Submitting to Authority

Authority is often rejected. There is seemingly no area of living that is safe from attack against the traditional authorities of the family, church, and government. By some it is viewed a virtue to question authority, and, if not a vice, then a character weakness to submit to authority. This attitude is not only displayed in the society, but is evident of many Christians as well. The new cool in many congregations, and a driving force in many Christian fads is to appear irreverent and borderline defiant.

Nevertheless, submission is a recurring theme of the Bible. Christians are called to submit to various types of authority, therefore we must be careful to not become enraptured in this day’s spirit of rebellion and thereby guilty of defying God! Defiance to the Word of God; whether that defiance be open or hidden is a dangerous road to travel.

The Apostle Peter speaks about submitting to authorities in 1 Peter 2:13-17. This comprises Peter’s teaching on submission. Following this passage he included injunctions for employees to be submissive to their employers; wives tp be submissive to their own husbands and husbands are likewise educated in submission. In 5:1-11 pastors are called to exercise leadership in the church willingly rather than reluctantly. They are to lead as God would have them, not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not domineering over the congregation but as examples of servant-leaders.

As I mentioned, the Bible says quite a lot about submission and it must be noted that the command in 2:13 to be submissive to all legitimate human authorities does not appear in a vacuum. Context is always critical to interpreting Biblical passages. In verses 11-12 Peter is begging and urging the people of God to be good, orderly, respectable citizens. He is begging them to mortify natural, fleshly desires towards sin and vice so that by their good works their Father in Heaven might be glorified. Now remember, this letter was originally written to men and women who were routinely subjected to brutal persecution and who lived in the midst of immoral decadence and pagan idolatry. Nothing about their government or society would have been described as “God-honoring” or “God-pleasing.” Instead, they daily witnessed and regularly received the type of activity that could easily incite the worst possible responses: fear, anger, bitterness, resentment, etc. Still, Peter urges these folks, who are the objects of their society’s derision if not hatred, to behave in an honorable way before the watching eyes of that world. Paul encourages the same kind of behavior in Romans 12:17-18.

How then are we to live if we are to abstain from worldly lusts and keep our conduct among the Gentiles honorable? That is where 1 Peter 2:13 comes into play. We are called to submit ourselves to the “every ordinance of man” namely for this reason: “for the Lord’s sake”. Not for your sake. Not for the sake of our rulers. Not for the sake of human institutions, tradition, or historical documents. We are to submit to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake!

How is obedience to human ordinances, institutions, and authorities done for the Lord’s sake? He didn’t say be obedient to all of God’s commands for the Lord’s sake. That would see more natural. Obviously we honor God by obeying His commands (see here), but Peter calls us to be obedient to man’s ordinances for the Lord’s sake.

To what degree are Christians called to be submissive to earthly leaders who may be completely ungodly? Is there any point when a Christian may or must respond in a non-submissive, disobedient manner? Is there ever a time when we may disobey our earthly authorities?

Both Testaments provide clear answers to those questions. There are instances when civil disobedience is displayed by believers and is not only sanctioned but commanded by God. Elijah is one OT example. Not only did he defy wicked King Ahab, but God led him to do so. The same is true with Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego during their captivity under first the Babylonians and then the Medes and Persians. The same is true in the NT with the apostles as well as the Deacon/Evangelist Stephen.

If the authorities call us to do evil, as in the case of the Hebrew midwives who were commanded by Pharaoh to kill all the male Jewish babies (Exodus 1:15-17) or in the case of the apostles who were commanded by the Sanhedrin to stop preaching the Gospel (Acts 4:18-19), then disobedience is the righteous course of action. Peter well recognized that conflictions between the government and God leave the believer with only one option. Obedience and fidelity to God comes before and above all other authorities and ordinances. Do not forget, however, that God has commanded us to “submit” to these human institutions.

We negotiate the tension of submitting ourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake while at the same time obeying God rather than man with a theological principle that is easily articulated, readily understood, but applied with some difficulty. The principle is this: We are always to obey every authority that is placed over us in this world except when that authority commands us to do what God forbids or forbids us to do what God commands.

Allow me to say again, the understanding of this principle is not complex, but the application of it may be excruciatingly difficult. Here is what I mean, the principle does not legitimatize civil disobedience if I disagree with the law or am inconvenienced by the authorities. Even if my obedience leads to my suffering, that does not countermand God’s command for submission.

