If I had to guess, most Americans have heard of the tyrannical government of Nazi Germany, along with its leader, Adolf Hitler. This was the regime that sought to overtake much of western Europe, and possibly the world, if it had not been stopped by the opposing forces. This same group not only was responsible for the deaths of the Allied forces but also for the mass killings of those unfortunates who were trapped within her own covetous borders. Genocide was present on a massive scale. A government program was in place that allowed for the execution of those deemed not fit to live, most notably the Jewish people, among others. You might ask yourself, how could such a thing happen? I hope to give you an answer that could prevent it from happening again.
You could categorize those involved in the murder of the Jews, in the Holocaust, into two categories: (1) Those who thought that it was morally permissible to commit these acts; and (2) Those who thought it was not morally permissible.
I want to deal with the second group; primarily those that thought it was not morally permissible; or the ones who thought it was wrong/evil.
A Hypothetical Situation
Now remember, we are talking about those who were involved in the murder of the Jews. Since, Germany lost the war, and societal pressure could shame a person into denying that they were part of the first group, and thus insisting they were part of the second group, we must then rely on hypotheticals for this section.
Let’s say, during the war, there were German soldiers who were directly part of the killing of the Jews, but let’s say they were Christians. This is entirely plausible since Germany was the birthplace of the famed Christian reformer, Martin Luther. Let’s also say they were stationed at the government concentration camps where the roomfuls of Jews were gassed to death. But let’s say inside these German, Christian soldiers, they were stricken with moral conflict of the highest order.
On the one hand, they have their commanding officers delivering to them immoral orders, and within themselves they feel the heavy weight of the knowledge of moral action. Who should they obey? How should they act? Should they always obey the government? Should they always obey their bosses regardless the command? Since they are Christians, are they obligated to obey their authorities, considering that New Testament epistle to the Romans,1 seems to teach absolute obedience to government?
This scenario leads to a grander, moral question. What does one do when someone in authority (i.e. your commanding officer, your boss, or even your parents) tells you to do something that is wrong? The real question is: what is the limit of human authority. Some people might say that you should always obey governments because of Romans 13. I say no. But what defense might I give to someone who, with sincere piety, holds to the teaching of absolute obedience to government?
Does God give man the authority to overturn His own authority?
I will begin my potential response as a question: Does God give man the authority to overturn His own authority? Of course, the implication of this question is that it is God Himself who is the ultimate authority. This is, though, the natural description of God, as being the supreme, hierarchal power. If, for instance, there was this one being higher or more powerful than “God” then that being would be, by default, God. The Bible attests to this fact, in the very Scripture in Romans 13:1 mentioned above; “…For there is no power but of God…” (emphasis mine).
This word “power,” is in other translations, translated as authority. So one can say there is no authority but from God Himself and that these two verses show God delegates power, or gives permission to carry out His power, but it does not say those under Him have His permission to contradict His commands.
So, to correspond with the earlier example from Nazi Germany; Can a government go against God’s command to not murder? (Exodus 20:13). Can the government, using the supposed teaching of Romans 13, go against God’s command to people to murder people for them? Or how about the inverse of this question, can the government tell its people or its soldiers to stop doing what God commanded His people to do? Can the government tell Christians to not evangelize, for example? Does human government have that authority?
Let’s search the Bible for a response. After the resurrection of Jesus Christ, He gave commands to His Apostles to preach the Gospel/Good News to all nations (To know the Good News click here). After doing just that thing, during a Jewish Festival in Jerusalem, Peter and John were arrested by the Jewish Authorities and those authorities then challenged them not to speak or teach in Jesus’s name anymore, and the disciples had this to say, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge” (Acts 4:19 ESV). And so, these men of God, disobeyed human authority in order to obey God. The church exists through the preaching of Jesus, sometimes in direct opposition to what human government has said.
The disciples understood this proper, command structure, that the person at the top of the command ladder has the ultimate authority, and that no lower authority may contradict his commands. So, since God is supreme, He therefore exercises complete authority, and His commands are to be treated as superior. Extreme patriotism becomes sinful when the citizen puts the State/Government where God should sit; it is in essence idolatry. God is at the top, unchallenged, and rightfully so. He is the source of goodness and justice.
The Bible has plenty of examples of men/women disrupting tyrants and godless rulers; think of Moses and the godless Egyptian Pharaoh, Daniel being thrown into the Lion’s den for praying to God, Rahab taking in the Jewish spies; the midwives in Egypt hiding the male children; Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who were thrown into the fiery pit by King Nebuchadnezzar for not worshipping an idol.
We need to follow their example and avoid what God has denounced as sinful, and complete what God has commanded us to do, regardless of who says otherwise. We will all stand before the Lord one day to give an account for our actions, and we will not be let go just because we were “only following orders.” In fact, our only chance before God is to follow His great command to repent of our sins and trust in Jesus for forgiveness. May we never come close to the sins of Nazi Germany. And we should do this not only when dealing with our own governments but also at our jobs, in our families, and lastly with the tyranny of our own evil desires, which seemingly demand us to reject God’s rule in our everyday lives.
1Let 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. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment (Romans 13:1-2, ESV).