As Christians, we are commanded by God to submit to the governing authorities. (Romans 13:1-7, I Peter 2:13-14, Titus 3:1-2). However it is clear that these commandments do not apply when it means disobeying commands from God’s word. For Americans, it does not mean they must always obey unconstitutional laws and orders. There is great deal of confusion about this in the church today. The leaders of my own church have accused me of putting the Constitution above God. I am not saying that Christians should go out of their way to disobey unconstitutional orders, engage in violence or protest in the streets about it. But the commandments in Romans 13:1-7, I Peter 2:13-14 and Titus 3:1-2 do not mean that we must obey the authorities when they give orders beyond the scope of the authority that has been given to them.
God’s Word does not teach that we are to submit to those who have authority. The direct object of the verb “submit” (or “be subject to”) is “authorities” or “human institution”, not the person who has the authority.1 Pay close attention to the wording of I Peter 2:13-14 (ESV). A person is not an “it”.
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.
At that time, the emperor was supreme. This means that the institution of the emperor took precedence over all the other governing authorities within the empire. More to the point, according this commandment, subjection to the authority of the emperor was to take precedence over all the other governing authorities within the empire. God did not say that subjection to all authorities is to be “as supreme”. Subjection to the authority of governors is qualified by the phrase “as sent by him”, where the word “him” obviously refers to the emperor. It is very clear that this means that the commandment to be subject to the institution of governors applies only when they are acting under the authority of the emperor, not when they are acting on their own accord. If God had meant for us to obey every order from everyone in authority without regard to what authority they have been given, then the words “supreme” and “as sent by him” are completely meaningless and misleading.
When the people asked for a king in I Samuel 8, God granted their request. That does not mean the king would be perfect or that people should put the king above God. It is not a contradiction to say that the people chose to have a king as supreme, while also saying that God established the kingship and its supremacy.
The American people asked for a Constitution to be their supreme authority and it was approved by their legitimately elected representatives just as the same as laws (e.g. laws against drunk driving) were properly approved in more recent times.
This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.
U.S. Constitution, Article VI, Clause 2
It is not a contradiction to say that the people chose to have a constitution as supreme, while also saying that God established it. That does not mean that the Constitution is perfect, inspired by God as the Bible is, or that it is to be put above the Bible. But it is the supreme authority in the same way as the king of Israel was in I Samuel 8 and as the emperor was in I Peter 2:13-14. If this is not so, then who (or what) is the supreme in America today? When did God grant Supreme Court justices, presidents, governors, health departments, etc. authority that is above the Constitution? Is the phrase “as sent by him” in I Peter 2:13-14 completely meaningless for us today?
It is God’s will that we obey the authorities according to what has been given to them by the Constitution (and other laws pursuant to it). Who are we to say that God can’t do that? I’m not going to put God in a box and say that he can’t set up a government with a constitution as supreme. I’m not going to tie his hands and say that it is always his will that we regard the governor the same as an emperor. People are not above the law.
When the Jews accused Paul of violating the law, he did not submit to their authority (or to that of Felix or Festus). Instead, he appealed to the supreme, who was Caesar. If Paul could do this, then there is certainly nothing wrong with Christians appealing to the Constitution (or other laws) when those who have civil authority overstep the authority that has been given to them. It makes no difference whether it be because of a violation of the separation of powers or any other limitation of power in the law. I suggest reading Acts 21:27-25:11.
Most people recognize the fact that governing authorities have geographical limits to their power. For example, if the prime minister of England were to give an order, most of all of us would agree that it would not be sinful for an American to ignore the order while not on British soil. According to the law, the power of the prime minister of England does not extend to the United States. Christians need to realize that other legal limitations on the power of the governing authorities are just as relevant.
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
U.S Constitution, 10th Amendment
This enumeration of rights shall not be construed to impair or deny others retained by the people, and all powers, not herein delegated, remain with the people.
Ohio Constitution, Article I, Section 20
In the United States, every American citizen is a “governing authority”. If you do not believe this, then you should not vote. Every time you vote, you are wielding civil authority which can impose, increase, eliminate or ease restrictions on other citizens or penalize them for disobeying. If we are to completely obey every person who has civil authority without regard to the scope of authority given to them by law, then we must obey any order given by any citizen just as if that citizen were a governor or President of the United States. God is a God of order, not chaos. Without respect for the scope of authority in the law, subjection to it is impossible and the command to do so is essentially meaningless.
