“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 to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.”
Western culture is undergoing a crisis of authority. The cultural revolution that has been occurring for the past several decades has led people to an almost wholesale rejection of claims of authority. Children disobey parents with impunity, and people reject the admonitions of leaders in the church, the government, and other social institutions. In some cases, various authorities have brought on this rejection themselves by offering poor leadership or by abusing those whom they supervise. Yet, this is not true in every case, and even many good and faithful authorities are rejected. We live in a culture that hates authority, and we have all been affected by this disdain for authority in one way or another.
As Christians, we dare not let ourselves be caught up in the spirit of rebellion that exists in our day. After all, Scripture has much to say about our need to submit to lawful authorities, and part of our responsibility as believers is to render such submission. One key passage on this subject is 1 Peter 2:13–14, which exhorts us to be submissive to the human authorities whom God has put in place to punish evildoers and to praise those who do good.
Interestingly, Peter gave this admonition to a body of believers who were enduring a great deal of suffering at the hands of the authorities and others in the culture. These individuals had to endure much injustice, but Peter called them to obey even when they were being treated unjustly (see vv. 18–19). They were to obey for the Lord’s sake (vv. 13–14). God placed those authorities over them (Rom. 13:1–7), and obeying them is part of what it means to obey the Lord. The same admonition applies to us today. Unjust treatment in itself does not necessarily mean that we can disobey the authorities God has placed over us.
At the same time, God calls us to render absolute, unquestioning submission only to Him. No authority may assume the place of God and demand that we break His commandments. When an authority commands us to do something God forbids or forbids us to do something God commands, we may—indeed, we must—disobey that authority (see Dan. 6). But generally speaking, disobedience should be the exception. We are called to go out of our way to obey those whom God has set over us, and we should not be looking for ways to justify unlawful disobedience.
Coram DeoLiving before the face of God
That we must obey earthly authorities unless they command us to do something God forbids or forbid us to do something God commands is an easy principle to memorize but hard to apply. Before we disobey a lawful authority, we must carefully discern whether disobedience is actually required by the law of God. We do this by studying God’s Word, praying for wisdom, and consulting with other believers.