Christian Submission to Governing Authorities

by Lauren Dyck

We are living in a faux pandemic-induced political climate in Canada that many would not have guessed could have existed only a few short years ago. The government overreach into areas of family, conscience, church, businesses, etc., has been astronomical for both professing liberal and conservative branches of existing governments. We have seen 3 pastors arrested in Alberta alone for simply following their conscience as directed by their understanding of God’s Word, the very thing our Charter of Freedom is supposed to protect. As can be imagined, many people, including churches and Christians, differ on where to stand concerning the unprecedented government involvement in attempting to dictate the believer’s conscience, especially since many in the conservative arm of the government falsely profess to be followers of Jesus Christ. To clarify, I’m not saying that there aren’t true believers working in the government, but what I am saying is that those who actively seek to disobey God, lie, imprison pastors, etc., are not.

We have church leaders quoting Romans 13:1-2 as though that’s the only thing God’s Word has to say about obedience to government, without taking too much time to dig into the deeper nuances of this instruction, to “be subject to governing authorities.”

As I am currently working my way through 1 Peter, I find myself digging into Peter’s instruction, similar to Paul’s, to “be subject to governing authorities,” and thought it would be great to share this study on this page and hope it may help you to navigate this subject.

In this post, I want to look at 3 facets of the believer’s submission to governing authorities as found in 1 Peter 2:13-17:

  1. The precept: be subject to every human institution (vv. 13-14)
  2. The purpose: to silence foolish people (v. 15)
  3. The prescription: live as free servants of God (vv. 16-17)

The precept: be subject to every human institution (vv. 13-14)

13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.

 We see Peter’s command in vv. 13-14 follows the antecedent scripture in v. 12, to “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.”

This follows the same pattern as the apostle Paul used in chapter 12 of Romans, where he highlights the “Marks of the True Christian” (ESV section header) before giving the same instruction in chapter 13 as Peter is giving in our text… (READ Romans 12:9-21). Following this, he moves into his teaching regarding Christian submission to the governing authorities… (READ Romans 13:1-7).

Surely, we see that both of these apostles had in mind that part of what living peaceably, or honorably, was for Christians in a pagan culture, involved “being subject to governing authorities.” This then is not of the question for believers, “should we be subject to governments, or should we not”, but rather, we wrestle – especially during times like we live in today – what does this submission look like? Let’s dig into that…

Peter begins this section with the imperative in v. 13 to, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution…”

To be “subject” means to “recognize one’s appropriate station in life and fulfill it accordingly” (EGGNT 1 Peter). Christians do not belong to this world, as Peter puts it, we are exiles ultimately under God’s authority, yet we are told to be subject to governing authorities while we live on this earth. The term translated “to be subject” or “submit yourselves” in some translations, comes from a word meaning “to arrange in formation under the commander” (MacArthur Commentary on 1 Peter). Submission to rulers is the right response for Christians because God appoints them. The reason we are to submit, Peter notes, is “for the Lord’s sake.” This phrase is the ultimate rationale for subjection, it is not only because of the demands of society, but “for the Lord’s sake [we submit] 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.”  

We submit to authority for God’s sake, He is the one who has appointed them: “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1b). We subject ourselves to governing authorities, not because these individuals are personally worthy of our submission necessarily, but “for the Lord’s sake,” because by submitting to them, we honor God by obeying His Word. We are to be subject to all authorities: first to the emperor or king, for he is the supreme civil authority, from whom (theoretically) all authority flows.

Daniel Doriani notes in his commentary,

“After the king, we submit to governors, that is, to the array of local authorities, procurators, proconsuls, and lesser magistrates. Every nation has its supreme and lesser governors, and we must submit to them, even to local commissioners who rule roads, commerce, the military, markets… etc.” At a minimum, we respect the office of our governments and commit to pray for them. Doriani goes on to say, “When Peter wrote this, Nero was emperor. Few had less merit than he. Beyond his cruelties, he ruled poorly for most of his reign and, more than most other emperors, claimed deity. If Peter could command the church to submit to Nero, we can certainly submit if our governor takes a stand that we consider erroneous… [but, he goes on to clarify] In Scripture, the believer’s submission to human authorities is always partial and proximate; blind obedience is never required… The Christian is always, in principle, ready to rebel, ready to say No in the face of a wicked command, for ‘we must obey God rather than men’” (Acts 5:29).

