This probably isn’t going to be a very popular post in the little series I’m doing about how Christians relate to authority. Bible-believers like to ignore or debate around the verses that talk about how we’re supposed to respect authority figures in the world. We’re pretty good at finding loop-holes so we can grumble about paying our taxes, complain about the President, and ignore as many “little” laws as possible (like the speed limit).
But I haven’t found any Bible verses that say it’s okay to say nasty things about people in power or rebel against earthly authority unless one of man’s laws conflicts with following God. I’m hoping in this post we can try to set aside our preconceived ideas and puzzle out what God’s instructions are and how to apply them today, rather than looking in scripture for excuses to keep resenting authority in the world.
Who Counts As Authority?
The key verses we’ll be looking at today are Romans 13:1-7, 1 Timothy 2:1-4, Titus 3:1-2, and 1 Peter 2:13-17. These verses talk about various types of human rules and rulers. Here’s a list:
- Authorities — exousia (G1849). Authority, power, rule of government (Rom. 13:1-5; Tit. 3:1).
- Rulers — archon (G758). Commander, chief, leader (Rom. 13:3).
- Servant — diakonos (G1249). One who executes commands (Rom. 13:4).
- Servants — leitourgos (G3011). Minister, a servant of the state (Rom. 13:6).
- Kings — basileus (G935). Leader of the people, commander (1 Tim. 2:2; 1 Pet. 2: 13, 17).
- All who are in authority — huperoche (G5247). Elevation, superiority (1 Tim. 2:2).
- Rulers — arche (G746). Principalities, a person who is first (Tit. 3:1).
- Be obedient — peitharcheo (G3980). To be persuaded by or obey a ruler/magistrate (Tit. 3:1)
- Every ordinance — ktisis (G2937). Building, institution (1 Pet. 2:13).
- Governors — hegemon (G2232). A leader of any kind (1 Pet. 2:14).
I think that covers pretty much everything. Those might not be the titles we use today, but the meaning is clear. These verses we’ll be looking at cover all types of worldly authority from your boss at work, to the lawmakers in your county, to the head of state. And we’re also told to respect the laws put in place by these people.
Respect And Honor
Most of us (speaking from the perspective of a blogger in the U.S.) don’t even think about what it would mean to live in an honor-based society. We value individual freedom over the collective good. We cling to our right to express our ideas freely (a right which I’m using to post this article). We don’t like to think of people deserving respect or honor simply by virtue of their position. In fact, we often treat those with authority (or anyone who steps into the public eye) as fair-game for our nastiest comments. But God expects something different of us.
Remind them to be in subjection to rulers and to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, not to be contentious, to be gentle, showing all humility toward all men. For we were also once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, and hating one another. (Tit. 3:1-3, WEB)
There aren’t any loop-holes here. In fact, the “also” makes it sound like we’re to follow the instructions in verses 1-2 even if people are doing the things described in verse 3. We’re different from them because of God’s kindness to us, not because we’re better than others (Tit. 3:4-8). And because of how God has transformed us, we can “take the high road” in our dealings with other people.
Pray For Them
Living at peace with everyone we can and respecting authority is simply part of a godly life. It’s one of the things we do more as we develop God’s mindset.
I exhort therefore, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and givings of thanks, be made for all men: for kings and all who are in high places; that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and reverence. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior; who desires all people to be saved and come to full knowledge of the truth. (1 Tim. 2:1-4, WEB)
God wants a good outcome for everyone. And He’s pleased when we show that same mindset by praying for people rather than fighting or bad-mouthing them. Part of the reason we pray for people in authority is because we care about the eternal outcome of their lives, the same way that God does.
We’re also told to pray so that we can keep leading Godly, peaceful lives. This is two-fold. If we want to live happy, good lives we need to personally seek peace and stop speaking evil (1 Pet. 3:10-11). And we’re also praying for the public good so that there’s an atmosphere of peace and safety in our nations.
