The Christian and Submission to Civil Government


letter-aAGeorge Weigel reported in First Things, the past one-hundred years have been “the greatest era of persecution in Christian history,” so much so that “more Christians died for the faith in the twentieth century than in the previous nineteen centuries of Christian history combined.

More and more often in the world there is an slowly increasing antagonism between the secular governments and the people of God. This antagonism has manifested itself even in the United States: Christian bakers and photographers being sued and driven out of business for refusing homosexual weddings; Christians-run businesses being forced to support programs that fund abortion; an overall increasing belief nationwide that person’s belief should be kept private.

As this antagonism continues and strengthens Christians are forced to ask the question: how are Christians to relate to government? Should they submit? Obey? Resist? Rebel? To what degree can Christians engage in civil disobedience while still being faithful to Peter’s command to “submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority” and Paul’s command to “let every person be subject to the governing authorities.”

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There have been various answers to this question throughout Christian history. The American Founders, for instance, believed that they were allowed to rebel when civil government  exceeds its authority. When they saw Paul say that the government “is God’s servant for your good” and “not a terror to good conduct” they saw this as a condition, such that that submission was contingent upon a ruler acting as “God’s servant for your good.” According to the Founders if the ruler became a “terror to good conduct” then Paul’s command would no longer apply. Others have taken more extreme views.

In order to truly discern the Christian duty, we must look at three things. First, we must look at the Christian motive for submission to government, second, what Christian submission looks like, and third, whether or not there are any limits to that submission. By analyzing 1 Peter 2 and Romans 13 we will find not only that the motive for this submission is to preserve our Christian witness, but also that submission is not a synonym for obedience. Once we properly understand what it means to submit, we will see how Christians can faithfully submit in all circumstances.

Our Motives for Submission

The foundation of any action is our motive. Our motives determine what we do, and our motives also determine the morality of those actions. As Dr. Dennis HollingerPresident and Professor of Christian Ethics at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary has said, “what we do is a reflection of who we are.” The apostle Peter tells us in 1 Peter 2:11-17 of our motivation for submitting to the government. Peter tells us that though we are free, we are not to use that freedom as a cover-up for evil; instead, we are to submit ourselves to the government “for the Lord’s sake.” Peter clarifies that even further that we submit so that by living such good lives that when we are accused of doing wrong they may see our lives and be silenced.

The main reason we should submit to the secular law and government is to protect our public witness. It is so that the pagan world cannot look at the Christians and say “Look at those Christians, they claim to be good but they have no respect for the government, they have no respect for the law.”

The question might naturally arise in our minds, “Why would Peter need to warn his readers about this? Why would he need to tell them not to ‘use your freedom as a cover-up for evil’?”

To fully understand this we must also take into account Paul’s commands in Romans 13:1-7, where he condemns those who resist their governments. The word ‘resist’ is a word that often refers to organised and/or violent opposition. As John Calvin commented, the main reason is that there were those who thought they their Christian liberty trumped any earthly power placed over them. This attitude manifested itself in the early church in two ways: by ignoring the earthly government or  by rebelling against it.

The first group is the group addressed by Peter, those who attempted to say that their freedom as Christians exempt them from the edicts of government. The second group is the group addressed by Paul, those who – picking up the torch of the Jewish Zealots – were always looking for an opportunity to revolt against and cast off Rome, by violence if necessary.

Peter and Paul don’t want the people to think that they because they are Christians that they can ignore earthly governments, nor that because they are Christians they can freely overthrow it. By submitting to the civil law and by not using their Christianity as a grounds for revolt, Peter and Paul show us how we are to protect our Christian witness in regards to the state.

What is Submission?

We have seen that Peter and Paul tell us to submit, but if we are to do this we must know what it means to submit. When we hear the word ‘submit’ it is likely that the first things we think of is obedience. We know that submission can look like obedience. However, as the briefest glance at a lexicon will tell us, the word used here in the Greek is not the word for ‘obey.’ It is not – for instance – the word that used by Paul in Ephesians 6 when he tells children to obey their parents.

We must thus begin by noting that submission is not a synonym for obedience. As the distinguished theologian Leon Morris says in his excellent commentary on Romans, submission may sometimes express itself as obedience, but they’re not the same thing and “there is nothing servile about the attitude to authority that Paul is advocating.”

So submission may sometimes include obedience, but submission doesn’t simply translate to obedience. Rather when we look at both passages we notice that both end in commands centering around respect, and around honor.

Submission doesn’t merely mean blind obedience, but it has to do with recognizing the way God has ordered society and having respect for that order, having respect for the institution of the government and not using our Christianity as an excuse to ignore or rebel against it’s normal commands.

Civil Disobedience

Finally, as again it is pointed out by Leon Morris, it must be realized that Paul is writing in general terms and not trying to cover every conceivable situation. This brings us to the main question that is always asked is in discussions of this text: what about laws that hurt us, or laws that bump against the law of God or are outright contrary to it? Thus we can ask ourselves: can we find any precedent for not obeying a ruling authority in Scripture? Indeed we can. The bible contains episodes in which God’s people engage in what we might call ‘civil disobedience.’

