Submission isn’t easy. It isn’t easy for children to submit to parents. Or students to teachers. Or slaves to masters (or employees to employers). Or wives to husbands. Or church members to elders.
And it’s not easy for citizens to submit to governing authorities.
In 2021, it seems especially true that it is hard for citizens to submit to government — whether that authority is a judge, a President, a governor, or a policeman. There have been so many (too many?) examples in recent weeks and months of people who either are unwilling to submit or who speak dishonorably, maligning the character of some member of the government (see Titus 3:1-2).
But the biblical exhortation about submission to the government is clear: “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities” (Rom. 13:1). And “Submit yourself for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as send by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right” (1 Pt. 2:13-14).
Reluctance to submit to the government is not because there is no clear instruction about it, but because the natural heart of man and the flesh of the believer is prone toward rebellion, insurrection, and self-rule. We are quick to look for exceptions and loopholes. And while there are exceptions, they are few and rare — and even when carried out, should be done so with respect, following the example of Christ (e.g., 1 Pt. 2:13-25); the baseline and norm of every citizen is submission to the government.
Why is it important and essential to submit to the government? The biblical passages on the topic give at least five reasons to follow the authorities God has placed over us:
- We submit because government is decreed by God (Rom. 13:1); He put our government in place for our good and to submit to the government is to submit to Him. So when we obey government, we obey Him, and obeying Him pleases Him.
- We submit obediently because not obeying government is disobeying God (Rom. 13:2a). Further, to disobey God is to rebel against Him and His right to be authoritative over us. If we are unwilling to submit to the authority God has placed over us, it reveals that we also are unwilling to submit to God. As much as we are not submitting to government, we are not submitting to God to the same extent.
- We submit because those who disobey will be punished (Rom. 13:2b). The punishment certainly includes temporal consequences (vv. 3-4); they might also include eternal consequences — either through loss of reward for the believer, or eternal condemnation for the unbeliever.
- We obey and submit to government because rebellion against government is a mark of the unbelieving life (Titus 3:3, foolish and disobedient). And because obedience is a mark of the transforming work of Christ and the Spirit (Titus 2:14; also 1 Pt. 2:21ff).
- Finally, we obey because our obedience is a testimony to unbelievers (1 Pt. 2:12-15). We silence their slander against us when we obey. We cause them to pause in their criticism of us when they see our humble and gracious submission.
If a law is made and it applies to me, I must obey; and if there is an authority over me, I must submit — joyfully. And that is what is hard for most of us, because we are trained culturally to distrust and resist leadership. Disobedience and rebellion may be commendable attributes in the culture, but they are condemnable attributes in the believer.
We submit to every authority over us because it pleases the Lord and teaches us to submit to Him as the ultimate authority. We submit to government, because He has commanded it and our obedience conforms us to Him and pleases Him.