Submit, Obey, Respect, Honor, Pay, and Pray

Throughout the year, and particularly in a national election year, the Christian’s relationship with the civil government takes center stage. Jesus and His apostles have a message for you, a message that you are encouraged to believe, teach, and confess about our rulers. While this message may be specific to our community, it’s not uncommon to hear that most rulers, laws, and taxes are viewed as evil. Often, lawyers and justices are also thrown into this ‘evil’ category. This sentiment is not surprising, considering our country’s revolutionary origins, a fact that is taught in every civics course. The memory of rebellion against tyrannical rule is deeply ingrained in our culture. Ironically, 250 years later, any uprising against such unjust authority or excessive taxation is prohibited and can result in imprisonment for months or years. 

The Holy Scriptures have clear instructions both for government and citizens. They might surprise you. St. Paul tells the government how to rule. He says, “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.”(Romans 13:1-4). The Apostle of Jesus makes many assertions for civil government. 1) Be subject to authorities. 2) God establishes all authority on earth. 3) Resisting authority is resisting God. 4) Authorities punish evil and commend the good. 5) Authorities bear the sword, e.g., are authorized to do violence. 

As a liberty-minded American, I chafe at these words. They are hard to accept. I imagine St. Paul found them hard to swallow as well, living under the rule of the Pharisees and Romans. Perhaps we could accept and be subject to civil rule when it seems properly restrained, limited, and in accord with the Law of God. We have difficulty stomaching godless, tyrannical, and unjust rulers, much less submitting to them. 

So the Apostle continues, “Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor” (Romans 13:5–7). Now, that’s even worse. Following the government’s rules is bad enough, and now the Apostle instructs us to allow them to take our property, livelihood, and income, too? And he dares to call them “ministers” or “servants” of the LORD? How can that be?

None of this is new. Ever since the fall of Adam into sin, the thoughts and intents of our hearts have been on evil continually. God appointed civil rule to keep us from doing the worst of what our hearts want. These rulers have gone by many names, e.g., patriarch, prophet, judge, king, governor, Caesar, emperor, prince, chief, or president. God has appointed them to rule over us because we refuse to live under God’s rule by thought, word, or deed. God even put His people under terrible tyrants like Pharaoh, Manasseh, Nebuchadnezzar, and Herod for this reason. Only when they command what God has forbidden is disobedience called for, as the example of Daniel and his three friends teaches. Or as the Apostle Peter asserts, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Thus, like the burdens of sickness, trial, suffering, poverty, and loss that God puts on us, the civil rule first restrains our sinful flesh and then is given to repent from trusting in ourselves and to turn to Christ Jesus for forgiveness, life, and salvation. 

Christ Jesus Himself submitted to the civil authorities, namely the chief priests and Herod, even though it meant His suffering and death. Even their unjust trial and His crucifixion, His Father and ours used for the ultimate good, that is, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. Jesus told Pontius Pilate that He would have no authority unless given to him from above. But Jesus also confessed that His kingdom and ours know no ethical constraint, national border, or denominational distinction. His kingdom is not of this world. As Jesus instructed regarding the coin, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21). Thus, the Christian lives with dual citizenship: duty-bound subjects of earthly kingdoms that come and will ultimately go away, free subjects of heaven now in the church by faith and in eternity in the resurrection.

There is no doubt that civil government affects our daily lives. It often burdens us heavily with demands that seem too hard to bear. We may work within our vocation as citizens to return governments, laws, regulations, and taxation to more limited and responsible rule per the Apostolic instruction in Romans 13, 1 Peter 2, and Titus 3. But don’t put your hope in civil government with utopian visions or hero worship. Don’t look to civil government to give what God promises by His Word and Spirit: peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control, charity, and love. And never forget that your hope and confidence is in Jesus and Him alone. In the end, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that He is LORD, to the glory of God the Father. He is, after all, the one we confess is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. 

The first and best thing you can do this election season is to pray: “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession, and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior” (1 Timothy 2:1-3). And then do what duties your God-given vocation within or without government demands, be it submission, honor, respect, or even taxes. Trust Jesus that He will work all things for your good, just as He always has. 

Originally published in the Sounder, April 25, 2024.