By Christopher Myers
Written 21 April-8 June 2020 (and a follow-up at the end written March 2021)
Link to 2000 Years Later Foreword: https://aquilitz.com/2000-years-later-series-a-foreword/
Link to Part 1, The Church: https://aquilitz.com/what-was-the-church-supposed-to-be/
Link to Part 2, Selfish Altruism: https://aquilitz.com/selfish-altruism/
Link to Part 4, Pride and Anger: https://aquilitz.com/pride-and-anger/
Link to Part 5, Attitude: https://aquilitz.com/the-contemporary-christian-attitude/
Since the first formation of human government, questions have been posed regarding who, how, when, and why government subjects should submit to an individual’s authority. These questions are of great importance, as their answers provide reasoning as to what responsibility each individual should take when their government acts in a way that they disagree with, actions of which (at the most extreme) can lead to revolution. I believe that there is great worth to discussing these questions amongst friends and family, as at their core are valuable moral foundations that every person should strive to develop and live by, which is why I plan on addressing and attempting to answer these questions from both a secular and religious basis in the following paragraphs.
The ‘why’ of submission tends to be the easiest question to answer, as it most often results in two explanations. The first is tied to an expected social contract, in which a group of people allow certain freedoms to be taken so that they might gain safety. The basis for this appears to be the goal of allowing the greatest amount of productivity and joy in life while ensuring that each individual’s time on Earth is maximized through an appropriate amount of security. While the idea of social contracts can be traced back to Greek philosophers like Socrates, the theory gained a significant amount of high-profile followers in the 17th and 18th centuries, who argued that government should be based on individual self-interest and rational consent.1 While there was disagreement between philosophers on whether natural law existed or not (which is a very worthwhile discussion in itself – one that I believe leads to good evidence for God), the social contract was an attempt to create a moral obligation that would allow for civil submission to a secular government authority in the name of public safety and order. Much of modern social contract theory came about as a direct challenge (primarily by Thomas Hobbes during the English Civil War) to the second most common answer to the ‘why’ of submission to government authority, which is the divine right of kings, known today as the God-given authority to rulers.2
For those that believe in a higher power, the basis for the divine right of kings is the biblically-centered idea that God has placed an individual in a place of authority in order to enforce divine will. Ironically (when considering religious text), God doesn’t even appear to desire this type of rule, with the Lord literally warning His nation of Israel through Samuel (in 1 Samuel 8) of the horrors that a king will bring.
What then does God desire, a Christian might ask? Not a government, which is a body of persons that constitutes the governing authority of a political unit or organization.3 Originally, God desired to interact with man on a personal level, speaking directly to Adam and Eve. When His chosen two failed, He decided to speak to a single representative of a family, first Noah and then Noah’s descendants including Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. These individuals acted at least somewhat righteously of their own free will, and in doing so were chosen by God. Their desire for a relationship with God was the basis for why He chose to act through them, as it’s shown in Genesis 6:9 with Noah. With Noah, God created His official covenant – a contract, if you will, that assists with guiding those that follow the Lord. God only added additional requests to His contract as a result of requests or failures by those He has been in covenant with, starting with a single request he gave to Adam and Eve and leading to His detailed ceremonial rulings shown in Leviticus. Based on this (and backed up in the New Testament by Luke 15:4-7 and Acts 17:27), I believe it’s obvious that God desires above all else a personal relationship with each and every person. Why then, does the idea of the divine right of kings exist?
The Christian basis for the divine authority of human leadership comes primarily from Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-14. Both verses specifically state the need to submit to whatever human authority is in power, as God has placed those leaders in their roles to serve justice to society (and God provided kings to Israel only after the nation’s request to be ruled by one, as was previously noted). Although these are New Testament versus, they correspond correctly with the Old Testament stories in 1st and 2nd Kings, where God allowed even harsh kings to rule over His people to enforce strict judgement against them. These versus are often used by Christians to explain both the ‘how’ and ‘when’ to submit to authority, although they should not be considered in a vacuum.
The ‘how’ and ‘when’ to submit to authority for a secular audience has a variety of possible answers, but considering the goal of maximizing productivity and joy on Earth, the primary answer appears to be submission so long as there is little chance for death in the short term and a likely opportunity for personal pleasure over time (i.e. allow for temporary pain so long as there is a good chance for personal reward that outweighs the pain). All human forms of government balance freedom and safety. In this sense, each individual has a different expectation of how much freedom he or she requires in order to gain an acceptable quality of life. For example, governments impose speed limits to limit the chance of death on the road and police are allowed to restrain and jail citizens who break (mostly) agreed-upon laws. It might bring joy to an individual to drive 100 mph in a school zone or to steal a friend’s television, but we choose to submit to the law and to authority because arguably more pain than joy would be caused if these activities were allowed. I believe that these illustrations successfully describe the ‘how’ and ‘when’ for secular submission to authority.
