When to Start a Rebellion: Submitting to Government

Jo Evans 01 Feb 21

We are all tempted to bend, twist and disregard the many and often confusing rules that have dominated headlines during the coronavirus pandemic. I know the frustration. My parents live fifteen minutes away, but as I live with my husband we can’t bubble, so we catch up on Skype rather than pop round for a coffee. This can feel unfair and ridiculous. But God does not call his people to obey laws that suit us, that make sense to us or that we approve of. God calls us to obey the law, whilst calling us to a life of freedom.

Why submit?

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God” (Romans 13:1).

The governing authorities that are in place, have been established by God. God has established the authority of Boris Johnson. This can be difficult to comprehend. Nevertheless, God is ruler over all things and He placed those in power with specific reasons and purposes that aren’t all ours to know – and He commands us to obey them. By disobeying the worldly authorities over us we are disobeying God. We are provided with further motivation in 1 Peter:

Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:12).

Submitting to government could lead to people becoming Christians. It could be helpful, particularly in today’s current circumstances, to mentally frame our submission to government in this way. As you obey the rules and restrictions, and people ask why you bother, have an answer prepared that points them to Jesus. Perhaps they will be intrigued about the God for whom you view worthy of sacrificing seeing loved ones, and being the odd one out. You can tell them about Jesus, the one who sacrificed everything in order to know us. Be bold as you explain your obedience, knowing that God may use your ‘good’ life to bring people to Himself, for His glory.

When to rebel?

In the Bible we do see situations in which God’s people rebelled against the law and governing bodies. So in the UK today, where so much law is contested– how do we know when it is time to dissent? The Bible gives us some helpful examples of godly rebels that provide a framework for submitting to government:

Exodus 1: Shiphrah and Puah, Hebrew midwives commanded by the King of Egypt to kill any male Hebrew babies at birth. The woman disobeyed the King because they “feared God”. 

Esther 4: Esther broke the law by entering the King’s inner court without being summoned: “I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish”. She did this to stop the Jews from being massacred.   

Daniel 3/6: Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refuse to bow to another god, and Daniels refuses to pray to another God, both disobeying decrees from the King. 

Acts 4: John and Peter are commanded to no longer speak of Jesus, as those in power can see their message is spreading too quickly. However, they respond: “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard”. 

God’s authority trumps earthly authority, as it is from God that authority comes in the first place. These accounts of rebellion help us discern when obeying our government truly comes into opposition with obeying our God, and therefore when it may be time to break the laws given us by earthly bodies of power. Jesus tells us: 

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40). 

The shared feature of all of these examples is that the government and ruling authorities were only disobeyed when people’s lives were at stake, or when God’s people were ordered to renounce their faith. The Biblical standard for rebellion is for the sake of God and the lives of His people – certainly not for personal pride and inconvenience. Only when these two things are truly threatened might we begin to consider rebellion as an option. We need only look to our brothers and sisters in Somalia and North Korea to know what this might look like in the world today, and that it is not something to be entered into lightly. 

The current situation: 

When it comes to the coronavirus pandemic, submitting to government is surprisingly straightforward. Whether we agree with restrictions or not, their purpose is undoubtedly to save lives. As Christians we should be championing this, desperate to love our neighbours and respect the government. 

There are some restrictions that may take more thought. When it comes to publicly singing God’s praises, gathering together, or sharing fellowship after church - actions commanded by God - our knee-jerk reaction may be that these are worth defying government for. And yet, when we see again that the goal of these restrictions are to preserve life, I hope that we see they are worth obeying. Your conscience may say differently, but I would not be writing with integrity if I didn’t voice mine. We want Christians to have the reputation of loving their communities and taking personal sacrifices to protect them. Although these restrictions have been sad and sometimes painful, they have not prevented the Church from existing and Christ being proclaimed. For this we must be grateful, and remain patient in this frustrating time. 

There have been times when the gathering of faith communities was neglected and underrated by the government; for example, when you could shop but not have a socially distanced service, or the treatment of weddings during the lockdown periods. But does God tell us only to obey when it makes logical sense? Sadly not. We show that God is worth obeying when we obey the governing bodies that He has put in place. 

Our future response:

Just because you obey doesn’t mean you agree:

Living in the UK means that we are granted a lot of freedom. God doesn’t call His people to be silent in the face of things we feel are unjust or wrong. This means that we are free to write to our MPs, sign petitions and participate on calls for evidence. As Christians we can stand out in a time where there is so much grumbling, and be a voice for hope, by only articulating criticism when we are willing to take peaceful action towards change. As Christians we are called to mirror the Prince of Peace whose “ways are justice” (Deuteronomy 32). 

Be prepared:

It is hard to ignore that the closure of places of worships creates a worrying precedent for all future governments. It is a possibility that one day a government will come along whose desire is to stop Christians meeting, in order to shackle the gospel. We must always be a people of peace, but following Jesus means that we should be willing to raise our voices and stand for His glory and His Kingdom. "We must obey God rather than human beings” (Acts 5:29). 

Through all the frustration and confusion the current circumstances may bring, the wonderful news is that to be in Christ means that although we experience the same restrictions as everyone else, we are ultimately free. We need never fear being enslaved by rules, getting things wrong, missing out, or even death, because in Christ we are more than conquerors. One day, in the new creation, He will be our perfect King, and we will enjoy submitting to His perfect rule:

the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
    Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
    there will be no end.
” (Isaiah 9:6-7)

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