This Friday is Constitution Day, a national holiday to commemorate the federal constitution. Christians should take this day as an opportunity to obey the Apostle Paul’s teaching in Romans 13 and commit to honoring our constitution. The constitution is our highest “governing authorit[y]” under God, “instituted by God” for our good, and therefore Christians must “be in subjection” to its authority “for the sake of [our] conscience” before God.
Submission to the law is central to Christianity. When the Lord Jesus saves us from our sin, one of the things He does is save us from our rebellion against the law. Every person is born a rebel against God — naturally inclined by sin to disobey God, to reject God’s design for our life, and to rebel against the government God has established to create order and prosperity in society.
This disobedience against God, his rule, and his rulers starts in childhood, as every child rebels against their parents and adult authorities. But that rebellion continues into adulthood in the form of disobedience to the laws of society — particularly when those laws restrict a person’s sinful desires. Even civilized, law-abiding people often harbor resentment against the laws that tell them what they can and cannot do.
The sad irony of our sinful rebelliousness is that obeying God’s law, His design for our life, and the government He establishes over us, is necessary for us to live a full and happy life. The laws of society restrain our sinful inclinations and behavior, protect us from harming people, and redirect our energies toward righteous ends. The rule of law is the precondition of human flourishing. Without it, there can be no enterprise or trade, art or study, planning or investment, or any other productive human activity that prospers a society. God gives us the law as a gift.
That is particularly true in America. God has given the American people an incomparable gift in the United States constitution. After the American Revolution, delegates from the 13 states drafted a federal constitution to govern our nation. Their constitution creates various government offices, such as the Presidency, Congress, and the Supreme Court, and it gives these offices specific powers to solve national problems. The constitution also places limits on federal officers, prohibiting them from going beyond the constitution’s enumerated powers. The constitution also protects fundamental individual freedoms, such as the right to speak freely and to practice religion.
The constitution is, according to its own words, “the supreme law of the land.” It gives our rulers their limited powers and continuously rules over them. It requires every government official to submit to its rule by taking an oath to “support th[e] Constitution” as the highest law. It declares that any law, any action, any decision—by any person claiming governmental authority anywhere — that violates the constitution, is illegal. As Justice Marshall explained in the famous Marbury v. Madison decision, any government act “repugnant to the constitution is void.” The term “void” means “having no legal force or binding effect.”
In practical terms, this means that a Christian’s ultimate political allegiance as a U.S. citizen is to the federal constitution — not the President’s executive orders, Congress’s laws, or the Supreme Court’s opinions. If a President issues a mandate beyond the powers of the constitution, it is null and void, because it violates our highest law, the constitution. In the words of Saint Augustine, lex iniusta non est lex — “an unjust law is no law at all.” Christians have a duty to honor the constitution, to obey it as our highest governing authority, and to protect it from politicians who seek to undermine its authority.
This is a difficult calling for Christians in 2021. Every day in America, government officials across the land — at the state and federal level — take actions that disregard, undermine, or openly violate the constitution. To make matters worse, this rebellion is often done with the approval of the Supreme Court, which gives it the veneer of legality. Moreover, our major political parties are complicit in this development. The Democrat party is openly committed to policies that violate the constitution, and the Republican party too often falls short of its promises to restore constitutional government.
There is also widespread confusion in American churches over how to think about our system of government. American Christians are often told that Romans 13 requires honoring and submitting to any government mandate, even if it is clearly unconstitutional, unless it is sinful to comply with it. But that is not what Romans 13 teaches. Of course, Christians should always err on the side of obeying government officials. But it is wrong, and it begs the question, to suggest that all laws and regulations that purport to be government mandates are legal.
Consider an example. Imagine you receive a letter in the mail, stamped “important tax document.” It bears an official government seal. You open it, and it declares that according to the law, you owe $1,000.00 in taxes. It gives you the address to an official government office to send your payment. But it is signed by the Prime Minister of France. Upon further investigation, you learn that the French Parliament has passed a new law that taxes every American citizen by $1,000.00.
In that situation, a Christian is free to obey and send a check to France. But obeying this mandate is not Romans 13 submission. A Christian who pays the tax is not being “subject to the governing authorities,” because the Prime Minister of France has no authority over American citizens. The same is true for unconstitutional mandates. These government actions are not actually laws. Since our courts may still enforce them, in most cases it is necessary and wise to obey them anyway. But in some cases, Christians may disobey in good conscience—for example, when the government orders a Christian crisis pregnancy center to refer women to abortion clinics, or when it commands a Christian business to pay for abortion-inducing drugs.
In some cases, Christians will disagree about what wisdom requires — for example, whether to obey an unconstitutional order that Christians must stop worshipping on Sunday to slow the spread of a disease. But if Christians choose to obey these mandates, they should not invoke the Bible to dignify them with the status of “law.” That is a grave mistake. Doing so only enables and emboldens politicians who seek to overthrow our constitutional system.
The founders of our nation faced a situation like ours and had to decide how they would respond. The American colonists, as English subjects, were ruled by the English common law and had rights under that law. But the King of England, through a “long train of abuses and usurpations,” sought to overthrow English law and replace it with his own “absolute Despotism.” Because the King was acting outside of the law to take away their right to live under English law, the colonists decided that they had a “right” and a “duty” to declare independence and reestablish the rule of law.
As Americans living today under the federal constitution, we are blessed that God gave success to the American revolution. Because of the founders’ courage, we live under a republic where we submit to the law, not a dictatorship where we submit to the arbitrary will of men. We should be grateful for this gift and recommit ourselves to upholding our constitution against the intense political subversion it faces today. The survival of our constitutional system of government may depend on it.
Finally, Christians should not worry or despair if it looks like our rulers are succeeding in their rebellion against the constitution. Even if they appear to succeed, Christians can rest assured that, in the words of Romans 13, “whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” Christians can trust the fate of our republic to the sovereign hands of a good and just God and look forward to an eternal kingdom that will never fail.
Steven C. Begakis is an attorney practicing in Washington, D.C.