Christ Himself lived under the unjust and unrighteous rule of the Jewish and Roman authorities, yet he never questioned their right to rule. Though he denounced their sin, he never sought to overthrow the authorities.

But we see the government has been mandated a two-fold task: “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (v. 2:14). Peter reminded his readers that government has a valid and necessary God-appointed purpose. The presence of political corruption – though it abounded then, as it does now – should not blind us to the legitimate role of government that God has ordained.

John Murray writes regarding the relation of church and state,

“…the institution of civil governments is by divine ordination, and it is only because governments have divine sanction that those who govern may exercise this authority and those who are governed submit to it. The civil magistrate is the minister of God, and he is the minister of God for good. Civil government has its own distinct sphere of operation and jurisdiction. This sphere is that of guarding, maintaining, and promoting justice, order, and peace. It is its function to prevent encroachment upon, and to guard the exercise of the God-given liberties, rights, and privileges of the citizens, and it must provide against attempts to deprive the citizens of the opportunity to discharge their divine obligations… Since the civil magistrate is invested with this authority by God and is obliged by divine ordinance to discharge these functions, he is responsible to God, the one living true God who alone has ordained him.”

Having been ordained by God, it is then the government’s responsibility to govern according to the revealed will of God, and they will all answer to God for the times where they disregard His Word and overstep His ordination.

Murray goes on,

“It must be recognized, however, that it is only with his own restricted sphere of authority that he civil magistrate, in his capacity as civil magistrate, is to apply the revelation of God’s will as provided in Scripture… If the civil magistrate should attempt, in his capacity as magistrate, to carry into effect the demands of Scripture which bear upon him in other capacities, or the demands of Scripture upon other institutions, he would immediately be guilty of violating his prerogatives and of contravening the requirements of Scripture.”

We must note at this time that the sphere of the church is distinct from that of the state. The church is not subordinate to the state in matters of doctrine, worship, or conscience, but rather, both the church and state are subordinate to God.

To quote Pastor Mike Hovland from his December 13, 2020 sermon,

“[Government] goes beyond their God-given bounds when they dictate issues of conscience or issues of worship. . . God Himself is the Lord of the conscience, and God Himself is the Lord of the church.”

According to Peter (and Paul in Romans 13), we are to be subject to the governing authorities because they have a specific, God-given purpose, “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (v.14b). God has not left us to wonder what the purpose of government is, He establishes this for us clearly in His Word (Read: Deuteronomy 17:18-20; Psalm 72:1-4; Jeremiah 22:2-5).

In summary, do justice and righteousness, deliver the people from the oppressor… this is the role of godly emperors and kings, godly governing authorities.

Just prior to the apostle Paul’s instruction to be subject to governing authorities, he states in Romans 12 starting in v. 19… “never avenge yourselves, vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” Martyn Lloyd-Jones comments on this in this manner,

“It is one of the great functions of the state, the ‘powers that be’, the government, to enable us to live peaceably with one another, to maintain order, to avoid disorder… Do not take vengeance yourself; God will take vengeance. And he does this partly through the state… So, I am arguing that Paul’s words here [in chapter 13, to “be subject”] are a continuation of the theme of living peaceably with others and of not taking vengeance yourself, but allowing God to do so, either directly or else through the medium of the state, a medium He so often uses.”

I trust we are starting to get the picture of the duties of the government and the relationship tied to Christian submission. “The role of government in Scripture is clear – to create fear that restrains evil, punish those who do wrong and protect those who do right” (MacArthur Commentary).

