This is the first of three articles on the subject of submission to authority. These articles are born out of a previous article I wrote titled Twelve Ways to Deal with a Bad Boss. The first article will address submission to God and legitimate human authorities. By definition, authority refers to the right that one person or group has to make decisions, give orders, or demand obedience from another. God’s authority is intrinsic, whereas human authority is delegated. Human authorities include politicians, police officers, teachers, parents, employers, and so on. The second article will address Satan’s counterfeit systems of authority, to which the believer is not to submit. Corrupt leaders—like Satan himself (Gen. 3:1-7)—seek to lead people into sin, and these must be resisted. The third article will address the command to believers to submit to human authorities that may be harsh and unreasonable, though not sinful. Though it is difficult for us to understand, there are times when God will place us under harsh leaders, and we are required to submit to their authority. I’ll address this more in that section. Like all my articles, these are subject to revision as I consider the subject more and more.
First and foremost, we must understand that God’s authority is supreme and He sovereignly rules over all. Scripture reveals, “The LORD has established His throne in the heavens, and His sovereignty rules over all” (Ps. 103:19), and “Whatever the LORD pleases, He does, in heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps” (Ps. 135:6). Daniel wrote, “It is He who changes the times and the epochs; He removes kings and establishes kings” (Dan 2:21), and “the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind, and bestows it on whom He wishes and sets over it the lowliest of men” (Dan 4:17; cf. Dan 4:34-35; 5:21; 1 Chron. 29:11-12; Rom. 13:1-2). God has established the governmental systems of the world to promote law and order. This means He has delegated authority to persons and groups who serve as administrative overseers to others. When functioning properly, government produces harmony by establishing and enforcing laws in society, and by restricting and punishing wrongdoers and promoting and rewarding those who do good.
Paul wrote to Christians in Rome, saying, “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves” (Rom. 13:1-2), and to his friend Titus, he wrote, “Remind them to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good deed, to malign no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing every consideration for all men” (Tit 3:1-2). And Peter wrote, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right” (1 Pet. 2:13-14). Of special note is the fact that the king—or emperor—in Paul’s and Peter’s day was none other than that rascal Nero, who wrongly blamed Christians for starting a fire that burned much of Rome, and who, according to church tradition, had Paul beheaded and Peter crucified. Based on Paul’s and Peter’s statements, we can say: 1) governing authorities exist by divine placement, 2) to resist those authorities is to resist God Himself, 3) to subject to rulers and authorities means being obedient, and 4) that we can generally expect punishment from the same when we do wrong, and praise when we obey and do what is right.
The word submit is a translation of the Greek verb ὑποτάσσω hupotasso which means “to subject oneself, be subjected or subordinated, obey.” The idea is of “submission involving recognition of an ordered structure…of the entity to whom or which appropriate respect is shown.” Submission means that we subordinate our will to the will of another. New Testament examples of submission include: the young Jesus submitting to Joseph and Mary (Luke 2:51), God the Son submitting to God the Father (1 Cor. 15:27-28), the church submitting to Christ (Eph. 1:22), believers submitting to God (Heb. 12:9; Jam. 4:7), believers submitting to their pastor (1 Pet. 5:5; Heb. 13:17), Christians submitting to governmental authority (Rom. 13:1, 5; Tit. 3:1-2; 1 Pet. 2:13-14), the Christian husband submitting to Christ (1 Cor. 11:3), and the Christian wife submitting to her husband (Eph. 5:22, 24; Col. 3:18; Tit. 2:5; 1 Pet. 3:1; 5-6). We submit to authority because it produces harmony in our relationships with those God has placed over us.
As Christians, we hold dual citizenship. We are citizens of heaven (Phil. 3:20), and citizens of whatever country we live in. Our first allegiance is to God, and then to those whom He has placed over us. God’s commands are found in only in Scripture, which is the basis for the Christian’s faith and conduct. This means: 1) our thinking is theocentric, not anthropocentric, 2) that our values are derived from God, not ourselves, or any other source, and 3) that we consciously submit ourselves to do God’s will at all times and in all situations. Ultimately, we can say that all submission is to God, Who commands us to obey Him directly, as well as to obey those whom He’s placed in authority over us.
