I’ve been pondering the question posed in today’s title for a number of years now. How much obedience do we owe to human authorities, both inside and outside the church? Is a Christian allowed, per scripture, to speak against people in authority? Are they ever encouraged to stand up and fight against authority that is unjust and immoral? And why are churches, even those that preach the importance of obeying God’s word, so reluctant to talk about submission to authority passages like Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-19?
Until fairly recently, this was mostly an intellectual puzzle for the American church. Then came questions about baking cakes for same-sex weddings, then whether or not to assemble for services when governors shut down states, now debates over the mask issue, and rising fears that a Covid vaccine might be the Mark of the Beast. We live in confusing times, and they’re forcing us to face questions and wrestle with decisions some of us haven’t had to deal with before.
Those of us who prize our independence might be angry about infringements on our freedom, wrestling with whether to follow our personal choices or do as we’re told. Those of us who struggle with anxiety might be scared — paralyzed, even — both by everything that’s going on and by not knowing what is the right thing to do. Those who are people-pleasers might be running up against the fact that we’ll need to pick a side and can’t make everyone happy.
Today’s post isn’t going to offer answers for the specific issues we’re facing right now. Rather, I hope to highlight scriptures that provide principles which we can use whenever we struggle with how to respond to human authority in a way that honors God. This is a question we will face at some point, if we aren’t facing it already. We need to be prepared to answer these questions, to ourselves and when asked by others, in a Biblically solid way.
Submission to Authority
First, let’s take a look at the two passages on submission to human authority that I referenced in the intro.
“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. For 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 authority, for he is a servant of God to you for good. But if you do that which is evil, be afraid, for he doesn’t bear the sword in vain; for he is a servant of God, an avenger for wrath to him who does evil. 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, continually doing 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. 13:1-7, all quotes from WEB translation)
Paul doesn’t leave much wiggle-room here. We must subject ourselves to authority, submit to another’s control, and yield to the admonitions of those in power (Thayer’s and Zodhiates’s dictionary definitions for G5293, hupotasso). And Paul wrote this during Nero’s reign so we know there aren’t exceptions for times when we don’t agree with the authority, or even when its actively persecuting people of faith. And Paul isn’t the only Bible writer who teaches this.
“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. Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king. Servants, be in subjection to your masters with all respect: not only to the good and gentle, but also to the wicked. For it is commendable if someone endures pain, suffering unjustly, because of conscience toward God.” (1 Pet. 2:13-19)
Notice we submit “for the Lord’s sake” and because it’s part of “the will of God.” We’re instructed to practice submission to authority as a way of honoring God, not necessarily because we like or agree with the people in authority. Whether or not we choose to submit to authority, including human authority, has to do with how we relate to God.
How Far Does Submission Go?
It is interesting, intimidating, and even a bit frightening that the passage in 1 Peter about respecting authority is immediately followed by one about suffering.
Servants, be in subjection to your masters with all respect: not only to the good and gentle, but also to the wicked. For it is commendable if someone endures pain, suffering unjustly, because of conscience toward God. For what glory is it if, when you sin, you patiently endure beating? But if, when you do well, you patiently endure suffering, this is commendable with God. For you were called to this, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving you an example, that you should follow his steps, who didn’t sin, “neither was deceit found in his mouth.” When he was cursed, he didn’t curse back. When he suffered, he didn’t threaten, but committed himself to him who judges righteously. (1 Pet. 2:18-23)
We don’t much like to talk about verses telling us to endure trials with joy because they’re good for us. We like even less to talk about the fact that we’re told to expect persecutions as Christians. But we can’t afford to ignore these admonitions and warnings. Jesus preached the gospel perfectly and lived a completely sinless life, yet people still wanted to kill Him. Can we really expect everyone to respond well to us if we’re following Him and preaching the same message He did?
