“It is the duty of people to pray for magistrates , to honor their persons, to pay them tribute or other dues, to obey their lawful commands, and to be subject to their authority, for conscience’ sake. Infidelity, or difference in religion, doth not make void the magistrates’ just and legal authority, nor free the people from their due obedience to them”
(From the Westminster Confession of Faith, 23.4)
Before I begin to discuss the issue at hand, let me begin by making a confession; I was born with a rebellious heart. I’ve never personally enjoyed submitting to any authority just or unjust, and I spent the first 23 years of my life rebelling against the authority of parents, teachers, and most importantly, God. I refused to honor or obey any of them regardless of any punishment or reward. It wasn’t until I became a Christian that the most important issue of my rebellion against God was finally dealt with and only when my heart was finally subdued and made teachable by the Holy Spirit did I begin to seriously deal with my unwillingness to submit to the human authorities he has appointed. I will confess that I don’t like submitting to authorities I don’t respect or agree with, and as a result, submitting to the current U.S. administration has been hard. I must admit that I am still learning to do it, especially in the matter of my speech. I am practicing, for instance, saying and writing “President Obama” and “Speaker Pelosi” and “Senator Reid” instead of simply referring to them by them last names.
I suppose it is partly because of all the mortifying of my natural tendencies that has been going on, that I’m particularly alarmed at the growing tendency amongst conservative American Christians to state that they do not believe that they are required to honor or be subject to the current U.S. government even in matters lawful or indifferent. Often this claim is buttressed by the belief that the only authority they have to honor and be subject to is the Constitution, and that while they are subject to the highest law of the land, they are not subject to the actual magistrates who are called upon to interpret, apply, and enforce it. In practice, this often amounts to a refusal to accept or honor any authority one does not personally choose to recognize as legitimate. While this view may be gaining in popularity during the Obama administration, it was to be found during the administrations of Clinton and Bush as well.
Popular or not, the practice flies in the face of the biblical teaching that we are to be subject to all authorities, that we are to respect them, and that we are to obey their commands when they do not force us to disobey the law of God (Exodus 20:12, Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-18) . This is regardless of whether they are good authorities, and regardless of how they came to power. Let us recall that Paul was able to submit to the authority of a corrupt and incompetent Roman official like Festus and even honor him with the title kratistos – “most noble” because his authority and appointment ultimately came from God. Certainly in and of himself, there was nothing in Festus that was “most noble.”
It is my belief that our unwillingness to acknowledge or honor any authority we disapprove of is setting a terrible example for our children, and is contributing to the overall unwillingness in our society to acknowledge any authority in the family and the church as well. We are rapidly reaching the point as a culture where the only authorities we will honor are those we explicitly agree with, which in essence is saying that the only authority we acknowledge, is our own. We have gone from “Thy will be done” to “My will be done.”
Some Christians will argue that the current situation is different, that the current administration is worse than any other that Christians have ever had to endure. This claim is nothing short of ridiculous. Historically Christians have had to submit to far worse governments than we do today and indeed our Christian brothers and sisters in many foreign countries are today submitting to and honoring leaders and governments far, far, worse than that of the United States. A dose of historical realism needs to enter into our deliberations at some point and there has to be an application to us to be found in the fact that Paul personally rendered honor to the corrupt appointees of dictators and Peter counseled slaves to be submissive even to harsh masters.
Charles Hodge, in his commentary on Romans 13, spells out the actual parameters of a Christian’s duty to submitting to and honor authority in detail and I’ve taken the liberty of copying those sections here. I’ve also highlighted the sections that go most against my own natural tendencies:
“Verse 1. Let every soul be subject to the higher powers. The expression every soul is often used as equivalent to every one; it is at times, however, emphatic, and such is probably the case in this passage. By higher powers are most commonly and naturally understood those in authority, without reference to their grade of office, or their character. We are to be subject not only to the supreme magistrates, but to all who have authority over us. The abstract word powers or authorities ( ἐξουσὶαι ) is used for those who are invested with power, Luke 12:11; Ephesians 1:21; 3:10, etc. etc. The word ( ὑπερὲχων ) rendered higher, is applied to any one who, in dignity and authority, excels us. In 1 Peter 2:13, it is applied to the king as supreme, i.e. superior to all other magistrates. But here one class of magistrates is not brought into comparison with another, but they are spoken of as being over other men who are not in office. It is a very unnatural interpretation which makes this word refer to the character of the magistrates, as though the sense were, ’Be subject to good magistrates.’ This is contrary to the usage of the term, and inconsistent with the context. Obedience is not enjoined on the ground of the personal merit of those in authority, but on the ground of their official station.
Not only is human government a divine institution, but the form in which that government exists, and the persons by whom its functions are exercised, are determined by his providence. All magistrates of whatever grade are to be regarded as acting by divine appointment; not that God designates the individuals, but it being his will that there should be magistrates, every person, who is in point of fact clothed with authority, is to be regarded as having a claim to obedience, founded on the will of God. … There is no limitation to the injunction in this verse, so far as the objects of obedience are concerned, although there is as to the extent of the obedience itself. That is, we are to obey all that is in actual authority over us, whether their authority be legitimate or usurped, whether they are just or unjust. The actual reigning emperor was to be obeyed by the Roman Christians, whatever they might think as to his title to the sceptre. But if he transcended his authority, and required them to worship idols, they were to obey God rather than man. This is the limitation to all human authority. Whenever obedience to man is inconsistent with obedience to God, then disobedience becomes a duty.
It is clear that this passage (vers. 1, 2) is applicable to men living under every form of government, monarchical, aristocratical, or democratical, in all their various modifications. Those who are in authority are to be obeyed within their sphere, no matter how or by whom appointed. It is the ουσαι ἐξουσὶαι , the powers that be, the de facto government, that is to be regarded as, for the time being, ordained of God. It was to Paul a matter of little importance whether the Roman emperor was appointed by the senate, the army, or the people; whether the assumption of the imperial authority by Caesar was just or unjust, or whether his successors had a legitimate claim to the throne or not. It was his object to lay down the simple principle, that magistrates are to be obeyed. The extent of this obedience is to be determined from the nature of the case. They are to be obeyed as magistrates, in the exercise of their lawful authority.”