On the news, we often hear of oppressed countries that have an evil dictator or an authoritarian regime, but it may surprise you the sheer number of these countries in the world.
If we find ourselves under an oppressive regime, how does God expect us to behave?
We look firstly at some Old Testament examples of the Israelite kings rebelling against God.
Then we look at some guidance from the New Testament.
1. Modern authoritarian regimes repress population and religious groups
All around the world people are persecuted because of their skin colour, sexuality or religious beliefs:
In many Muslim majority states, such as Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen, Internet is censored on faith-basis, meaning that content which is considered contrary to Sharia or Islam is blocked 1 .‘Co-optation and Repression of Religion in Authoritarian Regimes’ Published online by Cambridge University Press. 4
In China, ‘preachers are routinely monitored to ensure their sermons do not diverge from what the Party considers acceptable’ 2 .
In Uzbekistan, unregistered religious groups are declared illegal, and the law ‘limits home possession of religious materials of all types and formats’ 3 .
Below are some results from a yearly report on the freedom of countries in the world.
“The report’s methodology is derived in large measure from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948.
Freedom in the World is based on the premise that these standards apply to all countries and territories, irrespective of geographical location, ethnic or religious composition, or level of economic development.” 5
This list shows the countries that are not free from the 1st of January 2022, through to the 31st of December 2022:
- Burkina Faso
- Central African Republic
- Democratic Republic of the Congo
- Equatorial Guinea
- North Korea
- Republic of the Congo
- Saudi Arabia
- South Sudan
- United Arab Emirates
- Zimbabwe 6
This list does not include an additional 54 countries that only have partial freedom.
The Open Doors charity monitors persecution levels country by country:
More than 360 million Christians worldwide suffer high levels of persecution and discrimination for their faith – that’s a staggering 1 in 7 believers.‘World Watch List 2023: Trends’ Open Doors. 7
Discover the 50 countries where faith costs the most…”
We will now try to put a biblical perspective on what to do if you are living in a country with a dictatorial leader.
2. How the biblical prophets dealt with evil kings or queens
a) Samuel and the authoritarian King Saul
King Saul had been rebelling against God and then came a pivotal moment.
The prophet priest, Samuel, had arranged to meet King Saul along with all the people on a certain day and the Philistine army was gathering and ready to strike.
King Saul waited and waited but it seemed like Samuel was not going to turn up to offer the sacrifice to the Lord.
Saul then took matters into his own hands and offered up the sacrifice, which a king was not allowed to do.
Immediately Samuel turned up:
And Samuel said to Saul,1 Samuel 13:13-14 ESV
‘You have done foolishly. You have not kept the command of the Lord your God, with which he commanded you.
For then the Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever.
But now your kingdom shall not continue.
The Lord has sought out a man after his own heart, and the Lord has commanded him to be prince over his people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you.’ ”
The prophet Samuel reprimanded King Saul to his face.
He did not hold back.
Most of the Old Testament prophets spoke out against the bad kings.
The reason they did this was because they were following God’s direct words to them.
The Lord told them when to go and what to say.
So this is specific for prophets in that era who were speaking to the kings of Israel or Judah, who should have been representatives of God’s own possession.
That is important, those kings should have been showcasing God’s rule within His nation.
But most did not and therefore God sent prophets to speak to them to tell them to repent and change their ways.
But what about secular kings?
b) The prophet Jonah speaks to an evil foreign superpower
Jonah, the prophet, was given the command to go:
Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying,Jonah 1:1-2 ESV
‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.’ ”
Jonah disobeyed and went in the opposite direction.
But as we probably know, the Lord brought him back to a place where Jonah could obey:
So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord.Jonah 3:3-9 ESV
Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in breadth.
Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out,
‘Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’
And the people of Nineveh believed God.
They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.
The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.
And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh,
‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.”
The New Testament tells us to live a godly life and show the love of God to people.
The Gospel message is that people need to turn away from their sins and turn to God.
This is surprisingly close to Jonah’s warning to Nineveh.
In essence, both messages are good news, in that God in His mercy is reaching out and is saying to stop living self-centred, greedy lives, and to lay aside those idols that capture our hearts and turn to Him.
Jonah did not speak directly to the king of Nineveh, but he heard about Jonah’s message from God and the king and those in the evil city decided to repent.
