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Does the Bible Require the Christian Always to Obey Laws?

Does the Bible Require the Christian Always to Obey Laws?

By Roger E. Olson
June 21, 2018

Recently two U.S. government officials appealed to Romans 13 (read it for yourself) to argue that the law must be obeyed. Clearly they were aiming their argument at Christians; who else could they have in mind--given that they were referring to the New Testament?

So that raises the old question whether Romans 13 and similar passages of the Bible require Bible-believing people to obey all laws.

It is difficult for me to believe, at this stage of my life, that anyone thinks the Bible actually requires unconditional obedience to all laws.

Of the Calvinist interpretation of Romans 9 (read it for yourself) John Wesley famously said "Whatever it means it can't mean that." On the surface, taken out of context, divorced from the rest of God's revelation, especially in the person of Jesus Christ, one could interpret Romans 9 as teaching that God unconditionally elects some people to hell. Wesley realized that would make God a moral monster, hardly different from the Devil. (See his two sermons "On Free Grace" and "Predestination Calmly Considered.")

Every passage of the Bible has to be interpreted reasonably. By that I do not mean using some philosophy to interpret the Bible or even necessarily ignoring mystery or even paradox. What I do mean is that interpretations of the Bible must not be completely irrational--self-contradictory.

Read Acts 5:29: "We must obey God rather than men." Early Christians refused to obey Caesar's law requiring them to worship his "genius." Augustine argued in The City of God that not all human laws can be obeyed by Christians. Martin Luther King, Jr. argued in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail" that there is a law higher than man's law and that the higher law must be obeyed.

All I should have to do is mention Germany and its occupied countries in the late 1930s and during WW2 in the 1940s. German laws required citizens and those under its territorial rule to denounce to the authorities (e.g., the Gestapo) people who were harboring Jews. Many Christians refused to obey those laws. Who would criticize them for it?

During slavery in the U.S. evangelist and Oberlin College president Charles Finney advocated civil disobedience and permitted students of his college to hide runaway slaves and transport them to Canada. Who would criticize him and them for it?

Throughout history Christians have, at times and in places, had to choose between obeying God and obeying man's laws. The higher loyalty is always to God.

Obviously, Romans 13 does not require unconditional obedience to all of man's laws. It requires respect for government in a general way and prayer for those who hold government authority. But whatever it does mean, it cannot mean unconditional obedience to every human law or else its author, the Apostle Paul, would have been contradicting himself. He would not have been executed had he strictly obeyed every human law.

This is all so obvious that one has to wonder about government officials who attempt to use Romans 13 to defend heinous policies and practices of the government. Are they stupid? Or are they merely being sophistical? I suspect the latter. They were "playing to the base"--conservative Christians. Fortunately, it didn't work. The law has changed--for now. And that because even President Trump's conservative Christian supporters could not stomach the thought of children being separated from their parents and warehoused in cages.

Thanks be to God.

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