The Limits of Submission to Man

I have a vision of the church as a people who are sojourners, strangers, exiles, refugees in this world (Hebrews 11:13; 1 Peter 2:11; Philippians 3:20). A happy, peaceful, loving people who swear allegiance to a foreign king, Jesus Christ, and to no other. A people who reside in every nation but whose all-determining citizenship is in heaven, from which we await our King and Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. I have a vision of the church as the freest of all peoples in the world. Free from fear and greed because the kingdom to which we belong cannot be shaken (Hebrews 12:28), and because our true fatherland is heaven (Hebrews 11:16), and the city of our destiny has God for its builder and maker (Hebrews 11:10). I see the church as a free people because our minds are not conformed to this age but are transformed by the mercies of God, so that we are not enslaved by fashion or fad or any other form of covetousness. I have a vision of the church with strong desires not shaped by the persuaders of this world but shaped by the messages coming from the fatherland. O for a church with a single and radical allegiance to the king who said, "My kingdom is not of this world" (John 18:36).

Culture, Politics, and Christianity

One of the crucial issues before the church in America today is: Shall we be American with a pinch of religious flavoring? Or: Shall we be Christ's people with a pinch of American flavoring? I think the issue is crucial because there are many in our churches (many of us) who have not seriously and earnestly asked themselves: Am I more American than I am Christian? Are there not impulses in our society which define us in the world as Americans and which influence us daily, but which are incompatible with the Christ-life and the cross-life? Are we not constantly being shaped by forces in our culture which make it almost impossible for the world to see any difference in our values? If we are ever going to appear to the world as aliens and exiles on the earth, then we are going to have to go back and renew the declaration of allegiance by which we became Christians, namely, Jesus is Lord! And we are going to have to wake up to the fact that this is a cultural and political statement. It is a radical declaration of independence from our culture and of absolute allegiance to a foreign king, Jesus. Therefore, the point of my message today is to call us to submit to Christ alone as king; and whatever other submission to man we render, to do it within the limits of the lordship of Christ and always for the sake of his glory.

Romans 13:1–7 has often been used to justify an unseemly conformity to the status quo in this country and in others. It could be used to keep the church docile to the Nazi regime in Germany, and to impede the efforts of those in our own land who worked for equal rights for black people twenty years ago. I want us to look at this text in order to see what the apostle was really teaching.

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, he who resists the authorities, resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore, one must be subject not only to avoid wrath but also for the sake of conscience.

Paul's argument has three main steps. Step one is found in the second half of verse 1: all governing authority has been ordained or instituted by God. If there is a government, God put it there. Step two is found in verse 2: therefore, a person who resists or opposes governing authorities experiences two things: one is pangs of conscience that he is really opposing God, and the other is punishment that the authorities mete out to those who oppose them. To avoid these two experiences, verse 5 concludes with step three: to avoid wrath and a bad conscience, therefore, be subject to the governing authorities. In summary then, governing authorities are appointed by God; therefore, to oppose them is to oppose God and to incur punishment; therefore, do not oppose them, but be subject to them.

I believe "all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16, 17). That includes this text in Romans 13. But it also includes many other texts which don't seem compatible with Romans 13. So if we want to honor the whole Bible as God's Word, we have to ask how Romans 13 fits in with some other parts of Scripture.

Civil Disobedience in Biblical History

For example, there is a long and respected tradition of civil disobedience in biblical history which God not only allows but also praises. It starts in Exodus 1. The Israelites had lived in Egypt under the rule of the Pharaohs for several centuries. They became very numerous, so the king of Egypt commanded the Hebrew midwives to kill all the boy babies born to the Israelites (v. 16). 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." And verse 20 adds, "So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and grew strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families." It seems clear to me that these women were not subject to the governing authorities. In fact, they saw the command of the king not as a command of God, but contrary to God's command. So they disobeyed the civil authorities for God's sake, and God was pleased.

Two other instances are found in Daniel. King Nebuchadnezzar made a royal decree that all who heard his music must fall down and worship the golden image of his god. But Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to obey the edict (3:16–18). So they were thrown into the fiery furnace, and God miraculously saved them and thus put his stamp of approval on their civil disobedience.

Then in the sixth chapter of Daniel, Darius the king establishes an edict that for thirty days no one can make a petition to any god or man other than Darius himself (6:7). Daniel was one of Darius' three chief presidents (6:2), but verse 10 says, "When Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem; and he got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously." The result was that he was thrown to the lions. But again God shows his approval of Daniel's disobedience by saving him from the lion's mouth.

The same thing is found in the New Testament. When Peter and John were arrested by the Jewish authorities and commanded not to speak or teach in the name of Jesus, they answered in Acts 4:19, "Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard." So they went on teaching in public and were arrested again. The high priest said to them in Acts 5:28, "'We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man's blood upon us.' But Peter and the apostles answered, 'We must obey God rather than men."'

