This past weekend a friend asked me a great question. I answered him, but the question kept bouncing through my thoughts so I decided to compose a more satisfying answer and share it with you.
Are Christians subject to the rule of secular authorities? The simple answer is ‘yes’, Christians ought to willingly subject themselves to governing authorities.
The Scriptures repeatedly instruct us to submit to the rulers of the land. Paul puts it succinctly in his letter to the believers in Rome, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” (Romans 13:1, ESV). Secular powers are legitimate because they have a sacred source, they are established by God.
Peter gave the same instruction, “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….Fear God. Honor the emperor.” (1 Peter 2:13-14,17b, ESV). The apostles have made our duty clear; obeying the law of the land is the obligation of every believer.
But what about those apostolic criminal records?
Both Peter and Paul were formally charged with criminal behavior, both saw prison time, and both were executed as enemies of the state. These men were not always compliant citizens. ‘Agitators’, ‘instigators’, and ‘trouble-makers’ seem more apt descriptions. These two, and others with them, seemed quite willing to challenge established powers. “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.”” (Acts 17:6b–7, ESV)
Obviously, these law-abiding men did not view their submission to human institutions as something absolute. They were compliant to a point, but once that threshold was crossed they become defiant. We see this breaking point described in Acts 4 as Peter addresses the governing council of Jerusalem. He presents himself as deferential before these rulers but when they instruct him to be silent about Jesus he defies them, saying it is ‘impossible’ to obey their command. From this encounter we see that it is the duty of every Christian to obey earthly authorities unless they seek to interfere with obedience to God. This is when the Christian becomes defiant.
For American Christians this point has always been somewhat distant—the state has been very kind to our convictions and we have generally been able to fear God and honor the empire with little friction between the two. However, conflict may not always remain distant. There are some who view our long established religious freedom as too generous and wish to curtail it. This they can do. This they might do. But what then would we do?
We must begin by discerning whether obedience to the law really would interfere with our sincerely held beliefs. In the Hobby Lobby case, the owners concluded that paying for certain contraceptives would make them complicit in ending innocent life. Based on this conclusion they defied the law. While some disagree with their conclusion it is evident that they made an informed, prayerful decision. Like Daniel and his friends, who refused to eat choice meats for fear of defilement, the Hobby Lobby owners appealed for leniency, and like Daniel they received it.
But leniency wasn’t always available to Daniel. Like Peter and Paul he was ultimately given a death sentence for prioritizing his faith over his allegiance to the emperor. God delivered Daniel from the lion’s den, but Paul was not delivered from the blade and Polycarp was not delivered from the fire. A time might come when our allegiance to Christ costs us our lives. Will you show sufficient resolve? Until then, will you show sufficient support for the institutions and leaders that have been granted power?
Fear God. Honor the emperor. In that order.