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What Does It Look Like to Submit to Government?

Written by BJ So, Philippines

 

“Do not discuss politics or religion in general company”—that’s the advice from “Hill’s Manual of Social and Business Forms” (an etiquette guide from 1879) that somehow remains relevant until today.

Many in my community remain hesitant to talk about politics and other uncomfortable and potentially impolite issues such as money and sex. But the tragedy is when most of us end up discussing these topics outside the church, without a solid, God-honouring, biblical perspective.

Things are slowly changing, however. More and more Christians are showing this desire to really seek out what the Bible says about politics. In our church, we are trying to create a safe space that welcomes such discussions, even when it gets uncomfortable. As a pastor, I do believe we should broach these topics with sensitivity and not speak of them lightly, and ultimately, let God’s Word be our guide. 

I have written this at a time when tensions are high in our country. And so it is important for me to say explicitly that what I write here is not meant to be a commentary for the current political situation where I am. Instead, my point is to revisit what the Bible says about submission to government, and how reflecting on these passages has shaped my personal convictions.

I believe that to be a Christian is a political statement. When we say Jesus is our Lord, we are making a statement about our highest allegiance. We are declaring there is no higher authority we recognise than God, and whatever He tells us to do, nothing can overturn it.

In Romans 13:1-7, we are told that the authority of our earthly governments come from God, who established the governments to enforce order in the world. And so Christians should submit to the government as to the Lord.

I’m sure many of us are frustrated, disappointed, angry even, with our respective governments. It’s hard to imagine that there’s a government out there that does everything right by its citizens, even as some do better than others. 

 

Is our government really the worst?

If we think our governments today are terrible, let’s not forget that the early church had it much worse. 

When Paul wrote the book of Romans, he knew how the Roman government operated. On the surface, it seemed like they had brought prosperity and order to the world. But they were very abusive and harsh, to say the least. They made up reasons to justify conquering other people. And they forced them to support the empire, one of which was through their exploitative tax system. 

Consider also the audience he was speaking to—a group of people who had no political power at all. There was no avenue for them to effect change, nothing they could do to let their voice be heard, unlike most of us today. The church then did not have any power, unlike Christians today who are able to influence society to a certain extent.

Then, consider Paul’s personal history. He was imprisoned several times. Clearly, he did not obey the repeated commands of civil authorities to stop preaching. Consider Peter’s answer to the authorities in Acts 5:29, “We must obey God rather than men.”

All this is to remind us that we’re not the first to face evil in government, and that when Paul wrote about submitting to government, it didn’t have to do with the merits of the government itself, nor did it mean blind obedience.

Instead, submission to the government hinges on this principle. Romans 13:1 tell us that all governing authorities get their moral right to rule from God. Verse 4 talks of officials being God’s servant, which means when someone is in government, they are serving God’s purposes for the world. 

This means that even if they do not believe in God, they are still held accountable, and will answer to Him. All of this falls under God’s sovereignty—we all serve God’s purposes, whether we accept Him or not.

 

What does submission to the government look like?

Having established God as the true authority, it becomes clearer what it is we owe the government: 

1. Pay our taxes and obey the law

First and foremost, verse 6 says we ought to pay our taxes. Paul goes on to say in verse 7 that we have to pay everything we owe, whether taxes, revenue (or custom, a kind of tax on goods that the Roman system had), as well as respect. 

If God is the authority behind every government, it comes down to this: are you going to pay what you owe? 

Even when Jesus was on earth, when his enemies tried to trap him by asking him if it is right for Israel to pay taxes, he answers in Mark 12:17, yes. Pay your taxes. Do your duty as citizens.

Both Paul and Jesus suffered under the government they told people to submit to. Jesus was crucified by a government at least partially funded by the taxes His followers paid. Think about that and see if that does not scream injustice. 

But Paul says, submit. And Jesus says in John 18:36, “If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”

Part of being a good citizen is that we must obey laws ourselves. This is in line with the respect we owe (Romans 13:7). Do we jaywalk? Disobey traffic rules? Bribe and take shortcuts? 

I don’t speak from a place of judgement. I have broken rules myself, and might break more in the future when I feel too pressured. It’s hard, but we have to struggle with this, to do the right thing even if it’s hard.

2. Participate in civic duty – vote and rally for justice within lawful bounds

In our country, our highest authority is the constitution. Because of this, we have ways for our voices to be heard, for us to influence things. And I believe we are called to fight injustice within the bounds of what the law allows, and this does not constitute rebelling. 

1 Peter 2 tells us as part of submitting to authority “sent by [the Lord] to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right” (vv.13-14), “it is God’s will that by doing good [we] should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people” (v.15). 

Putting together these words from Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2, we learn that submission to government means we should not do what is unlawful and evil, not that we should do nothing in the face of evil.

Reflecting on all these has strongly convicted me of how I had remained silent before when I had heard of abuses at the height of the drug war years ago. And so now, if evil abuses similar to the past happen again, I am convinced that I have to speak out. I believe that to submit is not to be silent. That upholding the truth is also part of my duty as a citizen and a Christian. 

The other thing is I had never voted until the recent elections. Everything I’ve seen in politics has made me so angry that I’ve always refused to participate in it. For many years, I chose to make myself feel better by helping our society in other ways. 

But these texts rebuke me. I’m strongly convicted by these passages that voting is also part of my job as a citizen. It’s something I can do to help change whatever I think needs to change. So this year, I voted for the first time. 

There are things we can do as citizens. I know of friends who advocate for the marginalised and the oppressed—they organise gatherings, start ministries, or support existing ones. People can bring their concerns to their elected representatives, and in fact, some believers run for office to serve the country. Where I live, these are all allowed by our constitution and are within our rights and responsibilities as caring citizens.

I know the argument to not bother because it may not change things anyway. But now I do not think that is a valid excuse not to do our duty. Anyone who does not do their duty will be accountable to God, whether it’s the official doing evil, or the citizen not keeping watch and participating. 

 

Must we really submit? No exceptions?

A lot of Christians have wondered why Paul just did not write out the exceptions: when we are allowed civil disobedience, when should we not submit. 

I think this is because Paul wants to emphasise the importance of what submission teaches us, rather than fighting for our rights (as important as that is). To submit as to the Lord in spite of the cost? That trains us for holiness in a way we don’t get when we can do what everyone else does. 

This command to submit hinges on us believing in the Lordship of Jesus, that He is above every authority. This is a message directed to people who are following King Jesus. The king who died for us, so that our sins would be forgiven. The perfect ruler who loves us and works all things for our good. If this is what we possess, what is left to fear? This is a treasure that no government can take away from you, and is ultimately what will enable us to submit even when our governments fall short.

If you are not yet a believer, I encourage you as a fellow citizen to obey the law, but I cannot hold you to this standard of living. Come to Jesus first. Let Him be your treasure. And whatever government you have, you can submit to them, because God will hold them accountable, and He will protect and preserve you until the very end. 

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