Civil Government and Man’s Conscience

Jesus taught we are to render to Caesar (civil government) what belongs to Caesar, but we are not to render to Caesar what belongs to God. Our conscience belongs to God.

Biblical civil government will not violate Christian conscience.


Stephen McDowell

Over the past few generations, civil government in America has progressively encroached upon the rights of conscience. During the COVID event, the trampling of man’s “most sacred property”[1] has become obvious, even to the most lethargic person. Many people are resisting the plundering of their rights and property. Others think it’s okay for civil leaders to do whatever they deem as necessary to protect the community.

How far can government go in violating human rights to protect the nation from what has been declared a pandemic? What does the Bible teach regarding the government’s role in man’s conscience? The book of Romans, chapter 13 presents an excellent overview of the biblical doctrine of government. One of the numerous principles taught here[2] is that Biblical civil government will not violate Christian conscience.

Romans 13:5 says, “Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake.” Our conscience tells us what is right to do; that is, it tells us to obey God because God’s Word declares what is righteous. Therefore, if government is commanding action contrary to God, our conscience will not tell us to obey evil government, but rather God’s law. Subjection requires our submission to government; that is, we place ourselves under someone else. But when government requires something of us that is contrary to God’s word, we must obey God rather than man (Acts 5:29). Even here, we are submissive, in the sense that we will realize that there will be consequences for disobeying leaders. When do we disobey government? When it forbids what God commands (like prayer, Daniel 6) or commands what God forbids (like idolatry, Daniel 3).

To be in subjection “for conscience’ sake” does not mean that we are to subject our conscience to the will of government leaders or to any man. Only God can make laws binding our conscience. We are to render to God what belongs to God, and our conscience belongs to God, not man. However, pagan man will attempt to govern the conscience. Today, secularists are enacting laws punishing those who oppose homosexuality, attempting to force many businessmen to violate their conscience. They pass hate laws thinking they can discern the motives of the heart.

God wants our subjection to be voluntary and sincere (Eccl. 10:20; 1 Pet. 2:17), but if the ruler’s laws violate God’s law then this cannot be. Secular governments will enact laws that violate some aspect of God’s law. We must resist such tyrannical rulers,[3] while at the same time seek to establish godly government. As we take steps to resist and evaluate the probability of success we exhibit “a patient subjection to the penalty without resistance.”[4] The first century church had little hope of changing unlawful authority and so having this attitude and action showed the rightness of the Christian faith. If we resist unbiblical civil laws, the wrath of civil government will come upon us. We must be prepared to suffer the consequences. But if we subject ourselves to unbiblical laws for fear of punishment, then God will deal with us for disobedience.

We are to be subject to our government and its laws not just out of fear of punishment but for conscience sake. But this requires that the laws that we obey are not in violation of God’s laws, for our conscience will condemn us if we act wrongly. Hence, we need godly rulers and godly laws to be able to truly fulfill this requirement.



(To learn more about the biblical role of civil government and how to establish godly rulers, see Stephen McDowell, Ruling Over the Earth, A Biblical View of Civil Government)



[1] James Madison wrote that conscience is the most sacred of all property, identifying the principle that property has both an internal and external component.

[2] For other principles of government taught in Romans 13, see Stephen McDowell, Ruling Over the Earth, A Biblical View of Civil Government, Charlottesville: Providence Foundation, 2020, Chapter 3.

[3] See Chapter 5 of Ruling Over the Earth for steps to take to resist tyrannical leaders.

[4] Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, Hendrickson Publishers, 2002, Rom.13:1-7, pp. 2229-2231.