Should Christians Submit to Earthly Authorities?

In the days of the Roman empire, when Christians were arrested and commanded to burn incense to the emperor or go to their death, countless Christians were thrown to the wild beasts. Brave young women like Perpetua and Felicity firmly believed that worship belonged to Jesus Christ alone, the one true living God and King, so they refused to offer sacrifices to the earthly kings of the day and paid the price with their lives.

The testimony of Perpetua (a summary can be read here or her full prison diary can be read here) has strengthened Christians of all stripes for centuries to be strong when facing persecution.

However, this kind of situation is hard for Christian Americans to fathom. America has long been a land where its citizens have enjoyed the freedom to practice their religion and worship as they desire without government intrusion and control.

Over time, these rights have created a sense of total autonomy and self-determination which have crept into many of the houses of worship across our land. We’ve conflated the idea of worshiping God alone and obeying God alone. The result, in the minds of many American believers today, is that if you are a religious person, no one but God has the right to tell you what to do. And with the very same vigor which Perpetua refused to offer sacrifice to the emperor, some believers today refuse to submit to earthly authorities.

But is this right? Is this understanding of authority biblical? Are Christians required to submit to earthly authorities?

There are a handful of places in the Scriptures that I think will help us to answer this question. Let’s start with the Gospels.

Jesus and the Earthly Authorities

Several weeks ago I preached a message on Luke 2:41-52 about the Boy Jesus at the Temple.

One of the most remarkable statements in that entire section can be found in verse 51:

“And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them. “

-Luke 2:51

So right off the bat we see Jesus submitting to an earthly authority, namely, his parents. But why did Jesus submit to his parents?

First of all, it was not because they were perfect people. Not only does that Bible teach that all have sinned and fallen short (Rom. 3:23), but we see evidence of Joseph and Mary’s imperfect parenting in this very chapter of Luke. After discovering that Jesus was not with them after venturing probably a day ‘s journey from Jerusalem, they return to Jerusalem to discover Jesus in the temple conversing with the teachers of the day. Mary and Joseph are astonished at what the teachers in the temple are telling them about their son (v. 48). But Jesus is astonished at something else–that Mary and Joseph did not know that the Temple was where He would be (v. 49).

Yet, despite Mary and Joseph’s flaws, we find Jesus, the perfect Son of God, submitting to them. Jesus does not rebuke them harshly. He does not ignore their concern for his whereabouts. He does not argue with them. He does not use their ignorance or miscalculation as a reason to not submit to them.

Jesus, the perfect Son of God, submitted to them even when their judgment was flawed and limited.

Secondly, we know that Jesus did not submit to the earthly authorities of his time because he had no other recourse.

In another place in the Gospels, when Jesus is being dragged away by the chief priests and the elders of the people at Gethsemane (Matt. 26:47-56), Peter draws a sword and cuts off the ear of the servant of the high priest. Jesus then says to him,

“Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?”

Matthew 26:52-53

Jesus had power to overcome the authorities that day, but he did not. He chose to submit to them, rather than summon down the angels and annihilate the authorities.

Again I ask, why?

All Authority Comes from God

Jesus himself gives us the answer in John 19 when he is on trial before Pontius Pilate:

“Pilate said to him, ‘You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?’ Then Jesus said, ‘You would have no power over me at all unless it were given to you from above.'”

John 19:10-11

In John 19, Jesus is speaking to a civil authority, but his comments can rightly be applied to all human authorities–parental (family), ecclesiastical (church), vocational (work) or otherwise. Authority is given to presidents, governors, parents and elders and the like, by God (see passages like Ephesians 6:2; Colossians 3:20; 1 Timothy 2:1-3; Titus 3:1; Hebrews 13:17; 1 Peter 2:13-18; 5:1-5).

Jesus submitted to earthly authorities, because they were instituted and put in place by God himself–their authority was given to them by God. By being subject to them Jesus brought honor and glory to God. Broadly speaking, not submitting to these authorities was tantamount to not submitting to God (with some exceptions which will be addressed briefly below).

This is why Paul says in Romans 13:1-5

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”

Romans 13:1-2

But surely we are not required to submit to the authorities in every case, are we?

