The Christian Obligation Toward Authority
This past Sunday we resumed our policy of allowing up to half our members to attend our worship gathering after canceling in-person worship for the last two weeks of November. We canceled because of our Mayor’s urgent plea that we take a ten day “break from higher-risk activities.” As we all try to do the “right thing” in the midst of this pandemic, Christians should strongly consider their three-fold obligation to trust authority, submit to authority, and pray for authority.
First, the Christian faith encourages its adherents to trust authority rather than to be skeptical of it. The reason for this is the simple fact that it is God, and God alone, who is the one who grants authority. The incarnate God himself reminded Pontius Pilate that Pilate would have had no authority over him “unless it had been given you from above” (Jn 19:11). The Bible declares that God alone is responsible for allotting to the nations of the world the various pagan religions that people follow. Deuteronomy 4:19 says, “And beware lest you raise your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, you be drawn away and bow down to them and serve them, things that the LORD your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven.” It’s a startling statement, but a necessary truth, because as one commentator observed, “To allow pagan worship beyond the realm of God’s sovereignty would make God less than he is” (Lester Kuyper, “The Book of Deuteronomy,” Interpretation 6 [July 1952], 329).
It hardly needs to be said that being in a position of authority gives one incredible power to lie and deceive. To trust authority does not mean that we must blindly accept everything we are told. But there are also things that only those in authority are in a position to know, things that we cannot know without them. We take our cars to mechanics because they are the authorities on automobile maintenance. We take our bodies to doctors because they are the authorities on medical science. That doesn’t mean that my mechanic is always right about that noise in my engine or that my doctor always gives me an accurate diagnosis of my illness. But we don’t usually go to mechanics or doctors that we are skeptical of either. We go to them because we trust them.
The point is that we are not in a better position to know truth without the knowledge we gain from those in authority. If we do not accept what authorities on a subject tell us, where else can we go to look for truth? Conspiracy theories may have the appeal of unmasking the lies of the powers that be, but they only demand that we believe some unnamed conspirator and accept some unfalsifiable conspiracy in its place. Is that really any better than having a trusting disposition toward those who know more about something than we do?
Submit to Authority
Second, Christians ought to submit to authority rather than rebel against it. That is, the disposition of our hearts ought to be one of obedience rather than disobedience, of compliance rather than resistance. Ephesians 5:21–6:9 calls on Christians to obediently submit to anyone in authority over them. Hebrews 13:17 commands believers in the church to “obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves” (KJV). Romans 13 demands that “every person be subject to the governing authorities.” Why?
For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment (Rom 13:1-2).
Again it hardly needs to be said that there are times when Christians must choose to obey God rather than some human authority over them (Acts 5:29). But disobedience to authority needs to be biblically justified, and Christians ought to be well aware of how easy it is to tempt our rebellious hearts. Conspirators are fueled by rebellion and the desire to be able to do whatever I want to do.
But rebellion is not a Christian virtue. Submission is. Not because we have no choice but to give in to authority over us, but because we have a Higher Authority to whom to make our appeal.
Pray for Authority
That’s why the Bible also makes it plain that we are to pray for those who are in authority. When the actions of authority over us are not so easily accepted, prayer is the right response rather than allowing hate to fill our hearts. Paul tells Timothy,
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way (1 Tim 2:1-2).
When Christians trust authority rather than are skeptical of it, and when Christians submit to authority rather than rebelling against it, we demonstrate our confidence in the One who occupies the highest place of authority above all. When we pray to the one true God for those who are in authority over us, we show that we trust God to be our refuge and strength (Psa 46:1). And even though “nations rage” and “kingdoms totter,” when we rush to prayer rather than to conspiracy, we remind ourselves that indeed “the Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress” (Psa 46:6-7).