Rebels as Leaders

All the great rebels we listed in our last lesson were great conquerors who cowed the masses under them into abject submission. Here is the paradox. The very leaders in history who have been the most conspicuous in shaking their fists at God have also been the least tolerant of insubordination in their own ranks.

We spoke of Julius Caesar, who amassed more power to himself than had ever belonged to any predecessor in Roman history. After becoming dictator of the Roman Republic five years before his assassination, he wielded absolute authority over a domain stretching from the Atlantic to the Nile. His power was hedged in to some extent by Roman law, but no one questioned that he had the right to decree the death of any disloyal or treasonous subject. For example, to celebrate his final defeat of political rivals, he held triumphal games in Rome. These featured gladiatorial contests, a naval battle on a flooded field, and a war at the Circus Maximus between two armies of captives taken in Roman conquests. These two armies, each with 2000 combatants, fought to the death. Some Romans considered the exhibition wasteful of public resources, and they rioted in protest. Caesar’s shameful contempt for the value of life apparently did not bother them. It was simply a question of money. Caesar put an end to criticism by making human sacrifices out of two of the protesters.

Caesar’s hero was Alexander the Great, another ruler of vast territory. He too was merciless in dealing with rebels. One of his officers failed to warn him of a plot against his life, and in revenge he killed not only the man himself, but also the man’s father, although he bore no blame, lest he seek vengeance. Alexander dealt in a similar way with all enemies within his own camp. Once in a drunken rage he murdered a man who earlier had saved his life. The man’s only offense was to argue with Alexander.

Another of the mighty conquerors known to history was Napoleon. His entire career as an aspiring and then as an acting ruler of France was plagued by intrigues, and he met every threat with ruthless counterforce. On one occasion, when tipped off that an attempt would be made on his life, he decided not to attack the men actually plotting against him. He judged that it was more to his advantage to kidnap and execute another man who was innocent.

Hitler’s savagery against opposition is well known. After the tide of the Second World War turned against Germany, a high-ranking officer and German aristocrat, Claus von Stauffenberg, managed to plant a bomb in a conference room where he was scheduled to meet with Hitler. The bomb went off and several were killed, but Hitler survived. Hitler then not only executed Stauffenberg and his fellow conspirators, but also more than 4900 other people.

One reason we have reviewed the wickedness of great conquerors is that young people, especially young men, who know only about their great conquests may be tempted to admire them. They are not men to be admired.

The last and fiercest dictator will be, as we said in the last lesson, the Antichrist. How will he deal with those who resist his authority? Bible prophecy gives us a clear answer in many texts (Dan. 7:21, 25; 8:24; Rev. 13:7, 10, 15). He will grind down all opposition and kill all who defy his will.

Our brief survey of human tyrants who scorned God's standards of justice and righteousness raises an obvious question. If rebellion is a sin, how should we view rebellion against a rebel? As we search for a Biblical answer to this critical question, we will follow two tracks. First, we will explore exactly whose authority is legitimate. That is, we will identify which positions in society are truly authoritative, because God has conferred authority upon them. Second, we will study what Scripture says about the limits of authority, for we will find that no human leader has an absolute right to command. Any authority that oversteps its proper bounds ceases to be legitimate, and obedience is unnecessary or, in some situations, wrong. Cooperation with any misuse of authority may even amount to complicity in evil.

Chains of Command

God has established many vertical structures in man’s world, all with certain people appointed as leaders over other people. Their purpose in every instance is to make human society more peaceful and orderly. We will list them in the sequence of oldest to newest.

A woman’s subjection to her husband

Male rule in the home was originally dictated by God as part of the penalty imposed on Eve for listening to the serpent (Gen. 3:16). She wanted to be like God, holding first place in the grand scheme of things, so ever afterward she would take second place. Adam’s penalty was likewise appropriate (Gen. 3:17–19). He sinned to please his wife. So, ever afterward he would have to do exhausting hard work to meet her needs and keep her happy. The subordination that God decreed for woman at the beginning has never been rescinded. On the contrary, it is reaffirmed throughout Scripture (Eph. 5:22-24; Col. 3:18; 1 Pet. 3:1). The realm of required obedience extends to "every thing" (Eph. 5:24) within the limits we will consider later.