Think of Christ’s own birth as an example. Jesus was born in Bethlehem instead of Nazareth because Caesar Augustus decreed that the whole world should be taxed – “and all went to be taxed, everyone to his own city” Luke 2:1-3. Joseph had to journey many miles over difficult terrain taking along his young, 9-months pregnant wife with only one little donkey to share the burden. This couple was poor, like many, many others who were inconvenienced by this command. That did not, however, give them grounds to disobey Caesar. In fact, Caesar Augustus had given this decree because the prophets had declared, hundreds of years before there was an Augustus or even a Rome for that matter, that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.

Secular authority may persecute believers or grieve believers with their laws and policies, but there is no type of persecution that should cause us to revolt against the government. It should only cause us to patiently endure the trial and persevere in righteousness. Jesus and all the NT characters display this “bend-over backward” principle of submission to legitimate authority. (By legitimate I do not mean righteous or Godly; I mean the proper authority.) This attitude was displayed by those Christians who immediately followed the apostles as well.

In his book Why Government Can’t Save You John MacArthur quotes the second century pastor Justin Martyr who wrote to the Roman Emperor Antonius Pius:

Everywhere we [Christians], more readily than all men, endeavor to pay to those appointed by you the taxes both ordinary and extraordinary, as we have been taught by [Jesus]…whence to God alone we render worship, but in other things we gladly serve you, acknowledging you as kings and rulers of men, and praying that with your kingly power you be found to possess also sound judgment.

Rome was persecuting these Christians and churches, and the persecution was partly to blame on the believers’ refusal to worship the Caesar; they were thereby labeled as insurrectionists worthy of extreme persecution because they would not give the loyalty oath that declared Caesar as Lord.

Justin Martyr wrote to the Emperor explaining the Biblical position of the believers; not only in regards to worship but as to citizenship also. He asked Pius to examine the Christian community’s behavior. His contention was that the Christians were far and away the most scrupulously obedient subjects of Rome. They paid their taxes. They drove their chariots within the speed limit. They did everything they were asked except give worship to the Emperor. This they could not do, but as much as they could they were model citizens and they were because the Lord commanded that behavior.

How does such obedience benefit Christ? To answer that question we must dig deeper, and what we find buried there is the problem which is ultimately addressed. That problem is sin. Man’s biggest problem is sin, which fundamentally is an act of rebellion and defiance of law. We are essentially a society of lawbreakers. Lawlessness is the underlying reason for all of the pain, torment, and suffering of this world.

We disobey. That is what sin is, a transgression of God’s law; stepping outside the boundaries He has established. In 2 Thessalonians 2:3, referring to the Anti-Christ, Paul describes him as “that man of sin” or literally stated “the man of lawlessness.” Disobedience to the law is the fundamental problem of humanity, defiance against authority, and the ultimate authority in the universe is God.
Currently, however, the Almighty does not rule and reign directly but by delegation. According to the NT, particularly Romans 13:1-7 every institution in this world has its authority derived from God.

This is why Christians are called to honor the King, pray for the King, pay their taxes, and be in all things, as much as possible, submissive to all authorities. No ruler past, present, or future has their office and title but by the will of God. All powers and potentates are answerable and accountable to Christ, as are the subjects and citizens who live and breathe under their authority. I don’t know how many rulers have taken that realization seriously.

On the other hand, you should ask yourself this: “How seriously do I consider the fact that I am accountable to Christ, not only for my citizenship, but for the leadership with which I have been entrusted in the home, at church, at work, in the community, etc.?

Just because the rest of the world may act defiantly is no excuse for the believer to do likewise. We are to bend-over-backwards in order to be models of submissiveness, whether we’re talking about employees to employers, wives to husbands, children to parents, students to teachers, church members to pastors, citizens to the President, wherever we find ourselves we are called to submit, and there is no one in this world who is completely autonomous. We are all accountable to many people and authority structures.

God-less rulers, God-less bosses, God-less parents, and the like do not exempt us from this command. Funnily enough the command to wives in 1 Peter 3:1 to “be in subject to your own husbands” has an interesting Greek word which is translated “to your own.” The word is idios, maybe you could translate it “your idiot husband.”I do behave like an idiot from time to time, but my idiocy does not exempt my sweet wife from this command. That is because submissive obedience to the authorities in our lives bears witness to the foundation of all authority – God Almighty.

