Scripture tells us to honour the emperor (1 Pet 2:13), to submit to authorities (Rom 13:1), and to do good to all people (Gal 6:10). This represents the Bible’s basic stance on our relationship to authority. The Old Testament too confirms the rightness of submitting to proper authorities through its narratives.
Throughout Scripture, God also calls us to what is good and right (Deut 6:18; 1 Pet 2:12). So if someone in authority tells us to deny Jesus or to act wickedly, we have to say, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Hence, the martyrs died at the hand of Romans because they would not deny Jesus. Our obedience has certain, set limits.
However, our usual stance to authority should be one of submission. One question we should ask then is: why should we submit to authorities? We need to look no farther than Scripture itself. The Bible often tells why we should obey authorities, not just that we should.
Here, I have the modest aim of highlighting two reasons why the Bible tells us to obey authorities to deepen our understanding of the biblical mandate for obedience.
First, to live a quiet life as a political society
Oliver O’Donovan’s writing on political theology tipped me off to something so incredibly transparent in the biblical text but for some reason opaque to me! The Bible tells us to obey authorities so that we can live independently (i.e., as a unique political society among societies).
After Paul tells the Romans to obey authorities in a justly famous passage (Rom 13), Paul then says, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Rom 13:8). We should not “owe” anything to anyone but love, something that we have and can share. That’s the same reason we should not steal—so that we can work and share (Eph 4:28).
1 Peter 2, another key passage on obedience to authorities, tells us to obey and to live as free people: “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God” (1 Pet 2:16).
Paul elsewhere writes, “But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one” (1 Thess 4:10–11).
Note the last phrase that explains a purpose of living a quiet life, “be dependent on no one.” This independence means that we owe no one anything (cf. Rom 8:12). It means that we can freely love others without worrying about external constraints.
More could be said, but the point here should be clear. God wants Christians to obey authorities so that we can live freely and owe nobody anything—except love. That provides one ground for Christian obedience.
Second, to respect hierarchies of authority
My friend Ian Clary recently helped me to find the right words to describe this second reason why we should obey authorities. We should honour the hierarchies that God has formed to order creation.
In Romans 13:1, Paul writes, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” Paul says God establishes authorities; he instituted them.
Ian Clary explains: “In Ephesians 5:24 [Paul] uses the same word for “be subject to” (hypotasso) to speak of the church’s submission to Christ. There is an obvious hierarchy laid out by God and the Roman Christians are to obey the pagan governing authorities who had been set above them by God himself.”
The Bible fills its pages with such hierarchies from priests to kings to angels to families to married couples. To list out these passages would require citing many passages of Scripture. But I suspect I do not need to prove this point since reflection will show it to be true. In summary, hierarchy, when ordered rightly, is good.
Christians should then submit to authorities for the sake of ordering themselves within God’s created hierarchies.
These two reasons play important roles in explaining why Christians should obey authorities. The first—to live independent, quiet lives—means that Christians will have the freedom to practice and propagate their faith.
The second—to order ourselves within God’s created hierarchies—constitutes part of Christian worship. We honour God by honouring his created order.
As noted, I had a limited aim in this article. I wanted to provide two biblical reasons why Christians should obey authorities. Scripture tells us why we should obey. Obedience is not about pure will—it is about pursuing some good end or ends.
Here, those ends basically amount to living as a political society within larger political societies so that we can love and serve others while practicing our faith.
So let us pursue love and good deeds. Let us obey authorities to live independent lives in which we owe nothing but love to others. And let us honour God by honouring his created order.
Note: I hope to write on “how” we can accomplish these aims in a future article. Governments currently have reduced our freedoms. We know “that” and “why we should submit to authorities. We also need to figure “how” we can do so while honouring God’s mission for the church.