This entry is part 4 of 42 in the series Christian Theology of Public Policy Course

This essay continues the Christian Theology and Public Policy Course essays by John Cobin, author of the books Bible and Government and Christian Theology of Public Policy.

“Honor the king” (1 Peter 2:17) is Peter’s terse apostolic admonition to first-century Christians, “pilgrims of the dispersion” (1 Peter 1:1), whom Nero had exiled to Asia Minor from Rome. The admonition includes the specific objects and extent of their acquiescence: “submit yourselves to every ordinance of man…to the king as supreme, or to governors…” (1 Peter 2:13-14a). In the same vein, the Apostle Paul wrote in more general terms to the Christians at Rome and Gortys (the capital of the province of Crete), using the language “rulers and authorities” (Titus 3:1, cf. Romans 13:1-3). Paul surely had in mind the imperial Caesar Nero, as well as various lesser authorities who ruled Rome’s provinces, such as Herod, Felix, and Agrippa.

Historians refer to the phase of the ancient Roman state in apostolic times as the Principate. The Emperor was Caesar and, as such, held autocratic dominion. Although high-handed rule dominated, a number of decentralized forms and conventions still existed—leftovers from the oligarchic self-government of the Roman Republic (which effectively ended in 27BC). Thus, wealthy Plutarchs were called upon by the Emperor to handle various administrative functions in each province of the Empire (totaling 50 million inhabitants). It is important to realize that the Apostles were writing to Christians who lived under an autocratic, brutal state, rather than the famous Roman Republic that had ended some 80 years earlier. Sure, the memory of the old Republic likely filled the imagination of many citizens, but it was no longer a reality. (In the same way that some Romans might have mused about their glorious Republic of old, so some modern American patriots fondly muse about the liberty-loving American republic before 1861.)

The Bible’s political context is important because it profoundly influences our theology of public policy. Yet the clear contextual differences between the political organization and public policies of first century Rome and the present day seems to be missed by many pastors and Christian leaders today. Some of them apparently presume that the Apostles lived under a state similar to ours. However, it is manifestly clear that they did not, and proper biblical interpretation must be tempered accordingly.

Consider the differences in the form of government then and now. We do not have a “king”. While the principle of submitting to those in authority, even in a Constitutional Republic, can rightly be inferred from the passages pertaining to obedience to the state and honoring the king, it is quite possible that structural changes in government can lead to corresponding changes in our response to the state and its policies. Some Bible doctrines are either dependent on or subject to contextual considerations, meaning that with some commands only principles survive without the exact form of obedience.

For example, modern Christians do not literally buy a “sword” for use as a weapon (as Christ says in Luke 22:36); because of technological improvements they can buy a gun. Likewise, Paul commanded Roman, Achaean, and Macedonian Christians to greet each other with a “holy kiss” (Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, 1 Thessalonians 5:26). The command was given four times—one more time than the Apostles commanded Christians to be submissive to state authorities. Yet modern Christians do not have the exact practice of greeting-by-kissing because the culture has changed. Only the principle of affectionate salutation has been retained.

So how should American Christians “honor the king”? They have no monarch. Does that fact invalidate apostolic doctrine about submission to state rulers? No, the principle of submission still stands. Culture does not wipe out biblical theology, even if the application of doctrine must be adapted to technological and cultural changes—like swords and holy kisses becoming guns and handshakes.

Other important questions remain however, including the reason why Christians should submit and what Christians should submit to. I have argued in Bible and Government: Public Policy from a Christian Perspective (Alertness Books, 2003) that Christians submit for expedient or pragmatic reasons. The Bible in several places calls believers to exercise practical wisdom—perhaps even insincere and superficial performances—before rulers (Proverbs 23:1-3; Ecclesiastes 8:2-5; Matthew 17:27). Interpreting Scripture with Scripture, one may conclude that the kind of performance mandated for Nero and his cronies should correspond to those mandated in these other passages.