Jonah was the equivalent of a preacher sharing the good news that God’s judgment can be turned away by turning to God.
c) The authoritarian King Herod and John the Baptist
“King Herod, ethnically Arab but a practising Jew, increased the land he governed from Palestine to parts of modern Jordan, Lebanon and Syria constructing fortresses, aqueducts and amphitheatres and earned him the title ‘Herodes Magnus’, Herod the Great.” 8
Herod was intrigued by John the Baptist, but not convinced:
For John had been saying to HerodMark 6:18-20 ESV
‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.‘
And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death.
But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe.
When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly.”
It is common in the Old Testament for a prophet to speak out against a king’s behaviour.
But this is the New Testament, which makes this situation rare and John lost his life because of it.
So presumably, John was acting in the sphere of an Old Testament prophet, where he was following what God had told him to say.
Jesus announced the New Covenant at the last supper before he was betrayed, which was a year or two after John had spoken out against Herod.
3. The authoritarian regime of King Saul and what David did
Here we look at a different situation, David was not a prophet, he was to be the next king.
I love this story where King Saul was tracking David to kill him and there was an unexpected twist:
So Saul took three thousand chosen men from all Israel and set out to look for David and his men near the Crags of the Wild Goats.1 Samuel 24:2-4 NIV
He came to the sheep pens along the way; a cave was there, and Saul went in to relieve himself.
David and his men were far back in the cave.
The men said, ‘This is the day the Lord spoke of when he said to you, ‘I will give your enemy into your hands for you to deal with as you wish.’ ‘ “
Do you believe in luck, or the mighty, invisible hand of God in your circumstances?
Just look at this situation!
Saul goes into the very same cave, that David and some of his army are hiding.
Not only does Saul enter on his own with no bodyguards, but he also falls asleep and is totally at David’s mercy.
This illustrates the sovereignty of God.
God is the One who works all things for His own ends and for His glory.
The men with David are convinced that the Lord has done this, but they misinterpret the situation.
They knew that Saul was becoming more wicked.
So because God had given Saul into David’s hands, they now believe, that it would be LAWFUL to kill him.
This would mean that David could take up his rightful position as king!
It was a straightforward situation, as far as those men saw it.
But David saw it differently…
4. Submitting to leaders even when they are an authoritarian regime
But David had a higher view of God’s purposes.
David knew that Saul was the anointed king of Israel, and as such required to be given honour and respect, even though by his actions he deserved to be shown contempt.
An example of this challenging situation is found in one of the Apostle Peter’s letters.
Although it relates to slaves and their masters, the teaching applies to us when we are dealing with those in authority.
Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.”1 Peter 2:18 NIV
The word ‘harsh’ here, means ‘crooked, or perverse’
That is a hard situation, to give respect where the one in authority is not only harsh but is also lawless.
Why does God want us to do this? Paul explains why:
Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.Romans 13:1-2 NIV
The authorities that exist have been established by God.
Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgement on themselves.”
Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment, but also because of CONSCIENCE.”Romans 13:5 NIV
God wants us to submit to people in authority, which requires faith, especially, when that person is crooked and perverse.
5. We can still speak out against an authoritarian regime
Submitting to people in authority does not mean we cannot correct them.
When David came out of the cave, he actually told Saul off for wanting to kill him.
But he said all of this within the context of showing respect for Saul:
Why do you listen to the words of men who say,1 Samuel 24:9-12 ESV
‘Behold, David seeks your harm’?
Behold, this day your eyes have seen how the Lord gave you today into my hand in the cave. And some told me to kill you, but I spared you.
I said, ‘I will not put out my hand against my lord for he is the Lord’s anointed.’
See, my father, see the corner of your robe in my hand. For by the fact that I cut off the corner of your robe and did not kill you, you may know and see that othere is no wrong or treason in my hands.
I have not sinned against you, though you hunt my life to take it.
May the Lord judge between me and you, may the Lord avenge me against you, but my hand shall not be against you.”
The only time we must not obey is when the authoritarian regime tells us to do something against God’s law.
Peter and John had to say to the Jewish rulers after they were told to stop preaching;
Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight, to obey you rather than God.”Acts 4:19 NIV
David chose to give Saul respect, even though he didn’t deserve it.
He had faith that God would make him king, at the right time.
David also prevented the men from harming Saul.
It would have been easy for David to have said;
‘It’s wrong for me to do it, but it seems a pity to waste such an opportunity! Well, go on then, you kill him.’
But David’s CONSCIENCE would not allow such a thing to happen.
David crept up to Saul and cut off the corner of his robe.
But even this, gives David’s conscience a problem.
In the Bible passage, it says:
Afterwards, David was conscience stricken for having cut off a corner of his robe.”1 Samuel 24:5 NIV
Does that sound ridiculous to you?
