Obey God and government—in that order

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On a Sabbath preceding the U.S. presidential election, Ray Navarro, pastor of the Tempe Seventh-day Adventist Church in Tempe, Arizona, gave a thought-provoking sermon entitled “Should Christians Vote?” He shared Biblical insight into how a Christian is to relate to secular governments and politics as well as the historical views of the Adventist church regarding this issue. Throughout the message, he shared a principle that he wanted the congregation to remember: “Obey God and government.” With great emphasis, he added, “In that order.”

This is a relatively simple principle, one with which many of us are undoubtedly already familiar. Some reading this article may find what I am about to share basic—perhaps too basic. If that is the case, then feel free to move on to a more thought-provoking article. However, from my conversations with Adventists and non-Adventists, especially in the political climate of today, I have come to realize the importance of reminding ourselves where our obligation to respect and obey civic governments belongs in our Christian priorities. I would also like to pose the question: How effectively do we implement this principle in our daily lives?

Romans 13:1-7 is referred to by some as The Charter of Christian Civic Responsibility, for in it the apostle Paul lays out to the Christian citizens of the city of Rome how they were to relate to the Roman government. By extension, the teachings found within this passage of Scripture also provide a blueprint for how Christians should relate to the governments of today. We are told:

Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.

The Scripture is clear: it is the duty of a follower of Christ to obey government. Paul even goes so far as to state that those who do good have no reason to fear governing authorities. We are to obey the laws of the land, pay our taxes, and respect those in authority. This principle is re-enforced by the words of Christ. When the Pharisees attempted to ensnare Him with the question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?”

He responded: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:15-22).

To put it in simplistic terms: God expects His children to be model citizens. Every passing year sees a perceived worsening of society, a further collapse of the family unit, and more erosion of morality. We often bemoan the state of our countries, and we have a tendency to romanticize ages passed, ignoring the troubles of those times and focusing only on what we believe were the best qualities. Yet if our societies are so bad, what are we as individuals doing about it? Christ calls His people “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world”, but have we become salt without flavor or lights hidden under baskets? (See Matthew 5:13-15.) The Lord wants us to be model citizens for His glory so that, by obeying the laws of the land, we present ourselves as good examples to our neighbors.

In 2007, an out-spoken Christian creationist, Dr. Kent Hovind, was sentenced to ten years in prison for tax fraud. Founder of an adventure land focused on Christian science and dinosaurs in Pensacola, Florida, Hovind was found guilty of not paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes. He claimed he did not have to pay taxes because everything he owned belonged to God. Many people might look at this situation, shake their heads, and perhaps say to themselves: “He must not have read what Jesus said in Matthew 22:15-22.” Hovind’s lack of obedience to civic laws brought ridicule towards creationists, Christians, and even mockery of God in the months following his conviction and sentencing.

While that is a rather extreme example, what about the little things we might do every day that break the laws of the land? Things that may have become second nature to us and we no longer view them as serious offenses? There are some among us who speed. Not only do we speed, we joke it off, brag about it, or perhaps use it for anecdotes in sermons without realizing that the very act of speeding breaks a traffic law and is blatant disobedience to the government that established that law. Traffic laws are not arbitrary; they exist for a reason, and the most important reason is to protect lives. By habitually driving over the speed limit, an individual demonstrates a severe lack of respect for the lives of others sharing the road with them, for the lives of passengers in their own vehicle, and for their own life. How many of us have been driving down a city road or interstate, and without warning a car speeds by us or cuts us off. A dangerous situation is barely avoided, or sadly, in some cases is the cause of accidents. Yet there on the bumper of the offending vehicle is a sticker that proclaims to all the world that they are Christians. How is such behavior glorifying to the Lord?

The principle of 1 Corinthians 10:31 applies to much more than just what we eat and drink. Everything we do should be done to the glory of the Lord. The Lord expects us to be His examples to our communities, and part of that responsibility includes obeying the secular government. How can we, as Adventist Christians, proclaim the importance of keeping, for example, the seventh-day Sabbath according to the law of God if we have no respect for and openly break the laws of the country in which we live?

But what about the places in the world where the governments are corrupt? Or where some of their laws make it difficult or impossible for citizens to follow the laws of God and their consciences? Are Christians required to obey the laws of men even when these laws go against God and conscience? Let us go back to the very beginning: “Obey God and government… in that order.”

We are to obey civil authorities as long as such authorities are inline with the teachings and principles of the Lord and His Word. As Seventh-day Adventists, we hold a unique perspective of end-time events, a part of which is the belief that there will come a time when the enemy, to enforce false worship of the beast and its image, will manipulate civil governments. Even today in some countries and regions, there are governments that execute authority over the people that are not in harmony with the will of the Lord. There are severe punishments for opposing corrupt officials, religious freedom is non-existent, and even basic human rights are stripped away from the people. In these situations, the follower of Christ must clearly understand that his/her priority is to obey God first.

The three Hebrews Hananiah (Shadrach), Mishael (Meshach), and Azariah (Abed-Nego) were faced with such a situation when King Nebuchadnezzar set up a golden statue and ordered all to bow down and worship it. Though up until that moment, these three men were ideal citizens of Babylon, obedient to the king and his laws, this particular order would have them go against the law of God.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If that is the case, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up” (Daniel 3:16-18).

Even in the face of certain death, these men stood true to their conscience and their choice to obey the Lord. Daniel, during the reign of Darius, made a similar decision when the king issued an order that for thirty days, all the people in the land were to pray to and worship the king only (Daniel 6). The choice was clear: disobey God but obey the civil government or obey God and disobey the government. Daniel refused to disobey the Lord and willingly went to the lion’s den. When the apostles were brought before the Sanhedrin and ordered to stop teaching Christ, they responded: “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:27-29).

The Scriptures are clear: whenever the laws of the land are in harmony with the laws of God, we are to obey these laws. Whether it is something large like paying taxes or small like following the traffic laws, if we do that which is good, we have nothing to fear from just governments. Also, our exemplary behavior brings glory to the Lord and aids in our witness for Him to our communities. However, when the laws of men and the laws of God come into conflict, our obedience is always to be to the Lord first. Obey God and government, in that order.

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About Jacquelyn

Jacquelyn Van Sant lives in Chandler, Arizona, with her husband Bradley and their one-year-old son. She works as a web application developer for a large American university and is an active member of the Tempe SDA Church in Tempe, Arizona. In her free time, she enjoys singing, writing, drawing, and hiking. Jacquelyn wrote songs for Christian recording artist Jessica (Fisher) Cyiza's debut album New Life (2011).