Our God calls us to submit to those in power over us, but when is it okay to rebel against authority?
In his book A View from the Zoo, Gary Richmond reminisced about how the most difficult aspect of his job as a zookeeper was often the people at the zoo, not the animals. He told the story of an elderly visitor who, in his words, “created more bedlam than any single visitor in the zoo’s history.”
This particular senior citizen decided that the zoo’s animals were bored, so she smuggled several dozen hard rubber balls into the park.
Frantic calls began humming down the phone lines across the park as keepers found monkeys and bears eating the toys intended for children, not wild animals. The worst case was a black-maned lioness who attacked the ball and managed to impale it on her right front canine. As she struggled to get herself free of it, she began to tear up her own face, which soon became a bloody mess.
Richmond, along with several other keepers and veterinarians, were called to the scene. In their fight to tranquilize the lioness, she nearly clawed one vet’s face.
“I think he enjoyed shooting the lioness with the tranquilizer gun,” Richmond commented, “and would have enjoyed shooting the little old lady more, but we never saw her again.” When she called the next day, they told her about having to remove her “gift” from the lioness’s tooth with a hacksaw.
“I think we all understood that her motives were pure…” Richmond mused. “She was sincere, but she was sincerely wrong. She could not have caused any more trouble if she had intended to harm the lioness. Her major problem was that she was acting beyond her sphere of authority. She had no permission to act at all.”
Our Call to Submission
Famous pastor and evangelist Charles Spurgeon once wrote in his sermons, “A lack of submission is no new or rare fault in mankind. Ever since the fall it has been the root of all sin…. the sons of men have universally been guilty of a lack of conformity to the will of God. They choose their own way and will not submit their wills. They think their own thoughts and will not submit their understanding. They love earthly things and will not submit their affections. Man wants to be his own law and his own master.”
Submission is a biblical command because God knows that our sinful nature rears up against every healthy boundary he has set for us.
Well, okay, we can submit to God (probably, right?). He doesn’t stop there, though, with his command for obedience. If he had left our submission at just him, maybe we could have convinced ourselves that we were doing well.
God adds another command, however: “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. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (Romans 13:1-2 ESV).
Nicole Unice, Christian author and counselor, described this particular call in Christianity in her video about submission and dignity. “In every aspect of our lives, we want to give Christ governance…. That means that there are times where we will have ‘rights’ that we will give up. To come under Jesus’ lordship is to desire and want to give up your rights, knowing that he has a plan for the way that he can use your life. He gave up his rights to death. If you’re following Christ, you’ve agreed to a life of submission.”
We should be suspicious of our first instinct to ask, “But what about the exceptions? What about this particular situation? What about this relationship?” These questions rarely come from a healthy place.
When do we submit then? Is it ever okay to rise up and reject authority?
Good, Bad and Ugly Kings
The world is broken. People are broken, and some are outright dangerous.
Is it possible that a bad government, a careless boss or an unloving spouse is appointed to us by God? Are we still called to submit to and respect people who don’t “deserve” our esteem?
In a sermon about submission, Gary Wilkerson explores some of the most troubling verses in the Bible. “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…” (1 Peter 2:13-15 ESV). Gary points out that Peter wrote this while Nero was emperor of Rome.
“Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust” (1 Peter 2:18). Gary explains, “We are to submit even when we suffer wrongfully. In the example of Christ, we are to endure these trials. The reward of this suffering is a life in Christ like we have never known.”
Gene Edwards wrote a beautiful meditation on the great danger of judging leaders out of our own deep brokenness in his small book A Tale of Three Kings. In it, he examines the lives of King Saul, King David and Absalom. David, in particular, is the main object of his focus. Despite being treated badly and falsely accused of evil by Saul, David never turned against his leader.
“David had a question,” Edwards wrote. “What do you do when someone throws a spear at you?”
Certainly, there were plenty of people urging David to fight back against Saul (1 Samuel 24:4-7), but he continued to submit. “He discovered three things that prevented him from ever being hit,” mused Edwards. “One, never learn anything about the fashionable, easily mastered art of spear throwing. Two, stay out of the company of all spear throwers. And three, keep your mouth tightly closed.”
David is held up in the Bible as the human king who would be a shadow of the Messiah, the eternal king. Like David, Jesus would be faced with accusations from corrupt religious leadership and bad government.
The Bible tells us, “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission” (Hebrews 5:7 NIV). God heard Christ’s prayers, and he still required Jesus to submit to his plan which included dishonorable leaders.
The Much Anticipated Exceptions
Now Romans 13 and 2 Peter 2 have been badly abused throughout history. Nazis used them to bully churches into silence while Jews and other minorities were herded away to be killed in concentration camps. Slave-owners used these verses to justify owning other people and ignoring the dignity and worth of fellow human beings.
The Bible does not give approval to those who obey governments or people under every single circumstance.
Daniel refuses to defile himself with nonkosher food as a captive in Babylon, and we’re told that “God gave Daniel favor” (Daniel 1:9). Later, his three friends refuse to worship a false god in the face of a command from King Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 3). Three chapters after that, we hear about the government making a law against praying to anyone other than the king. Naturally, Daniel refuses to do this and continues praying to God, so he’s thrown into a den full of hungry lions.
John Piper notes the limits of submission to men and human governments, “The ultimate criterion of right and wrong is not whether a ruling authority commands it, but whether God commands it. The fact that God has ordained all authority does not mean all authority should be obeyed.
“It is right to resist what God has appointed in order to obey what God has commanded. His appointment of Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, Darius, Pilate, Domitian, Bloody Mary, Adolf Hitler, and Idi Amin may be for our testing (cf. Deuteronomy 13:3).
“Will we save our lives and submit to the ruling authority, or will we say with Peter, ‘We must obey God rather than men,’ and thus risk our lives?”
It is also well worth noting that even in their disobedience, Peter or Daniel or Daniel’s friends were never disrespectful.
Peter politely addresses the Jewish religious leaders by their titles before answering their questions. In Daniel’s case, he goes to the man in charge privately and proposes an alternative diet. His three friends act similarly before the golden idol. They’re not making a big fuss; they’re not berating the government; they simply refuse to compromise over their God’s commands.
Obedient and Responsible Action
When asked to choose between men’s rules and God’s, we ought to always choose God. Outside of that one case, though, we are commanded to respect, submit and obey the authorities God has placed over us, regardless of how much we like them personally.
This isn’t easy. Obedience runs contrary to our fallen nature. Respect, in either our submission or disobedience, is perhaps one of the most counter-cultural acts.
As Daniel himself wrote after the Babylonian king gave him the impossible demand to either interpret a dream or else be executed:
“Praise the name of God forever and ever,
for he has all wisdom and power.
He controls the course of world events;
he removes kings and sets up other kings.
He gives wisdom to the wise
and knowledge to the scholars” (Daniel 2:20-21 NLT).
No matter what kind of leaders are over us, we know our God is in control. He has our lives and theirs in his hands.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor who left the safety of America to return to Nazi Germany. He helped smuggle Jews into Switzerland until he was captured and sent first to the Buchenwald and then Flossenbürg concentration camps. There he preached and ministered to his fellow prisoners until he was executed two weeks before the Allies marched into Flossenbürg.
In his writings, Bonhoeffer expressed what gave him the power to act as he did.
“Who stands fast? Only the man whose final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all this when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God…”
In all things, we seek to honor God, whether in our submission or rebellion.