This line of discussion tends to also partially answer the question of ‘who’ as well. While religious individuals believe that the ‘who’ is any authority figure that has been placed in his or her position by God, the secular answer of ‘who’ you should submit to tends to be anyone that will likely maximize your pleasure on Earth. I state this as the likely answer for a secular audience, as if there is no believe in a God or an afterlife, then there is no point to discuss moral law and its theoretical effects on an individual. After all, if you don’t believe that murder is fundamentally wrong and that it being wrong is a universal constant, then governmental authority and/or cowardice is likely the only thing stopping you from killing or being killed so that you or another individual can maximize pleasure while alive – as murder would allow you to eliminate challengers or gain assets. This disturbing consideration is why even in secular audiences, the concept of natural law appears in these discussions of government and authority. The idea of natural law is an underlying framework that guides ethics – a framework that gives reasoning for why certain actions appear right or wrong (some secular groups believe we evolved by chance with these values imprinted upon us). I believe that there is difficulty in justifying the idea of a true natural law without also stating that moral law from a higher power is the force implementing that natural law.
I would also argue that these foundations are unlikely to have developed in the ‘ether’ by chance. At the very least, there is a possibility for God to have placed them and if this is the case, then we would do well to act as though he exists, even if we may not immediately believe that (for more information on this line of thought, I would suggest reviewing Pascal’s Wager). For those that do believe in God or admit that there is a chance of the existence of a higher power, then divine authority and submission to that authority is not just a possibility, but a likely reality. Who though, can wield divine authority, and should Christians submit to any authority, no matter the ruler and immoral actions committed (or about to be committed) by that leader?
These three questions, the ‘who’, ‘how’, and ‘when’ to submit to authority appear to be relatively connected for Christians, with each question intricately associated with prioritizing God’s commandments against human commands. Romans 13:1-7 are the verses that have been most regularly associated with submission to authority. These verses have been used previously in a variety of conflicts, including in support of halting the American Revolution, in support of slavery in America, in support of Nazi Germany, and in support of apartheid in South Africa.4 From a plain reading of Romans 13:1-7, with no other support, the verses (as well as 1 Peter 2:13-14) appear to support these governments and their heretical and unbiblical policies. Looking further at Romans though (Romans 13:8-10; literally the next three versus), Paul actually reiterates the primary commandments that Jesus explains in Matthew 22:37-40, to above all else love God and love your neighbor.
Looking elsewhere in the Bible, it becomes plain that God does not mean for His people to follow government authority blindly. In fact, He rewards those that choose to follow His law rather than the governments in the stories of the Hebrew woman refusing to kill infants (Exodus 1:15-17), Rahab hiding spies (Joshua 2:2-6), and Daniel worshipping the Lord (Daniel 3:13-18 and 6:13). These are only a few of the many stories that are offered where a government official and/or leader commands one action and a Biblical protagonist acts counter to that command in order to satisfy God’s desires.
In fact, the most anti-(human) authority stories come directly from Jesus’s own defense of His disciples breaking the law to gather grain on the Sabbath in Matthew 12:18 (which is echoed in both Mark 2:23-28 and Luke 6:1-5) as well as Peter and John’s continued preaching of Christianity even after being arrested for exactly that in Acts 5:26-28. In fact, Peter himself explains in Acts 5:29 “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” In each of these situations, Jesus and His disciples act against the laws and direct orders of officials in power. Why, then, were Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-14 written? I believe that an answer can be gained from context as well as from Paul and Peter’s own actions and words.
Peter states in 1 Peter 2: 16-17 that Christians should not use their freedom to do evil, and this commentary comes directly after Peter’s remarks on submission to authority. In a separate part of the Bible, Paul’s entire letter to the Romans is written with the goal of encouraging Roman Christians in their struggle to be simultaneously Christians and citizens of the Roman government. These may seem like separate and unique concepts, but I believe that they are intimately related to the Christ-centered kingdom that Peter and Paul were arguing for on Earth. The early church was unsure of when Jesus might return, and even the apostles were prepared for Jesus to use force to revolt against Rome and establish the Kingdom of God in its place, per the promises given in 2 Samuel 7:12-13 and Luke 1:30-33. After the events of Jesus’s resurrection though, the disciples had a greater understanding of the need to preach the gospel to the world prior to the day of judgement, so that as many of God’s children as possible could be saved. With this in mind, Peter and Paul both appear to be providing guidance to groups of people that still have a goal of usurping secular society to bring about God’s Kingdom (and with it, the end of times). This appears to answer the ‘who’ and ‘when’ to submit to authority, the result being: whoever is in power and so long as that individual allows Christians to carry out the Lord’s commandments.