What happens when an authority that is set up by God commands something that is contrary to what God would command? Jesus’ was able to submit to Joseph and Mary because they were not asking him to sin (at least not in the example mentioned above). Now that we live in the New Testament era we know that Jesus allowed the authorities to take Him away and crucify Him at the end because that was the Father’s plan all along (Acts 4:27-28). But how does this apply to us?

Godly Disobedience

If you take Romans 13:1-2 without looking at the canonical context (all of Scripture), this passage could be used to justify support of Hitler and the Nazi’s in WWII. But when we look at the whole Bible, we find examples of godly people not submitting to authorities when what was being asked of them was sinful.

Daniel 3 and the story of Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image is a good example of godly disobedience. When the Babylonian officials blew the horn and demanded that everyone gathered at the dedication ceremony bow and pay homage to the image, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused to bow down and worship. Their response to the king’s demand is worth quoting:

“[B]e it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”

Daniel 3:18

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were right not to submit to Nebuchadnezzar’s commands in this instance because what he was asking was sinful–to obey would have been tantamount to sin itself (see Exodus 20:3-5).

Another remarkable biblical instance of disobedience to governing authorities can be found in Exodus 1. At this point in the Bible the Israelites had been living under Egyptian rule for several centuries. Over time they had become very numerous, so in verse 16 the king of Egypt commanded the Hebrew midwives to kill all the baby boys born to the Israelites. But verse 17 says, “The midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live.” If you read the verses following the decision of the Hebrew midwives, God honored their decision, even though they were not being subject to the civil authorities that God himself had placed over them.

There are New Testament examples of similar disobedience as well (see Acts 4 and 5 for example).

Clearly from these examples (and others), Paul’s remarks in Romans 13 cannot simply mean that Christians should always and in every case submit to the commands of the governing authorities. These stories reveal that there is a time when followers of God are obligated to object and disobey.

Something in Romans 13 needs to be qualified. I do not think that we need to qualify Paul’s statement (or Daniel’s in Daniel 2:21) that all authority is set up by God. Rather, John Piper suggests in a very helpful article tilted “The Limits of Submission to Man“, that Paul’s teaching in Romans 13:1-5 has in view a good government in which “doing good deeds will generally find approval and doing evil will generally be punished.” In other words, the government that Paul has in mind in Romans 13:1-5 is one that defines good conduct and bad conduct roughly the same way God does (see verse 3). Paul’s instructions therefore pertain to the case in which a person finds themselves subject to a good government that generally does what is right in the sight of God.

Conclusion

So what are we to make of all of this?

The Christian who says they are subject to no person but God alone is sorely mistaken, but so is the Christian who always submits to authority, even when that authority is asking them to sin.

To put it simply, when your leaders command you to do something that directly goes against the commands of God, you are to disobey them, no matter the consequences, like the Hebrew midwives, Daniel, Perpetua, and thousands of other Christians over the centuries. However, when the commands of your leaders (presidents, governors, parents, pastors, bosses) do not contradict the commands of God, you are to be subject to them because doing so is to be subject to God and brings honor and glory to Him.

Rethinking Homosexuality

The following is a guest post by Bob Thompson.  It was originally written in June of this year while the Obergefell case was before the Supreme Court and just on the cusp of the United Church of Christ’s General Synod at which Bob was scheduled to speak.  I’ve reposted it here.

 


It’s hard for all of us not to think about homosexuality and same sex marriage this week.

On Monday, Tony Campolo wrote a blog calling for “the full acceptance of Christian gay couples into the church.”  Robert Gagnon posted a strong and critical response on his Facebook page.  Both Campolo and Gagnon have spoken at Corinth in years past, and I have respect for both.  Christianity Today also posted a response to Campolo’s statement this week.

On Tuesday, the Charlotte Observer reported that Franklin Graham’s Facebook page had called for boycotts of companies like Wells Fargo and Tiffany’s that advocate for LGBT concerns.  I also have deep appreciation for the Billy Graham Association and Samaritan’s Purse, both led by Franklin Graham.

Yesterday we received a newsletter from a church where Linda and I served many years ago.  The church is proposing an extensive addition to their constitution and bylaws defining marriage as between a man and a woman, listing all sorts of unacceptable sexual sins, and urging compassion on people no matter who or where they are.

