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What does the Bible teach about governing authorities?

Aug 15, 2018

Paul tells us in Romans 13 that governing authority was God’s idea, and that it was established by God. This doesn’t mean, of course, that all government is godly.  Obviously, it is not. But God established the principle to bless, protect, and prosper society.

Paul also told us, in Romans 13, that government was given to as an “avenger,” which is a Greek word that literally means one who executes right and justice by punishing evil and bringing about what is good. An avenger rectifies wrong done to another. Under God’s definition, governing authority is not just the highest office in the land, but all offices in the land whose job is to serve for good by executing justice. In our context, governing authority refers to everything from the president of the United States all the way down to our local law enforcement community and those who serve our criminal justice system.

As we read all the passages in the New Testament that describe the way we are to relate to our governing authorities, four key words stand out. I’m going to unpack them here for you one by one.

1. Pray

Paul writes, “First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity” (1 Tim. 2:1-3, NASB).

Someone might say, “Pastor, we don’t have a king, so I guess this passage does not relate to us Americans.”  But, the word for “king” here is a Greek word that refers to the one who rules as the possessor of the highest office in a political realm. You know who our “king” in this context is? Our president. Paul is pleading with God’s people here to pray for our kings, and everyone who is in authority over us. In fact, he doesn’t just urge us to pray for our governing authorities, he says first of all to pray for them.  

Not only that, Paul writes that we are to do this so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life, in all godliness and dignity. Through these verses, God is saying that there is a direct relationship between praying for our governing authorities and the lives that we enjoy as citizens. A.W. Tozer put it this way: “We cannot pray in love and live in hate and still think we are worshipping God.” What he means, and what Scripture is explaining, is that we cannot pray for the leaders we like who share our views, and spew hate toward the ones who don’t. We need to pray for our governing officials—all of them, regardless of party or platform.

2. Submit

We don’t like this word because it’s not a very American word, but it is a very Christian word. If I’m a Christian before I’m an American, then “submit” needs to become a part of my vocabulary.  

Every text in the New Testament that addresses our relationship to government, including Romans, 1 Peter, and Titus, uses the word “submit” to describe how we are to behave in relation to our authorities. The word “submit,” or “subjection” as it’s used in Romans 13, means to willingly place oneself under the authority of another. In essence, I am to willingly place myself under governing authorities as God’s design and obey the laws of my country, state, county, and city. As long as they do not contradict the Bible, to disobey governing authority is to disobey God. That’s why, Peter, when he was writing, said, “For such is the will of God for you.”  

When I submit to governing authorities based on God’s Word, I’m ultimately submitting to him and his design. I’m saying, “God, I believe the king’s heart is like channels of water in the hands of the Lord. You turn it wherever you wish. I’m going to submit to governing authority, unless it violates clearly your Word—when I like it, and when I don’t like it, trusting that you know what’s best and will change them as they need to be changed.”

3. Honor

The passage in 1 Peter 2 and in Romans 13 that I referenced above use the word “honor.” It describes a continuous action of esteeming the office as an authority established by God.

We hear a lot as Americans about “honoring the office” when it comes to presidents and other officials. It’s not an act of patriotism, though. It’s an act of Christlikeness. The Bible says we are to constantly honor the positions of governing authority, on both sides of the aisle. I think this is where Christians do the greatest harm today. We often apply and obey Romans 13 when the candidate in question is one we love, but when it’s not “our” person in leadership, whatever side that is, we can spew venom that is wicked and ungodly. I’ve seen it in the past, and I continue to see it on social media.  

Honoring the office is a matter of Christlikeness and following the Word of God. It speaks to our attitudes, and “submit” speaks to our actions. Parents know the difference. We can ask our children to take the garbage out, and they can respond with joy, or with a begrudging, “Well, I’ll do it, but I don’t like it.” Both are acts of submitting, but only one is the act of honoring authority.   

4. Influence

Titus 3:1-2 says, “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.”

What does Paul mean here by “to be ready for every good deed”? It means that, within the context of submitting and honoring, I’m to live my life looking for the opportunity to be an influencer—even toward my governing authorities—for that which is good. Honoring and submitting does not mean we cannot be agents of change within our culture and participate in our civic responsibility. We are actually called to do so!

Here’s the key as we seek to do this: we must influence our culture, remembering that we are first and foremost followers of Jesus. As such, our involvement must not be driven by the values of a party, but by the absolute truth of God as revealed in the Bible.  

In looking for opportunities to influence, we need to do so with the right spirit. Paul points out character qualities in Titus 3:2. The first one is, “malign no one,” which means we don’t attack or hurt the reputation of another with your words. If we obeyed that, politics in America would change! As Christ followers, we are not to speak evil of anyone. It’s a violation of the Word of God when we do, no matter what side we are.

Paul also says we’re to be peaceable, or, translated from the Greek, “without battle.” We’re to pray, submit, honor, and influence, all this without looking for a fight. Again, this would change politics if all of us followed God’s Word in this. Finally, Paul said we are be “gentle” and show “every consideration for all men.” This means giving others the benefit of the doubt and demonstrating genuine concern for the people affected.  

The bottom line from God’s Word is that our mission is to expand the kingdom of God. If we’re not careful, we can become more passionate about the laws that govern this life than we are about preparing men and women for the life that is to come. Our mission is not to go into all the world and legislate. Our mission is to go into all the world and preach the gospel. Don’t allow what is not our mission to become the stumbling block that keeps us from accomplishing that which is our mission.

What if governing authority violates God’s Word?

One final question: What do we do if governing authority conflicts with the authority of God?  Scripture is clear and consistent here in the stories of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, Daniel, Peter, John, Paul, Silas, and others. Their response was, “We must obey God rather than men.” But the way they did this is of importance to us today.

First of all, they did it humbly. Scripture demonstrates in all these examples that, when asked to obey a governing authority in contradiction to the authority of God, you are to humbly choose to submit to a higher authority. You’ll notice in reading them, that they were never militant or aggressive. They also obeyed God with a willingness to accept graciously whatever the consequences of their stance might be.

I urge you to pray daily for our governing authorities and seek God through his Word to embrace the all-encompassing truth—that above all else, who you are is who you are in Christ. In the spirit of what Mordecai counseled his cousin Esther in Esther 4, who knows but that we were planted here, in the midst of this great country, for such a time as this?