All of this makes it very hard to say that the Bible teaches that since all governing authority is from God, it must, therefore, be obeyed. Such stories as these make Paul's teaching appear on the surface incredibly naïve. How could Paul say in verse 3, for example, "Rulers are not a terror to good conduct but to bad"? How could he say, "Do what is good, and you will receive the authority's approval"? If it weren't for some of the other things Paul wrote, we might think that he lived in an idealistic dream world where good is always rewarded and evil always punished by the governing authorities.

All Existing Authority Is Set Up by God

But we know for a fact that Paul was not so naïve. For example, he said in 1 Corinthians 2:8, "None of the rulers of this age understood the wisdom of God; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory." Paul was keenly aware that the death of Jesus was the ultimate breech of justice—that the governing authorities did not praise the good and punish the wrong. They did just the opposite. And he knew from his own missionary journeys that the ruling authorities could be a menace to his own ministry (Acts 16:16ff.).

What then are we to make of Romans 13:1–5, which calls for subjection to governing authorities? Is the basic premise wrong? Are all governing authorities really instituted by God? Is all authority from God? Or are only just governments instituted by God? I would say that, given Paul's view of God's sovereign sway over history, he would not give up this truth under any circumstances. Yes, all authority which exists has been set up by God.

The evidence for this outside of Paul's writings is found in Daniel and John. Even though Daniel describes the deeds of very evil kings, he says in 2:21 that it is God who "removes kings and sets up kings," and in 4:32, "The Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will." So, according to Daniel even wicked kings should acknowledge that they have their position and authority only from God. The same thing is taught in the Gospel of John. Pilate, by whose authority Jesus was finally crucified, was a governing authority set and ordained by God (cf. Acts 2:23; 4:27, 28). In John 19:10 Pilate says to Jesus, "'Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?' Jesus answered, 'You would have no authority over me unless it had been given to you from above.'" Therefore, if Pilate, Nebuchadnezzar, and Darius were set in their places and given authority by God, even though they did much evil, then we have no reason to deny Paul's assertion that "there is no authority except from God" (Romans 13:1).

What Being Subject to Governing Authorities Means

What does have to be qualified is verse 3. In view of what Paul knows about the miscarriage of justice in the death of Jesus, he can't have meant it to be an absolute fact with no exceptions when he said in verse 3, "Rulers are not a terror to good conduct . . . Do good, and you will receive their praise." This verse and the next one must be a general statement of how governments should and often do function. Paul simply does not have in view the problem of evil governments. Instead he has in view a good government in which doing good deeds will generally find approval and doing evil will generally be punished.

If this is correct, then it will no longer be possible to insist that Christians should always be subject to the governing authorities. As long as authorities punish only what is evil and praise only what is good, submission to God will always conform to submission to the authorities. But if the authorities ever begin to punish the good and reward the bad (as has repeatedly happened in church history), then submission to God will bring us into conflict with the authorities. So the command to be subject in verses 1 and 5 is not absolute; it depends on whether subjection will involve us in doing wrong. The ultimate criterion of right and wrong is not whether a ruling authority commands it, but whether God commands it. The fact that God has ordained all authority does not mean all authority should be obeyed. It is right to resist what God has appointed in order to obey what God has commanded. His appointment of Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, Darius, Pilate, Domitian, Bloody Mary, Adolf Hitler, and Idi Amin may be for our testing (cf. Deuteronomy 13:3). Will we save our lives and submit to the ruling authority, or will we say with Peter, "We must obey God rather than men," and thus risk our lives?

When verse 5 says we are to be subject in order to avoid wrath, it means the punishment that comes from wrongdoing, not from obedience to Christ. 1 Peter 4:15, 16 makes this issue clearer. It says, "Let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or a wrongdoer or a mischief-maker; yet if one suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but under that name let him glorify God." In other words, strive to avoid incurring wrath for wrongdoing, but if doing what Christ demands brings wrath, don't have a guilty conscience, glorify God.

We can sum up in several sentences. 1) There is no authority except from God. The greatest human ruler should humbly confess he is where he is by virtue of God's sovereign appointment. 2) Nevertheless, some rules and governments are good, and some are bad. Some reward the right and punish the wrong. Others do the reverse. Most do a little of both. 3) Therefore, the demand for subjection is relative, not absolute. It depends on whether the demands of the governing authorities require us to disobey Jesus. If they do, we will not be subject at that point but will say with Peter, "We must obey God rather than men." We will honor God above the state.

But if the demands of the state do not require us to disobey Jesus (as with speed limits, stop signs, income taxes, curfews, building codes, fishing licenses, and many other laws), we will be subject for the Lord's sake (1 Peter 2:13). And it is very important to stress that, just as we may have to disobey the civil authorities for Christ's sake, so all our obedience should be for his sake as well. We never have two masters. All our submission to man is not only limited by the lordship of Christ; it is also an expression of our yieldedness to that lordship. Every time we say yes to any law, it should be a yes to Jesus. If Jesus is that much with us, then my vision for the church as a happy, peaceful, loving group of aliens and exiles in the world will become a reality. That's my prayer for Bethlehem.