What exactly is expected of a Christian then, as a subject of a worldly government, even an arguably Christian government? ‘How’ should a Christian submit to authority? Peter and Paul (and Jesus as well) ask that Christians be prepared to suffer and act in a morally upright manner while still serving as subjects of a government that likely does not act in accordance with Christian beliefs. They state that Christians are subject to God first and foremost, and should act with God’s commandments (the moral law) at the forefront of their minds, with those commandments eclipsing any government requests for its subjects to act against God’s moral law. In this sense, a Christian has reason to act against a government’s laws and ordinances only if those laws and ordinances go against the greatest commandments as are noted in Matthew 22:37-40. A Christian certainly has reason to protest unbiblical actions, and arguably has reason to even rise to violence (especially in self-defense, although this is another discussion entirely). If there is any confusion of what God’s desires are and whether they are in conflict with a government’s laws and actions, then James (the half-brother of Jesus) explains in James 1:5 that “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.”
There are a great many circumstances that Christians find themselves in throughout their lives where the world’s laws and preferences appear to conflict with the Bible. Christians should not and cannot simply waive off any concerning thought that might enter their minds by simply stating that they are required to submit to authority (including what appears to be spiritual authority!). Throughout history, there have been a great many people that have taken advantage of Jesus’s flock by using Romans 13 out of context. For Christians though, the questions of who, how, when, and why they should submit to authority all begins with a request for wisdom and a review of God’s word. After all, God’s word is higher, and Jesus is the word of God (per John 1:1 and John 1:14). The kingdoms of this world, even those that claim to be Christian, are nothing compared to God’s kingdom. And Jesus said in John 18:36, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”
With this consideration, Christians are right to submit to authority, but they must first and foremost ask for wisdom and above all else submit to God.
A follow-on, elaborating on my personal opinions on the subject (written March 2021):
Considering the current (and apparently ever-enduring) political disparities in America, I feel convicted to add my personal thoughts in order to clarify the above text. My concern is that one political group or another would feel emboldened to use the text above to prove that we must rebel or blindly follow a Democratic or Republican President. I will note that an administration change has taken place since I wrote the above article and I still fully believe and support what I wrote.
As an American, I have a great appreciation for my country. As a member of the military, I have personally taken both an Oath of Enlistment as well as an Oath of Office. I will note that both of these oaths state first and foremost to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States.” While there is a follow-up to obeying the orders of the President and officers in the Oath of Enlistment, the Constitution comes first. This is unique in that the oath is to a document, which cannot be corrupted, rather than an individual.
In the military, there is a significant amount of discussion during training regarding ‘unlawful orders.’ I believe that these relate to submission to government because even in the military, there are situations where an individual is morally responsible to act against an order (the most famous example being the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam). I write this all to state that if an individual believes that he or she has a reason to disobey or act against his or her nation’s rules and laws, that individual must have a solid argument for why they are acting in a moral and upright manner. I would suggest that anyone in such a situation speak with trusted advisors from multiple political leanings prior to taking action.
To expand upon this, I would suggest to anyone desiring to protest or rebel against an organization or government: ensure you have both a solid moral reason to act as well as a logical and sensible result you would like to see as a result of your protest. I fully support such actions in the right situations, and there are a variety of morally upright protests that have taken place for good reason but have failed to accomplish their objectives because their objectives were vague or there was no logical route developed that would result in those objectives being accomplished (i.e., if you’re arguing for higher pay for your profession, it will be much more likely to go into effect if you can explain where that money is coming from and why higher pay is desirable for you and for those that are paying for it). I will add that I also believe there have been immoral protests as well as immoral protestors at moral protests, and a moral protest can become immoral if the upright majority does not stand directly against those that encourage immoral behavior.
Finally, to anyone frustrated with their government but unsure of whether or not they would be acting morally to protest against it, I would suggest reviewing your government’s foundations prior to any action. I am dismayed at the amount of Americans that have strong beliefs about the military, protesting, free speech, and freedom of religion but are unable to explain the differences between the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and Declaration of Independence. Many of these Americans have never served in the military, protested, worked as a journalist, or served in Church. I would highly suggest to anyone with strong opinions on a subject: at least research that subject and experience a portion of it if you can. I would suggest that any individual living today who is curious about government, read both The Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison, as well as the Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. These two books will go far in your understanding of government ideals and failures.
