If the Lord showed us anything in the year 2021, it’s that believers in the Lord Jesus have a lot of serious problems, misunderstandings, ignorance, and sins. And one of the greatest areas of sin and misunderstanding is the area of our relationship to our governments. Last year, and in the beginning of this year, there have been many and widespread mandates, recommendations, orders, and I suspect even laws that have been imposed, offered, and even enforced upon we who live in the westernized world. But which ones of these so-called health guidelines are we to follow? Do we just do what we’re told, just as long as the person or organization speaking to us claims to have political authority over us? What exactly is the relationship between us as slaves of the Lord Jesus, and our governments? We know that Jesus is our Lord, but is the government our lord as well? Let’s look at what Scripture actually teaches about human government, and find out if we’re obeying God by obeying men, or if we’re obeying men rather than God.
God Only Approves of Just Governments
The first problem that we face in examining this issue is that most western Christians have misunderstandings about what the two most important Scripture passages about this issue teach — Romans 13:1-6 and 1 Peter 2:13-15. So what exactly do they teach?
Let’s begin with Paul the apostle’s words in Romans 13:1-6:
“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. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.”(ESV)
There are several things that we can learn from this passage about what Paul — and therefore the Lord — consider to be a government worthy of subjection. The fact is that this passage does not teach that all governments are to be obeyed, no matter who they are, or what they’re doing.
The first thing I want to point out is that Paul commands all his readers to be subject to the governing authorities. This means that the authorities he has in mind are those that govern, and aren’t designed to primarily serve any other function. This rules out the notion that Christians are obligated to submit to health authorities. No health organization that claims to have authority has any approval from the Lord to tell His people what to do.
Second, Paul is speaking of a specific type of governing authority. The Greek word he uses for “authorities” is the plural form of exousia, which means a delegated authority, or an authority with limited and specifically-defined power granted to it by a higher authority. Therefore, to say that Paul is calling us to submit to any organization or person that simply claims to be in authority over us is a failure to recognize what Paul is now going to describe and define.
So, what kind of governments is Paul talking about? In verse 3, he describes them as “rulers” that are a “terror”, or danger, to “bad” conduct, and not “good conduct”. This means that the first mark of a government that is approved by God as a legitimate authority is one that punishes bad conduct, but doesn’t do the same to good. Secondly, Paul says that this authority is “God’s servant for your good” (v. 4). That’s why such a government actually approves of good conduct (v. 3). Third, such a “servant of God” actually is “an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (v. 4). Since Paul has just said this government actually uses “the sword” — the instrument of death — he means that such an authority actually exercises justice upon those who are characterized by “wrongdoing”, or are true threats to society. Furthermore, he goes on to explain that this is why the Romans “pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing” (v. 6). What “very thing” is he talking about? The execution of criminals through capital punishment. And notice he again returns to the use of the word “authorities”, showing us that this is how he’s defining them.
So, what can we conclude from this passage about what God considers to be a legitimate governing authority?
- It approves of good behavior.
- It punishes evil behavior by removing criminals from society.
- It uses its resources, such as taxes, to do these things.
Hence, any government that’s characterized by the punishment of good behavior, and the approval of evil behavior, and fails to make an effort to eliminate threats to society doesn’t have the approval of God, and is an illegitimate governing authority.
But so that we consider Peter’s descriptions of the governments that Christians are to obey, let’s look at 1 Peter 2:13-15:
13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.(ESV)
Here, Peter refers to “every human institution”, but he goes on to define these organizations as being represented by the governing authorities of the Roman Empire. Thus, we can conclude that Peter’s limiting his instruction to “be subject” to human governments.
In this passage, we see a condensed version of Paul’s teaching in Romans 13. He first commands his audience to be subject “to the emperor as supreme”. Many will say that this means we must obey any government leader supposedly “over us”, no matter how evil, since the emperor that Peter is talking about was a wicked man, and a persecutor of Christians. However, there’s no evidence in 1 Peter that the Roman Empire was yet executing state-sponsored persecution of Christians. Rather, the persecution that Peter describes all comes from his audience’s non-Christian neighbors. Also, Peter goes on to describe what the emperor was doing at the time. He was sending “governors . . . to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good”. And it’s these governors that Peter was urging his audience to submit to. Once again, Peter qualifies what he means by a human government by defining it as one that punishes evildoers and rewards do-gooders.
To further support this reading, verse 15 explains that the reason these Christians must submit themselves to such rulers is because it’s one of the ways that they do “good“. In other words, the only way they can submit to their just governors is by doing good, and not evil. This assumes that most, if not all, of the commands they receive from their ruler will be something that’s good to obey.
Applying the 1st Century Teaching to Our 21st Century Context
The second issue that we must address in order to understand our relationship to our governments is how we properly apply the teaching to submit to legitimate governments to ourselves. This is something that always needs to be considered when figuring out how to apply New Testament teaching to us, since that teaching was given to particular people at a particular time that’s different from us.
So, in the case of Paul’s and Peter’s instructions that Christians must submit themselves to just governments, what’s the difference between their context and ours as westernized people? The difference is that they lived under an imperial monarchy with an emperor, or king. However, most Christians reading this don’t. For the most part, we live in nations where the rule of law isn’t decreed by a ruler, but is declared through written laws that are passed by representatives of the common citizen. So, you can’t say that since Paul and Peter told their audiences to submit themselves to their “rulers”, then we also must submit to our governors. That isn’t how it works it nations of laws and constitutions. It’s not our representative governors that are our authorities, but our laws, and even our governors must submit to them.
Now, this clearly applies to mask, vaccine, and “social distancing” mandates. Are such mandates laws of the land? For the most part, the answer is “no”. Then why are hundreds of thousands of Christians acting like they are, and citing Romans 13 and/or 1 Peter 2 as teaching such? My brother or sister who lives under a representative government of laws, your government offical — whether he be a governor, mayor, president, or prime minister — has no authority over you except that which is given him by your government’s laws. Therefore, any order or mandate he gives you has no authority over you unless it’s part of the law. And even then, it must be a just law, that promotes the punishment of evildoers, and the rewarding of do-gooders.
So, are you obeying human governments rather than God by staying away from your brethren, by treating them like strangers, or even by wearing a mask when they should be seeing your face, and hearing your singing loud and clear?
Jesus is Lord Over Caesar, and Caesar’s Not Lord Over Jesus
To conclude, as you seek to obey our Lord with regard to how you treat your governments and the many so-called health practices that are promoted, remember that Jesus is your Lord, as well as the Lord of your government. As Peter says to his government in the book of Acts, “we must obey God rather than men”. And in order to do this, we must hold our government officials accountable to God, and lovingly and respectfully preach the truth to them as we have opportunity. Jesus is the Lord of the universe who came from heaven to earth to die for our sins, to rise from the dead, and to go into heaven to provide us with God’s forgiveness, peace, and mercy through faith in Him. And He’ll eventually judge everyone perfectly and give them what they deserve — even your government officials.