Although Christians are citizens of heaven (Phil. 3:20), they must also submit themselves to all forms and levels of human government (Tit. 3:1). God established human government after the flood; and Genesis 9:6 introduces the concept of governmental authority when it speaks of capital punishment. Governments help maintain law and order, keep the peace and avoid anarchy. Our attitude to authority is an important part of our Christian life.
Everyone must submit to the governing authorities because they are established by God and viewed as His servants (Rom. 13:1-7). The governing authorities are set in place by the permissive choice of God and their power is from God (Jn. 19:11; Rom. 9:17). Their weapons are a sign of their authority. So when people disobey a human ruler, they indirectly disobey God.
It’s good to be law-abiding citizens, because if we don’t submit to authority we will have a bad conscience. We are to pay our taxes to those in authority and never join in rebellion against the government or seek its overthrow by violence.
Paul quoted Exodus 22:28 when he said, “Do not speak evil about the ruler of your people” (Acts 23:5 NIV). He also said that we should pray for “all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Tim. 2:1-2). It should be noted that the governing authorities were probably pagans when these passages of the Bible were written.
Here are three examples from Scripture of those who respected authorities in difficult circumstances.
- David honored wicked King Saul and called him the Lord’s anointed (1 Sam. 24:6) even though he sought to kill David.
- When the Pharisees tried to trap Jesus, He said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Mt. 22:21).
- Nero (a godless brutal ruler) was the Roman emperor when Peter wrote “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, 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” (1 Pet. 2:13-14).
Christians should obey God, but not place the authorities above God (Jn. 14:21-24; 15:10; Eph. 5:24; Heb. 5:9; 12:9; Jas. 4:7). A Christian is not required to obey if an authority orders him to sin, to disobey God or to compromise his loyalty to Jesus Christ. When the apostles were commanded not to preach they replied “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 4:18-20; 5:27-29).
Here are two examples from Scripture of those who disobeyed authorities instead of disowning God.
- When King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon commanded that everyone should bow down to an idol, three Jews – Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego – chose to follow God’s command instead (Dan. 3; Ex. 20:3-5). Because of their faithfulness, God protected them from the fiery furnace and they were promoted in Babylon.
- When King Darius issued a decree saying that anyone who prayed to a god other than the king would be thrown into the lions’ den (Dan. 6), Daniel kept praying to his God “just as he had done before” (Dan. 6:10). When he was punished by being thrown into the lion’s den, God protected him, and he even prospered.
Scripture shows us that we should obey all authority, unless that authority requires us to disobey God, who is the highest authority.
Published, February 2010