“Respect the Authorities”: Scriptural Framework #1 ~ A Proper Subjection
Following on from the introduction, here is the first element of a scriptural framework helping us through the issue of respect for civil authority.
A Proper Subjection
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor. (Rom. 13:1–7)
This is part of the apostle’s treatment of practical Christian living in the real world, and here Paul traces a tight, logical sequence. What he says may be considered an outworking of the full spiritual force of the fifth commandment, “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the LORD your God is giving you” (Ex. 20:12). The implications of this commandment concern our relationship to God-appointed authority, and its demands reach far deeper and wider than parental authority. The Shorter Catechism helpfully expands the essence, reminding us that the fifth commandment requires us to preserve the honor of and perform the duties belonging to all people in their various places and relations, whether as superiors, inferiors, or equals. By way of negative contrast, it forbids the neglecting of or doing anything against the honor and duty that belong to all people in their various places and relations.
Here Paul takes that principle and applies it to the relationship of believers to the civil magistrate. It is a rule for all people: each one must be subject to the governing authorities, “the powers that be,” in the evocative phrasing of the King James Version. It is a call not merely to grudging quietism or passive acceptance but to an active and comprehensive embrace of submission in all lawful duties and services. It is not a mere matter of obligatory constraint or restraint, but a positive pursuit of a disposition and deeds that show one’s awareness that the Lord has appointed authorities.
There is a recognition inherent in this submission that the power exercised by these authorities is by divine appointment (Prov. 8:15). God has devised, designated, and delegated the exercise of all earthly powers subordinate to His own. The highest and lowest civil authorities have been ordained in principle and in person by the Lord of heaven and earth. There is a clear sequence of corollaries: to resist these authorities is to resist what God has ordained, which is to resist God, which is to invite wrath or judgment. Although the context suggests that the primary reference is to the judgment meted out by civil magistrates in accordance with God’s appointment, there may be a hint of eternality in the language as well.
All this is bounded in the intended benefits of government. Rulers are appointed to be a terror to evil—to spook the bad guys, keeping evil at bay—so that the citizen who acts uprightly should have nothing to fear. We must recognize that God has appointed earthly authority to be a blessing to men. Civil magistrates have been granted the sword to defend good and to punish evil. Even usurped or abused authority—which we might and should as Christians and citizens speak against—ought to and often does provide a measure of control and order in a nation against the outbreak of open sin, a protection against those times when every man does what is right in his own eyes (Judg. 21:25).
Two reasons are provided for this principled submission. The first is “wrath,” the fear of temporal judgments against evildoing, but this is not the only reason and would in itself be a fairly shallow one. The saints also obey “for conscience’ sake,” recognizing their obligations to the God who has appointed those authorities and having their consciences bound ultimately to Him.
The implications are clear and practical. Christians are to offer to the government whatever belongs to the government by right— appropriate maintenance and appropriate reverence: “Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor” (Rom. 13:7).
Whether in the material or the moral spheres, governments ought to receive from us what God has called us to give. Before we begin to buck at this and start offering exceptions to the rule, we would do well to recognize that this commandment was not issued to a church basking in the hazy afterglow of the largely tragic Constantinian settlement. It did not float down to saints enjoying the benefits of a post-Enlightenment liberal democracy, but to believers who were living in the Roman Empire under the tyranny of such beasts as Claudius and Nero Caesar. These men were no friends to humanity, let alone to Christianity, but despots who ruled with the proverbial fist of iron as those who considered themselves gods. The issue is not first and foremost the character of the magistrate or his abuses of the power put in his hands, but the position to which he has been appointed by God as an agent of temporal justice in some measure.
We must acknowledge that this does not suspend the believer’s ultimate obligation to God. The apostles themselves were perfectly clear that they ought to obey God rather than men whenever the civil or religious authorities commanded something that God forbade or forbade something that God commanded. Peter challenged the Sanhedrin, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge” (Acts 4:19). Not long after, he and the other apostles were even plainer: “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
While we will consider this tension in more detail as we move on, we should note that this understanding dictates the occasions on which and the tone in which some form of resistance or disobedience is legitimized. Perhaps the finest examples are found in the book of Daniel. In the first instance, Daniel’s three friends refuse to bow to the image of gold erected by Nebuchadnezzar. Threatened with death in the fiery furnace if they will not obey, their reply is a model of gracious refusal. Their language is polite and eminently respectful. Their recognition of the king’s authority is sincere and humble. Their refusal to obey is absolute. Their faithfulness to God is complete: “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If that is the case, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up” (Dan. 3:16–18). How infuriating it must have been to Nebuchadnezzar to have men who humbly and reverently accepted his right to throw them into a fiery furnace and politely refused to obey him anyway!
Daniel is no less noble and gracious when forbidden to pray to anyone but Darius. He will not lay aside God’s law in the matter and is willing to be thrown into the lions’ den as a consequence. And how does he respond to the concerned emperor who hurries down to the den the morning after? With words like these: “O king, live forever! My God sent His angel and shut the lions’ mouths, so that they have not hurt me, because I was found innocent before Him; and also, O king, I have done no wrong before you” (Dan. 6:21–22). Daniel honors his sovereign, testifies to God, and defends his actions, all at once. Recognizing the authorities as appointed by God conditions our attitudes and actions toward them, even when as disciples of Christ we are legitimately obliged to refuse particular demands.