I come back to this with a heavy sigh. I started it yesterday as the news unfolded of people breaching the Capitol building as the Trump rally changed gears. I know there were people there peacefully gathering, but a good many of them crossed the line.
As I watched the events unfold, I struggled to find some solid ground to stand on as I see people who call themselves Christians continue to support Trump regardless of what he says and does. At best, he sent mixed messages that were ambiguous enough to encourage what happened. At worst he incited insurrection, and stood by watching it happen, saying nothing until it was too late. Even then, it was a poor excuse for what he should have said.
The thing that troubles me most as I think about these things is the way Christians who support Trump and this “resistance” at at all costs ignore Scripture that is inconvenient. Paul defined the way followers of Jesus Christ should act regarding authority:
“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.”
Peter, the rock on whom Jesus said he would build his church, said the same thing:
“Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him….”
1 Peter 2:13-14
If anyone thinks insurrection is justified because Democrats are “bad” today, consider that Peter and Paul said these things at a time when their world was ruled by Nero.
Nero was a bad leader, even by pagan, Roman standards. He considered himself God. He persecuted Christians and had them publicly killed, setting them on fire at night to light the City. Peter and Paul were both martyred under the rule of Nero.
Democrats are not nearly as bad as Nero. Peter’s and Paul’s words were spoken at a time much worse than the political squabbling today. We can’t justify resisting authority because Democrats are bad – not when we consider the context in which Peter and Paul told believers to respect governing authorities!
At the same time, I am aware that people may justify their resistance on other grounds. Peter, himself, resisted the governing authority in the Book of Acts. Peter and John were arrested for preaching. (Acts 4:2-3) They were commanded not to preach about Jesus, but Peter and John refused to comply, saying,
“Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
They were arrested again for refusing to remain quiet. (Acts 5:20) Again, they were commanded not to speak. Again, they responded, “We must obey God rather than human beings!” (Acts 5:19) This time they were flogged and let go.
So which is it? Submit to authorities? Or boldly rebel?
It seems like a conundrum. Do we get to take our Pick?
Maybe those are not the right questions to ask. Maybe we need to be more careful to weigh the words of Peter and Paul together with their actions and divide the Word of God more accurately.
These things may seem contradictory, but they aren’t. They also aren’t options for us to choose from. We can’t just choose one or the other, and we can’t just reject either statement. We have to read them together.
Digging a little deeper, we should recall that Jesus gave one very specific instruction immediately before he left his disciples. He said,
“[G]o and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you….”
Jesus basically left them one instruction, which was to go out into the world, preaching the Gospel and making disciples as they go. This was a direct, unequivocal instruction from Jesus, himself. To be silent when Jesus said to speak would be in direct opposition to what Jesus told them to do.
Even so, Peter submitted to the authorities who arrested him. He didn’t resist it. He even rejoiced after being flogged for preaching because “they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor” for Christ. (Acts 4:41)
Peter did not remain silent as the governing authority commanded him, but he submitted to the punishment. He rendered unto Caesar that which was Caesar’s (taking the punishment), while he rendered unto God what is God’s (preaching the Gospel – the one thing Jesus told them to do).
Paul also submitted to the consequences of preaching in the face of governing authorities who opposed him, saying, “We rejoice in our sufferings….” (Rom. 5:3); and “I rejoice in my sufferings….” (Col. 1:24) Most of his suffering was endured at the hands of the ruling authorities, and he submitted to it, and he submitted to it, showing respect and honor to every tribunal.
Paul added instruction to the Romans that we should “pay taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed”. (Rom. 13:7) When looking at Paul’s life, we see he never resisted arrest or spoke against the authorities. Paul showed honor and respect to the governing leaders and to the process, even when he was being flogged and mistreated.
Of course, the world was more black and white then. Christians had no power or influence. They had no people in high places. They had no voice among the ruling authorities.
Things are much different today. In this Democratic Republic we call the United States, every citizen who is not a felon can vote and have a say in the governance of this nation. Leaders are elected “by the people”, but the principles are the same – submit to, respect and honor authority.
Is this is a difference that makes a difference? No! Frankly, we should find it easier to submit to, respect and honor authority that is light years more fair, reasonable, honorable, and just than Nero!
The exceptions (like refusing to remain silent) can’t swallow the rule. The rule for followers of Christ is to submit to governing authorities. Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. We aren’t “of this world” anyway. We march to the beat of a different Drummer. We aren’t storing up our treasures in this world. We are citizens of a different country.
“Yes, but”, a person might say, “the election was stolen from Trump!”
What’s your point? There were no elections with Nero. Nero killed his rivals. Still, Peter and Paul said, “Submit”.
Even if the election was stolen, the perpetrators have a Judge. So do you, and He will hold all people accountable. God is on the throne, not us.
I am NOT advocating that Christians should retire from politics and do nothing to make the world a better place. How we engage in politics, though, is more important than what we accomplish. If we have to ignore Scripture and the character God desires to work in us to achieve our ends, we are moving in the wrong direction!
