Is Rebellion against Rulers Rebellion against God? (Part 1)

This entry is part 9 of 44 in the series Christian Theology of Public Policy Course

This essay continues the Christian Theology and Public Policy Course essays by John Cobin, author of the books Bible and Government and Christian Theology of Public Policy.


I just heard the statement again from the pulpit: “Rebellion against authority is rebellion against God.” Nowadays, some of the greatest apologists for the state are preachers, who frequently invoke the Apostle Paul—himself a martyr due to state tyranny—in support of this notion. What a dramatic change from the “black robe” regiment of the Founding era, where preachers widely advocated and condoned civil disobedience!

In the preacher’s sermon the principal text was 1 Timothy 2:1-2, where the Apostle says: “Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence.” Taking into account the overarching objective of personal salvation mentioned in the immediate context (verse 4), two reasons for praying for rulers are manifest: (1) that they might be saved from their sins and hell and (2) that they might leave us Christians alone in order that we may serve the Lord quietly and peacefully, along with being spared persecution.

However, most preachers add a third dimension to their prayers for rulers. They ask the Lord to help rulers do their jobs efficiently and effectively. They want rulers to rule well—whatever that means. (Do you think that the Apostle Paul was thinking that Nero was ruling so well that there was no need to mention that third dimension explicitly?) Believing that the state and its rulers are somehow a part of God’s provision on earth for peace, order, and prosperity, these preachers commit an egregious error by thrusting this third, contrived dimension onto the text. And their error is grave, producing far-reaching ramifications. Their error promotes the continued delusion of God’s people with regard to the state, and widespread ignorance regarding the manifestly evil public policies that are recorded in the Bible and secular history.

Moreover, many preachers think that public policy theology is basically irrelevant and something to be taken lightly. Evidently, they believe that thinking about the details regarding a Christian’s relationship to the state, or how an American Christian might properly employ the Second Amendment, or whether or not a Christian ought to disobey edicts regarding compulsory attendance or prohibitions against spanking as a waste of time. With a little thought, one could list many other examples too.

Who cares whether the Founders were in sin when resisting England? Who cares if Christians use welfare state benefits or get state licenses to be married? Just do what everyone else does. What difference does it make that we pledge allegiance to the flag, hoist a national flag in the sanctuary, or receive protections from the state by incorporating the local church? No need to rock the boat. They sweep all these concerns under the rug by throwing out maxims like: “rebellion against authority is rebellion against God”—even though the Bible nowhere makes this statement. Indeed the Scriptures evince just the opposite by means of many examples, rendering the statement a premise based on eisegesis and faulty logic.

For illustration, we might take a similar false deduction: Mary is the mother of Jesus. Jesus is God. Therefore, the Virgin Mary is the mother of God. And no less errant is the following false deduction: According to Romans 13:1-4, God ordains all authority. The state is an authority and God’s servant. Therefore, rebellion against authority is rebellion against God. Here’s another variation off the same stem proposition: God ordains all authority. The state is specifically mentioned as being ordained by God. Therefore, the state is a divine institution, and must be revered much like we must revere our parents.

The three statements are similarly false and presuppose unbiblical elements or twist the Scriptures. Why? First, the fact that God ordains something does not mean that to resist what God has ordained is to resist God or His will. The Hebrew midwives, Ehud, and the Magi did not rebel against God because they rebelled against Pharaoh, Eglon, and Herod.

Second, the word “servant” in Romans 13:4, 6 (diakonoV) does not imply godliness in the office. All things serve God, even evil things. Cyrus, the anointed shepherd (even “messiah”), is an example of God’s servant (Isaiah 44:28; 45:1). So was Balaam. The fact that God ordains some institution or some person for some purpose does not make the institution or person “divine” in a reverential sense. The Bible nowhere declares that the state is such a divine institution and therefore deserves a different form of reverence than other evil institutions would receive—like the Mormon Church or the devil himself.

Third, there is no reason to believe that resisting authority is the same thing as “resisting what God has ordained” (Romans 13:4). That is, the resulting “judgment” of an authority like the state does not come on account of our rebelling against God but rather for resisting the evil policies of a (generally) wayward state ruler which God has ordained. The two kinds of judgment are different. The text does not say that God will judge you here or in eternity if you do not obey the civil ruler that He ordained. On the contrary, God expects His people to “rebel” against ungodly decrees as part of our pursuit of holiness. Rulers may judge us on earth, and pour out wrath upon us, but we are not to fear them so long as we are on God’s side. The Bible indicates that in the end the vast majority of rulers will find their place in hell.

Fourth, not all resistance to state authority is rebellion against God. There are times when one must “rebel”, e.g. Daniel and the three young men, Peter and John. Consequently, the state’s word is not God’s Word by any means—except coincidentally at times. So how is it that most contemporary preachers are content to say that rebellion against the state is rebellion against God, except when the state does a few things on the short list of big no-nos? Such logic opens Pandora’s Box. Just who decides what is on the short list? The short list becomes arbitrary and capricious. One preacher prays that God would give tax collectors success in their actions against evaders, policemen success in trapping speeders, and Presidents wisdom for conducting war, while another prays that God would spare the world from such encroachments. Instead of sticking to the biblical reasons for praying for rulers, the list becomes long, convoluted, and controversial. And the preacher’s preferences and pet-peeves with respect to public policy, sadly, become sacrosanct.

Print this article (and the next one). Take it to your preacher and see what he thinks. It might be an eye-opener for you—and perhaps for him too.


Originally published in The Times Examiner on February 15, 2006.

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