So, what then is the responsibility of the church when the government fails in its duties? What if the government has become the oppressor, how is the church to react then? Seeing as the church is to be committed to the task of proclaiming the whole counsel of God and, therefore, the counsel of God as pertaining to the responsibility to all people and institutions. Let me lean again on the wisdom of John Murray to gain an understanding of this,

“… [the church] is charged to define what the functions of these institutions are… Consequently, when the civil magistrate trespasses the limits of his authority, it is incumbent upon the church to expose and condemn such a violation of his authority… when the civil magistrate fails to exercise his God-given authority in the protection and promotion of the obligations, rights, and liberties of the citizens, the church has the right and duty to condemn such inaction, and by its proclamation of the counsel of God to confront the civil magistrate with his responsibility and promote the correction of such neglect.”

Martyn Lloyd-Jones comments on this matter,

“The state abuses its calling when it tyrannizes over people, and it is the business of the church in her preaching and teaching to make this clear.”

What I’m suggesting is, that rather than arrest faithful pastors like James Coates and Tim Stephens for obeying God’s Word in matters of His church, the governing authorities should have gone to them – as well as other faithful pastors – for counsel regarding their duties.

Once again, the Scripture is clear, as Christians and citizens of a heavenly kingdom, we are still to be subject to our civil governments here on earth for they have been given a specific duty by God and we submit, “for the Lord’s sake”, for a specific purpose.

This leads us into our second facet of the believer’s submission to governing authorities…

The purpose: to silence foolish people (v. 15)

15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.

Once again, the reason that Christians are to be willfully subject to governing authorities is because it “is the will of God.” But, look again at Peter’s next phrase in v. 15, “that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.”

Our submission has a clear purpose, to be a witness in this world so as to stop the mouths of ignorant people, but it is important to note the use of the word foolish. That term means “senseless, without reason,” the claims that are being silenced are those that are false, false accusations targeted at Christians for living faithfully in a pagan culture. Looking again at some history surrounding Peter’s audience:

“Tacitus and Suetonius were leading Roman historians who wrote around A.D. 100. Tacitus said that Christians were “loathed for their vices.” Nero blamed Christians for the great fire of Rome because they were “hated for their abominations” and adhered to a “pernicious superstition.” After the fire, Christians were arrested and slain “not so much on the count of arson as for hatred of the human race.” Suetonius stated that Nero punished Christians as a sect professing a new and impious “superstition.” Their crimes? Some accused them of cannibalism, in a pernicious, possibly willful misconstrual of the Lord’s Supper. The charge of “hatred of the human race” grew from their refusal to join in worshiping the emperor or local patron deities. We would simply say that they refused to compromise their faith. But if refusal to worship false gods is hatred of humanity, then false charges are inevitable.” (Doriani)

The Christian’s refusal to compromise on their faith and practice has always drawn criticism and slander from the sinful world in which we find ourselves, and, I dare say, we see the evidence ever so strongly in our present-day circumstances.

But, despite this knowledge that pagans will always twist, contort, and misrepresent what Christians say and do, the believer must strive to live in such a manner as to make the accusations of the world baseless. Peter reiterates this in our passage, “For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.”

We have all heard the saying before, “actions speak louder than words.” This is in essence what Peter is saying. Our profession will mean nothing if it is not followed by a faithful life. Our words are given validity by our godly living. According to Peter, a faithful life is a result of abstaining from the passions of the flesh, and godly submission in matters of government, workplace, and family.

In context, Peter meant that by obeying the law, we can avoid unnecessary and illegitimate criticism from the world around us. Jesus did this by paying his taxes (Matthew 17:24-27), and Paul also instructed Christians to pay their taxes as we saw earlier in Romans 13:6-7.

Still, Peter is well aware that believers might suffer because of persecution and false condemnation, so he calls us to do as much good as we possibly can. This included submission to civil authorities (unless it requires disobedience to God), and by doing good in this way, the hope is that it may silence the most ignorant and foolish slanders that come our way.

