First Peter 2:13 starts with six words most of us probably really, really hate: “Be subject to every human institution.”
Admit it: you just bristled, didn’t you?
None of us particularly like authority. That is, in large part, because we are sinners prone to wanting to be our own authorities. But some of us also have a habit of being so concerned about our human authorities that we forget that they are also under God’s authority.
Yes, respect and obey the earthly authorities—whether parents, pastors, police or presidents—but don’t forget: they’re not the primary authority. God is.
The higher authority
In Luke 12:4, Jesus tells His disciples, “Do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell.”
“Those who persecute you, those in authority over you,” he says, “the worst they can do is kill you. So don’t be afraid of them.”
Instead, fear God. Why? Because he can kill you and after that, he has the authority to cast you into hell.
So yes, we should obey the civil authorities, but we are to “fear” God over them. Simple, right?
Well, what happens when what the government orders comes into conflict with what God commands? Simple: We obey God first.
This is what the Bible continually shows us as the pattern of behavior for Christians. We are to honor the authorities over us, but not at the expense of our obedience to our Lord and Savior. Consider two brief examples.
Fearing God in the face of the fiery furnace
In Daniel 3, Nebuchadnezzar sets up a golden image of himself that all the citizens of Babylon are to worship. But he learns that Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego—three Jews brought into the royal house as servants—refused to worship.
He calls them to him and asks, “Is it true … that you do not serve my gods or worship the golden image that I have set up? Now if you are ready when you hear the sound… and every kind of music, to fall down and worship the image that I have made, well and good. But if you do not worship, you shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?”
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” (Dan. 3:16-18)
Their answer? No. We must worship God alone. We believe that he will rescue us—and even if he doesn’t, we still cannot worship false gods.
Fearing God in the face of religious leaders
And in Acts 4, Peter and John are brought before the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of the Jews because they have been preaching Christ. And the council “charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.”
But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4-19-20).
The council ordered them to stop talking about Jesus. Their answer: We must speak of what we have seen and heard because it is from God—and we must obey him.
Respect authorities but fear God
A lot of Christians in North America are wringing their hands about what is to come. They’re afraid of losing their religious liberty. They’re afraid of it perhaps becoming illegal to meet publicly, unless we are willing to tone down our message. They are afraid of the possibility of persecution (though thankfully it has not come to that yet).
But should the day ever come when Christianity is outlawed, what will we do? We’ll still meet together. Why? Because God has commanded it. We’ll still preach the gospel. Why? Because the gospel demands it. We must fear God and obey him over any earthly authority.
But we’re not there yet. The gospel is increasingly offensive, it is true, but by and large we are free to do what we are called to without fear of reprisal. And we should be thankful because as long as their requirements do not conflict with God’s Word, we should have no issue obeying what the law demands of us. We should have no issue showing them the respect their position demands.
But we need never fear them. Fear is reserved for God alone.