Living under Authority
by R.C. Sproul
As I read the scriptures, particularly the New Testament, there is a theme that recurs again and again regarding the Christian’s willingness to be in submission to various types of authority. Given the rebellious spirit of our age, that frightens me. It’s all too easy for us to get caught up in an attitude that will bring us into open defiance of the authority of God.
Let’s turn our attention to 1 Peter 2:11–16:
Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
Peter is speaking to people who were subjected to brutal, fierce, and violent persecution—the kind of activity that can incite within us the worst possible responses, including anger, resentment, and hatred. But Peter pleads with those people who were the victims of the hatred of their culture to behave in an honorable manner before the watching world. Paul gives a similar plea time and time again that we’re to try to live at peace with all men as much as possible.
The “therefore” of verse 13 introduces a key manifestation of living honorably before the watching world. We’re to submit ourselves to the ordinances of man. Why? I find the answer startling and fascinating. The Apostle’s admonition is that we’re to submit for the Lord’s sake. But how is obedience to human ordinances done for the Lord’s sake? How does my obedience to my professors, my boss, or the government in any way benefit Christ?
To understand this, we have to understand the deeper problem that all of Scripture is dealing with—the problem of sin. At the most fundamental level, sin is an act of rebellion and disobedience to a higher law and Lawgiver. The biggest problem with the world is lawlessness. The reason people are violated, killed, and maimed in battle, the reason there are murders, robberies, and so forth is that we’re lawless. We disobey, first of all, the law of God. The root problem in all of creation is disobedience to law, defiance of authority. And the ultimate authority of the universe is God Himself.
But God delegates authority as He reigns and rules over His creation. God raises up human governments. It is God who instituted government in the first place (Rom. 13). That’s why Christians are called to honor and pray for the king, pay their taxes, and submit as much as possible to the authorities in all things—because the authorities are instituted by God. Moreover, He shares supreme authority with Christ, who said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given [by the Father] to me” (Matt. 28:18). So, no ruler in this world has any authority except that which has been delegated to him by God and by His Christ, who is the King of kings and Lord of lords. Thus, disobedience to the lawful commands of earthly authorities is ultimately disobedience to God and to Christ because they ordained the governing authorities.
The world has gone crazy in lawlessness, but we’re to be different. Wherever we find ourselves under authority—and we all find ourselves submitting to various authorities—we’re to submit to that authority. Nobody in this world is autonomous. Every one of us has not just one boss, but several bosses. Everyone I know, including me, is accountable not to just one person but to all kinds of authority structures. Throw a brick through a store window, and you’ll find out quickly that you’re accountable, that you’re under authority, that there are laws to be obeyed and law enforcement officers to make sure the laws are obeyed.
Christians are free in Christ, but we aren’t to use our liberty as a license for sin, because even though on the one hand we’re free, on the other hand we remain indentured servants.
We’re bondservants to God. We’re slaves of Jesus Christ. So, even if the rest of the world is running on the track of anti-authority and anti-submissiveness, we aren’t allowed to join in. We’re called to be scrupulous to maintain order. There is such a thing as law and order that God Himself has ordained in the universe. And we’re called to bear witness to that, even by suffering through uncomfortable, inconvenient, and sometimes painful submission to the lawful rules of even those authorities who do not recognize God, for even the godless authorities have been established by God.
I think we all have experiences where we bristle and chafe under authority and under mandates with which we vehemently disagree. Let me just suggest as a matter of practical consideration that if we look to these human institutions or these human persons who are tyrannical, unfair, unjust, and all that, and we seek to submit to them individually or even institutionally, considered in and of themselves, we will find it extremely difficult to submit with any kind of good attitude. But if somehow we can look through them, look past them, look over them, and see the One whom the Father has invested with ultimate cosmic authority, namely, Christ Himself, we’ll have an easier time submitting. We’ll find help with our struggle to submit when we recognize we’re submitting ultimately to Christ, because we know He’ll never tyrannize or abuse us.