Just a small piece of cloth!
All those times Saul had tried to kill David, and now David is feeling guilty for cutting off a fragment of Saul’s robe!
Is this too small a thing, to get ashamed of?
No, it is not.
Here is a KEY to being a man, or woman, of God.
It is good to have a conscience that says to us ‘That’s wrong’.
Even when those things seem very small.
It is a sign that the conscience is alive and sensitive, and therefore it should prevent us from doing bigger sins.
Having a finely tuned conscience is important for all of us, who want to follow and obey the Lord.
6. Jesus and the evil Roman superpower
Tiberius (Tiberius Caesar Augustus) reigned from AD 14 until 37 and was the Roman Emporer during Jesus’ ministry.
Jesus never spoke out against the Romans who were an occupying force.
Was that because Tiberius was a good man?
Surely the Roman authoritarian regime would have done many bad things?
But Jesus does not point the finger at them at all.
There are only a few times that Jesus says anything about the Roman authorities.
Once the jealous religious leaders tried to trap Jesus with, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?”
Jesus was being pushed into a corner to potentially say something negative about the Roman authority so he said:
‘Whose likeness and inscription is this?’Mark 12:16-17 ESV
They said to him, ‘Caesar’s.’
Jesus said to them, ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ ”
In the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus implies how to respond to a soldier from the conquering Roman army:
And if anyone forces** you to go one mile, go with him two miles.Matthew 5:41-45 ESV
Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.
You have heard that it was said ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’
But I say to you ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.”
The word ‘forces**’ here in Hebrew is ‘ἀγγαρεύω’ (angareuō) which means ‘to force, compel, press into service in military or civil matters.’
So it is likely that Jesus is referring to Roman soldiers who could force anyone to carry their luggage.
This is what Tiberius was like as a leader:
During Tiberius’ reign, Jews had become more prominent in Rome and Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus began proselytising Roman citizens, increasing long-simmering resentments.‘Tiberius’ Wikipedia 9
In AD 19 Tiberius ordered Jews of military age to join the Roman Army.
He banished the rest of Rome’s Jewish population, on pain of enslavement for life.
There were no systematic Roman persecutions of Christians under Tiberius after Christ’s crucifixion in AD 30…
The early Christian Church’s view of Tiberius has generally been favourable.
The 2nd-3rd Century Christian apologist Tertullian said Tiberius approached the Senate with a request to acknowledge Christ as a deity, citing evidence of his miracles, and his resurrection following his crucifixion.
Early Church historian Eusebius said Pilate reported to Tiberius of the resurrection of Christ.
Tiberius is said to have taken Pilate’s report to the Senate.
Tiberius had to be content with the protection of Christians from malicious prosecution by senators; St. Jerome adds that this was under the penalty of death…
The Christian History Institute does not list Tiberius as a Roman emperor who persecuted Christians. The first Roman emperor listed is Claudius.
7. Suffering under the Roman Emperor Nero
Nero was a vile persecutor of Christians and many died and suffered a cruel death.
Simon Peter writing at this time said:
Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.1 Peter 4:12-19 NIV
But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.
If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.
If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler.
However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.
For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And,
‘If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?’
So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.”
So, Peter’s conclusion on how to live under an authoritarian dictator is to:
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.1 Peter 2:13
For this is the will of God that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.
Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.
Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.”
8. What to do when the authoritarian regime stops Christian meetings
Often a bad government puts restrictions on religion, or on specific religions.
Churches and buildings of worship are destroyed.
Christian leaders and church members are often imprisoned or brutally attacked.
How do Christians cope with this situation?
For decades, the Chinese Church has had to go underground with small groups meeting in houses.
Even then, they run the risk of informers telling the authorities that a ‘meeting’ is going on.
But people are still being converted to Jesus.
“In 2018, the Chinese government declared that there are over 44 million Christians in China” 10
This is likely to be a low figure based mainly on the attendees of the Chinese state church.
Also, many Christians will not advertise the fact they are believers when there is an authoritarian anti-Christian government in power.
Research at Boston University states that:
Over the past four decades, Christianity has grown faster in China than anywhere else in the world… estimates that the Christian community there has grown from 1 million to 100 million.”‘What’s behind Boom of Christianity in China?’ The Brink, Boston University. 11
This is more likely to be nearer to the true number of converts.
Below is a short video from Open Doors.
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Image: Cave in Ein Gedi thanks to David Alexander, The Lion Handbook to the Bible.