A child’s subjection to his parents

The social unit that God designed for the procreation and rearing of children is the family. Within this strongly bonded group, God made the husband ruler not only over the wife, but also over the children. In all dealings with his offspring, he stands in God’s place, with an obligation to give them an accurate picture of God’s character. He is to model for them God’s own commitment to truth and righteousness, and He is to love them with a selfless love building their understanding of God’s love. In return, his children are to view him as God’s chief representative and spokesman in their lives. In all matters they should obey him (Prov. 23:22; see also Prov. 7:1-3, giving Solomon’s counsel to his own son). They should trust that his will normally instructs them in God’s will. Since a father is human and not divine, he may err in his guidance, yet his children can still be confident that obedience will, through God’s oversight and control of their lives, yield the best result.

The mother is under the father in the chain of command, but she is over the children. The children are to obey her with as much readiness and reverence as they do their father. From a child’s perspective, both parents are equally authoritative, although in a home true to Biblical norms, a child will in the course of things discover that father can overrule mother. Yet a mother’s word still has commanding weight, because she is far more advanced in maturity and understanding than her children. The Bible commends a son who respects his mother and listens to her (Prov. 15:20).

The obligation of children to live in subjection to both parents is a prominent theme of both the Old and New Testaments, appearing first as one of the Ten Commandments summarizing the moral law of God (Exod. 20:12; Lev. 19:3; Matt, 15:14) and resurfacing wherever the topic is authority within the home (Prov. 1:8; 6:20; 30:17; Eph. 6:1; Col. 3:20). Again, the realm of required obedience extends to "all things" (Col. 3:20) within the limits we will consider later.

A citizen’s subjection to the state

Before the Flood, some people dwelt together in cities (Gen. 4:17), which presumably had a form of organized government. But Scripture does not treat the state as a God-ordained institution until it comes to the Flood's aftermath, when human society was reduced to eight people. Then God decreed to Noah that henceforth in the history of man, anyone guilty of murder should be put to death (Gen. 9:5-6). The rule was to be life for life. But who had the right and duty to carry out capital punishment? God provided no answer, but as the author and upholder of everything good, He clearly expected the punishment of offenders to follow a due process assuring a just result, either humane execution of the guilty or acquittal of the falsely accused. But justice is not the work of revengers or vigilante squads. It requires a state operating within the framework of law. We may therefore view God’s requirement of blood for blood as His authorization of human government. Like the family, the state is an institution ordained by God.

The Bible is full of directives to obey human rulers. The passage dealing most fully with our duty to be good citizens of the state is in the Book of Romans (Rom. 13:1-7). Paul goes so far as to say that a magistrate is actually a minister of God. It follows then that we should view a ruler not as someone who has risen to his high place through the machinery of politics, but as someone that God has placed over us. To resist the state is to resist legitimate authority divinely created for our good. If we view an official of government with contempt, or if we refuse to comply with his demands, or if we simply evade them, we are rebelling against God Himself.

Lest we be tempted to think that obedience is due only the highest levels of government, Peter specifically states that we must obey lesser officials as well as the supreme ruler (1 Pet. 2:13-14). The meaning for us today is that local and state governments deserve the same respect that we pay to the federal government.

Our cooperation with the authorities should extend to every requirement they impose on us. Notice that Peter is at pains to say "every ordinance" (1 Pet. 2:13). We dare not pick and choose which laws we will keep. We are obliged to respect not only the laws that forbid murder and other crimes clearly in violation of God’s moral law, but also the minor regulations that seem to have no moral significance. We should park in the right places. We should secure the proper building permits. We should even obey the speed limits for vehicles on the road.

