by Justin Huffman
Never mistake your rights as a citizen for your rights as a Christian. As an American citizen, for instance, it is legal for you to deride your President and other officials, to gripe about your wages or working conditions, and even to burn the flag as a means of “symbolic” freedom of speech.
But never mistake your rights as a citizen for your rights as a Christian.
The Bible is repeated and explicit in its commands for us to honor every authority that God has providentially placed in our lives.
In the public arena, this means citizens are not only to submit to their local and national governments, but they are to speak respectfully of and to them. And employees are to honor God by honoring the employers under whom they labor.
A vital part, then, of honoring the only true God is honoring those individuals, laws, and institutions that God has allowed to have authority over us.
Paul, instructing the younger Titus in his pastoral duties, writes: “Put them in mind to be subject to principalities and powers, to obey magistrates, to be ready to every good work” (3:1). In his letter to the church at Rome he sounds the same tone, but this time with an explanation: “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”(13:1).
Here is the critical point, Paul says: the authority of those in positions over you rests ultimately in God’s authority.
Therefore, obeying and honoring the authorities that are over you is one crucial way of obeying and honoring God himself.
Peter makes this abundantly clear in his first epistle, as well: “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well” (2:13-14).
Well-meaning and conscientious pastors and parents often send the wrong signal to others, either by their words or example, that it is permissible—even commendable—to dishonor their rulers. But notice how consistent the godly, biblical examples contradict this idea. David, even after being privately anointed king by Samuel and being wrongly persecuted by Saul, twice refused to dishonor or harm King Saul, even to save his own life, calling Saul “the Lord’s anointed” (1 Samuel 24, 26).
Observe how seriously Paul took this issue in Acts 23. Even as he is being falsely accused by the Jewish leaders and is illegally, physically abused by them, he apologizes for unknowingly dishonoring the high priest Ananias, saying, “I wist not, brethren, that he was the high priest: for it is written, Thou shalt not speak evil of the ruler of thy people” (5).
The Bible nowhere condones slavery. However, being a book with sufficient and practical instruction for every person, it even addresses those in places or times in which slavery is legal. Rather than fomenting a riot, or encouraging them to run away, the Bible tells slaves to render submissive and useful service to their masters. And while modern-day employees are not “slaves” in any real sense, the principles of hard work and rendering the service that is expected certainly still apply in a free society.
While the “master”, or employer, may be to some degree chosen or changed by the employee, once the employment commitment is made the expected service should be rendered to the best of our ability.
Peter sets an astonishing standard in his first epistle, which we must carefully and thoughtfully take to heart:
“Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward. For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully. For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God” (2:18-20).
This is one of the most revealing commands concerning authority in all of Scripture, with unmistakable implications for every area of authority in our lives. Peter contends that the glory of God is reflected in us when we suffer patiently, even under abusive or wrong conditions. This, of course, does not mean that we cannot seek the legal means to insure safe and healthy working conditions; however, it does demand that, no matter what our situation may currently be, we are to render faithful and useful service in whatever conditions we may find ourselves.
You display the glory of God when you submit to the authority providentially placed over you, Peter says.
So obey them, not because they themselves deserve your respect or honor, but because God deserves your respect and honor and he has allowed them to have authority over you, at least for the present time.
How can anyone muster the courage and resolve to submit even to ugly and unworthy authorities? Paul, knowing what a struggle it would be for any person, sets before us the only motivation that could inspire us to such sacrifice and service: the beauty of Christ and our love for him.
Paul hammers this theme three times in three short verses: “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ; not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart; with good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men” (Ephesians 6:5-7).
Our love for Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, and our desire for his name to be glorified in our lives will give us the motivation we need in order to be faithful employees and citizens, even when our every emotion and selfish desire is revolting.
If you review the verses that we have been considering so far, it is impossible to miss the fact that almost every command to honor authority includes a command to honor God.
Of course, then, God always comes first.
Since all authority is ultimately based on his authority, our supreme desire to honor him demands that we only submit to laws or commands that do not dishonor God. This is why Peter and John, when they were commanded by the Jewish rulers not to speak any more in the name of Jesus, replied: “Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20).
Soon afterward, when the apostles were again commanded not to teach in Jesus’ name, they plainly state their approach to all earthly authority: “We ought to obey God rather than men”(5:29).
Thus, we are always to honor God first, then earthly authorities for his sake.
Nonetheless, this exception to earthly authority, it is important to notice, is not the emphasis of the instruction Paul and Peter give in their epistles.
In other words, we should not be looking for a way out every time we find ourselves under some earthly authority, but rather we ought to be looking for a way to joyfully, faithfully submit to every earthly authority, in order to best glorify our Lord Jesus Christ.
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