, evangelism, and worship services. Trying to play on the consciences of these Christians, the atheistic government of China appeals to the Biblical command to obey all governing authorities. How do you respond? You could respond by quoting the apostles in Acts 5:29 “We must obey God rather than men.” This may help ease the conscience of a Christian who is struggling over these issues, but we are not going to get very far by picking one Bible verse over another. The Bible, after all, is not a rule book or a reference manual. The Bible is a unique collection of books of various genres but with the one purpose of revealing the one true God. What we are needing here, to answer these questions concerning authority, is not a Bible verse or two but a robust theology. The Paul who wrote Romans 13 is also the same Paul who addresses himself in his letters as “the prisoner of the Lord” (Ephesians 4:1) and who was let down a wall at night, in a basket, to escape the local authorities (Acts 9:25). This is the same Paul who appealed to the Philippians to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12) in a city that was dedicated to the worship of Caesar and the salvation (in the form of military protection) which he offered as a reward. Paul insisted that the Christians served a different “Lord” who offered a better salvation than that which was offered by Caesar. The Big picture message of the Gospel is that Jesus is the world’s true Lord who will receive the worship of “every knee bowed”, not Caesar. The result is that we are called to obey our governing leaders as those appointed by God to bring order, but where their authority attempts to rival the Lordship of Jesus, we have only one answer. We must obey God rather than men.