Below I list “ten biblical principles of political obedience” — that is, ten principles regarding our obligations towards human governments that can be directly mined or inferred from the Christian Scriptures. I offer very little by way of argument; but I am more than eager to follow up with discussion and support of these principles depending on what you the reader have to say.
(1) All authority belongs to the Lord Jesus Christ. (Mt. 28:18; Col. 1:17)
(2) We have multiple citizenships – we are members of political bodies, family bodies, business bodies, perhaps even (in the case of the Christian) the body of Christ; as such, we are called to respect the (delegated) governing authorities of these bodies. Absolute anarchical autonomy is foreign to the Scriptural political vision. (Acts 22:27; I Tim. 5:8; Rom. 2:18)
(3) There can be no conflict of authority between Jesus and these various human governments (political governments, familial governments, business governments, etc. etc.) because human governments have no authority over and above the authority given them from Jesus. (John 19:9-11; Rom. 13:1)
(4) The authority given by God to human political governments is the authority to: protect its citizens against wrongdoing and support good conduct, towards the end of securing justice (mishpat). (I Pet. 2:14; Rom. 13:3-4; I Tim. 2:1-3; Psalm 72:1-3; Psalm 106:3; Psalm 140:12; II Chronicles 19:4)
(5) For a human political government to act contrary to this task, then, is not for it to act wrongly but with authority; it is rather for it to act wrongly and without authority, since the authority it has been given by God is the authority to perform this task. There are a variety of ways in which a government might act contrary to this task:
- (i) By turning a blind eye to wrongdoing;
- (ii) By directing citizens to do what is wrong;
- (iii) By issuing directives that trample on genuine human freedoms;
- (iv) By the use of inappropriate or undeserved coercion/force.
(6) We are always to obey human governments when they govern in accordance with the aforementioned task. (Rom. 13)
(7) We are to honor governments in other ways as well: prayer, expressing thanks, etc.
(8) We are also given consequential reasons to obey human governments, and this even when they deviate from their authorized task. To name a few: that the church might have a peaceful context in which to live, that the gospel might be spread, that we might display the non-retributive love of God, that we might “win” others by our conduct. (I Tim. 2:1-3; Titus 3:1-2; I Pet. 3:1-2; Rom. 12:17-18; I Pet. 2:13-23)
(9) We must disobey governments when they deviate from their authorized task by commanding us to do that which is wrong (see #ii above). (Acts 4:19)
(10) As for other sorts of unauthorized government action (see #i, iii, & iv above), Scripture gives us reasons to obey (see #8 above), but it is not at all clear that these reasons are meant to override reasons for disobedience in every circumstance. The best we can say (on that basis of Scripture alone at least) is that it might be that we can or should disobey government in some cases when they perform these other sorts of unauthorized acts.
I remind the reader that these principles are biblical principles. They are not intended to offer the fundamental principles of a Christian theory of political obedience; they take stock only of what Scripture has to say. And, as I have suggested above, I think Scripture falls short of offering us a comprehensive picture of when we ought and when we ought not to obey human governments. A Christian theory of political obedience will have to be grounded in the above principles, but it will have to go beyond them too.
One other comment: There are some throughout history who have claimed to have rejected Christianity on the basis of what they saw as an inordinate servility to human powers built into the Christian faith. The Bible, they said, demands this sort of servility; and this sort of servility cannot possibly be right; thus, the Bible, and the faith that rests on it, cannot be true in the sense that Christians have normally claimed. The principles I have offered above do not agree with this idea that Scripture demands an inordinate servility; they is plenty of room in those ten principles for disobedience. There is plenty of room for MLK and Ghandi, for the Quakers of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for Maximilian of Tebessa…