A servant’s subjection to his master

The institution of master and servant appeared much later than the family, but we are not sure when. Not long after Noah and his family emerged from the ark, Noah prophesied that in future days the descendants of Canaan, son of Noah’s son Ham, would be servant to the descendants of Ham’s brother Shem (Gen. 9:25). Since he was familiar with the master-servant hierarchy, it must predate the Flood.

In Colossians, Paul commands servants to obey their masters "in all things" (Col. 3:22-25), a duty which he stresses in other epistles as well (Eph. 6:5; 1 Tim. 6:1; Titus 2:9) and which Peter likewise upholds as important (1 Pet. 2:18). Yet this duty is not quite parallel to the others we have considered. Yes, a servant should do everything his master requires, but the office of master does not exist by divine mandate, nor is any workplace outside the home a divinely ordained institution unless it is created by the home or the state to serve its rightful interests. It does not follow that underlings in other spheres have no duty to cooperate with superiors. Nowhere in His Word does God encourage His children to undo social hierarchies that He did not create. On the contrary, He forbids them, if they must labor as servants, to resent or resist working under someone else’s direction. Servants (in the broad sense, including slaves at one extreme and employees at the other) are to obey their masters (again in the broad sense, including slave masters at one extreme and bosses at the other).

But God understood that obedience to such men would have weak support from conscience. After all, unlike a father or a king, a master has no moral authority. A king who fulfills his God-given responsibility rewards those who do good and punishes evildoers. A father who properly exercises his role trains his children to worship and obey their heavenly Father. But the office of master exists for no higher purpose than to make money if his subordinates are helpers or employees in the business world, or to please himself if they work in his home or fields. So, a child of God who wants his life to count for eternity may have trouble seeing any value in toiling hard for a human master. Paul advises servants that the remedy is to redefine who their master is. It is not some man. It is the Lord (Col. 3:23–24). To motivate and justify diligent effort, they should see themselves as accountable to Him. All the menial tasks they perform may seem meaningless from a spiritual perspective, but they are not. They count as service to Christ. Therefore, a Christian servant should do his work heartily, with confidence that the Lord Himself will reward good performance.

A church member’s subjection to church leaders

A church leader, whether a pastor or deacon, is like neither a father nor a king. The Lord specifically forbids any eminent person in the church to be called "father" (Matt. 23:9). In relation to fellow believers, he is no more than a brother (Matt. 23:8). Moreover, he has no right to behave in a kingly manner, lording it over the rest (1 Pet. 5:3). He is no higher than a servant (Mark 10:42-45).

Yet when addressing all who are believers, the New Testament teaches, "Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves" (Heb. 13:17). It is obedience within a smaller sphere, however, because, unlike the other kinds of subjection we have considered—a wife to her husband, a child to his parents, a citizen to the state, and a servant to his master—it does not extend to all things. Also, a church leader guides not by command, but by exhortation (2 Tim. 4:2) and example (1 Pet. 5:3; Heb. 13:7).

Still, the flock has a duty to follow a spiritual shepherd. He feeds them the Word of God, and to the extent that he portrays God’s truth accurately, they should obey his words. And he has oversight of practical affairs within the church, designing and directing many different programs for the advancement of God’s kingdom. For the sake of good order (1 Cor. 14:40) and peace (Phil. 2:14), the members of the body should cooperate with him. They should assist him in the work of the church instead of second-guessing, lagging, or complaining.

A younger saint’s subjection to older saints

The duty here is even more limited. There is no mention of obedience in the single text that discusses this kind of submission. Rather, it says only, "Likewise, ye younger, submit yourselves unto the elder" (1 Pet. 5:5). The submission Peter intends is an attitude of respect, accompanied by a readiness to please. The younger should seek the wisdom of older saints and put it into practice if it agrees with the Word of God and the inner leading of the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, they should make it a priority to minister to the many needs of older saints, especially those impaired by advanced age.

Mutual submission of all the brethren

Peter directs us, "Yea, all of you be subject one to another" (1 Pet. 5:5). Paul concurs, saying, "Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God" (Eph. 5:21). The submission they both want is simply a willingness to put others first. As Paul says elsewhere, "Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others" (Phil. 2:4). He means that in every decision, you should take the good of others into account and rate their good higher than your own. Live for others, not for self. Living for self is meaningless, because self when isolated from the whole community of man is a shrinking point in a vast universe.

