The Christian and submission to governing authorities
Anon // October 5, 2020, 2:59 pm
This is a response to Shuin Jian’s article on “How should a Christian respond to injustice and social movements?”.
I would like to bring up another topic which has been extremely controversial and the subject of debate to this present day – the issue of submission to the governing authorities.
This article is not written to undercut, criticise or rebut anyone holding onto different takes on the issue. My intention is simply to share a take on this controversial topic in response to Shuin Jian’s article.
UNDERSTANDING THE ROOT OF CONTROVERSY
Firstly, when it comes to submission to authorities, the root of the controversy of passages such as Romans 13:1-4 lies in how they are often read in a vacuum, without context.
There is difficulty in situating the context of Paul’s (or even Peter’s) words in 1 Peter 2. This leaves many a reader struggling to determine the context behind its interpretation.
So we see schools of thought that treat this passage like a legal text, something along the lines of the Penal Code, to which obedience is expected to the T.
In their view, Christians should submit to the governing authorities absolutely, with even expression of dissent unacceptable, citing the example of Jesus’ submission to the earthly authorities as He went to the cross as the Christian case for doing so.
Other schools of thought interpret Romans 13:1-4 as an exhortation to Christians to not be involved in separatist movements (endemic in Roman days) which meant that dissent in good faith, without undermining the authority, is acceptable.
Secondly, the issue of the controversy is that many acts of evil have been perpetrated by people in authority. Cases in point are Hitler, Stalin and Robespierre, just to name a few.
And so the question is, should these people be submitted to absolutely, so long as they don’t make us do something that runs against what the Bible teaches (e.g. killing someone or recanting Christ)?
Thirdly, resisting and seeking to overthrow tyrannical leaders has shown to be useful to some extent in negating their evil. For instance, if not for uprisings such as the Warsaw Ghetto and Sobibor revolts during World War II, many more Jews would have perished.
It is because of this fluid nature of life that makes interpreting the applications of Romans 13:1-4 an extremely tricky matter.
BOTH SIDES HAVE THEIR MERITS
When we approach this subject, we must not approach it in a binary – an approach that takes one side as completely right and the other as completely wrong.
The Quietist school (the belief that it is best to accept things in life and not try to change them) has merits in their case, in the sense that they recognise the place of humility in trusting God’s sovereignty in choosing to submit, even passively and totally, to the governing authorities.
Their argument that many movements against authority today is driven by the spirit of rebellion is not without merit.
They also recognise that there is power in choosing to passively submit to the governing authorities, which has truth to an extent.
The non-Quietist position is also not without merit too. Firstly, Jesus, Peter and Paul were not quietists – they were only quietist in different contexts.
Jesus was no quietist with the woes he pronounced on the religious leaders and the chief priests in Matthew 21:23-46 and Matthew 23. Peter was definitely no quietist in Acts 4 and 5.
Throughout history, Christians have actually been complicit in allowing the evil in their day to run their course because of their interpretation of Romans 13 as absolute obedience to those in authority.
In Nazi Germany, many German Christians were taught unquestioning submission to the governing authorities, and this made many complicit allowing Hitler to run his evil, in particular, the Holocaust.
During the years leading up to the American Civil War, Christians have turned in runaway slaves back to their masters in the name of Romans 13.
However, there is a point to note: Jesus also taught that whatever that is to be rendered to Caesar, is to be rendered to Caesar, which respects the position of the government of the day, even though it was a sinful, pagan one.
Likewise Paul, in his hearing before the Sanhedrin in Acts 23, reversed course after learning that he denounced the High Priest by mistake.
As such, here is what both sides need to recognise.
Firstly, passive obedience and total submission have their problems and have led to courses of action that are not Biblical and do not necessarily please God, such as giving evil and unrighteousness a free pass.
Being salt and light means that what’s out of place needs to be called out prayerfully and in love, without undermining the authority of the authority figure of the day.
Secondly, Jesus, Peter and Paul did not rail against the system in a nihilistic way, which is so endemic among those who subscribe to “critical theory”.
They called out the wrongs of their day to bring things back to the design as God intended it and not to undercut the people in authority of the day.
Nihilism seeks to dig out and focus disproportionately, even unobjectively, on the wrongs in a system or society. Sadly, it is more in line with the modus operandi of the devil and lawlessness.
Calling out in love is a response to what we see that is not right while acknowledging the good that exists.
Lastly, the use of Romans 13 has some validity by authority figures – at the end of the day, they are endowed with powers to keep the people under them safe and from committing crime, and this comes from God.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR OUR CONTEXT?
Personally, for me, submitting to authority means following the rules laid down by the governing authorities of the day, so long as they don’t require me to go against what God says.
This involves wearing a mask when going out, maintaining safe distancing, paying taxes, not speeding and not littering, just to name a few.
In the church context, if I see a need to act in contrary to my cell group leader’s directions (especially on matters such as how a Bible study session is to be done), after prayerful consideration, I would always communicate the matter with my cell group leader privately, respectfully and lovingly explain my grounds of why his or her direction on a matter can’t be followed.
Submitting to those in authority also means that we don’t insult, disparage or run them down. Personally, I hold that one should not be involved in revolts or coups in any way and should always choose fleeing from a wicked ruler over revolting.
But there are times where speaking up in love and respect is needed.
For example, should we keep silent if the management in an organisation adopts unjust policies, such as setting low thresholds to get an employee dismissed?
And should we keep silent if they put in place technicalities which would allow the organisation to not recompense a staff for injuries that occurred in the course of their work, especially if the cause of the injury is not the result of negligence?
Also, even if we less out the aspects of critical theory, especially critical race theory (both of which I have strong disagreements with) in the current socio-political discourse both at home and abroad, the US elections and the recent elections in Singapore reveal real and genuine “issues” and legitimate questions of injustices within the system.
Ultimately, we shouldn’t turn a blind eye to these issues. Rather, we should prayerfully consider our response and ask God for the gift of discernment to discern the wheat from the tares and consider the appropriate response.
The author’s name has been changed for confidentiality.
THINK + TALK
- Who are the authorities in your life?
- How does the Bible define submission?
- What might biblical submission look like in your life?