When Jesus told his disciples to “observe whatever they tell you” in Matthew 22:3, it is obvious that he did not intend for it to be an absolute. Jesus said, “…beware of … the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (Matthew 16:12)
When the scribes and Pharisees asked Jesus to show them a sign, he refused to give them what they asked for. (Matthew 12:38-39, 16:1-4) When asked by what authority he did “these things”, he refused to answer. (Luke 20:1-8)
The ruler of the synagogue gave the people a clear and direct order: “There are six days in which work ought to be done. Come [to the synagogue] on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day.” (Luke 13:14) But Jesus did not refrain from healing people on that day, which is a clear violation of the order. He said, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” (Mark 3:4) This clearly indicates that, when it comes to rules that ought to be obeyed, it is the real law that counts, not rules of the Pharisees.
When they accused the disciples of violating handwashing laws and for picking grains on the Sabbath, Jesus rebuked the scribes and Pharisees, not his disciples. (Matthew 12:1-2, 15:1-2, Mark 2:23-24, 7:1-5, Luke 6:1-5) The disciples could have obeyed these orders without sinning. (There is nothing sinful or unscriptural about washing your hands before eating or refraining from picking grains on the Sabbath.)
Luke 5:29-30 says, “And Levi made him [Jesus] a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. And the Pharisees and their scribesgrumbled at his disciples, saying, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’” According to several sources I have read, the Pharisees did have a rule forbidding eating with sinners. (The justification was that if you eat food that was not tithed, then you are guilty of violating the commandment to tithe.) It is very clear from Luke 5:29-30 that Jesus not only violated the scribes’ and Pharisees’ rule, but he approved of his disciples doing it as well. I see no evidence whatsoever in the Scriptures that Jesus’ statement in Matthew 22:3 went beyond the lawful authority that was given to the scribes and Pharisees.
If out of fear of the government, we allow them to infringe on our rights to worship as we please while exceeding the limits of their authority, we will lose our freedoms. If the government were to ban Bibles overnight, Christians might resist. But what if the government slowly infringes on our rights little by little, making it more and more difficult to spread the Gospel little by little? At what point will we stop giving in? The effect is the same regardless of the motives of the politicians.
Just as there were hundreds of rules of the scribes and Pharisees, there are countless laws, statutes, ordinances, precedents, regulations and orders given to us today by our elected (and unelected) officials in our government. The Internal Revenue Code alone has 7500 pages. To tell people that they have to obey all of them, even the ones that are unconstitutional, is to place a huge burden on them. If you don’t even attempt to obey (or even read) all these yourself, then how you can you tell other people that they have to without hypocrisy? The hypocrite obeys rules that are popular, get a lot of media attention, or that make themselves look righteous. The truly righteous man obeys the legitimate laws diligently and quietly without regard to how well known they are or how well they are being enforced. (c.f. Colossians 3:22)
Finally, besides the “as sent by him” qualifier, there is also another qualifier written into the passages on governing authorities. We are only required by these commandments to submit their authority when it is “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good”. When their mandates punish people for doing good or reward them for doing evil, they are acting outside the authority that God has given them and such mandates can be ignored.
In summary, the doctrine of “obey the person, not the authority” is dangerous, overly rigid, burdensome, and untenable and ignores scriptural qualifiers and counterexamples. We are to submit to all governing authorities within their jurisdiction, but we are not to regard all of them “as supreme”.
1 To illustrate this principle, suppose that a woman is governor of a state. The woman’s husband is required to submit to the authority of the governor just as any other citizen of the state. But he is not required to relinquish his role as head of his household. If his wife tries to use her authority as governor to usurp her husband’s authority, God does not require him to submit to her orders in that regard. On the other hand, she is not required to submit if he tries to use his authority to in a way that interferes with her official capacity. Each authority has its own dominion (i.e. there is a biblical “separation of powers”) so that there is no conflict or confusion about it.
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