Worldly-minded persons seek to live independently from God and to establish their own rules and laws, which they arbitrarily create because they fit their personal values for the moment. These persons operate horizontally and not vertically. That is, God is not in their thinking (or is only included to the degree they permit), and this is often intentional, for they seek to be a law unto themselves. These persons are best described by the word autonomous, which comes from two Greek words that mean to be self-governed (autos = self + nomos = law). Though to some degree we are self-governed (for God made us rational and volitional creatures), we are never totally free from God or from the authoritarian structures He’s placed around us. Even if we were to flee from human governmental structures and live in the wilderness, we’d quickly learn there are laws there as well, even a hierarchical structure among the animals, and so we are never totally free to live as we please.
God delegates authority in all aspects of society, including political officials, military officers, police, pastors, teachers, coaches, parents, employers, etc. Human authority is limited to certain persons, for a certain period of time, and harmoniously interlocks with other laws and systems of authority. For example, the authority of a mother is only over her own children and not neighborhood children (Eph. 6:1-3), and only for the duration they reside in the home. Additionally, her authority operates harmoniously with her husband, who is in authority over her (Eph. 5:22, 24; Col. 3:18; Tit. 2:5; 1 Pet. 3:1; 5-6). The wife’s submission is to her husband’s godly and loving leadership (Eph. 5:25-33), as he submits himself to Christ who is his authority (1 Cor. 11:3). As a good Christian, the husband is to lead his wife into God’s will, and his authority is never divorced from Scripture. The wife is to reject her husband’s leadership if/when he seeks to lead her into sin, or subject her to violence. This same thinking can be applied to governing officials, police, pastors, teachers, coaches, employers, etc. We submit to human authority, whether saved or lost, until we are commanded to act contrary to God’s authority as it is revealed in Scripture, and then we must disobey, albeit respectfully.
Lastly, we are to pray for those whom God has place in authority over us, in order that we might live godly lives and pursue righteousness. Paul wrote, “I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity” (1 Tim. 2:1-2).
God is the supreme Ruler of His creation, and He has established human governmental authorities to promote law and order. This means He has delegated authority to persons and groups who serve as administrative overseers to others. As Christians, we are commanded to submit to those in authority over us, whether it is the president, state governors, local city officials, police officers, employers, parents, teachers, etc. Failure to submit to human authority is regarded as failure to submit to God, Who has placed those persons over us. Though human leaders may fail in their character and commands, this does not invalidate their authority or right to rule. The believer is to reject those commands that direct his/her behavior to sin. At this point, the believer says “no” to human authority only because he/she is saying “yes” to God’s authority. Lastly, we are to constantly pray for our leaders that they may be governed by God’s wisdom and character and that we may live peaceful and godly lives.
Steven R. Cook, D.Min.
- Twelve Ways to Deal with a Bad Boss
- Reasons why we obey God
- The Characteristics of a Good Leader
- Contrasting Good and Bad Leaders
- Christians Living in America
- Christians Paying Taxes
- Righteousness Exalts a Nation
- The Righteousness of God
- The Righteous Lifestyle of the Believer
- Living in Babylon
 Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture quotes are taken from the New American Standard Bible, published by The Lockman Foundation, 1995.
 Both Paul and Peter knew governmental authorities could abuse their power for selfish ends; however, the occasional abuse of power does not necessarily mean their authority is diminished in any way. Paul and Peter called Christians to submit to Rome’s emperor as well as those officials he placed in office to serve as overseers and administrators to Roman citizens.
 William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 1042.
 Ibid., 1042.
 The word ὑποτάσσω hupotasso does not appear in 1 Corinthians 11:3, but the concept is certainly present.