This morning, the Hickory Daily Record ran an Associated Press article that predicts “legal chaos” if the Supreme Court, which will issue some sort of ruling later this month, allows states to decide whether to recognize gay marriage.  Also today, the Charlotte Observer printed an LA Times piece about Miley Cyrus, who has said she is open to any sexual relationship between consenting humans.

Also this morning, I had a voice mail from a church member who said his Sunday School class at our church spent the entire class this past Sunday discussing homosexuality.

For me, the topic is even more unavoidable.  Tonight I will speak at Concordia Lutheran Church in Conover on “Humility and Homosexuality,” a speaking engagement set up months ago.  Next week, I will attend the Southern Conference of the United Church of Christ, a perennially strong voice for gay and lesbian concerns.   (I chose Romans 1 as my text for the preaching festival!)  The final week of June, Linda and I will represent Faithful and Welcoming Churches at the General Synod of the UCC.  I expect that the Supreme Court will announce its decision while we are mingling with some of the most passionate religious advocates of LGBT causes.

Maybe in a rapidly changing culture you can avoid rethinking what you believe about homosexuality and how you speak about it, but I can’t.  Not this month.  Not even today.  As a Reformed (motto: “Always Reforming”) pastor, I am always rethinking everything, but always under the authority of Scripture, alone.  So in my mind I’m reviewing the themes and texts that have become so central to me in conversations across the years about homosexuality.

Creation (Genesis 1). The reason I can’t join Tony Campolo and the large shift in American culture toward affirming same sex marriage and homosexual practice has little to do with the half-dozen oft-discussed biblical texts that explicitly refer to homosexuality.  It has more to do with a cohesive and pervasive biblical ethic that begins in Genesis 1 when God created humans male and female.  I search from one end of the Bible to the other and although I see a variety of sexual behaviors, I find the only consistent affirmation of sexual expression is between a man and woman in marriage.

Self-denial (Mark 8).  Christian proponents of same sex relationships need to find a basis other than explicit biblical texts, and generally join the broader culture in finding that basis in exploring and affirming “who you are.”  In other words, look within yourself, to your desires and impulses in order to find your identity, sexually or otherwise.  The “right to be me” and the “freedom to do as I choose” are thoroughly American values.  This approach to identity and ethics is so pervasive that it also lives among Christians of all ideologies and types on a broad range of topics – not just sex.  “It can’t be wrong if it feels so right” has become a mantra in culture and church.  We forget that Jesus’ message was quite the opposite.  We only find true life through self-denial.  When I look within, the natural impulses are to be mistrusted and resisted.  To follow the desires of self is to invite destruction.

Calling (1 Corinthians 7).  What Paul says in the middle part of the chapter directly resists our impulse to seek fulfillment by changing our circumstances.  Certainly there are times to seek change, but the default choice in calling is to assume that God has placed you where you are.  That includes your relationships, your job, your church, everything.  Trust God enough to believe that he knew what he was doing when he made you like you are and put you where you are.  This is about another pervasive biblical value: contentment.  The beautiful irony is that God will often change our circumstances, but only after we have by grace accepted our current situation.  A restless and mobile society is constantly on the run for something elusive that feels like it’s just around the corner.  Paul says my current situation is where God wants to work in me and through me.

Sins (Romans 1).  You might think you know where I’m going when I bring up Romans 1, but I doubt it.  Read carefully verses 18-32 about the wrath of God and the sin list that follows.  Note especially the pronouns.  Romans 1 is about “the sins of them” – sins that cause us to condescend toward others because we aren’t guilty of those acts.  Paul wants you reading Romans 1 thinking about how bad “they” are – no matter who your “they” is.  Then he lowers the boom in Romans 2:1.  As soon as you judge “them,” you judge yourself.  When you clobber someone with Romans 1, you get clobbered by Romans 2. Thinking your sins are less sinful than theirs makes you just as deserving of God’s wrath.  You are often most disturbed when “they” don’t even acknowledge how sinful “they” are.   I will guarantee you “they” think the same about you. One reason I can’t join Franklin Graham in a call for a boycott over affirmation of homosexuality is that every Christian (including me), church, and era tends to have its list of sins it overlooks and its list it condemns.   If I target one area of sin, I contribute to the self-righteousness of those who don’t see themselves guilty of that sin – while excusing so many others.