Paul expounds on this in his letter to Titus in chapter 3:1-3, “Remind them to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good deed, to malign no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing every consideration for all men. For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another.”

The good behavior contrasted with that of foolish people in this passage should put to silence much of what is thrown at Christians and the church. If we live well enough, people should refuse to believe the lies said about us.

Next, Peter gives the church instruction in accomplishing this godly behavior, or as I have called it…

The prescription: live as free servants of God (vv. 16-17)

16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

Peter anticipates that some of his readers would object to the demand of submitting to governing authorities and other human institutions, after all, “are we not free, liberated by Christ’s sacrifice?” One might even ask, “as citizens of a heavenly kingdom, how can we submit to human rulers?” To this Peter replies, “live as people who are free… [live] as servants of God.”

Doriani comments on this passage,

“We are free from sin, from the law, and from death, but that is no excuse for insubordination. The Christian is free from sin, but is the slave of God: ‘For he who was a slave when he was called by the Lord is the Lord’s freedman; similarly, he who was a free man when he was called is Christ’s slave’ (1 Corinthians7:22). As Martin Luther observed, ‘A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.’”

The apostle Paul writes in Romans 6:16-22,

16 Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, 18 and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. 19 I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.

20 For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21 But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. 22 But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.

We are no longer slaves of sin, we are free in that regard, therefore, we do not use our freedom to serve the very thing we have been freed from, “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God” (v. 16). As slaves of righteousness, we are to live as free servants of God, which includes obedience to His rule and command, which we have seen in our text this morning, is to be subject to governing authorities. So we see we honor God by obeying human institutions, for His sake, as long as this does not cause or encourage us to sin. As John MacArthur notes, “[Christian] freedom has delivered them from the bondage of serving sin into the privilege of being slaves of righteousness.”

In fact, Peter sums up his precept to be subject to every human institution by using 4 imperatives to define what the prescription to live as free servants of God looks like, “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.”

You’ll notice, in v. 17, Peter uses what’s called a chiasm. A chiastic structure (chiasm) is a literary device that indicates a “crossing, or inversion, of related elements within parallel constructions, thereby yielding forms like a-b-c with c-b-a.” A chiasm helps us identify the apex of the story, or, rather, the heart of the story so to speak.

In our text, the chiastic structure is made up of two sets of parallel thoughts in v. 17, creating an A-B-B-A pattern:

A – Honor everyone

            B – Love the brotherhood

            B – Fear God

A – Honor the emperor

‘A’ signifies the believer’s behavior outside of the believing community, and ‘B’ signifies the believer’s behavior inside the believing community.

Now, why is this important? As I defined a minute ago, “A chiasm helps us to identify the apex, or heart, of the story so to speak.” In this verse then, Peter is identifying that ‘B’, loving the brotherhood and fearing God, takes precedent over ‘A’, honor everyone, and honor the emperor. Though both sets are imperatives to be obeyed, we clearly see Peter’s intent in showing that as we honor everyone and the emperor, we only do so as far as we are able to so while still biblically adhering to the commands to love the brotherhood and fearing God. This is important to note as we strive to obey the government, even in today’s political climate, but doing so within biblical mandates. I’ll address this a little further in my conclusion, for now, let’s briefly look at the imperatives individually:

The first imperative, we are to honor all people, not just kings, emperors, and governors. Every person is made in the image of God; therefore, we owe all people a degree of honor. Treat all people with the respect they deserve, even if only because they bear God’s image.

The second imperative, we are to love the brotherhood. Christians are to be a witness to the world of their love for other believers. The apostle John gives us this instruction as well (see: John 13:34-35; 1 John 3:23; 1 John 5:1). A mark of being a true believer is our love for other believers. All Christians belong to the same family, and all are brothers and sisters in this manner. In contrast to honoring all people outside of the faith, fellow Christians are to be loved.