The line seems to have gotten blurred in the United States today. We seem to think that Constitutionals rights and individual freedoms mean that we have the authority and the mandate to bring about change in whatever way we can achieve it. We seem to think it is “all on us” and that the world is counting on us to deliver what we think God wants to do.
Those are dangerous thoughts. I think of David who hid in a cave and refused to take Saul’s life, even when he had multiple opportunities. Instead, he trusted God. It wasn’t for him to take matters into his own hands.
I think of Daniel who served at the King’s pleasure. At the point where he was ordered to bow to the King as a god, Daniel stood. But otherwise, Daniel played by the rules of the King – so much that the King gave him great authority. He only refused play by the king’s rules when they required Daniel to bow to him as a god.
On the extreme edges, where submitting to authority means renouncing God and His commandment to spread the Gospel, we must choose to submit to God. On matters that do not involve actual renunciation of God or a command to be silent when God says speak, we are to submit to the governing authorities.
If we must refuse because we have no choice but to obey God, we should follow the examples of Peter and Paul in submitting to the consequences.
I am not saying that those are the only two instances where we are free to refuse to honor laws or orders. A person’s conscience might require submission to God over other laws or rules that run directly counter to them. Conscientious objectors come to mind, but refusal means facing the punishment at the hands of the authorities, and doing so with dignity and grace.
It doesn’t mean storming Capitol buildings or refusing to step down when the political process has played out against us. It doesn’t mean we continue to stand behind and support a man who encourages those things.
Do we trust that God works all things together for the good and for His purposes? Or do we think it is up to us to deliver outcomes at all cost? I believe Scripture gives is some pretty clear and compelling direction on these points.
I approach the subject of Romans 13 – respecting authority – in light of the right-wing, Trump supporting mob that stormed the Capitol Building on January 6, 2021. A fellow blogger critiquing a recent book approaches the same subject from “the other side” – from the point of view of black Americans who have labored under the injustice of unjust governing authorities for generations. (See “Reading While Black” by Esau McCaulley: Book Analysis Series (Part 2))
We need to be consistent in our reading of Scripture and its application to our lives and times. The blogger says that Romans 13 is the ideal, that Paul isn’t saying anything about when the State is unjust. I think he was. Respecting governing authorities isn’t just an ideal; it’s an ideal to be lived out.
As I have observed in this article, Paul was writing to the Romans in the time of Nero whose unjust decrees resulted in Paul’s own martyrdom. Paul and Peter towed the line of respect for governing authorities. Both of them refused to be quiet and cease preaching the Gospel in violation of official orders. What they didn’t do was storm any Capitols (or councils). As noted above, they took their punishment and even rejoiced in it. They respected the leadership and the process, but they spoke out.
These things bring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to mind, who lived out these principles in my lifetime more prominently and biblically than any other example I can think of. The power of that example stands as an enduring symbol of the wisdom of walking the fine line that Paul and Peter blazed in the First Century in a world when unjust leaders were more unjust and not at all accountable for their injustice. Though Dr. King died a martyr himself, he was the pivotal voice and example that led to the change that occurred with the passing of the Civil Rights act within days of his death.
8 thoughts on “How Should the Church Act Regarding Authority?”
Good points, Kevin. I am perplexed as well at how Christians justify their behavior on both sides of these political issues over the last year. But I suppose that is the Lord’s job to figure out with them and not mine. God bless!
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I keep thinking: it’s a narrow path. It’s easy to fall off both ways.
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It is not a mystery to me why so many self-proclaimed Christians followed Trump, even though none of Trumps words or actions were Christ-like. This thing about Trump started with Christian conservative leaders claiming Trump was sent by God… Christians then took an attitude of “well if Trump was sent by God, then anything he does or says must be ok”.
Using the Bible as a source of how to act is not so easy. Many “hero’s” of the Bible were often times thugs, barbarians, and murderers. You mention David’s refusal to kill Saul, portraying his as kind, noble, Christ-like… but if you read ALL about David, you would realize he was a barbarian, killing many and having NO problem killing someone who owed him money, for example. Elijah too, after winning a bet with some 450 prophets, turns around and kills all of them. These were PROPHETS… NOT military men. Does that sound Christ-like to you? But a LOT of people today follow the Old Testament FAR more than Jesus’ words… because “an-eye-for-an-eye” vs “love your enemy” is MUCH easier and more natural, due to our sinful nature. Trump looks much like some of these “hero’s”… strong, heartless, lacking any compassion. Is it a wonder Trump had so many followers?
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Both believers and unbelievers pull things out of the Bible to support what they are inclined to believe, instead of allowing Scripture to speak for itself and for the Holy Spirit to provide understanding. We need to “rightly divide the word” to avoid confirmation bias and let the Word speak for itself. (2 Timothy 2:15) We see people doing things in the Bible and conclude that God sanctioned what they did – whether it is slavery, incest or killing people. I have often thought Hebrews 4:12 that says “the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” I believe that people often see what they want to see in it. It “exposes” us to that extent. Of course, this happens before God who is our Judge. I don’t think any person can really know what is going on in the head and heart of another person. We might be able to judge people by their actions and fruit, but God is the ultimate Judge. We aren’t.