Compassion (Psalm 103).  All through both testaments are beautiful texts that speak of God’s compassion for us and exhort us to compassion for others.  In Psalm 103, David the psalmist is keenly aware of his sins, but they are forgiven.  He knows what he deserves, but God will not treat him that way.  He’s aware of his human brevity and frailty, but God is aware too.  (If you want to point out that in Psalm 103 God’s love is “with those who fear him…and obey his precepts,” re-read the above paragraph on “Sins”.)  I would be terrified if I believed God forgives only the sins I name, the sins I acknowledge, or the sins I never return to.  God’s compassionate forgiveness in Christ treats me as I never sinned and never will again.  In gratitude for that love I seek to live a life of holiness, including a life of compassion extended to others.  Whether their behavior I find unacceptable is due to willful sin, ignorance, a wounded past, or heredity – or whether it’s my own blindness that makes their action offensive – I’m willing to leave judgment to God and offer the same compassion I hope they will offer to me.  I keep reminding myself that I should be especially compassionate when someone else’s sin is not my sin and more so when their sin is not even my temptation.  Kindness, listening, caring, loving, learning – these are all biblical values I need to apply to every person I meet.

Unity (John 17).  One greatly overlooked biblical text is Jesus’ number one strategy for evangelism: the visible unity of the church.  As more Christians target each other privately and publicly, the world will continue to see our fractures and public flogging of one another as their number reason not to believe.  We’re going to see more churches taking their “stand,” meaning that the message will be that no LGBT person (or their advocates) need show up.  If polls are true that the majority of Americans now affirm same sex relationships, and we make it a critical part of our identity that we don’t, then essentially we’re saying to half or more of the world around us, “If you want to find a relationship with God and Jesus, don’t come here.”  Other churches proclaim their full affirmation of same sex couples, and their message to the world is, “If you don’t identify as LGBT (or side with those who do), don’t come here.”  What will be lost in both cases is Jesus’ prayer for unity and our ability to convince the world that we have any credibility.  The way we often do business is no different than the rest of the culture, where people make up their minds, slam their opponents, and separate into ever-narrowing cliques of the like-minded.

Humility (Philippians 2).  I find it intriguing that Paul may never have written (or quoted, some think) the hymn in Philippians 2:6-11 about Jesus’ humility and exaltation if he had not been trying to make the point about humility in our relationships with one another.  For Paul in Philippians 2, humility is first and mostly about how you think, not so much what you do or say.  We often (mis)judge humility – our own and others’ – by what we can see from the outside.  Paul says where we need the change is with our “attitude.”  I must own my own sins and brokenness, I must admit there’s so much I don’t know, I must confess that I might be wrong because, after all, so many Christians down through the years are now almost universally acknowledged to have read the Bible wrong on a plethora of topics.  Gamaliel was right in Acts 5 – sometimes you have to let God sort it out over time.  Whatever word I have to say will not be the final word on this or any other subject.  I have to learn to think that way.    This is not to say that there is no absolute truth.  There is a remarkable and consistent consensus around the essentials of the Christian faith that stretches from the early church until the present day, all around the world.  That consensus has been often challenged, but given a generation or so, it returns intact even in the midst of swirling blind spots.  Ultimately humility results in patience.

Prayer (1 Timothy 2).  On the heels of his own humility as the “chief of sinners” in chapter 1, Paul reminds Timothy to urge everyone to pray for governments and their officers.  But he doesn’t urge us to pray that they would see things our way or order society on Christian principles.  He wants us to pray that government will get out of the way so that we can live “peaceful and quiet lives in all gentleness and holiness” so that we can proclaim the truth of Jesus, the “one mediator between God and mankind.”  I’m not all that worried about whether the state or federal government allows gay marriage, although I oppose that shift.  I’m more concerned that we continue to live in freedom to proclaim and live the gospel.  God has left humanity with a remarkable level of freedom – as individuals and as societies.  He rarely interferes directly, for reasons I do not fully understand.  Maturity in the faith  sees our primary role as one of prayer – because prayer acknowledges that God’s in control and not me.

I’m glad God didn’t leave me in charge.  I couldn’t handle it.  Not this week anyway.