Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men — as free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God. Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king. — 1 Peter 2:13-17
No doubt, many of you felt your blood pressure rise just reading the title of this post. Who could blame you? Submission in general does not come easily for most people. After all, every sin is a refusal to submit to God. Submission may be particularly difficult for Americans because our national heritage and identity are rooted in rebellion against the British monarchy and fierce independence. But submitting to the president when the stakes seem so steep, when partisanship is so vicious and when there is so much suspicion that the election was stolen…that is one tough challenge.
So what does the Bible say about our responsibility to submit to leaders? In addition to the one above, most people immediately think of Romans 13.
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.. — Romans 13:1–7
There’s no ambiguity about our call to submit to authorities. But are we to submit to the president as if he was a king? No.
First of all, our government is designed very differently than a monarchy. The king is supreme, the president is not. The president only heads one of our three branches of our government, and that branch is not designed to be more powerful than the other two. All three were designed with significant limits to their powers, though true to human nature all three have done what they can to expand their power. The Supreme Court was the first. Did you know that nowhere in the constitution name the Supreme Court as the authority who can declare a law unconstitutional? In 1803 the court surprised everyone by ruling that a law was unconstitutional, an argument that neither side had presented. Thomas Jefferson was quite disturbed by the act because he saw it as an usurpation of power that would lead to a despotic court. I’d say he nailed it.
Congress, likewise, has taken more and more power unto themselves whenever possible, passing laws that are clearly unconstitutional. They’ve also crept increasingly into the personal lives of the citizens of this country. Little by little they push the boundaries, retreating to former boundaries only when forced to by the courts.
The Executive Branch meanwhile has expanded its powers through the use of executive orders, issuing more and more with each presidency. “Between 1789 and 1907, U.S. presidents issued a combined total of approximately 2,400 executive orders. Since 1908, when the orders were first numbered chronologically, presidents have issued more than 13,700 executive orders, reflecting the expansion of presidential power over the years.” Barak Obama set a record for the most orders given in his first week in office, but Trump then topped him by one and Biden outdid Trump by more than double!! (history.com/topics/us-government/executive-order)
None of these three branches of government, however, have the supreme sovereignty of a king. So unless the president issues an executive order that applies to you specifically, he has no particular authority to ask you to submit to him. You typically do, of course, need to submit to the combined voice of the President and the senate when they pass a new bill into law. But even then, there is no “supreme” authority in the United States. Not even the Supreme Court is supreme, though the only way to overrule a decision of the Supreme Court appears to be to pass a constitutional amendment.
The closest thing we have to a supreme authority in this country is actually the constitution itself. That’s why every senator entering office has to swear an oath to defend the constitution — not the presidency, the congress or the Supreme Court.
I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.
The scriptures speak very strongly on the importance of submission. Children are told to obey their parents. Christians are told to submit to governing authorities and to church leadership. Slaves are told to submit to their masters — even harsh ones! Wives are told to submit to their husbands. Young people are told to submit to their elders. We are all told to submit to one another. Apparently submission is an important principle to God. But are there any limits on this call to submission?
Absolutely. This post isn’t about submission in general but about submission to the government so let’s just focus on that. We began with a passage out of 1 Peter 2:13-17. Let’s step back two verses to get better perspective on the context. After all, verse 13 begins with the word “therefore,” which is always there for a reason. It tells you that the statement following is a conclusion or result of what was just said before it.
Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul, having your conduct honorable among the Gentiles, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation.Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men — as free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God. Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king. — 1 Peter 2:11–17
Notice that Peter’s motivation is to see our conduct bring God glory. He wants our behavior to be so upright that the unbelievers who witness the way we act will glorify God for it — eventually. They might slander us in the present, but on “the day of visitation” when Jesus returns they will have no choice but to acknowledge that we acted with integrity. God will be glorified when His presence, and that of His obedient children, make His standards of righteousness and evil are as irrefutable as His glory will be.
Peter also talks about our good behavior silencing “the ignorance of foolish men.” Sometimes it stops them in their tracks and works immediately. But in some cases people won’t fall silent until the glory of the Lord is revealed at His second coming. Even with those stubborn people we will see that our good behavior today will have an impact on judgment day like the final, spiritual puzzle piece that completes God’s glory and vindication.
Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight! — Isaiah 5:20,21
The second principle I notice, both in this passage and in Romans 13, is that the governing authorities have received their authority for the specific purpose of punishing evil and praising good. They do not receive their authority to become our gods on earth. They do not have the authority to define what is good and what is evil, only to punish and reward those who are. The definitions of good and evil remain solely in God’s domain. Whenever people attempt to redefine good and evil, the result is always an increase in sin. Either they blaspheme God by slandering that which God calls good or they blaspheme God by approving that which God has condemned as evil.
Politicians do not have the authority to define what is good and what is evil, only to punish evildoers and reward those who do good. The definitions remain solely in God’s domain.
But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear; having a good conscience, that when they defame you as evildoers, those who revile your good conduct in Christ may be ashamed. For it is better, if it is the will of God, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. — 1 Peter 3:15-17
For we have spent enough of our past lifetime in doing the will of the Gentiles—when we walked in lewdness, lusts, drunkenness, revelries, drinking parties, and abominable idolatries. In regard to these, they think it strange that you do not run with them in the same flood of dissipation, speaking evil of you. — 1 Peter 4:3,4
Peter says that Christians will be attacked and accused of being evil-doers specifically for doing what is right and choosing not to do what is evil! So what do you suppose God would tell you to do when an authority tells you to do something that is evil? Is God going to be glorified by your doing good or by doing evil? By letting God define the difference between the two or letting a human exercise divine authority?
Despite God’s love for submission, the Bible includes a number of examples of people who chose not to submit because it would be an offense to God. Peter and John were ordered to stop teaching in the name of Jesus by the who’s who of Jewish authorities: the priests, the captain of the temple, the Sadducees, the Sanhedrin, “the rulers, elders, and scribes, as well as Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and as many as were of the family of the high priest, gathered together at Jerusalem.” Since Jesus Himself had already told His disciples to obey whoever sits in the seat of Moses the apostles submitted to their order, right? Not a chance!
So they called them and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered and said to them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.” — Acts 4:18–20
When Jesus told them to do whatever those sitting in the seat of Moses said, He wasn’t talking about giving them unchecked power. The apostles told this leadership dream team that they could form their own opinions but that they saw it as a choice between obeying man or God. God wins. We are to submit to every authority on earth, but that submission ends the moment they ask us to disobey God. That’s why Daniel prayed openly against the orders of his king. That’s why Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego refused to bow down and worship a statue of the king. That’s why Stephen preferred to be be stoned to death than to pacify the Jewish leaders with his silence.
That’s also why many caucasian men and women linked arms with their African American brothers and sisters, defying the government during the civil rights protests of the 60s. That’s why brave Chinese Christians defy their government by smuggling in Bibles and meeting in underground churches. It’s why Canadian Robert Hoogland went to jail rather than call his gender-disturbed daughter a boy and be silent about the court’s acts of misjustice. And it’s why many of us may need to disobey our government before long.
But two attitudes must dominate our thoughts. First, we must have the attitude that we are willing to suffer for Christ, knowing that losing everything for the Lord is a bargain. Nothing is worth the cost we incur by compromising on our obedience to Him, and yes, there will be a cost sometimes. Prophets and apostles lost their lives. Already some people in this country have lost their livelihoods. Second, we will only resist unjust, ungodly laws out of devotion to God, not out of prideful, independent defiance. We can maintain love and respect in our hearts even as we refuse to bow down to whatever false gods they parade before us. That empowers us with the godliness of submissive hearts even when that very godliness prevents us from submitting.
Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy. If you are reproached for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. On their part He is blasphemed, but on your part He is glorified. But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as a busybody in other people’s matters. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this matter. — 1 Peter 4:12-16
May we delight the Lord by submitting to authority whenever possible.
May we rejoice with the Lord when we are persecuted and suffer, knowing that we will share in God’s joy and “spirit of glory.”
May we glorify God in our response to the world’s reproaches.
Yes, may we glorify God in this matter.