Submitting to authority

[I’m back! After a two-month hiatus. I apologize for my long absence!]

In a recent post in my philosophy blog, I explored the relationship of morality to the laws and traditions of the culture we live in. I suggested there that possibly “we have no moral obligation to obey either the laws or tradition, but we have a moral obligation to be willing to obey the laws and to be willing to follow tradition, which is almost (but not quite) the same thing.”

For most of my Christian life, I would have said that we do have a definite moral obligation to obey the law. I held a pretty hard-line view of the importance of submission to authority, which I was sure the Bible supported. I would have pointed to the following Scriptural ideas:

  • The original sin by Adam and Eve was rebellion against God’s authority, and in one sense rebellion is still at the root of every sin. (Genesis 3:1-7)
  • God has placed authority over us for a purpose, and if we want to trust God we must be willing to submit to that authority. (Romans 13:1-5, 1 Peter 5:5)
  • There are specific spheres of authority in our lives and we are commanded to submit to authority in each of the relevant spheres. The spheres are: family, church, work, and government. (Colossians 3:18-25, 1 Peter 2:13-3:6, Hebrews 13:17)
  • Even when an authority figure is rejecting God, we are expected to honor their authority and wait for God’s deliverance. (Example of David and Saul. For example, see 1 Samuel 24)
  • When two authorities order us to do conflicting things, we should obey the higher authority. Especially, if obeying an earthly authority would require us to disobey God, then we must obey God instead. (Acts 5:27-29, Daniel 2, Daniel 6).
  • In addition to submission, we need to be respectful and show honor to those in authority, for the sake of their position. (Acts 23:3-5)
  • God is able and willing to change the mind of those in authority over us when we need Him to. (Proverbs 21:1 and several other verses)

I still agree with most of this, but my emphasis would be very different. Two things have changed my mind.

First, my interpretation of 1 Peter 2:13 changed. Here’s 1 Peter 2:13:

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution …

A couple of verses later, it adds:

Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God.

I used to read these verses as saying,

“By God’s design, you are under the authority of various human institutions. Now that you belong to Christ, stop rebelling and be a submissive person.”

Now I read them in light of the truth that we are no longer citizens of this world, but citizens of the kingdom of God. We are here only as ambassadors – foreigners who live here but whose allegiance is to another land. Therefore I take them to be saying,

“You are now free from human authority, and serve God instead. However, for the sake of His reputation, and as good ambassadors, and as those under His command, continue to humor the human systems around you by submitting to human authorities. That will serve God’s purposes best.”

The practical result is the same: obey human authority. The reason is very different: obey not because you are under human authority, but because you are under God’s authority.

So we have an indirect moral obligation to obey the laws, but no direct moral obligation to do so.

Second, I’ve begun to realize that if the Bible has, say, a gazillion warnings (by command or example) about the dangers of rebellion, it must have about two gazillion warnings about the dangers of unjust authority. Just as powerful as our desire to rebel is our desire to be tyrants.

I think a Biblically balanced view of authority will be careful to emphasize the warnings given to those in authority at least as strongly as the warnings given to those under it. It will encourage a healthy suspicion that those in positions of power will tempted to abuse that power. I believe my previous way of looking at things was too naively trusting of systems of authority.

Thoughts?

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