In Exodus 1:17 the Egyptian Pharaoh gave the command to two Hebrew midwives to kill all male Jewish babies. An radical patriot would have carried out the Pharaoh’s order, yet the Scripture says the midwives disobeyed Pharaoh and let the children live. In Joshua 2, Rahab directly disobeyed a command from the king of Jericho to turn over the Israelite spies who had snuck into the city. In 1 Kings 18, Obadiah is a man who “feared the Lord greatly,” and so when queen Jezebel was killing Israel’s prophets, he took a hundred of them and hid them from her in clear defiance of the queen’s wishes. In Daniel 3 Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused to bow down to the golden idol in disobedience to King Nebuchadnezzar’s. In Daniel 6, Daniel defies King Darius’ decree to not pray to anyone other than the king, and in Acts 4-5 Peter and John’s defiance the Sanhedrin, ignoring their order to stop preaching and teaching in Jesus’ name.

The Scripture is absolutely rife with God’s people defying their rulers, the question we must ask is “what, are the grounds for this disobedience?” To answer that we must discern what  all of these examples have in common. In each of these examples there are at least two common elements.

First, there was a direct, specific conflict between God’s law and man’s law. Pharaoh commanded the Hebrew midwives to commit murder. Nebuchadnezzar commanded his subjects to commit idolatry. King Darius banned prayer. The Sanhedrin forbade the proclaiming the gospel. In each case God’s people were commanded to engage in sin or refrain from holiness. The ground of this civil disobedience was always a direct contradiction between the civil law and God’s law, recognizing that as Paul says at the beginning of Romans 13 that these governments were instituted by God and thus their authority is beneath his. His commands must take priority.

It is for this reason that Dietrich Bonhoeffer stated that it is when “government violates or exceeds its commission at any point… obedience is to be refused, for conscience’ sake, for the Lord’s sake.” As Bonhoeffer continues, this disobedience is not a disobedience to said government wholesale, but of the individual edict which conflicts with God’s law. This means that we may not extrapolate out from the need to refuse a specific command that we may disobey all commands of that government. We cannot – as it were – refuse to pay taxes to a government that ordered us to commit idolatry, for it is the idolatry command that conflicts with God’s law, not the command to pay taxes.

We also cannot, with the American founders, see the command to submit as comprehensively conditional and thereby believe that we are excused wholesale from obeying a government that has become tyrannical. This is not the example or command of Scripture. This is not to say the Founders were necessarily unjust in their rebellion, but merely that it if it was justifiable that justification did not come via the exhortations of Peter and Paul.

Peter and Paul’s point was that the Christian cannot ground their refusal to obey or their revolt on their faith; it is a matter outside the scope of this sermon whether the Christian may ground it on something else, such that the nonbeliever cannot say as the apostles worried they would, “they disobey and revolt on account of their faith.” It is that charge Peter and Paul were chiefly concerned with.

So the first thing all of these incidents had in common was a direct conflict with God’s law. The second commonality is that in choosing to obey God’s law the believers by and large paid the normal consequence for disobedience. As we have said, we know that submission can express itself as obedience, but it doesn’t always look like obedience.

What then, does submission to human authority look like when obedience isn’t an option? From these examples we see that submitting to the law can also look like bearing the punishment of disobeying it. By bearing the punishment for disobedience, we can submit to the general authority of the government while not obeying it’s every command. We submit to the government in this instance by acknowledging its authority to punish us; thus Daniel went to the lion’s den, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego went to the furnace. 

Laws, therefore, can come in at least three forms. Laws that are just, laws that we merely disagree with but are morally neutral, and laws that are outright evil, that command us to sin. When the law is just, we can submit gladly, as when the law tells us not to murder. When the law neutral, perhaps one we merely disagree with such as paying taxes or obeying the speed limit, we can submit for our witness. In these cases it is easy for us to – as Peter says – live such good lives among the pagans that they may see our good deeds and glorify God.

However, the law is not always just or neutral, sometimes it is evil. When the law is evil, when it commands us to sin, then our higher allegiance is to God. Yet even in these instances we can still submit to the ruling authorities – not by obeying their every law and doing the evil it commands – but by disobeying, and then bearing the punishment. We can bear the punishment for doing good, and we can know that this brings glory to God’s name, for as Peter also says in 1 Peter 2:19-20, it is a gracious thing when – being mindful of God – we endure unjust suffering.

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What does all of this then mean for our lives? In short, it means that when the law is just, we can submit gladly. When the law is neutral, we can submit for our witness. When the law is evil, we can still submit to the law – not by obeying it and doing the evil it commands – but by disobeying, and then bearing the punishment for doing good, suffering in Christ’s footsteps.

We can rejoice when the laws of man reflect the laws of God. We can gladly submit to laws that are neutral, knowing that God is glorified in our doing so. We can lament when laws are evil, but we can submit through the submission found in the example of Christ by bearing the punishment for our obedience; not for our obedience to earthly rulers, but to our heavenly ruler, to our Lord.

We can do this whether it means facing the minor penalty of fines, the greater penalty of imprisonment, or the greatest penalty of death along with the martyrs who the church father Tertullian called the seed of the Church. For as Peter again tells us, it is a gracious thing when – mindful of God – we endure unjust suffering. 



A member of the Society of Christian Philosophers and the American Chesterton Society. Ordained PCA. MDiv.

May or may not be a Time Lord.


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