Powers Behind Authority
Let every soul be in subjection to the higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those who exist are ordained by God. Therefore he who resists the authority, withstands the ordinance of God; and those who withstand will receive to themselves judgment. (Rom. 13:1-2, WEB)
Jesus referenced this concept when He told Pilate, “You would have no power at all against me, unless it were given to you from above” (John 19:11, WEB). There is something higher than us at work in how human governments function. Authorities are either put in place by God, or allowed by God to stay in power.
Therefore you need to be in subjection, not only because of the wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For this reason you also pay taxes, for they are servants of God’s service, attending continually on this very thing. Therefore give everyone what you owe: if you owe taxes, pay taxes; if customs, then customs; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. (Rom. 13:5-7, WEB)
Live Within The Laws
We skipped over a few verses from Romans 13 in that last section. These say, “rulers are not a terror to the good work, but to the evil. Do you desire to have no fear of the authority? Do that which is good, and you will have praise from the same” (Rom. 13:3, WEB). This is one of the loop-holes people use, saying that if the ruler is a “terror to good works” then you don’t have to respect them. But there weren’t many (if any) Christian rulers at this time. The people Paul and Peter were writing to had pagan rulers. And they were still told to respect established authority.
Beloved, I beg you as foreigners and pilgrims, to abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul; having good behavior among the nations, so in that of which they speak against you as evildoers, they may by your good works, which they see, glorify God in the day of visitation. Therefore subject yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether to the king, as supreme; or to governors, as sent by him for vengeance on evildoers and for praise to those who do well. For this is the will of God, that by well-doing you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish men: as free, and not using your freedom for a cloak of wickedness, but as bondservants of God. (1 Pet. 2:11-16, WEB)
We’re supposed to submit to authority as a by-product of how a godly person interacts with everyone they meet. Following God involves living honestly, doing good, and serving Him faithfully. And we’re to do that within the laws of our country as much as possible.
Always Follow God First
I say “as much as possible” because there are times when following God will get us in trouble with earthly authority. We live here on the earth as if we were immigrants whose real home and country is a heavenly one. That’s where our primary allegiance lies, not to the nations we live in now. And when those nations’ laws clash with God’s expectations, the choice is clear. “We must obey God rather than men,” as Peter and the other apostles said when the Jewish leaders forbid them to talk about Jesus (Acts 5:29, WEB).
Reading through Acts shows us Jesus’ followers speaking and living their faith boldly even when it lead to persecution, arrest, and death. Being respectful of authority doesn’t mean being silent about God. And when the apostles and other Christians were arrested, they defended themselves as was their right under the law of the land. For example, when a high priest ordered Paul struck, Paul said this:
“God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! Do you sit to judge me according to the law, and command me to be struck contrary to the law?” Those who stood by said, “Do you malign God’s high priest?” Paul said, “I didn’t know, brothers, that he was high priest. For it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.’” (Acts 23:3-5, WEB)
Paul didn’t apologize for speaking out against injustice, but he does acknowledge an office like high priest should be respected even when it’s misused. He accepted the correction of those standing by rather than arguing and fighting. And when the law of the land did allow for Christians being beaten or imprisoned, it seems they didn’t complain and only fought back in legal ways. They accepted persecution as their share in Christ’s sufferings (Acts 5:40-41; 16:22-39).
Responding To the World’s Hate
When quoting from Romans 13, I made the statement that authorities are either put in place by God or allowed by God to stay in power. Some of the ones God allows to stay in power were not put there by Him. Other verses talk about the spiritual power that’s behind evil authority in this world. God’s adversary, Satan the devil, is described as “the god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4). When we’re battling anti-Christian and anti-God sentiments, “our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world’s rulers of the darkness of this age, and against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12, WEB).
We’re never promised the world will like us. In fact, it’s the opposite. We’re promised that the same people who hate Christ will also hate those who follow Him. When a nation or individuals reject God’s authority, they also become enemies of those who are trying to follow God. But their actions against us don’t free us from our responsibility to respond as Godly people. So when you’re tempted to speak hatefully about someone in power, pray for them instead. When you feel like the worldly authority is out to get you, remember to respond as someone who is under God’s authority. Because it’s only by following God faithfully, including His instructions to respect authority, that we can “put to silence the ignorance of foolish men” and shine Christ’s light into the world.