I’ve tried to steer clear of social media for a while. But now I’ve been dragged back into the twitter-sphere by helping to run the @SatisfiedIC account. A few things surprised me in scrolling through various Twitter feeds, not least the number of scornful and derisive comments tweeted from right across the political spectrum. Often some of the worst comments come, sadly, from those who profess the name of Christ.
Right now, there’s a lot going on in the world of politics. Here in the UK the ‘in / out’ referendum on EU membership is fast approaching, with analysts pondering the potential impact of a ‘Brexit’. And over in the US, the race to be the next President is hotting up with two frontrunners emerging. Emotions are running high among voters, with the Trump factor having taken most pundits by surprise and the possibility of a Trump presidency now being seriously contemplated (by some).
But what if he were actually to become President? More generally, how should Christians react to those in authority, whether ruling monarchs, presidents, prime ministers, governors, MPs, or local authorities? I’m sometimes unsettled by the way Christians speak about politicians. So I remember a church service where a prominent UK politician was mentioned. The individual causes a lot of division and feelings run deep. I get that. But the reaction to this authority figure, who the poor preacher probably regretted using as an illustration, was not what I expected from a room full of Christians. It certainly wasn’t respectful.
If our lives are going to be governed by God’s word, then we need to allow scriptural principles to shape and inform our interaction with authority figures. Here are four such principles:
“You shall not revile God, nor curse a ruler of your people.” (Exodus 22:28)
Our obedience to Christ should manifest itself in respect for those in authority. This principle comes across clearly in Paul’s interaction with the high priest, after he’s arrested in Jeruslaem and brought before the Sanhedrin:
And the high priest Ananias commanded those who stood by him to strike him on the mouth. Then Paul said to him, “God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting to judge me according to the law, and yet contrary to the law you order me to be struck?” Those who stood by said, “Would you revile God’s high priest?” And Paul said, “I did not know, brothers, that he was the high priest, for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.'” (Acts 23:2-5).
Notice Paul’s reply. He doesn’t excuse himself and claim innocence after this interaction. Instead, he says that he didn’t realise he was speaking to the high priest and then shows respect for this position of authority. The implication is that if Paul had known he was talking to the high priest, then he wouldn’t have spoken to him in that way.
So are we careful about the way in which we speak about our authority figures? The Bible teaches us not to revile a ruler of the people, but do we put that into practice on social media, or when we talk about elections and political leaders amongst our friends?
In our democratic political systems, however, we’re not yet under the authority of those who are yet to be (and may well not be!) elected. So does that mean we get a free pass to treat candidates running for office without respect?
Well, the reality is that one of the US presidential candidates will be in authority over American Christians in the future. And their attitude towards the one who does get elected must be respectful. So surely it’s wise for Christians not to be disrespectful towards candidates who may one day be in a position of authority over us. Should our attitude and speech really be transformed solely on the basis of someone getting elected? We can disagree, debate, and campaign, but it should be done in the awareness that God calls us to respect those in authority, even if the future authority figure is someone that we’re currently campaigning against.
“I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” (1 Timothy 1:1-2).
The Bible doesn’t just call us to respect those in authority, but also to pray for them. What might God, in his sovereignty, choose to do if instead of criticising our politicians we prayed for them? What might happen if even half the time spent protesting and campaigning against authorities was instead spent asking God to give them wisdom?
If, like me, you wonder what impact your prayers could possibly have on a nation and its laws then try to remember the nature of our God. We pray to the Sovereign Lord who has authority over all earthly rulers: “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.” (Proverbs 21:1). We can therefore cry out to him knowing that he has absolute power to answer the prayers of his people on behalf of their rulers.
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. (1 Peter 2: 13-15)
Christians are called to subject ourselves to authority. And not just to certain authorities, but “to every human institution …” This isn’t an apostolic command that we’re at liberty to simply ignore, because rulers are sent by God to administer justice. If we resist them by not submitting, we are in fact resisting an extension of God’s authority. So human institutions, albeit imperfect, are God-given and “for the Lord’s sake” we’re to submit to them.
Notice too that Peter’s command to submit wasn’t for a select few. His letter is written to the elect in “Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (1Peter 1:1); that’s a big geographical area. The Apostle Paul makes the same point to Christians living in Rome: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1). The command to submit to authority is not just for those facing a specific crisis in a certain geographic region. No, submission to human authority is the Christian norm, an important biblical principle that we must take seriously as followers of Jesus Christ. How different some Twitter feeds would start to look if, as Christians, we each allowed this biblical principle to guide us by demonstrating a submissive attitude.
When not to obey
Respect, prayer and submission should be the driving forces behind our interactions with authority. No matter who our presidents or prime ministers are now, and no matter who they might be in the future, the three principles above should direct our behaviour. We’re to respect, pray for and submit to our rulers (yes, even the bad ones!).
But there is one break clause when it comes to obeying laws and authority. When the Apostles were brought before the council and warned to stop teaching in the name of Jesus they responded, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). If anyone tells us not to do what God says we should do, or tells us to do something that God expressly forbids us from doing, then it’s better to obey God rather than man. That’s the break clause. Because ultimately we’re under a higher authority. We’re members of a Kingdom that is not of this world and whose King is sovereign over every earthly King and ruler.
If we’re told to stop teaching certain parts of the Bible, for example, or are forced to do something that God clearly says we shouldn’t do, then we must disobey the authorities and obey God. But this is a rare exception to an otherwise overwhelming biblical prescription to be obedient to those who are in authority over us. And even if one day we do need to peacefully refuse to obey a law, we do so while praying for those who are in authority and still treating them with utmost respect.