By Skip Heitzig | First Published: May 28, 2015
In part 5 of a yearlong series, Skip Heitzig says submitting to governing authories has always been hard, yet it is vital to our Christian walk.
No one likes to be told what to do. No one. None of us likes it when our personal right to choose and self-determine our future is taken away or hindered. In fact, American culture is grounded in part on the idea that we should be free from the restrictive laws of a tyrannical government. That’s how the country was birthed. But our difficulty in submitting is not just an American proclivity; it’s human tendency. And yet, God instructs us to submit to authority.
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So we’re caught between the Rock and a hard place—God’s requirement to submit versus our human resistance to do so. Fortunately, the Apostle Peter gave us some answers that show us the what and the how of submission, and we’ll look at the why in next month’s article. Peter reminded us of a basic fact: Christians are being watched; we’re under a special level of scrutiny as followers of Christ. “Having your conduct honorable among the Gentiles, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:12). In other words, by an inward purity of life that is demonstrated by an outward quality of life, any accusation the world makes against you won’t stick.
“Therefore,” Peter continued, “submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake” (1 Peter 2:13). We are to submit to kings, governors and law enforcement officials, for “this is the will of God [emphasis mine], that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men” (1 Peter 2:15-16).
Clearly, such submission has its challenges. Peter understood that; the word submit in Greek is hypotásso, meaning to arrange in orderly fashion under a commanding officer. Even though it is a military term with a military use, Peter used it here in a nonmilitary sense. It speaks of voluntary cooperation or even helping somebody carry a load. According to Peter, the authorities listed here exist “for the punishment of evildoers” (1 Peter 2:14). In other words, you don’t need to fear the police unless you’re speeding. You don’t need to worry about the IRS unless you’re cheating on your taxes. You don’t have to run from the FBI unless you’ve committed a crime. But if you are breaking the law, then you should be afraid.
God has given governments authority, through rulers, to exact punishment. Bottom line: as believers, we are never to be known as rebellious troublemakers but as model citizens. Submission, not subversion, is to be our modus operandi.
Before you get too annoyed and start thinking of ways that it’s nearly impossible to be a model citizen in our current culture and governmental structure, let me just remind you about the culture the church was birthed in. The New Testament was written during a time of great political corruption, an era of tyrants and despots. Peter wrote to an audience living under an autocracy; what Caesar said, went. There was no vote, no free speech and very limited freedom of assembly.
In Peter’s day, Nero was Caesar, and he demanded—as did other Caesars—that the people submit exclusively to him. In some cases, Caesar was even deified. That posed a great problem with early Christians, because when they were dragged by the government before an altar, they didn’t say, “Caesar is Lord,” they said, “Caesar is not lord; Jesus Christ is Lord.” And they were persecuted—beaten, jailed, even executed—because of it.
Further, it’s believed that more than half of the Roman Empire’s population were slaves. And if you think taxes are bad now, Roman taxation absolutely and unjustly crushed the citizenry. That was the world that Jesus was born into as Messiah. It was oppressive, despotic and cruel. But Jesus didn’t do what the Jews expected of their long-awaited Messiah. They were longing for a deliverer who would relieve them from Rome’s yoke. He didn’t do that. There’s no record of Jesus picketing, inciting a riot or telling His followers to make a protracted march on Rome or Jerusalem and protest cruel government. He didn’t start an insurrection or try to win a culture war. It so surprised people that they eventually felt they needed to execute Him since He wouldn’t march to the beat of their drum.
When confronted by the Pharisees and the Herodians—who asked, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”—Jesus’ response included submission to government as well as devotion to God: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Luke 20:25). Another group, the Zealots, didn’t think taxes should be paid at all, and it committed acts of violence and terrorism against Rome based on their misinterpretation of Deuteronomy 17:15: “You may not set a foreigner over you, who is not your brother.” This ancient society was a mixed bag of authoritarianism and insurgency.
It was in the midst of this that Peter told Christians to submit to the current authorities. Why? Those believers didn’t put any of these people in power. There was no democratic process in place like we enjoy. Certainly, many Christians felt antagonism toward such cruel oppressors, especially since they commanded things that were contrary to the declared will of God—which brings up a question: Is there ever a time when a Christian can or should defy the government? Yes, there is. But here is the rule: Submit until submitting to earthly authority keeps you from submitting to heavenly authority. You obey until your obedience makes you disobey God. At that point, a whole other set of rules comes into play.
Look to the Old Testament for such examples: the Hebrew midwives refused to obey Pharaoh’s command to kill the baby boys. Later, Daniel “purposed in his heart that he would not defile himself with the portion of the king’s delicacies” (Daniel 1:8).
Even when his life was at stake, Daniel refused to quit praying to God (see Daniel 6). God delivered him from the lion’s den, and his three friends from the fiery furnace, because of their commitment: “We do not serve your gods” (Daniel 3:18). In the New Testament, when the Sanhedrin passed a law prohibiting the preaching of the Name of Jesus, Peter and John declined, saying, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29, ESV). Modern history has its examples, too. In fact, as our government passes its own laws on abortion and same-sex marriage, we’re going to be confronted with the question of submission: “Am I going to do what they say, or am I going to obey God?”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, jailed for his stand against Hitler, wrote a letter to his similarly imprisoned brother-in-law, saying: “There is not a grain of reproach or bitterness in me regarding what has happened to you and me. Such things come from God, and only Him. And I know that … before Him there is only submission, endurance, patience—and gratitude.” Bonhoeffer’s example stands before us not only as a reminder of the potential costs in this life of submitting to God, but also of the courage, discernment and peace He gives us to do what is necessary. D 2015 SKIP HEITZIG
SKIP HEITZIG IS PASTOR OF CALVARY ALBUQUERQUE (NEW MEXICO).
UNLESS OTHERWISE NOTED, SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS ARE TAKEN FROM THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW KING JAMES VERSION. THE QUOTATION MARKED ESV IS TAKEN BY PERMISSION FROM THE HOLY BIBLE, ENGLISH STANDARD VERSION, ©2001 BY CROSSWAY BIBLES, A PUBLISHING MINISTRY OF GOOD NEWS PUBLISHERS.