With politics taking center stage in our society due to a divisive Supreme Court confirmation and pending midterm elections, maybe it is time we consider what the Bible has to say about political matters. For the record, this will not be an investigation or critique of political ideologies, platforms, or parties; instead, it will be a three week study of some key biblical principles affecting the Christian’s relationship with the government.
In last week’s article we observed the relationship between God and government. In particular, we noted that according to Romans 13:1-4, God is the Instituter and Appointer of “governing authorities,” and they function as His servants by maintaining societal order. With that in mind, we turn our attention to the responsibility that Christians have as it pertains to their relationship with government.
Returning to Romans 13:1-2, Paul wrote…
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.
In this passage, Paul identified the Christian’s responsibility to the government as submission. Why? Paul indicates that the reason Christians are expected to submit to “the governing authorities” is because such submission is an extension and demonstration of his or her submission to God. By submitting to the institutions established by God, we declare our recognition and appreciation of His sovereignty. Failure to submit is therefore tantamount to resisting God.
Paul did not just write these instructions; He also embodied them. Throughout the book of Acts, Paul never broke the law, rebelled against Rome, or criticized its government. In fact, Paul proudly claimed in his defense before Festus that “Neither against the law of the Jews, nor against the temple, nor against Caesar have I committed any offense” (Acts 25:8). Despite that fact, Paul faced imprisonment on numerous occasions and willingly accepted it. In other words, he did not try to escape from the Philippian prison even though a miracle paved the way for his escape (Acts 16:25-29). Nor did he attempt to escape from the centurion guarding him on the voyage to Rome despite the fact that the shipwreck could have given him that opportunity (Acts 27:42-44). Additionally, Paul cooperated with government officials such as Festus in Acts 24:24-27, respected those in positions of authority such as Felix in Acts 24:10 as well as Agrippa and Festus in Acts 26:2-3, 25, and even utilized his Roman citizenship to gain an appeal before Caesar (Acts 25:11). In other words, Paul repeatedly demonstrated being in subjection to “governing authorities” by cooperating with their rules and respecting their authority.
Paul was not the only one to provide instructions in Scripture regarding the Christian’s submission to government. In 1 Peter 2:13-17, Peter wrote…
Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.
The Greek word translated “submit” means “to subject one’s self, to obey; to submit to one’s control; to yield to one’s admonition or advice.” This term is elsewhere employed in the Bible to describe the relationship slaves are to have with theirmasters (1 Peter 2:18; Ephesians 6:5-6; Colossians 3:22), wives are to have with their husbands (1 Peter 3:1; Ephesians 5:22-24; Colossians 3:18), and Christians are to have with one another (Ephesians 5:21), church leaders (Hebrews 13:17), and God (James 4:7).
Interestingly, Peter indicated that we are to submit to human government “for the Lord’s sake.” This phrase “gives a theological basis for this submission” and indicates that “our submission to authority should imitate and thus glorify” Jesus Christ. In other words, Jesus submitted to human authority during His time on this earth, and, as bearers of His name, we are expected to “follow in His steps” and, thereby, bring glory to Him (1 Peter 2:21).
Consider for a moment Jesus’ conversation with the religious leaders who asked, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not” in Mark 12:14. The purpose of the question was not sincere because they were trying to entrap Jesus. If He answered “yes” then they could incite the Jews against Him since the Jews despised the Roman government. If He answered “no” then they could use it to build a case against Him in the Roman courts as an insurrectionist, which they eventually did according to Luke 23:2. However, Jesus did not answer with a simple “yes” or “no.” Instead He answered by saying, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17). In that statement He recognized the authority of human institutions as well as the authority of God and indicated that both require our submission.
Jesus’ point was not that the authority of human governments is on par with God, but that our submission to God entails a submission to the institutions that He has appointed. Remember, Jesus submitted to the rulings of government that lead to His death, but He did so because He was in submission to God’s will. Shortly before He was arrested and just hours before He was tried, punished, and eventually executed, Jesus prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). Thus, Jesus’ submission to the Jewish and Roman officials was simply an expression of His submission to the Father whose will was taking precedence.
In conclusion, Scripture plainly teaches that God expects His people to “be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1). However, Scriptures asserts that there is a context in which submission to government is no longer expected. In particular, submission to governing authorities is not the expectation when it prevents or contradicts our submission to God, and we will investigate the supremacy of submission to God in next week’s article.
Wayne Grudem, 1 Peter: An Introduction and Commentary, The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 119.