This is part of a series of posts on the doctrine of Authority. Click here to see the entire series.
The civil magistrate, or State, has no trouble making people submit. Christians are sometimes surprised to learn that the Bible instructs them to submit to the State. The following verses prove the point:
Romans 13:1 says, “Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities…”
Romans 13:5 says, “Wherefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes,…”
Titus 3:1 says, “Remind them to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good deed,…
I Peter 2: 13 says, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right.”
The fact that Christians are ordered to submit themselves to the State could not be any more clear. It is, of course, always assumed that no Christian has to submit to and obey the State when the State specifically orders a believer to do something that is contrary to the Word of God. For example, we all agree that if the State ordered a pregnant woman to abort her baby, she would be right in refusing to submit to that order. When the Christians in the post-apostolic Church were ordered to cease preaching the Gospel, they rightly ignored that order.
On the other hand, insofar as the State does not order an individual believer to violate the principles of God’s Word, he is to submit to and obey the State. This is true even when the members of the State are very immoral men and women and the dictates of the State are also immoral. Rome was an amazingly immoral society and the Roman State was filled with immoral practices, but Paul still enjoined the believers in Rome to be in subjection to the governing authorities.
To which expression of the State should the Christian submit? To whichever ones he pays taxes. Paul told the Romans that the taxes that they paid to Rome were their duty in exchange for the civil order that is brought about by a state institution. Sometimes critics of Christians who believe in liberty charge them with being anarchists. Unfortunately, many Christians have been sucked into popular movements, that they deem to be Christian and patriotic, that encourage them to cease paying taxes and renounce the civil government. Nothing could be more contrary to the truth. Of course much of what the taxes are used to pay for is immoral. That was true in Rome and it is true now. But Paul does not order the Romans to cease paying taxes. Instead, taxes are the means by which the legitimate State authority may be recognized. An individual knows who he has to submit to in the state arena by simply looking to see who he pays taxes to. The tax is a statement of authority over someone. When an individual pays a tax it is an act of submission to the taxing authority. (Contrary to popular belief, God does have an opinion abut the type and amount of tax the State may extract. That is the subject of another essay.)
Peter continues this theme when he orders the Jewish believers to submit themselves to every “human institution” that acts as a governing authority. Just as is the case in the United States, there were numerous taxing institutions in his time. Sometimes he had to submit to a king, sometimes he had to submit to a governor. Today, we have to submit to the Federal, State, and local governments to which we find ourselves bound via the payment of taxes.
Nothing of what has been said about submission to the State should ever be taken as an endorsement of the policies of the State. When the State engages in immoral activities, submission to the State does not constitute endorsement of that immorality. Christians are ordered to submit to the State under which they live. They are never ordered to become a part of the State under which they live. They are certainly never expected to bind their consciences to any state policy that is contrary to the revealed Word of God.