Submission to All, Allegiance to None

Submission can be painful and humbling. When Steve What’s-His-Name kicked my ass back in the fifth grade, pulling my jacket over my head hockey-style and twisting my arm behind my back until I submitted, I won’t lie and say it didn’t sting my pride. Likewise, when writers like Peter and Paul entreat their audiences to submit to civic authorities (e.g. I Peter 2:13-17; Romans 13:1-7), many can react with bitterness.

These passages on submission have had a wild ride over the past few years. Religious nationalists have trotted them out in service of their party and politicians of choice, when their ‘submission’ might secure them a seat at the table of influence and power. They were also a convenient hammer to wield against any believers who questioned their sycophantic adulation of an individual who cut so obviously against the grain of the way of Jesus. Of course, when the other team won the day, they quickly buried any appeal to these passages and replaced them with cries of illegitimacy, foul play and sometimes even calls for overthrow and revolution.

When the Powers That Be Ain’t Good

Unfortunately — or fortunately — the New Testament writers don’t give us any room for this sort of selective application. When Peter says, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority” (I Pet. 2:13), he means ‘every authority’, not just the ones we like. When Paul says, “The authorities that exist have been established by God” (Rom. 13:1), he means ‘the authorities that exist’, regardless of how they got there.

“Wait!” I can hear some saying, “What if those civic authorities are evil? What if they’ve gained their authority by underhanded means?”

Well, let’s leave aside for a moment the truth that a differing political position doesn’t equate to evil. And let’s also leave aside the need for actual evidence for underhandedness. I must answer the questions above with another question: So what? The Roman authorities that Peter and Paul had in mind weren’t by any means benevolent and many of them had risen to power through fraud, bribery, corruption, violence, even murder. None of this compels the apostles to qualify their calls for submission to civic leaders..

Some might now cry, “You’re advocating blind obedience!”

Leaving aside the irony in accusations of ‘blind obedience’, considering the events of the last few years, I would respond: By no means! We have numerous examples of civil disobedience in the Acts of the Apostles alone. Peter himself tells the elders and chief priests in Jerusalem, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than God” (Acts 4:19). What prompted this response? The priest and elders had commanded them not to proclaim the name of the risen Jesus. This directive, of course, they could not obey, just as we could not. Early Christians routinely violated commands from civic and religious leaders against declaring the Lordship of Jesus, in the time-honoured manner of speaking truth to power. However, when those rulers threatened them, persecuted them, flogged them and killed them for it, believers didn’t prattle about their rights, or injustice, or declare these authorities to be illegitimate1. Instead, they ‘rejoiced, because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name’ (Acts 5:41).

We must do the same. Sure, we can’t shrink from declaring the kingdom of God and the truth of Jesus’ rule, or from living as citizens of that kingdom. But when that puts us at odds with the powers that be, our response can’t be one of self-righteous anger, but of patient perseverance and willingness to endure hardship. The hard reality is that we are never promised civic leaders who are friendly to our cause by Jesus or by any of the writers of the New Testament. For that matter, we are never promised civic rights or freedoms.

And if that sounds too hard to accept, if our goal is a life of ease and comfort, then we clearly disembarked from the Religious Express a few stops too late. New Testament Christianity isn’t for us and Jesus isn’t for us. His is the cross-carrying way.

Submission, Not Loyalty

But here’s where the story takes a twist: submission to civic authorities can itself be a subversive act. Pastor and passionate advocate for Christian nonviolence, Justin Bronson Barringer writes that by submitting to all civic authorities, regardless of their political affiliation, their path to power, even their character, is our way of declaring that we are allegiant to none of them2.

When you think about it, this makes strange but perfect sense. If we view any and all civic leaders with what political theologian Stephen Backhouse calls ‘benign indifference’, if we acknowledge their authority without making that contingent on their political ties, views or origins, we thereby show how fleeting that authority actually is. We demonstrate that the shifting winds of politics and changes of government do not concern us, because Jesus is the real authority that we recognise.

Let’s be clear: submission does not mean allegiance. Recognising civic authority does not mean that we worship it, that we surrender control of our actions to it, that we put any real faith in it, or that we owe any loyalty to it. Such allegiance is reserved for Jesus alone, which is what genuine Christianity is all about.

And in an upside-down way, submitting to the powers that be proves it.


Notes:

  1. What do we make of Paul’s defiance of the Philippian officials when they publicly beat him (a Roman citizen) without a trial? Is he contradicting himself by not ‘submitting’ to their authority? Had he wanted to, Paul could have seen these men censured, perhaps even removed, by higher powers. He doesn’t. In fact, he doesn’t even reveal the fact that he is a Roman citizen until after he is beaten and imprisoned, a fact which surely would have spared him this humiliation.
  2. Justin Bronson Barringer. “What About Those Men and Women Who Gave Up Their Lives So that You and I Could be Free? On Killing for Freedom.” In A Faith Not Worth Fighting For (Peaceable Kingdom), ed. Tripp York, Justin Bronson Barringer (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2012).

Image:

‘Peter and John Before the Sanhedrin’: Illustration from Bible Historiale, c. 1291. Found at: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/jaredingle/2018/04/how-do-we-measure-success/

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