As a Christian, I have heard many times that we are in this world but not of it. I agree with this statement, but also would suggest to others: remember the first half of that statement. We are still in this world, and will be for the foreseeable future. Because of this, we should care for our fellow man and this Earth to the best of our abilities. I don’t believe that the Lord has a covenant with a single nation in existence today (and anyone saying as much contradicts the entire New Testament), but rather he has a covenant with the Church. Although the United States of America is one nation under God, that does not necessarily mean that the Lord approves of all of her actions or our actions carried out in the name of liberty or justice, and we should do well to remember that.
1. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. (2019). Social Contract. In Encyclopædia Britannica encyclopedia. Retrieved April 21, 2020 from https://www.britannica.com/topic/social-contract.
2. Friend, Celeste. (n.d.) Social Contract Theory. Retrieved from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy at https://www.iep.utm.edu/soc-cont/.
3. Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Government. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved April 21, 2020 from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/government.
4. Nichols, Joel A. (2011) When the State is Evil: Biblical Civil (Dis)Obedience in South Africa. Retrieved from St. John’s Law review at https://scholarship.law.stjohns.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=5576&context=lawreview.
Full Biblical References (given below in the New Living Translation):
Genesis 6-9; This is the account of Noah and his family. Noah was a righteous man, the only blameless person living on earth at the time, and he walked in close fellowship with God.
Exodus 1:15-17; The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah, “When you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.” The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live.
Joshua 2:2-6; The king of Jericho was told, “Look, some of the Israelites have come here tonight to spy out the land.” So the king of Jericho sent this message to Rahab: “Bring out the men who came to you and entered your house, because they have come to spy out the whole land.”
But the woman had taken the two men and hidden them. She said, “Yes, the men came to me, but I did not know where they had come from. At dusk, when it was time to close the city gate, they left. I don’t know which way they went. Go after them quickly. You may catch up with them.” (But she had taken them up to the roof and hidden them under the stalks of flax she had laid out on the roof.)
1 Samuel 8: 4-22; So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead[b] us, such as all the other nations have.” But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord.
And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.”
Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”
When Samuel heard all that the people said, he repeated it before the Lord.
The Lord answered, “Listen to them and give them a king.”
2 Samuel 7: 12-13; When your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.
Daniel 3:13-18; Furious with rage, Nebuchadnezzar summoned Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. So these men were brought before the king, and Nebuchadnezzar said to them, “Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the image of gold I have set up? Now when you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music, if you are ready to fall down and worship the image I made, very good. But if you do not worship it, you will be thrown immediately into a blazing furnace. Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?”
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us[a] from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”
Daniel 6:13; Then they said to the king, “Daniel, who is one of the exiles from Judah, pays no attention to you, Your Majesty, or to the decree you put in writing. He still prays three times a day.”
Matthew 12:18;“Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations.”
Matthew 22:37-40; Jesus replied, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.”
Luke 1:30-33; But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
Luke 15:4-7; “If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them gets lost, what will he do? Won’t he leave the ninety-nine others in the wilderness and go to search for the one that is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he will joyfully carry it home on his shoulders. When he arrives, he will call together his friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’ In the same way, there is more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repents and returns to God than over ninety-nine others who are righteous and haven’t strayed away!
John 1:1; In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
John 1:14; The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
Acts 5:26-28; At that, the captain went with his officers and brought the apostles. They did not use force, because they feared that the people would stone them.
The apostles were brought in and made to appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” he said. “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.”
Acts 5:29; Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than human beings!
Acts 17:27; “His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him—though he is not far from any one of us.”
Romans 13:1-7; Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God. So anyone who rebels against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and they will be punished. For the authorities do not strike fear in people who are doing right, but in those who are doing wrong. Would you like to live without fear of the authorities? Do what is right, and they will honor you. The authorities are God’s servants, sent for your good. But if you are doing wrong, of course you should be afraid, for they have the power to punish you. They are God’s servants, sent for the very purpose of punishing those who do what is wrong. So you must submit to them, not only to avoid punishment, but also to keep a clear conscience.
Pay your taxes, too, for these same reasons. For government workers need to be paid. They are serving God in what they do. Give to everyone what you owe them: Pay your taxes and government fees to those who collect them, and give respect and honor to those who are in authority.
Romans 13:8-10; Owe nothing to anyone—except for your obligation to love one another. If you love your neighbor, you will fulfill the requirements of God’s law. For the commandments say, “You must not commit adultery. You must not murder. You must not steal. You must not covet.” These—and other such commandments—are summed up in this one commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to others, so love fulfills the requirements of God’s law.
James 1:5; If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.
1 Peter 2:13-14; For the Lord’s sake, submit to all human authority—whether the king as head of state, or the officials he has appointed. For the king has sent them to punish those who do wrong and to honor those who do right.