In America, a case can and should be made that the proper object of submission by Christians is to the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence since they comprise our formal government. Presidents, Supreme Court justices, and congressmen are not kings. Our political structure is not autocratic but rather a republic based on a contract between “We the People”. The political allegiance of an American Christian is not to the President or to Congress, but to the republican contract established by the people. That means that an American Christian can submit to the principles of the Constitution, for instance, and still dishonor, condemn, or even—as a last resort—overthrow the government actors who oppose it. This idea would have been unfathomable in the context of the first century, even for those acquainted with the Roman Republic era. Yet it is part and parcel of the American civil society that Providence has decreed.

Originally published in The Times Examiner on June 8, 2005.

Series NavigationPrevious Post: Previous Post:Next Post: Next Post:

Dr. Norman Horn

Norman founded LibertarianChristians.com and the Libertarian Christian Institute, and currently serves as its President and Editor-in-Chief. He holds a PhD in Chemical Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin and a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from the Austin Graduate School of Theology. He currently is a Postdoctoral researcher in Chemical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  • I like it but let me get it right. Does this argue that since these New Testament passages were written to Christians in that time frame, that these verses are technically telling them (not us) to submit to those authorities (probably for practical reasons)? I think that could make sense. It does not contradict the law that was not done away with in the new covenant (moral law).

  • I agree that it is likely for pragmatic reasons, that God commands us to submit to the king. In today’s society of liberty and freedom, we should rather “submit” to ourselves and our laws of the land. We do not have to agree with certain behaviours we consider “immoral.” But we should not attempt to force our own morals upon them, as it against the law of the land. Which is, in itself, an immoral act, according to God.

  • Guest

    Courtesy of Campaign for Liberty: http://www.campaignforliberty.com/article.php?view=140
    It seems that every time someone such as myself attempts to encourage our Christian brothers and sisters to resist an unconstitutional or otherwise reprehensible government policy, we hear the retort, “What about Romans Chapter 13? We Christians must submit to government. Any government. Read your Bible, and leave me alone.” Or words to that effect. No doubt, some who use this argument are sincere. They are only repeating what they have heard their pastor and other religious leaders say. On the other hand, let’s be honest enough to admit that some who use this argument are just plain lazy, apathetic, and indifferent. And Romans 13 is their escape from responsibility. I suspect this is the much larger group, by the way. Nevertheless, for the benefit of those who are sincere (but obviously misinformed), let’s briefly examine Romans Chapter 13. I quote Romans Chapter 13, verses 1 through 7, from the Authorized King James text: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.” Do our Christian friends who use these verses to teach that we should not oppose America’s political leaders really believe that civil magistrates have unlimited authority to do anything they want without opposition? I doubt whether they truly believe that. For example, what if our President decided to resurrect the old monarchal custom of Jus Primae Noctis (Law of First Night)? That was the old medieval custom when the king claimed the right to sleep with a subject’s bride on the first night of their marriage. Would our sincere Christian brethren sheepishly say, “Romans Chapter 13 says we must submit to the government”? I think not. And would any of us respect any man who would submit to such a law? So, there are limits to authority. A father has authority in his home, but does this give him power to abuse his wife and children? Of course not. An employer has authority on the job, but does this give him power to control the private lives of his employees? No. A pastor has overseer authority in the church, but does this give him power to tell employers in his church how to run their businesses? Of course not. All human authority is limited in nature. No man has unlimited authority over the lives of other men. (Lordship and Sovereignty is the exclusive domain of Jesus Christ.) By the same token, a civil magistrate has authority in civil matters, but his authority is limited and defined. Observe that Romans Chapter 13 clearly limits the authority of civil government by strictly defining its purpose: “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil . . . For he is the minister of God to thee for good . . . for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” Notice that civil government must not be a “terror to good works.” It has no power or authority to terrorize good works or good people. God never gave it that authority.