It’s inevitable that we will experience conflict with human society and authority because we put God first. And yet part of putting Him first involves submitting to authority even when we don’t agree with it or when it causes suffering for us. Following Jesus’s example and instructions means we must submit to the authorities around us (i.e. treat them with respect) even while putting obedience to God first (i.e. never following human commands that contradict God’s commands).
- Note: I’m sure making the statement that Jesus showed respect for those in authority will bring to mind times when He did not, most notably the “Woe to you scribes and pharisees, hypocrites!” passage and cleansing the temple. The distinction I see is that He was correcting religious, not civil, authorities. People of God are given permission to hold others within the church responsible for following God, but not to judge those without (1 Cor. 5). Also, the Father has given Jesus “all authority … in heaven and on earth” and He can see into people’s hearts with perfect clarity (Matt. 28:18; John 2:24-25; 5:30). He has the perspective and the right to judge in ways we’re not always allowed to.
Principles For When to Obey
Honoring and obeying God must be our first priority. That is the reason for our submission to human authority, and it is also the reason why there are times when we cannot obey human authority. Submitting to authority is a command, but when we’re dealing with human ordinances this submission does not always involve obedience. The obedience we owe to God’s authority must come first.
When they had brought them, they set them before the council. The high priest questioned them, saying, “Didn’t we strictly command you not to teach in this name? Behold, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and intend to bring this man’s blood on us.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:27-29)
Earlier, the council and priests “commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus.” This put the apostles in the position of having to choose between obeying human authority or obeying God’s command to preach and teach. Given that choice, the answer was obvious to them (Acts 4:18-20). We must honor God first. Which brings us to a summary of which human ordinances we do and do not follow (borrowed from an excellent sermon I recently heard on the subject).
- We do not obey laws that command us to do things God forbids.
- We do not obey laws that command us not to do things God requires.
Peter and the apostles were following the principles of point #2. If God tells you do so something, you do it regardless of what others say. We see this throughout the book of Acts, and we also see the apostles practicing submission to authority at the same time. They would not stop teaching as God commanded, but they respected the rulers’ authority to put them in prison for doing so. In one case, Paul even apologized for snapping at one of his accusers after learning he was high priest and therefore held a position that deserved respect (Acts 23:1-5). Paul’s criticisms of this person were valid, but he considered disrespect inappropriate.
Examples of Respectful Resistance
We see another example of obedience to God coupled with respect for and submission to human authority in the famous case of Shadrach, Meshack, and Abednego. This is also an example of point #1. God forbids His people to worship anything or anyone other than Him, and so they had to tell King Nebuchadnezzar “we will not serve your gods nor worship the golden image which you have set up” (Daniel 3). They were respectful, they acknowledged his authority to kill them, but they did not budge from their obedience to God.
The same thing happened with Daniel under the reign of King Darius. The king let himself be persuaded to command people to petition him as a god (violating point #1) and not to pray to any other god (violating point #2). And so Daniel just kept on as he always did, praying to God as before. When he was caught (which verse 5 tells us was the whole point of this plan) he was respectful, he submitted to the king’s authority to throw him in the den of lions, but he remained committed to following God (Daniel 6).
The answer to the question in today’s title, “How can a Christian know when to follow human authority and when to obey God rather than man?” is that if there’s ever a conflict, you obey God. It’s a very simple rule. And yet we must also keep in mind that part of obeying God involves submitting to human authority because we respect God’s authority. We can’t use “we ought to obey God rather than man” as a convenient way to wiggle-out of respecting authority. Nor can we use “subject yourselves to every ordinance of man” as permission to go with the flow of society and forget God’s laws.
We are living in “the end times,” and as the day of Christ’s return draws near believers are to stay watchful, persevere, grow, and love. As we face ever greater pressure from those hostile to our faith, or even simply from authority we don’t personally agree with, we need to prioritize staying close to God. The more time we spend cultivating a strong relationship with Him the easier it will be to know how to apply Biblical principles for balancing submission to authority and obedience to God.
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