Should we Christians just do what we’re told? More needs said if our answer is always and unequivocally in the affirmative. We should know we cannot obey or submit when we cannot, and we should be firm and clear in our reasons in those cases to the end of having both peace of mind and a God-honoring testimony.
For a starting point, what happens to our godly self-control generally if someone who claims authority over us is thereby superseding control we should rightly be exercising over ourselves? Such must be the case when dealing with totalitarians, that we first jettison the notion that we should exercise any control whatsoever over ourselves when we give ourselves over to them completely.
On a related note, who all can be said to have rightful authority over us and in what contexts? And how much should the authorities in our lives be able to require of us in the way of submission, obedience, or deference based on what sort of authority figure they are?
Self-evidently, we should carefully scrutinize proper jurisdiction. It has always been the case that men in power are tempted to push and exceed the proper boundaries of their authority.
So also, where one may be pretending to have authority when and where they do not, going along with them may serve to participate in their rebellion against their own rightful authorities.
Even with those who wield legitimate authority, however, we have to know where the boundaries must be drawn. But we cannot do this if we do not believe there should be any boundaries. And in that case, the claim is being either overtly or implicitly made that the one in authority has absolute authority, since the opposite of an absolute is either absence or a boundary.
Consider also all of the possible exercises of authority. At a minimum, the one in authority will tell us what we can and cannot do. Yet where social and group dynamics relate to favored or disfavored actions, an authority may also tell us what we can and cannot say to others, since our words and statements will by nature influence the behavior of ourselves and those we communicate with. Beyond these, a particularly savvy authority may even either tell us, or else seek to strongly influence through subtler means, what we can think, feel, and believe, recognizing that by these means they will in turn influence what we do and say.
On a related note, let’s touch at least briefly on the issue of arguments from authority. They are typically predicated on at least some legitimate claim to authority, even if those from whom we most often hear them do not personally possess the authority. The only real necessity is that the one making an argument from authority can cite said authority in support of the claim or argument being made.
Yet just as importantly, we must recognize that arguments from authority serve as logical fallacies, particularly when the claims made are false, or authority is presumed to be absolute when and where it is not. Furthermore, we should note how such logical fallacies can be employed capriciously, to both destructive and even malicious ends, serving particularly to derail efforts by their targets to know, understand, and act according to truth and goodness.
I venture to add on this point that we should not suppose that rightly exercised authority will find expression in hostility to either truth or goodness being believed and known, spoken about or acted upon by the subjects under that authority. Rather, the responsibility of legitimate authority is to conform their orders and instructions to the pattern of truth and goodness, or else to expect an eventual corrective and judgment from the Almighty. And where this responsibility is denied by an authority, you can expect to find they will hubristically invent new standards of right and wrong, and govern according to their capacity to ensure compliance with their every whim.
Yet considering the totality of the question again, with these and other sundry items in view, I maintain that an authority figure under God should be questioned, and even perhaps opposed, by Christians in the following cases:
- If the authority figure or institution is itself immoral, and actively does wrong or else prevents the doing of what is right;
- If it is ungodly, either actively or passively requiring disobedience to God;
- If it is unlawful, and violates the very laws which it presumes to derive authority from;
- If it is unreasonable, and it speaks and operates from what appears to be folly, yet refuses to give a just accounting when one is politely requested;
- If it is arbitrary, and the basis for its decisions is subjective, internal, secretive, and inconsistent, particularly where this may indicate the concealment of the true character of government along the lines listed above.
In relation to these tests, something should also be said about the undesirability of being under the kind of authority which is wielded in the institutions of slavery and tyranny.
Under slavery, for one, the individual is regarded as the property and material of others. And where unchecked by either limitations or abolition, this institution of slavery invariably leads to the abuse of slaves by masters, and this due to man’s sinful nature being fully present in the heart and mind of the slaveowner.
Under tyranny, meanwhile and similarly, the interests and rights of the individual are given no consideration compared with what is presented by the tyrant as the collective good, whether rightly or wrongly, truly or falsely. And this is much like slavery, where absent either limitations or abolition, the absolute authority of the tyrant over subjects and citizens invariably leads to the abuse of the same due to man’s sinful nature being fully present in the heart and mind of the tyrant himself, as well as his many agents.
The quick test, then, for whether an authority has designs on enslavement of a people, or else to become a tyrant over them, is whether that figure in question holds the entire notion of self-control by his would-be subjects in contempt, or sees individual self-determination in any form as an ever-present threat to the control of his governing authority.
By contrast, benevolent rule defends and upholds the self-control of its subjects by protecting the right of self-determination from predation of various kinds, both internal and external to the realm. Put another way, good government sees itself as also under proper authority, particularly to what is objectively good and true, and thereby recognizes the weight of responsibility shouldered by subjects to themselves conform their pattern of thought, speech, and conduct to the fabric of righteousness established by God.
But in all these things, we must examine which actions, statements, thoughts, feelings, and beliefs the one in authority, or the one who seeks to expand their authority, means to encourage and coerce by turn? And what objectively can said to be the character of those actions, statements, thoughts, feelings, and beliefs according to God’s Word? This must be the test for the Christian, that the authority of God is supreme and superseding in all cases where a contradiction might arise.
Remember that encouragement is giving courage, increasing boldness. It is a reduction of fear by removing penalties, offering protection, or promising rewards. And we do want courage, but not for sin and folly. So we must take care as to what we are being encouraged in.
Coercion, meanwhile, uses fear as a motivator. It adds penalties besides natural consequences, working on the basis of threats issued and examples made out of those who are wayward. And Romans 13 especially makes clear that this is a legitimate exercise of authority in general – “for he does not bear the sword for nothing.” So we should not suppose that any threats whatsoever are proof of bad or corrupt government.
What is not a legitimate exercise of authority is rewarding those who do evil and punishing those who do good. And where the Christian is called to self-control, and where we recognize at least three spheres of legitimate authority in the Bible – the familial, civil, and ecclesiastical – we must recognize the distinction between good and evil on God’s terms in each of these spheres, always recognizing that the only authority which is absolute is God’s, as well as the fact that His character alone is wholly immutable, righteous, eternal, and sovereign, as well as all-wise, all-knowing, all-powerful, and no less just for being rich in mercy.
With this in view, Christians ought to submit to legitimate authority. And for just the same reason, Christians ought to take care to not submit to illegitimate authority where such would equate to disobeying God’s ultimate authority.
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