[This entry follows a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church, titled "Jesus Escapes a Political Trap". Click on the title to listen to the audio.]
As we read Jesus' interaction with the Pharisees and Herodians in Mark 12, we hear the Lord say, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (v. 17). In the political climate of Jesus' day, there was an understandable antagonism toward the Romans and their government. However, Jesus indicates that Caesar has a legitimate realm of authority in this world. It is, in fact, an authority that has been ordained by God, and because it is ordained by God, resisting Caesar would be the equivalent of resisting God (Romans 13:1-2). So, while the antagonism was understandable, it was not acceptable.
Submission may be an unpopular word in today's culture, but it is a word that marks how God has ordained human culture to function. Families that will please God must function by submission. A child must submit to His parents' authority because God has ordained that child to belong to a particular family. The Scripture says that wives are to submit to their own husbands as to the Lord (Eph. 5:22) because God has ordained that the husband be head of the wife (1 Cor. 11:3). Husbands are submitting humans as well. In their family, they must submit to the Lord Jesus, who is the head of every man (1 Cor. 11:3).
Generally speaking, there is plenty of submission to go around. In work, we must submit to our bosses. In churches, we must submit to the elders. Even those who are elders must submit...they must submit to one another in accountability. In society, we must submit to the government. Submission has been ordained by God to keep things orderly...in the family, in the church, and in society. None of us escapes the need to submit, and none of us should want to escape the need to submit. If we desired to escape all submission...to be completely independent of all human authority...then we would be longing to escape from God's ordained means of living. We would be rebelling against Him.
So, how does one get along if submitting is difficult? What happens if you are in a society in which the government is making bad decisions for its citizens with regard to critical issues? What if you are a believing wife married to an unbelieving husband...and he is not leading in godliness? What if your boss is a jerk and makes work difficult for you? What if you are a believing teenagers whose unbelieving parents restrict your activity at church? What if the elders at your church are deciding to add a staff member and you're not convinced such a position is needed? What are we to do when we feel that the authorities are making wrong decisions?
Well, I won't address every one of these. I will simply give some general things to remember when submission "rubs us the wrong way."
1. Remember that all of these submission relationships have been ordained by God. God's providential rule over all things includes the societies in which we live and the familes into which we are born. When a Christian woman believes she made "the wrong choice" when she married an unbeliever, even this was not outside God's providential care. Two unbelievers get married, and one is converted while the other remains lost...this is not outside God's providential care. An ungodly man or woman is elected to an important position of leadership in government and proceeds to make atrocious decisions...this is not outside God's providential care. And the list could go on. Remembering God's sovereignty over all things should remind us that when things seem out of control, we can trust the One who never loses control.
2. Remember that submitting to humans is just that...submitting to humans. That seems pretty obvious, but when we remember that humans are "prone to wander," we recognize that there will be times when the best possible decision may not be made...when errors in judgment or direction will occur. We will never be free of this, but as believers, when we are the husbands or parents or politicians or pastors who wander from wisdom for one reason or another, we must be quick to repent and seek forgiveness. And...when we resolve only to complain about those who are in authority, we may be forgetting our own tendency toward corruption while we live in these bodies.
Thinking of this in relationship to government, I can't help but recall the words of C.S. Lewis. "I am a [proponent of democracy] because I believe in the Fall of Man...A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that everyone deserved in a share in the government...The real reason for democracy is just the reverse. Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked powers over his fellows." We are given a privilege not held by all nations...the privilege of being part of electing and removing people from power. Still, even those we support the most fully are likely to disappoint us.
3. Remember the teaching of the Scripture about difficulties and trials. The difficulties and trials of life are God's designed means of building things like character, hope, and perseverence into the lives of His children (Romans 5:1-5; James 1:2-4). We all experience things like this...events and relationships and difficulties that are meant to refine and build our faith. In fact, we cannot be made like Jesus apart from them. He was a Man of Sorrows...He was acquainted with grief...He experienced the depths of difficulty, rejection, temptation, and trial, and He endured faithfully. If we are to "follow in his steps" (1 Peter 2:21b), then we must walk these roads as well.
Now, think about the Christian wife whose husband is lost. It is absolutely true that the wife of a believing husband may have a relatively easier time submitting than the wife of an unbelieving husband. However, God's providential plan in making this Christian woman like Jesus includes the struggles of having an unbelieving husband. It will most likely drive that woman to prayer, to the Scripture, and deeper abiding trust in God as Father and Christ as Husband. It is through this kind of submission that God delights to save unbelieving husbands (1 Peter 3:1). Even if he never believes, her struggle to submit ultimately makes her like Jesus and honors God.
4. Remember that no submission to human authority is absolute. This is something that we must remember. No wife's submission to her husband is absolute. No Christian's submission to government is absolute. No employee's submission to his/her employer is absolute. The only submission that is absolute is submission to God and His Word.
A Christian is not obligated to submit to those things which are clearly sinful and violate God's Word. When Caesar's commands contradict God's commands, God's will must rule in the life of a Christian. There are countries in which it is illegal to practice Christianity, yet this does not mean that Christians in these societies should reject their faith...nor does it mean that missionaries must cease doing their work in dangerous places. For as Peter and the apostles answered the demand to stop preaching the gospel, "We must obey God rather than man" (Acts 5:29).
This is not a line to be used when we don't like what authorities say...it is a call for allegiance to God when the kingdom of Caesar collides with the kingdom of God. The same could be said of a Christian whose husband, parent, or employer would demand sinful actions be taken. Absolute authority belongs only to God...not to men.
5. Remember that you may have an opportunity to use your voice to change a hard situation. A wife may approach her husband with concern over something happening in the family. As citizens of the US, we have the opportunity to express our desire for change through voting. There are typically systems within companies that give employees opportunity to improve or correct procedures or policies when needed.
In these things, there is a great danger to be proud and walk into a conversation feeling like you hold all the cards...ready to throw down a nice "I told you so" before it's all over. This does reflect much of the political talk radio of our day. Too often, it does reflect the way that husbands and wives speak to one another. It does reflect the way a child will speak to his parents. And it does reflect how an employee may "go off" on his/her employer. However, it most certainly does not reflect a heart that wants to be submissive. When we have an opportunity to voice a need for change, we must even do this submissively.
6. Remember that as you struggle with those over you in authority, there is One who will hear your plea. "The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves those crushed in spirit" (Psalm 34:18). God is not distant as you and I struggle with anything, including submission to those in authority. He is the One who put the authorities in their place, and He can remove them. This is not the case for husbands and parents, but it is certainly the case of bosses and governing officials. It is not a bad thing to call on the Lord for relief...we see David doing it throughout the psalms. It is also only by His Spirit that you will persevere in the humility necessary to submit to authority, so call on Him for help. Cast your anxieties on Him because He cares for you (1 Peter 5:7)!
7. Remember that the goal of submission is to honor God...not to get what you want. This is where humility comes in. Submission is easy when the ones you are submitting to always choose what you think is best. We Americans, in particular, feel that we should make a fight out of everything with which we disagree. The goal of submission is to honor God as the One who has placed us in these submission relationships. His authority is honored when human authority is honored.
Let me leave you with some artillery for the battle of submission. It reminds us of the attitude in which we should approach all things...including submission. It is in Philippians 2:14-15: "Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world..."