Romans 13:1-2 (RSV)

1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.

Suppose a government legally forbids their citizens to practise Christianity (i.e. Catholicism, Protestantism, etc.). According to the verses above, would someone who practises Christianity in this context be resisting God?

  • 1
    This question is absurd. What if the government required people to murder? to commit adultery? to worship false gods?
    – Narnian
    Commented Mar 16, 2013 at 17:06
  • 2
    This is a perfectly fine question. It points to a specific biblical doctrine, and then asks how a denomination could reconcile that doctrine with certain situations that have in fact arisen in the past.
    – Alypius
    Commented Mar 16, 2013 at 17:08
  • 1
    It's argumentative. "What if" questions could fill the site.
    – Narnian
    Commented Mar 16, 2013 at 17:14
  • 2
    Related: Are Christians bound to the laws of their country? ...we might want to be cautious about marking every question of "government vs. Christianity" as a duplicate of that question, though.
    – Alypius
    Commented Mar 16, 2013 at 17:25

3 Answers 3


No. Christians who live under the authority of a government that outlaws Christianity would not be resisting God by refusing to abandon their faith. One might imagine that the right thing to do is to obey such laws, perhaps crossing the border to go to church. This is not the case. Authority exercised against the common good is authority that has broken down completely. There is no authority, and Christians are in no way bound by the unjust laws of a government that has no authority.

The Catechism has an article on this subject, part of which addresses governing authority that forbids freedom of religion. (Other major denominations have similar teachings, justified in effectively the same way). The particular sections:

1903 Authority is exercised legitimately only when it seeks the common good of the group concerned and if it employs morally licit means to attain it. If rulers were to enact unjust laws or take measures contrary to the moral order, such arrangements would not be binding in conscience. In such a case, "authority breaks down completely and results in shameful abuse."

1906 By common good is to be understood "the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily."26 The common good concerns the life of all. It calls for prudence from each, and even more from those who exercise the office of authority. It consists of three essential elements: [...]

These elements are the respect for the person, the social well-being and development of the group itself, and peace. The first element, respect for the person:

1907 First, the common good presupposes respect for the person as such. In the name of the common good, public authorities are bound to respect the fundamental and inalienable rights of the human person. Society should permit each of its members to fulfill his vocation. In particular, the common good resides in the conditions for the exercise of the natural freedoms indispensable for the development of the human vocation, such as "the right to act according to a sound norm of conscience and to safeguard . . . privacy, and rightful freedom also in matters of religion."

This view goes back to the earliest days of Christianity. During times of persecution, Masses were offered up to God in secret places while Christians were fed to lions and set on fire to provide lighting for festive events. Many refused even under torture and threat of death to renounce their beliefs, and were martyred for their faith in God.


The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King (a Christian pastor) had to face just this sort of quandry - what do with an unjust law. In the question posed above, the unjust law would be to not worship God. In the case of the Civil Rights Era, it was to comply with laws that explicit deviated from what God told the prophets.

In what in this situation that he wrote the famous "Letter From Birmingham Jail." While the entire thing is worth a read, this excerpt shows he harkens back to Augustine's distinction between just and unjust laws:

One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an "I it" relationship for an "I thou" relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man's tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.

All of this - from Augustine to King really is just an extension of Acts 4:19. When told to stop preaching, Peter simply said, "We must obey God rather than men." It really is that simple - God ordains government to keep justice, but when government no longer does justice, it is no longer of God.

In short, the question becomes moot, because governments are ordained by God to uphold justice. When they abdicate that responsibility, there is no moral requirement to follow it.


The book Acts tells about the disciples spreading the Gospel often in the face of opposition from various groups including government bodies. In chapter 4 of that book, Peter and John are brought before the Council and forbidden from spreading word of Jesus.

Acts 4:13 Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus. 14 But seeing the man who was healed standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition. 15 But when they had commanded them to leave the council, they conferred with one another, 16 saying, “What shall we do with these men? For that a notable sign has been performed through them is evident to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it. 17 But in order that it may spread no further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.”

I don't know that this quite answers the question, because I'm not sure how official this prohibition was, but it seems to get to the heart of things. I believe the response of Peter and John provides a good template for Christians:

Acts 4:19 But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, 20 for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.”

I'm also reminded of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who while in Babylon refused to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar's statue (Daniel 3), and similarly, Daniel, who defied Darius's decree and continued to pray to God daily (Daniel 6).

I think the key to all these passages is that our allegiance is primarily to the authority of God, but that the governments is still authoritative secondarily next to that. When the two seem to conflict with one another, the examples set seem to show that God's followers are not called to be revolutionaries, but rather to obey the laws of the land as much as their conscience will allow.

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