Election Day Part III: What does Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 Mean for Americans?
Jesse Phillips is an ordained pastor and has also been involved in several political campaigns. This election cycle he served as the campaign manager for Bob Cortes, who is running for Florida State House District 30. The following is an excerpt of a much longer piece he wrote about whether, and to what extent, Christians should be involved in politics. If you'd like to read the full piece, let us know.
In addition to all that the Bible says about our heavenly citizenship, it also teaches how Christians should live as citizens of earthly kingdoms and lays out one simple principal which governs our lives as members of the various societies and nations in which Christians have lived across the world and throughout history.
Principal: Governing Authority is An Expression of God’s Authority
There is one predominant principal that should govern the way Christians view the ruling authorities (i.e. government) of the earthly nations they live in: earthly authority is an extension and expression of God’s divine authority.
This principal is simple to understand, and fairly easy to prove from Scripture. It’s implications for us as American’s, however, is very profound when we understand the form of government under which we live in the United States. We will examine the important logical inferences that we derive from this principal in the next section. For now, let’s look at what the Bible actually says.
Romans 13:1 says that every man and woman should live in submission and obedience to whatever form of earthly government is operating in their nation. The reason for this is that God himself establishes governments. “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.”
Of course we remember that Christians are not first and foremost members of earthly nations. We are called strangers or aliens in a foreign land, according to God’s promise to Abraham as rehearsed by Stephen in Acts 7:6. This status as aliens to this world, however, does not free Christians from obligations to the earthly societies in which we temporarily live. We are to be subjected under the various civil authorities that God has established. This authority is “from God” and has been “instituted by God.” The authority of government is an extension of God’s authority.
The obvious exceptions to carte blanche obedience to authority are those circumstances in which sinful people in authority misuse it and give commands to sin. There is no excuse for sin and whenever the Bible teaches on authority it always makes this exception that we obey God when forced to choose between sinning and maintaining good standing with earthly authority. Aside from this exception, however, this fact remains: God’s authority over civil realms manifests itself in the form of earthly governments being established by God and exercising rule over various lands and nations. The choice to obey or disobey governing authority is not a real choice at all. We have only one choice—we must obey God’s authority in all of its expressed forms, including that of earthly government structure.
Inference: We Should Honor Governing Authority As If It Was God’s Authority
Where is all of this going? How does this principal apply to us as American Christians? Before making application to our situation, we must draw one sweeping, categorical inference from this previous section. If government authority is an extension of God’s authority, it follows that we should honor that authority as if it were God’s authority. The divine origin of government over us should have some bearing on our heart’s attitude toward government.
The Apostle Peter takes up this subject in 1 Peter 2. He directs us to be “subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution” (1 Peter 2:13) and then lists various potential institutions. He mentions emperors and governors, and even encourages slaves to be subject to masters. “Fear God,” he says, and “Honor the Emperor” (1 Peter 2:16).
This last phrase, “Honor the Emperor” is very important. Not only are we to obey the governing authorities. There is to be an appropriate honor, respect and reverence directed toward that authority. Don’t get caught up in the fact that we don’t have an emperor, or the historical reality of emperors that have been less than honorable. If earthly authority is an expression of God’s authority, then God’s authority should certainly be esteemed and valued highly.
Whether Christians are subject to emperors, Kings or governors, we are to honor that authority. Throughout history there have been many different forms of government established. The issue is not the specific form of government. The issue is honor. There are a variety of methods that have been attempted to institute direction, leadership and rule throughout history. Regardless of what form a particular nation adopts for itself, Christians are to have the same posture towards them all: we are to be subject for the sake of Jesus Christ to “every human institution” and we are to honor that government authority.
Contextualizing American Government
Peter calls the emperor “supreme” and then tells us we should honor him. We gather from this that we should honor whatever is supreme. The Christian’s responsibility as a citizen of an earthly nation is quite simply to locate the supreme source of authority and honor, obey, value, uphold and esteem that authority as long as such activity does not require sin.
If a Christian is in a country ruled by a King, then he should locate that source of God’s authority vested into the King God established and then honor, obey and esteem the King as an expression of God’s divine authority, as long as that King does not require him to sin. Similarly, if there is a council or governor, or some other dictator, then the Christian should locate the source of divine authority in those individuals and honor them likewise. As Christians we examine our government, locate the source of supreme authority and honor it.
[In the United States,] the source of supreme authority was not placed in specific people. The founders of our country had just experienced the problems inherent in such a system. Having their religious freedoms suppressed and f inancial opportunities usurped by unjust taxation motivated them to take up arms and rebel against a ruler who was, in their view, behaving in contradiction with God’s will. They fought a war to free themselves from such an oppressive government and establish a new one. In God’s providence, they succeeded. By granting them success, God established a new country in which the source of supreme authority was not placed in specific people, but located in the collective will of we the People.
Just a reminder of what we are doing. As Christians we are trying to apply Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2, which tell us to find the actual location of supreme authority in our temporary national residence and to honor that authority.
The Constitution was ratified as absolutely supreme. The location of authority in American government is not in specific people, but in the will of “We the People” as embodied in and protected by the Constitution our founders ratified. In the sovereignty of God, he did not establish a nation in which specific people rule. What he established was a nation in which a single law rules the people primarily, and complementary laws secondarily. This law we are all ruled by, being an attempted representation of the innate will in all men to be free from oppression, is intended to protect both from the presence of rulers and from the chaos of pure democracy. We are ruled by a single document that provides a delicate balance of individual freedom to pursue life and religion, while delegating enough administrative and civic duties to certain people for a limited time to sustain our society, protect those freedoms from foreign and domestic enemies.
“The power under the Constitution will always be in the people. It is entrusted for certain defined purposes, and for a certain limited period, to representatives of their own choosing; and whenever it is executed contrary to their interest, or not agreeable to their wishes, their servants can, and undoubtedly will, be recalled” -George Washington, 1787. Far from being rulers, congressmen, Senators and the President are servants of the people, chosen to do the will of their masters, the people, subjected to the wishes of the people in the Constitution and able to be promptly recalled as soon as their actions violate the freedoms of the people by surpassing the limited exercise of power specifically granted in the law.
Honoring the Emperor = Honoring the Constitution
If this is true, how does an American apply Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2? We are told in scripture to honor the authority of the government as God’s authority, and to obey those over us in society. What do we do when we find ourselves by the divine providence of God in a nation that has no human rulers, in which our inherent will to be free, as embodied in our law, is the God-established master both of our leaders and popular opinion?
The answer is simple. We honor the governing authority the same way any Christian in any nation would: locate the source of supreme authority and recognize that this authority is a manifestation of God’s own authority. Finally, we honor that authority as God’s. We have established that the Constitution is the source of supreme authority in our nation. Therefore, the teaching of scripture to honor authority is directly fulfilled as we honor the Constitution. We should esteem, validate and obey authority—we should esteem the Constitution, validate the Constitution and obey the Constitution. The conscience-binding obligation of every American Christian towards governing authority is nothing less than a divine command from God to honor and esteem the Constitution of the United States.