So we submit, even when doing so may cause suffering, humiliation, or loss of wealth. We submit so that God may be glorified. We submit to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, for so is the will of God, that with doing good we will silence the ignorance of foolish men. Living as free men, but not using our freedom as a cover-up for evil, but as bondservants of God. This is why we honor all people, love our fellow church members, fear God, and honor the President.

Ask yourself: “Where do I find trouble submitting?” We all have places of restlessness where we are angry and reluctant to submit. Where and/or who are they? When I am struggling with the call to submit to authorities, I must look past them, look over them, and see Jesus Christ, the One into whose hands all things have been given. I must decide to offer my submission to Christ through that earthly authority. I don’t mind submitting and serving Christ, and all my work, submission, and obedience is ultimately given to Christ.


About Travis

Christ follower. Husband of one woman. Father of three young men. Former 11B. Blessed to pastor the Bible Baptist Church of Mount Vernon, KY.
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7 Responses to Submitting to Authority

  1. Fresh Dirt says:

    Does this mean that you believe the revolutionary war was wrong? Also, should believers ever participate in war against another government (say being in the US Army fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan)? It seems that you allow for disobedience to the government (if that government is preventing you from serving God) but such disobedience does not imply active violence against such government. In fact, with the examples you listed, Paul or Peter or Daniel went about worshipping knowing that those actions might bring death, but they never resorted to violence.

  2. Fresh Dirt says:

    Does this mean that you believe the revolutionary war was wrong? Also, should believers ever participate in war against another government (say being in the US Army fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan)? It seems that you allow for disobedience to the government (if that government is preventing you from serving God) but such disobedience does not imply active violence against such government. In fact, with the examples you listed, Paul or Peter or Daniel went about worshipping knowing that those actions might bring death, but they never resorted to violence.

  3. Travis says:

    To obey all human authorities unless the authorities command what God forbids and/or forbids what God commands has nothing to do with the use of violence. A Christian serving in the military should obey not only his government, but his chain-of-command, while not violating the above principle. But legitimate violence, in combat or in capital punishment, does not violate God’s Word. Hence, it does not create a problem.As to the Revolution: I do not think the Fathers had a Biblical leg to stand on in their revolt against Great Britain.

  4. Fresh Dirt says:

    So a few questions:1) At what point did the Americans become a legitimate government that Christians should submit to?2) When the British and Americans went to war in 1812, were the British Christians supposed to submit to their governemnt in attacking the US, and was the US Christians supposed to submit to their government in attacking the British?3) On an issue like abortion, shouldn’t Christians try to stop others from killing unborn babies? Or should they just try to use the peaceful means supplied by our government? What if these Christians are living in China rather than the United States?

  5. Travis says:

    1) As soon as it became their government it was legitimate.2) Yes and yes, if the Christians were in the military of their respective nations.3) Christians shouldn’t get abortions, or support politicians who will protect it. They should also engage with young women who are considering an abortion and help them to choose life. Christian doctors should refuse to perform abortions, even if such a refusal results in a lawsuit and loss of their medical practice. Abortion may be lawfully right in America, but before God it is sin.

  6. Fresh Dirt says:

    1. Your answer to question 1 is vague. Was that intentional? It seems to me that there would be time of liminality when it was hard to discern which was the legitimate government.2. I really struggle with this answer. It seems to me that good Christians would be in both armies and would be killing one another– Christians killing Christians because two governments have some issues to work out and these governemnts resorted to violence to solve it. Don’t we have some problem with this and don’t we think God would be opposed to this?3. Your answer seems to avoid the question. Perhaps another scenario: if you were walking down the street and saw a child being beaten by her father, would you come to the rescue? I’m guessing your answer would be yes, and that we all would feel a moral obligation to do so. Therefore, should we not do the same thing in preventing someone from killing an unborn baby? Should we not physically come to the rescue?

  7. Travis says:

    1) I thought the answer was succinct not vague. The legitimate authority is the authority under which you live. For American Christians in 1774 it was the British Crown. Between 1775-1783 the authority was in flux, largely dependent on where one lived. From Cornwallis’ surrender until the present it is our federal government.2) It is a difficult issue. It is complex and tragic, but I do not believe pacifism is a Biblical mandate. If a Christian is in the military he should do his job. Killing a believer in combat is no more heinous than killing an unbeliever in combat.3) I’m not sure how my answer was evasive. To our shame the US gov’t has legalized the killing of unborn children. That law is evil, and no Christian should avail himself of that “right” or otherwise participate in that law. That does not mean, however, that I should forcibly oppose those people with whom I am in disagreement.

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