Church and State: The Ethic of Subordination

Biblical studies on “how the New Testament perceives church-state relationships” identify three distinct stances that are commended in different New Testament writings:

  1. the ethic of subordination (found in the letters of Paul and in 1 Peter)
  2. the ethic of resistance (found in Johannine writings and, especially, Revelation)
  3. the ethic of critical distancing (found in the Synoptic Gospels)

Here we look at the ethic of subordination. For the other two views, see 1.18 and 1.20.

Summary Description of the Ethic of Subordination

The government is understood to be a gift of God, divinely established for the common good. Its God-given purpose is to encourage and maintain what is beneficial for our life together and to discourage what is harmful and disruptive. Or, put another way, the state is God’s instrument in the human community to preserve law and order and to promote justice and peace. Its power consists in its responsibility to exercise its authority toward these beneficial ends. Christians, in turn, owe to the government their loyalty and respect. Because government is a divine gift they support its preservation of the good and opposition to evil, pray for those in authority, pay taxes, and try to live as model citizens of human communities. In so doing they act in accordance with God’s intent. Conversely, to resist the state is to risk both punishment and divine disapproval.1

Key Texts Expressive of the Ethic of Subordination

Sirach 10:4 (second-century-BCE deuterocanonical/apocryphal writing):

The government of the earth is in the hand of the Lord, and over it he will raise up the right leader for the time.

Romans 13:1–6:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore, one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.

Titus 3:1–2:

Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone.

1 Peter 2:13–17:

For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish. As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

Some Common Observations regarding the Ethic of Subordination

Honor your father and mother.

Question: What does this mean?

Answer: We are to fear and love God so that we do not despise or anger our parents and others in authority, but respect, obey, love, and esteem them.

  1. Titus and 1 Peter are less informed by such eschatological urgency.
  2. Holders of other views also thought the end of the world was near.
  3. Should eschatological urgency be regarded as a first-century mistake or as a characteristic intrinsic to Christian theology?

1. Walter Pilgrim, Uneasy Neighbors: Church and State in the New Testament (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 7.