Submission to Authority, Even If It’s Abusive: When Is It OK to Push Back?

What the Bible says About Submission to Authority:

When Is It OK to Resist?

(Romans chapter 13, verses 1-5)

It’s time for us all to step up to the plate and score a base hit for our planet

I have been watching with growing dismay at the insanity that is ongoing in the oval office. Although I voted for Donald Trump in 2016, I now regret doing so when I consider Trump’s openly racist sentiments and the off-hand way he has handled his presidency. With that in mind, combined with my continuing and chronological study of the writings of the apostles, I have found a place where the two intersect within the first 5 verses of Romans 13. These verses have to do with submission to authority in the context of being a law-abiding citizen, but mainly as Paul saw it when he wrote these words roughly 2,000 years ago. At the time that this was written, all of what is now modern-day Israel was under the military occupation of the Roman empire. Paul the apostle wrote this book in that context, so I will begin at verse 1.

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.” (Romans 13, verses 1-5)

At the time that Paul wrote this, the death penalty was commonplace. Capital punishment existed as a means of intimidation and absolute control, and that punishment was carried out with utter ruthlessness and without mercy. Moreover, unlike the Jewish religious establishment of Paul’s time, Paul was a Roman citizen and as such he was given rights and privileges that were not shared equally with other non-citizens. So we can all clearly see from this example that inequality is something that has been with us for thousands of years. But how does this compare with life in the early 21st century? Although the death penalty is still administered for capital crimes such as murder and treason, it is carried out with relative infrequency compared to the days of the Roman empire.

There were also debtors prisons in Paul’s day. People who ran into financial trouble back in those days were routinely imprisoned until their debts were paid. Contrast that with today, when and if one gets into financial difficulty, bankruptcy laws exist that are much more fair and equitable than prison. Compared to the times in which the apostle Paul lived, we get a complete picture of a much more fair, equitable and even lenient world. Let me now make some comparisons between Paul’s world and ours using this passage of scripture as a backdrop to the picture that I will now paint for you with my words.

The authorities that exist have been established by God”. Although Paul sincerely believed at the time that he wrote these words that he was absolutely correct, he was speaking more as a Roman citizen than he was as a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ. As a modern American, our rule of law is the Constitution of the United States, and so I am writing today in that context as an American citizen. We have the right to free speech in modern times, not to mention bankruptcy laws, that did not exist in Paul’s time. That right which is established under the US Constitution allows me to write these words without fear of punishment. As such I am within the law and I will remain so for as long as the law is fair. It’s when it’s unfair that things can get a bit dicey.

Paul continues with this same theme as he writes further: “Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong.” The same applies today. Organizing an armed revolt in modern-day America is an idea that I am very much against, preaching and teaching as a man of peace who tries his best to emulate Jesus, the Prince of Peace. Besides, the police have well-armed SWAT teams, and there is always the National Guard that exists within any given state, and so I think one would be foolhardy at best to try and take on authority in this manner. On the other hand, it is perfectly legal, and I would also say that it is truly necessary, to engage in peaceful protest against laws and policies that we disagree with. The First Amendment gives us that right, and the Second one gives us the right to defend the first – two more things that did not exist during Paul’s time all those centuries ago. In this regard, we can interpret this passage of scripture somewhat differently than Paul the apostle.

Paul then continues making his point, and so will I. “Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you.” It is sad to say that this is no longer true in the modern world. Trying as I do to do what is right, I often find myself looked down on by the many godless people who live in the world of today. I put up with the occasional ridicule, but I do so knowing that God is watching everything I do and He is listening to everything I say. But to get back to the topic at hand, it is wise to be “free from fear of the one in authority”. The best way to follow this principle is to obey the ten commandments and the teachings of Jesus Christ. Just by doing these 2 things, we can keep ourselves out of much trouble. Besides, the Bible says in the Old Testament to “obey the laws of the land, that it may go well with you in the place you are abiding”. Those words were written at least three thousand years ago, and they are still just as true today as they were back then.

By the same token, there are things happening and situations unfolding within the US government that are completely contrary to God’s laws. Take the ten commandments as an example. The eighth commandment says, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor”, which can be expanded to include this simple command: ‘You shall not lie’. Yet America found itself embroiled in a war in Iraq that was based on a lie. Specifically, that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq when Saddam Hussein was still in power. Of course, those WMD’s turned out to be non-existent, and it took 4,400 US fatalities – and over 100,000 Iraqi civilian deaths – to find that out.

The same applies to Afghanistan. Our troops have been there for 19 years, first to find Osama Bin Laden even though everybody knew he was in Pakistan, and now for a withdrawal of US troops that will take the rest of this century at the rate it’s going. The US government is spending $6 billion dollars a week on this war, a thoroughly obscene sum of money by any standard. Yet all the while, there is unemployment here in the USA that is around 9%, and that doesn’t count all the millions of long-term unemployed who have stopped looking for work, as well as those who are working part-time when full-time work is what is needed. There is no money to create over a million badly needed jobs in our country, but there is an unlimited supply of cash for multiple illegal military occupations and drone strikes all around the globe. This is a moral outrage, and anybody with even a little bit of a conscience should be out in the streets protesting against the US military-industrial complex. That’s not in the letter of the Bible, but it most certainly is in the Spirit thereof.

Paul then writes in verse 5, “Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.” This is just as true today as it was when it was first written. Being an outlaw will only get us into trouble, and jail is no place for anybody to be except for the worst criminals. It is a bad idea to drive your car at 90 miles an hour because it is against the law, and because it is dangerous. Likewise, the ten commandments must be obeyed. We should not steal, lie or commit adultery, nor should we have any false gods in our lives. We can and should worship the one true God and him alone, who sent his only Son to die for our sins and then to rise from the dead on the third day after he was crucified. In the same way that we submit ourselves to God, we should, as far as it is possible, submit to authority here on earth. And we should do so not only “because of possible punishment but also because of conscience”. But here in the 21st century, we can and should oppose and protest against the government similarly because of matters of conscience. It is a part of the laws of our land, and we should exercise this right because our rule of law says we can. This is also in keeping with God’s commands, and I hope and pray that it always remains so.

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I am Rev. Paul J. Bern, a well-known Web pastor and regular blogger on The Social Gospel Blog here on Wordpress, as well as Medium, Booksie, Patreon and Linked In. Originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, I began my writing and blogging career in 2010 after becoming temporarily disabled in 2008 due to a stroke, a pacemaker implant plus some other health issues. Prior to that occurrence, I was a long-time computer/IT professional and computer shop owner (21 years altogether). I also own the websites Progressive Christian Ministries of Greater Atlanta, Inc, and, I am the published author of “Cannabis Legalization and the Bible: Compatible or Not?”, “The Apostles in Plain English Vol. 1: the Apostle Paul”, "Sole Survivor", "Occupying America: We Shall Overcome", and "The Middle and Working Class Manifesto 4th Edition". They are available on Amazon Books or from my website at I also currently serve as a church keyboardist at Atlanta's Prayer of Faith Church of God in Christ.

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