But the question that still nags at Christians is:
Is submitting to the authorities the same as obeying, accepting or supporting them unconditionally? What if the government of the day is unfair, unjust and incompetent?
First of all, let's explore exactly what the concept of "submission to governing authorities" as taught by Paul in Romans chapter 13. This will give us a firm starting point for our analysis.
In the original Greek language of Paul's letter, the word that is translated as "submit" in English is "hupotasso". The word hupotasso means "to arrange in order under." It is actually a military term, and in the military there is a strong sense of submitting to someone of higher rank. (Read more about it here)
So when Christians are called to hupotasso, we are essentially called to recognise that there is a ranking order in the world - God, government, people. As citizens of a country, Christians must know know our place in that order and act appropriately.
However, there is an important distinction between submission and obedience .
Obedience can be enforced. Submission is a personal choice.
A simple example of obedience without submission: Student A has to follow the rules of his school, otherwise there will be consequences to bear. Therefore, the threat of punishment forces him to obey the school rules. But in his heart, the student may not submit to the school authorities - he may test the limits of his teacher's patience with his mischief, he may bad-mouth the teachers behind their backs, he may write hate-filled entries in his diary. Student A has not submitted himself to his school authorities, although outwardly he displays obedience.
Now let's look at the converse situation.
Let's say Student B is an exemplary prefect in his school, he maintains a positive attitude towards his teachers and school, he follows the requests and instructions of his teachers faithfully. In all respects, Student B can be said to have chosen to submit his body and mind to the school system, and obedience flows naturally from that attitude.
Let's say that one day, a teacher frames Student A for an infraction and Student A is sentenced to suspension from school. Student B knows the truth that Student A is innocent. What to do?
If Student B reveals the truth, would it be tantamount to not submitting to school authorities?
Or should Student B remain obedient to the teacher and keep quiet about the injustice?
Would this be a case to justify disobedience? Well, it all depends on Student B's allegiance, doesn't it? Is Student B loyal to his teacher or to higher principles of justice?
Christians must realise where our ultimate allegiance lies
Christian submission to governing authorities is preconditioned on the basis that their authority is delegated to them by God. Therefore, the governing authorities must also hupotasso to God. The governing authorities must also know their place in the ranking order and act accordingly!
Some people may say: how can? The Government is not Christian, what?
Well, God is not merely a "Christian" God, is He? God is the Lord of all the universe, isn't He? As such, His principles are universal and eternal. And universal values - justice, mercy, wisdom, moderation, perseverance, diligence, etc - are familiar to all, and are to be upheld by all and not just Christians! As such, governments who uphold these principles are hupotasso to God and are fulfilling their proper role in the ranking order. Those that fulfill the trust given to them by God deserve to be in their place and those who don't, do not deserve to be there (read Matthew 25 - the parable of the talents)
In other words, Government is NOT the top management of the country - it is merely the MIDDLE MANAGEMENT! And if middle management does not do its job, or openly defies the top management's directives, the rank and file will have to choose their sides - obey top management or middle management?
What does obeying God over government entail?
As Christians, we owe our ultimate allegiance to God Almighty and, accordingly, to His universal principles. As such, when middle management doesn't do its job right, we stand with Top Management. And just what does standing with Top Management entail?
1. It means that Christians have to obey God's laws if it conflicts with the government's laws, even if it means defying the government (like the Israelites in Daniel).
2. It means pointing out to the the government where it has strayed. Because if the government fail to hear their own God-given conscience, Christians will have to be the substitute voice of conscience. (2 Samuel 12)
3. It means that in the government's failure to uphold God's universal values in society - justice, mercy, wisdom, moderation, perseverance, diligence, etc - Christians have to do their part to uphold them wherever and whenever they are able (James 1:27).
4. It means that Christians must constantly pray to God that the ruling authorities will consistently uphold God's principles (1 Timothy 2:1-3). And if they do not, we must appeal to God to set things right (Luke 18:1-8).
But this does NOT mean that Christians are given free rein to rebel. We must follow the example of Christ during the trial leading to his crucifixion - while submitting to earthly authority demonstrating ultimate allegiance to God, speaking truth with dignity and boldness, satisfying the Father's will.
In the end, the Apostle Peter sums it up for us in 1 Peter 2:13-21.
Submission to Rulers and Masters13 Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority,
14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.
15 For it is God's will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men.
16 Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God.
17 Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king.
18 Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.
19 For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God.
20 But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God.
21 To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.