What does the Bible teach about governing authorities?

August 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?

Vance H. Pitman

Vance H. Pitman is the senior pastor of Hope Church in Las Vegas, Navada.  Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24