The Bible Doesn’t Teach Blanket Submission to the Government

The Bible Doesn’t Teach Blanket Submission to the Government September 17, 2022

Although the relationship between church and state has always been a subject matter of intellectual interest to me, I never thought critically about it until 2020. The government’s handling of the COVID-19 Pandemic has compelled Christians, like me, to reexamine the biblical model of government and how it relates to the church – particularly questions on government overreach and jurisdiction. Does the government have the right to tell us not to attend church? Can the White House mandate vaccines? Should we submit to the government in all non-sinful instances? These are good questions and worthy of rigorous biblical study because the answer(s) are, as I found, not as black and white as you may think. 

When discerning the viability of a government’s laws/rulings, many Christians apply a few basic biblical principles and conclude the practice of discernment. First, they rightly acknowledge that Christians are to be known for submission (2 Peter 2-13-25). Then, they distinguish between civil law and God’s law. In other words, is the government’s ruling causing a violation of God’s Word? If the ruling does not cause one to be in sin, then a common understanding is that the Christian is obligated to comply. While this process of perspicuity is a good start, if we stop discerning here, we err; there is more biblical precedence for Christians to consider. 

Most Christians do not need convincing of the hierarchical nature of civil government; scripture is clear on this. Rulers are, as Paul says, “ministers of God” (Romans 13:5). He explains that they exist to serve as instruments of God’s good pleasure for judgment and justice. Even the most corrupt, wicked government must answer to God’s sovereign rule and is required to operate as God has commanded. But that begs the question, are we to submit when governments are not functioning as God intended? Are we to offer blanket submission if a civil government has extended itself beyond the role and function God has defined?

One text often cited for this discussion is found in Romans 13. It reads:

“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. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 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, 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. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.” (1-7, ESV). 

At a glance, this seems unambiguous: we are to submit to the civil magistrates. Yet, what many overlook when evaluating this text is that Paul describes an idealized government. He isn’t speaking to a specific government, but rather the office and sphere in general. In this text, God’s Word is bounding and characterizing the role and purpose of civil government. The Apostle is not prescribing an all-encompassing attitude of submission towards every government, but instead, explaining how governments should function in light of God’s sovereignty and justice. So what is that function? RC Sproul summarized the purpose of government well. He wrote, “The function of government is to restrain evil and to maintain, uphold, and protect the sanctity of life and property.” Friends, this is the purpose and function of government – no more, no less. 

One of the most helpful resources I have read on the issue is a book called Caesar and the Church by Anthony Forsyth. In this very accessible treatise, he elucidates on the various spheres of authority God has designated and offers insight on what Christians should do when a ruler operates outside their God-defined jurisdiction. He explains that if the ruling authority mandates we do something (or not do something) that is outside the scope of its God-given definition or sphere of the role, blanket submission is not required. Such is even true for cases where the ruling would not cause a person to be in sin. 

Let’s look at an example: suppose the head of the local transportation department came to your house and ordered that you paint your house pink. What would you do? You would likely laugh and escort him/her right out the front door of your non-pink house. Why? Because we recognize that his position grants him no right or jurisdiction to tell you what color your house should be. The same concept is valid for higher magistrates and governments. God’s Word defines their purpose, and just because they claim they have the right to mandate, doesn’t mean they do. 

A second point that Forsyth makes (and this is important) is that even if a ruler is acting like an “evil Caesar” and operating outside of their God-defined sphere, we need to recognize that they were still placed there by God and are worthy of respect. Even if a government’s actions are faulty, there may be times when submission is the honorable, righteous thing to do. This level of discernment is challenging and often requires insight from elders and prayer. 

Forsyth explains, “Caesar may have no right to tell the church how to conduct worship services and when he does so, he may be rightfully ignored and rebuked, but he does not lose the right to punish evil as a result of his disobedience… ‘But,’ you may ask, ‘didn’t Jesus obey tyrannical commands when He was arrested, mistreated, and ultimately went to the cross?’ Yes, He did; His time had come. But He also evaded arrest earlier; He also slipped away when they tried to Him earlier. The model Peter gives us is not one of mindless submission to tyranny but one of a righteous response to unjust suffering while entrusting ourselves to the ultimate judge. There may be times when a righteous response is submissively allowing the mistreatment to occur; there may be other times when a firm “no” is the most righteous and loving response” (p. 102). 

Christian, while we should be known as people of love, peace, humbleness, and submission, we are also called to be wise and discerning. We are not called to “mindless submission.” The past couple of years has awakened many believers (myself included) to the dangers, and unbiblical nature, of statism. Moving forward, we can be sure that this conflict and tension between the church and state is not going to go away. If anything, all indicators point towards an increase. Now is the time to study and prepare a biblical worldview on these issues so that you will be ready to respond righteously the next time evil Caesar demonstrates corruption. 

This is a topic we discussed in more detail on our podcast. You can listen to that episode HERE.

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