As Christians who understand that “all authority is God given” (Rom 13:1) are we to passively “submit to authorities” always, no matter what?!
Que será, será Christianity: Is that what we are called for?
The refrains of the song “Que será, será,2 whatever will be, will be, the future’s not ours to see, Que será, será” is both comforting and terrifying depending on where one looks and how far one is willing to see!
I’m told to submit. To be docile. To be passive. Perhaps, to be patient and trusting! I’m told that choices of leaders and heads of organizations, institutions, corporations and the nations at large is indeed sovereign. I do concur and dare not challenge God’s sovereignty over all things. In the grand scheme of things, I know all too well that “no plan of God’s can be thwarted; when He acts, no one can reverse it; no one can hold back His hand or bring Him to account for His actions. God does as He pleases, only as He pleases, and works out every event to bring about the accomplishment of His will.” But, “such a bare unqualified statement of the sovereignty of God would terrify us if that were all we knew about God. But God is not only sovereign, He is perfect in love and infinite in wisdom.”3 Now that indeed is, more comforting.
As a law honouring citizen of my land, I keep struggling to understand my role, responsibility and reaction to incidents that keep happening from time to time – the bad, the ugly and the sinister. In the light of what the Good Book recommends as required from its faithful, how am I expected to process these and respond?
Romans 13:1-7 is a classic passage that often shows up in such contexts;
“1Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God. 2 So anyone who rebels against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and they will be punished. 3 For the authorities do not strike fear in people who are doing right, but in those who are doing wrong. Would you like to live without fear of the authorities? Do what is right, and they will honor you. 4 The authorities are God’s servants, sent for your good. But if you are doing wrong, of course you should be afraid, for they have the power to punish you. They are God’s servants, sent for the very purpose of punishing those who do what is wrong. 5 So you must submit to them, not only to avoid punishment, but also to keep a clear conscience.
Pay your taxes, too, for these same reasons. For government workers need to be paid. They are serving God in what they do.
Give to everyone what you owe them: Pay your taxes and government fees to those who collect them, and give respect and honor to those who are in authority. (emphasis mine)
There is a lot to process here;
- Submit to authority
- All authority is God given
- Don’t rebel against authority
- It amounts to rebelling against God
- The rebels would be punished
- Do what is right to be fear-free of and honoured by authorities
- God appoints authorities for our good
- Their purpose is to punish the wrongdoers and reward the right ones
- Submit, therefore, not out of fear alone but also to keep a clear conscience
- Pay taxes, government fees
- Respect and honour those in authority
Paul doesn’t mince words and calls us to “SUBMIT” and that really chokes me! He qualifies it by appealing to God’s Sovereignty over “all authority”, he goes on to say that the one who rebels against God-sanctioned “human authority” rebels against God. In my reading, by now I’m morbidly suffocating! As I scamper on, half-unconscious, there is a strange waft of refreshing air that comes to my rescue. Paul writes that the authorities are there in place to reward the right and to punish the wrong and therefore those that are on the right need fear none. How I wish this were indeed true today, at least for the most part. Perhaps, what he’s alluding to is the general way things ought to be. But it surely is not the case, as we look around. Rewarding the right and punishing the wrong? Even if it were so, right and wrong by whose definition?
Paul gets specific – taxes and government fees, respect and honour, sure, by all means. But what when “God sanctioned leader(s)” demand action or allegiance contrary to “God-sanctioned precepts?” What are we to choose? The demand for “submission” therefore emerges to be relative and not absolute4, like we often assume, as we interact with this passage at a cursory level.
Scripture validates scripture. As I turn to explore the whole counsel of God in this matter – I’m reminded of Moses’ response to oppression; Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego’s allegiance to a ‘higher law’ against an ill-advised politically-charged edict that opposed it. Closer home, Jesus’ counter-cultural resolve and resilience to initiate and advance the Kingdom of God against its legalistic promulgators; the early Church’s rigour, tenacity, grit and courage to articulate their passionate conviction and chorus “We must obey God rather than men.”(Acts 5:29) in the thick of fierce persecution amply educates and speaks into our context today, not only in India but across the globe.
Another crucial distinction that we overlook while thinking through the idea of “submission to authorities” is the contextual nuance regarding the type of government/governance between then and today. Today, we are a democracy – of the people, by the people, for the people – unlike the autocracy of Romans 13. The pulse, potential, tenacity, weight, conscience and triumph of a true democracy heavily rests in the hands of – respectful, responsible, resilient and righteous opposition.
So as an Indian Christian, in my opinion, I’m not just called to passively ‘submit’ but to actively engage, respectfully reason and graciously challenge “God-appointed leaders” to lead our land and her people in “God-appointed ways” to flourish under God’s loving providence.
May God help us!
(1) In Ancient India, the practice of choosing a life partner among a list of suitors by a girl of marriageable age was called the Swayamvara
(2) ”Que Será, Será (Whatever will be, will be)” is a popular song written by the team of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans that was first published in 1956.
(3) Jerry Bridges: Trusting God, 1988, p. 45
(5) Jai Hind is a salutation and slogan that means “Victory to India” or “Long live India”.