We have all sorts of authorities in our lives. There’s political authority from the government, family authority from parents, and authority in school and the workplace from teachers and bosses. For the most part, we don’t get to choose who has authority over us.
Scripture is pretty clear that God ordains different types of powers and institutions for our flourishing and discipline and also for His hidden purposes. Governments establish justice and peace. Parents provide safety. Bosses organize the workplace and cultivate productivity. The Bible instructs us to submit to authority. With submission, we also need to strive to cultivate better authority, to demand just and effective institutions of power and to support them when they work well. Competent authority should be celebrated just as unjust authority should be criticized.
Early Christians lived under the political power of the Roman Empire, and many lived under the religious and cultural control of Judaism. Peter tells Christians to “be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution,” (1 Pet. 2:13, ESV). Paul makes it clear in his letter to the Romans that the authorities of the world have been established by God (Rom. 13:1). He equates rebelling against worldly powers to rebellion against God Himself. Paul was talking about the authority of governments and rulers as bringers of punishment on those who do wrong. Paul says that Christians shouldn’t be worried about punishment because “rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad,” (Rom. 13:3, ESV).
Rebelling against Rome was a pretty foolish thing to do in Jesus’s day. There were plenty of religious fanatics in Judea who fought against Rome, which usually ended in mass executions and cities being destroyed. Jesus wasn’t interested in overthrowing foreign rule, a point He had to emphasize to the disciples.
Thankfully, we have more say in politics and in the way families function and also in the way bosses interact with their employees. More freedom means more responsibility to question the institutions of the world and also more influence to improve the powers that be. There are plenty of unjust and ungodly institutions that have authority over people. The Bible has been used to justify everything from slavery to abusive marriages.
Christian responsibility entails obeying authority when just and seeking reform when unjust. But these are all secular powers. What about submitting to the spiritual authority in our lives?
God’s Word and the community of believers have special authority over the lives of Christians. The apostles layout guidelines for Church discipline and emphasize Scripture’s role over all believers. Submitting to a community and to Scripture is never easy, especially in our day when personal freedom is so highly valued, but submission to God’s Word is what unifies Christians. Differences inevitably arise between us about how to parent, how to vote, how to deal with finances, and how to pray, so God gives us Scripture as our collective standard. If we all ran around doing what we each thought best, we’d barely be able to call ourselves part of the same spiritual body.
Biblical submission often causes some debate about the roles of men and women within Christian marriage. The book of Ephesians says that wives should submit to their husbands because the husband is the head of the wife in the same way that Christ is the head of the Church. And husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the Church. The submission and respect that women give to men is an image of what God’s people do. The love and service that men give is an image of what God does for His people, so biblical submission is not about power but about love.
Ephesians also says more generally that Christians should be submitting to one another out of reverence to God. Church leaders and pastors are to submit themselves to serving and ministering to the Church just as the community submits to their leadership. And just as with the authorities of the world, we need to be vigilant about corruption and abuse of power within the Church.
Oftentimes, refusal to submit to authority comes down to pride. We simply don’t want to be under another’s yoke. But there’s a call from God to comply with the powers that be with the understanding that they are here to serve His purposes. God’s Word is first, not the laws of governments and man. We follow Him, and that’s our true submission.
Featured Image by Pexels