With regard to our duties of civil obedience and submission, we have to consider the express teaching of the Bible. But we must do this in context, which means we have to set a contextual stage. This context is important in two respects—the broader context of doctrine and theology, and the second is the context of express examples.
“And they called them and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered and said to them, ‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard’” (Acts 4:18-20).
The Idea of Covenant
Apart from an understanding of the concept of covenant, no sane understanding of the relationship between church and state is possible. The covenant is the theme which ties all Scripture together, and so if one does not understand how to think covenantally, the Bible will always remain a disjointed series of inspirational passages, or a monstrosity jerry-rigged into an alien system. Understanding the covenant is central to an understanding of our civil duties for obvious reasons. For example, the word federal in the phrase federal government comes from the Latin word foedus, which means covenant. How did this happen? The reason this is crucial is that covenants have stipulations and terms. (There is also a Latin homonym foedus which means stinky, but that is another sermon for another day.
Under the Old Covenant
The examples of Scripture on this subject are manifold, and we do not have time to consider all of them. But before considering any, however, we must remember what the Bible tells us what such examples are for. We are sometimes too glib in telling some of our hermeneutically loose brethren that we should not make doctrine from narrative. Actually, we should not make doctrine from narrative lightly (Rom. 15:4). While we may not do it foolishly, we are required to do it. Consider . . . Ehud—in the days of Ehud, the people had been oppressed by the Moabites for eighteen years. But the Lord raised up a deliverer for them ( Judg. 3:15-25). Deborah—this godly woman was raised up as a judge during the time when Jabin, king of the Canaanites, had ruled over Israel for twenty years ( Judg. 4:1-7). At her command, an army was gathered to revolt. Gideon—the Israelites had been oppressed by the Midianites for seven years. Gideon was threshing wheat in the winepress in order to hide his livelihood from oppressive taxation. The angel of the Lord appeared to him there and hailed him as a mighty man of valor ( Judg. 6:11), showing that angels can have a sense of humor.
David—this mighty man refused to raise his hand against the Lord’s anointed (1 Sam. 24:5-7). But he also refused to do what the Lord’s anointed wanted him to do (1 Sam. 19:16). Jehoida—an evil woman Athaliah had made herself queen by murderous means. But Jehoida was a godly priest and he defied her de facto rule. He secretly raised the surviving heir and in a coup d’etat had the boy Joash crowned (2 Kings 11:13- 16). Of course the tyrant called his behavior treasonous.
Under the New Covenant
But too many Christians are still infected with the idea that the Old Testament has nothing to do with New Testament saints. But this is infection, not biblical doctrine, and besides, nothing changes in the New Testament. God rather than men—great issues are involved in all of this. Obedience to men must be first and foremost obedience to God. If it is not, then obedience to authority is defiance of Authority (Acts 4:19). And this is where we find the principle so well-articulated in the American War for Independence. Resistance to tyrants is submission to God. Peter’s jailbreak—nor are we bound to just simply take whatever punishment is meted out (Acts 12:5-8). Evading arrest and running road blocks—we also have the freedom, under Christ, to resist by hiding (Matt. 10:23; 2 Cor. 11:32-33).
The Sovereignty of God
This issue is too important for us to approach in a piecemeal fashion. We must understand all our duties in the light of God’s revelation to us. Exhaustive sovereignty—nothing occurs outside God’s purposes, plans, and authority. No ultimate earthly authority— certain things follow from this. If God is immanent in His authority (and He most certainly is), then no human authority or sovereign is ultimate. All are under covenantal constraints. The immediacy of our duties—it also follows that we must render obedience to God directly in every aspect of our lives. We obey the authorities over us because He says to, not because they do. We always are to obey, when we obey, in the Lord.