Limits of Human Authority

The state

In the Book of Acts, the first incident after the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended on the church, is a miracle performed by Peter. He and John went to the Temple and there found a lame beggar by the gate. Instead of giving him money, Peter called upon Jesus Christ to heal him, and immediately he leaped up and stood on his feet (Acts 3:1-8). Soon a crowd gathered to see the man’s marvelous transformation. Taking advantage of this opportunity, Peter preached a stirring message calling upon the multitude to repent of their sins and receive salvation through God's Son, the same Jesus (Acts 3:9-26).

All the excitement in the Temple soon came to the attention of the authorities, who rushed with soldiers to the scene and arrested both apostles. They brought these two before a session of the Sanhedrin, which demanded to know by what means the apostles had healed the man (Acts 4:1-7). With great boldness, Peter affirmed Jesus' name as their source of power. He denied that they had done anything but a good deed, in contrast to the wickedness the leaders had done in crucifying Jesus, whose name is also the only way of salvation. The council conferred among themselves and decided that they dare not antagonize the common people by punishing the workers of a great miracle. So with dire threats they ordered the apostles to keep quiet about Jesus (Acts 4:8-18).

But their attempt to intimidate the apostles did not succeed. Both Peter and John were resolute in their determination to bring souls into fellowship with Christ. They simply refused to obey their rulers, saying that they had a higher obligation to obey God. Their exact words were these: "Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye" (Acts 4:19).

Were not Peter and John wrong in their refusal to obey authority? Did they not set a poor example for the rest of us, especially the young? As we have seen, the apostles later taught the church that Christians ought to obey their rulers. How then did Peter justify his decision to ignore a ruling of the Sanhedrin? He understood that a ruler has no authority in himself. As we read earlier, Paul affirms that the only authority a ruler has derives from God. God grants him authority so that he will enforce God's laws, thus limiting sin and corruption in the world. But a ruler loses divine backing if he treats God’s laws with contempt, whether by allowing people to break them or by passing his own laws that make it difficult or illegal or impossible for people to obey God's laws. He then ceases to have authority, and all of his laws contrary to God’s are null and void, so far as a believer is concerned. A believer should not obey any human command that forces him to disobey God.

The family

Just as the authority of the state is not absolute, neither is the authority of a husband or a parent. The scope of authority within the home is broad but not unbounded, for it must remain within the confines of one strict, inviolable condition. A wife must obey her husband, but only "as it is fit in the Lord" (Col. 3:18), and likewise a child must obey his parents, but only "in the Lord" (Eph. 6:1). The meaning is that no ruling of a husband or parent is binding if it contradicts the clear teaching of God’s Word. Because life is full of moral complexities, it is not always easy to discern where duty to human authority compromises duty to God. In doubtful matters, a good decision requires careful study of God’s Word as well as earnest prayer for the leading of the Spirit. It is also wise to consult believers of greater spiritual maturity and fuller Christian experience. In general, though, a child should never submit to a parent who wants him to break one of the Ten Commandments.

The Highest Authority

We all understand that the highest authority in the universe is God Himself. All His creatures must view Him as their supreme authority. Their duty to obey His will is without conditions or exceptions, for His will is always the perfect instrument for achieving good. Among the creatures that should be subservient to God is our own race, the race of man. A central teaching of the Bible is that God expects man to follow Him with complete and unwavering obedience (Deut. 27:9-10; Psa. 143:10; Jer. 26:12-13; Matt. 7:21; 12:50; 1 Pet. 4:1-2). This obligation is fundamental to all our other obligations. The only reason we respect authorities other than God, for example, is that God has ordained them.

Further Reading

This lesson appears in Ed Rickard's Primer of the Christian Life: A Detailed Map of the Pilgrim's Road, designed to serve as the textbook for a yearlong course on basic Christianity. For further information, click here.