    And any government that oversteps that divine boundary has no divine authority or protection. This is a basic principle of Natural Law (and all of America’s legal documents–including the U.S. Constitution–are founded upon the God-ordained principles of Natural Law). The apostle clearly states that civil government is a “minister of God to thee for good.” It is a not a minister of God for evil. Civil magistrates have a divine duty to “execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” They have no authority to execute wrath upon him that doeth good. None. Zilch. Zero. And anyone who says they do is lying. So, even in the midst of telling Christians to submit to civil authority, Romans Chapter 13 limits the power and reach of civil authority. Did Moses violate God’s principle of submission to authority when he killed the Egyptian taskmaster in defense of his fellow Hebrew? Did Elijah violate God’s principle of submission to authority when he openly challenged Ahab and Jezebel? Did David violate God’s principle of submission to authority when he refused to surrender to Saul’s troops? Did Daniel violate God’s principle of submission to authority when he disobeyed the king’s command to not pray audibly to God? Did the three Hebrew children violate God’s principle of submission to authority when they refused to bow to the image of the state? Did John the Baptist violate God’s principle of submission to authority when he publicly scolded King Herod for his infidelity?

    Did Simon Peter and the other Apostles violate God’s principle of submission to authority when they refused to stop preaching on the streets of Jerusalem? Did Paul violate God’s principle of submission to authority when he refused to obey those authorities who demanded that he abandon his missionary work? In fact, Paul spent almost as much time in jail as he did out of jail. Remember that every apostle of Christ (except John) was killed by hostile civil authorities opposed to their endeavors. Christians throughout church history were imprisoned, tortured, or killed by civil authorities of all stripes for refusing to submit to their various laws and prohibitions. Did all of these Christian martyrs violate God’s principle of submission to authority? So, even the great prophets, apostles, and writers of the Bible (including the writer of Romans Chapter 13) understood that human authority–even civil authority–is limited. Plus, Paul makes it clear that our submission to civil authority must be predicated on more than fear of governmental retaliation. Notice, he said, “Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.” Meaning, our obedience to civil authority is more than just “because they said so.” It is also a matter of conscience.

    This means we must think and reason for ourselves regarding the justness and rightness of our government’s laws. Obedience is not automatic or robotic. It is a result of both rational deliberation and moral approbation. Therefore, there are times when civil authority may need to be resisted. Either governmental abuse of power or the violation of conscience (or both) could precipitate civil disobedience. Of course, how and when we decide to resist civil authority is an entirely separate issue. And I will reserve that discussion for another time. Beyond that, we in the United States of America do not live under a monarchy. We have no king. There is no single governing official in this country. America’s “supreme Law” does not rest with any man or any group of men. America’s “supreme Law” does not rest with the President, the Congress, or even the Supreme Court. In America, the U.S. Constitution is the “supreme Law of the Land.” Under our laws, every governing official publicly promises to submit to the Constitution of the United States. Do readers understand the significance of this distinction? I hope so. This means that, in America, the “higher powers” are not the men who occupy elected office; they are the tenets and principles set forth in the U.S. Constitution. Under our laws and form of government, it is the duty of every citizen, including our elected officials, to obey the U.S. Constitution. Therefore, this is how Romans Chapter 13 reads to Americans: “Let every soul be subject unto the [U.S. Constitution.] For there is no [Constitution] but of God: the [Constitution] that be [is] ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the [Constitution], resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For [the Constitution is] not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the [Constitution]? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For [the Constitution] is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for [the Constitution] beareth not the sword in vain: for [the Constitution] is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For this cause pay ye tribute also: for [the Constitution is] God’s minister, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.” Dear Christian friend, the above is exactly the proper understanding of our responsibility to civil authority in these United States, according to the teaching of Romans Chapter 13. Furthermore, Christians, above all people, should desire that their elected representatives submit to the Constitution, because it is constitutional government that has done more to protect Christian liberty than any other governing document ever devised by man. As I have noted before in this column, Biblical principles and Natural Law form the foundation of all three of America’s founding documents: the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. (See: http://www.chuckbaldwinlive.com/c2005/cbarchive_20050630.html) As a result, Christians in America (for the most part) have not had to face the painful decision to “obey God rather than men” and defy their civil authorities. The problem in America today is that we have allowed our political leaders to violate their oaths of office and to ignore–and blatantly disobey–the “supreme Law of the Land,” the U.S. Constitution. Therefore, if we truly believe Romans Chapter 13, we will insist and demand that our civil magistrates submit to the U.S. Constitution. Now, how many of us Christians are going to truly obey Romans Chapter 13?