COLLINS COLUMN: Why submitting to authorities is a mandate, not just a nice idea

Published 9:30 am Saturday, September 3, 2022

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I have always been perplexed by the mixed responses from followers of Christ to the various instructions in scripture about submitting to rulers and authorities. It seems we tend to claim these verses when we like the elected official and ignore or explain away the instruction when we don’t.  

Just as a reminder, the leaders in the first century and any century before Christ did not rule under a system anything like American democracy. At the risk of oversimplifying, I’ll say Old Testament rulers were either pagan or Jewish and either good or bad kings. By the time of the time of Christ and throughout the first century church, rulers were pagan and eventually oppressive or even tortuous to followers of Jesus. Yet the instructions of Old and New testaments suggest submission to rulers and authorities.

Paul’s words in Titus 3:1 say this: “Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.”

It is fine to have opinions about local, national, and global leaders. It is fine to advocate for change that brings justice, safety and human flourishing. But passages like Titus 3:1, Romans 13, and 1 Peter 2:13-25 instruct us to be submissive, obedient and honoring of others. Yet time and time again we default not just to expressing a different opinion but doing it in a way that is unkind at best and at worst blatantly rude, exuding a tone rooted in the flesh and not the Holy Spirit.

Paul continued in Titus 3 by reminding us how and when things changed forever in the world. “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy.” God in human form appeared in Jesus. His goodness, kindness and mercy won the victory over death and sin, and his grace is the foundation on which we stand. 

Over and over again, followers of Christ are called to act with kindness, mercy, and grace toward others. Yet, we have a preferred list of who will hear us express these spiritual attributes while others get leftover, fleshly behavior.

Paul gets even more specific about what is trustworthy and what is damaging to the church and everyone else. The truth Paul expressed about Jesus and his work of redemption that brings our transformation is not only the foundation of our salvation but also the model of our behavior. It is interesting that both before and after Paul explained the righteous work of Jesus, he tells us how we are to treat others. Paul opened chapter 3 with this instruction: “Speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show courtesy toward all people.” And later in the chapter Paul gives this directive: “Avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.” 

Paul told Titus that believers who insist on behaving badly should be warned, and then if they continue we should have nothing more to do with them.

When we behave like the world in how we talk and behave toward others including those with whom we disagree, we damage the witness of Christ in the world. Maybe we should use Paul’s words in Philippians 4:8 as a guide not only for what we are to think about but also a basis for how we treat others:

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

We are called to be honorable, just, pure, and lovely, not just in our thoughts but also through our behavior with others.

As followers of Christ, we must not simply cave to the behaviors of the world. We will lead the world to the foot of the cross not through our politics but by our love.