Government Authority: A Biblical View

Everyone must submit to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established -- St.Paul

The Bible is pretty clear about the Christian's duty to obey the governing authorities, except when explicitly forbidden by God, and most of the honest Christians I know agree that this is God's command to us all. There is less agreement on what constitutes submission and who the "governing authorities" are. I believe there is sufficient information in the short teaching we have to make God's intent quite clear.

The key doctrine is expressed by the Apostle Paul in the 13th chapter of his letter to Rome, but it is supported by a few verses with similar intent in Peter's first general epistle. There is not a lot of hair-splitting. The message is simple: obey the authorities.

Who are the authorities? In the first century, when these letters were written, everybody knew who the authorities were. They asked Jesus the same kind of question: Do we pay taxes to Rome, or not? His answer was unequivocal, "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's," with particular reference to the money that was used to pay those taxes. On another occasion somebody questioned his disciple about paying the Temple tax. As Lord of the Temple, Jesus and his disciples were presumably exempt, but Jesus insisted on paying the tax anyway. This is the consistent message throughout the Bible, everywhere it is discussed. When the believer is told to stop praying or proclaiming the Gospel, God overrules; otherwise obey.

Ah, but my hair-splitting friend wants to divide the laws into valid laws (to be obeyed) and invalid laws to be disregarded. Curiously enough, these "invalid" laws are not about praying or preaching, they are about paying taxes. How did these laws come to be invalid? They are on the books, just like the laws against murder and rape and sedition. Ah, says my friend, these laws don't mean what the government says they mean. This is getting the cart before the horse. The government is the law. If the government says the law requires you to pay such and such taxes, then God requires you to pay those taxes, without complaining or subterfuge. If a tax collector tells you to pay it, but you succeed in convincing a higher authority (such as a judge) that the tax collector is mistaken, then -- and only then -- you do not owe the tax. Otherwise pay it.

There are in this country some people collectively known as the "tax protest movement." They are wonderfully inventive at coming up with reasons why they do not owe taxes, much like a child coming up with reasons why he should not go to bed at night. They are wrong. God says unconditionally, pay the tax. They claim that the tax law exempts income from domestic sources. The Federal tax collection agency set up by law to collect taxes on all income says otherwise. They are the government; they win. They win even if God did not also say "pay up," because they have the power of the state to enforce their law. And they do. Furthermore, it is clear that the whole tax law was written with the intent of collecting tax on incomes. If you have any doubt, look at Congress: they wrote the law, do they pay taxes or not? They pay them too, just as Jesus paid the Temple tax.

The protestors claim that the Internal Revenue Service is not an arm of the government. What utter nonsense! But even if it were technically true, they are still authorized by the government to collect taxes, just like the Jewish (and very non-Roman) tax collectors Matthew and Zaccheus in Jesus' day were authorized by Rome and confirmed by Jesus. These same people do not argue that the U.S.Postal Service is a private corporation and therefore refuse to send or receive mail. They do not argue that the highway system was built by private contractors rather than the government, and therefore refuse to drive on it. They only protest the tax law, and they are not consistent in the arguments they bring against it. If an argument can be made against taxes, they make it -- nevermind if the various arguments contradict each other.

The protestors are simply out of line with God's Law and the law of the land. No more needs to be said, the government has God-given and God-approved ways of dealing with such people, and it will.

A much more interesting question arises out of the general problem of who is the valid government. Look at Iraq. From God's perspective, who is the legitimate government of Iraq in 2005? Is it Saddam? He's in jail. Jails are where the government puts people who are not the government but lawbreakers. 70% of the Iraqi people seem to think that the interim authority set up by the American military is the government -- and showed that by voting in the elections which that interim government ran. The only people who disagree are those who (under Saddam) had the perquisites of power, but are likely to lose much of that in a democracy. Like the tax protestors, they are just looking out for their own benefit. Worse, they know thay cannot maintain their power by means considered ligitimate in most of the world, so they are using illegitimate means -- bombing civilians. Perhaps they always did that, which is why they are out of power. There was a regime change, and they are no longer the government; the new administration is.

Not long before Jesus was born, there was a regime change in Rome. Caesar usurped power over the Roman Senate. Jesus and Paul did not tell their disciples that the Senate was the only legitimate government and to disregard Caesar. In fact Caesar overthrew the previous government in the land of Israel (which somewhere along the line overthrew the Jewish government set up by the Maccabees); Jesus authorized paying taxes to Rome, not the previous governments. Some 230 years ago there was a regime change in North America. The British were the constituted authority (with the God-given right to tax, never mind any representation or lack thereof), but some people -- contrary to God's teaching -- rebelled against that authority, and became the new authority. All of a sudden the revolutionaries were the God-ordained government instead of the British. What a concept.

Fifty years ago there was another regime change in this country. Hardly anybody got killed, and most people didn't even notice, but it happened. Before 1950, the U.S.Constitution was the supreme law of the land; ten years later it was quietly replaced by a King wearing Nine Black Robes. The constitutional government set up by the American Revolution is gone. In its place is the same kind of government by fiat that the revolutionaries rejected in King George. There is no right to abortion in the Constitution (rather, it protects the lives of its citizens), but never mind what the people voted for, never mind what the State legislators enact, the King has determined that anybody can kill her child for any reason (including inconvenience or sex selection or racial genocide) at any time (including when the baby is already being born), and it is the law of the land, your tax dollars at work. The King determined that unhealthy practices which are a burden on the public health system and a blight on society are protected by law, never mind what the citizens of Texas and other states voted for, and now it's the law of the land. Those aren't the only instances of the Supreme Court acting in defiance of the written law and the will of the people, they do it all the time. But they are the authority established by God.

All this is hard for the average American to swallow, because we were brought up believing we live under a Constitutional democracy. Most people still want to (and do) believe it. The King itself tries to maintain the fiction. It doesn't really matter, because the Biblical Christian obeys the authority currently in power, however they got there.

Do you owe taxes? Pay them. Is there a posted speed limit? Drive slow, you'll still arrive in plenty of time. Are you a physician about to be fired for not performing or recommending pre-natal murder? Dust off your resume. There is nothing in the Bible protecting you from the consequences of civil disobedience, even if God commands it. Sometimes God works miracles (as with Daniel in the lions den), and sometimes not (as with Paul in the Roman jail).

2005 April 11