The third imperative is to fear God. Deuteronomy 13:4 says, “You shall walk after the Lord you God and fear him and keep his commandments and obey his voice, and you shall serve him and hold fast to him.”

Fearing God, as MacArthur notes, “includes trusting Him in all circumstances, no matter how difficult they are. Christians must worship Him as the sovereign One who orchestrates everything according to His perfect will. Such fear also encourages believers to submit to all earthly authorities, because they have the utmost respect for the One who has commanded them to do so.”

The fourth imperative given by Peter in this verse is to honor the emperor. This brings the issue back to full circle, back to the initial command in verse 13, forming what’s called an inclusio. In biblical studies, an inclusio is a literary device based on a concentric principle, also known as bracketing or an envelope structure, which consists of creating a frame by placing similar material at the beginning and end of a section. So, Peter as enveloped, or bracketed, this whole section between the statements to “be subject to every human institution” and “honor the emperor.” Everything in between is given to us in order to rightly understand those instructions and properly apply them to our lives.

Conclusion:

Now, it would be remiss to present this weighty teaching without attempting to provide some specific relevance and application to what we see going on in our world today. We acknowledge the command and expectation to be subject to our current governing authorities, no matter how much we may disagree with them or, perhaps, see through their lies and political games. This, I believe, is where it is ever so important to understand the purpose of government – as we saw in our first bullet point “the precept” – and also to keep in mind the importance of Peter’s use of a chiasm, indicating the superior loyalty that Christians have to the church and our eternal King. We must have this in mind as we navigate the current mandates and government overreach.

Let us consider the phrase “love our neighbor” as we so often hear from both the pagan governments and even many so-called churches. We are told to believe that loving our neighbor means avoiding any physical contact, not gathering or fellowship with them in person, quarantining and isolating ourselves from others, socially distancing ourselves from others. While the bible instructs us to (I’ve borrowed this list from the Biblical Doctrine textbook by MacArthur & Mayhue):

  • Love one another
  • Live in harmony with one another
  • Admonish one another
  • Care for one another
  • Serve one another
  • Bear one another’s burdens
  • Be patient with one another
  • Be kind one to another
  • Forgive one another
  • Sing praises with one another
  • Regard one another as more important than yourself
  • Speak truth to one another
  • Encourage one another
  • Seek good for one another
  • Stir up one another to love and good deeds
  • Confess your sins to one another
  • Pray for one another
  • Be hospitable to one another
  • Be humble toward one another

“By putting these commands into practice, God’s people fulfill the second Great Commandment, to love one’s neighbor as oneself” (Biblical Doctrine, MacArthur & Mayhue). We do not go to a pagan government to have this command defined, we go to God’s Word, and if it contradicts the government, we obey God. The government will stand in judgment for their mandates, we obey God, and in this way, love our neighbor.

As I quoted pastor Mike Hovland earlier, “[Government] goes beyond their God-Given bounds when thy dictate issues of conscience or issues of worship . . . God Himself is the Lord of the conscience, and God Himself is the Lord of the church!”

You are not required to obey the government regarding matters of conscience, like the vaccine they are currently using to coerce the populations into submission. Likewise, if your conscience allows you to take the vaccine, then you are not sinning by doing that either. Each person must inform their own conscience, and as long as it does not contradict Scripture, is free to live according to their conscience.

How about matters of worship? The government has for almost two years tried to tell the church how to worship, limit the congregation, no singing, no embracing, social distancing, no Lord’s Supper, or some variation of these. The writer of Hebrews says that we are to “…consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (10:24-25).

Now, what about the concern by many in the church and members of certain “coalitions” that the world is watching, therefore Christians should submit to all these government restrictions. I would respond that it is specifically because the world is watching that we must NEVER submit to Ceasar in the areas which belong to Christ alone. Through the bold stand taken by few, yet faithful, pastors and churches, the witness to the world is “though we are in the world, we are not of the world. And though you arrest us, fine us, mock us, deride us, we will obey Christ and thus proclaim His supremacy over any and all worldly institutions!”

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