The Right Way to Respond to Authority

Authority, we have seen, is the right to decide or to take action. We have identified seven biblical authority-submission relationships that involve mankind, all of which have been contaminated by sin. Each of us is involved in more than one of these relationships. In some of them we exercise authority, and in some we must submit to the authority of others. We should learn how to do both in a manner that pleases God, for we are ultimately responsible to him.

Two kinds of submission

The biblical response to authority is biblical submission. Before we can learn how to exercise authority we must first learn how to submit. One is a child before he is a parent; he must be a follower before he can lead.

The two kinds of biblical submission are general submission and specific submission. General submission is the overall attitude of yielding to everyone, regardless of position, age, sex, intellect, or whatever. It means a willingness to give in to anyone and to serve anyone: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).

For me, one of the outstanding examples of someone with this general spirit of submission is Billy Graham. I remember a night years ago when he and several other Christian leaders were seated around a table, and various ones there were telling him how he ought to give the closing invitations at his crusade meetings. He is obviously gifted by God in this form of evangelism and had been doing it for a long time, while those who were giving him their opinions were not necessarily specialists in evangelism. I marveled at the graciousness and openness with which he listened to them and accepted their suggestions. I later worked with the Billy Graham team for seven years, and had opportunity on many occasions to observe his spirit of submissiveness and servanthood.

A relaxed assurance comes into the life of someone who has this kind of spirit. He doesn’t have to be defensive or combative, always trying to be right and have his own way. He can be open and relaxed. Blessed are the meek.

There is also specific submission: submitting in any of the particular authority-submission relationships we listed earlier, whether it’s to a husband, parents, an employer, the government, or spiritual leaders. In each of these, God’s order is for us to submit. He commands it and he expects it.

Submission means surrender

Submission simply means surrendering to the will or control of another, and this sometimes comes only after resistance or conflict. It doesn’t always come easily. If it were totally easy, what virtue would there be in submitting?

We must first of all surrender to the will of God. The problem with human beings is not our lack of information, but our rebellion. We substitute one authority with another-namely, our own in the place of God’s. We must therefore surrender-yielding and giving way to God’s will.

God expects this same kind of submission in the other relationships as well. Wives are to surrender to the will of their husbands. Children are to surrender to the will of their parents. Citizens must surrender to government authorities. Employees must surrender to their employers. Spiritual followers are to surrender to spiritual leaders.

Does this sound strong? Is it more than you can take? Does it make you feel frightened? Perhaps it does, but I am trying to emphasize that God says the right response to these authorities is submission, and submission means surrender.

Maybe you have a difficult situation now in your home or church or at work, and the very thought that you must surrender to someone raises your hackles. But you should understand clearly that you can’t squirm out of this. Even though it is difficult, are you willing to surrender, if God says to do it? If not, are you willing to be made willing? If so, we can go on to helpful and specific instructions in the Bible on how to submit to authority.

Our submission is for the Lord’s sake

In submission, Christ is to be preeminent in your attitude. That’s where you begin. “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority” (1 Peter 2:13); “Children, obey your parents in the Lord” (Ephesians 6:1); “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22). Howard Hendricks tells about being on a grounded passenger plane whose takeoff had been delayed for quite some time. As the passengers became more and more irritated, he noticed how particularly gracious one of the stewardesses was as she spoke with them. After the plane finally took off, he told the stewardess how amazed he was at her poise and self-control, and said he wanted to write a letter of commendation for her to the airline company. The stewardess replied that she didn’t work for the airline company, but for Jesus Christ. She said that just before going to work each time on another flight, she and her husband would pray together that she would be a good representative of Christ on her job for the airline.

Doing it for Christ’s sake adds another dimension to submission. You are submitting not just to your employer or husband or parent, but to the Lord, because of your love and gratitude for him. This will help you have a firm grasp of the sovereignty of God in your life.

Questions about submission to authority will concern you much less. You will think, As best as I understand it from the Bible, God tells me to submit to others in this situation. So I’ll submit, and I believe God is both willing and able to look out for me if I do what he says.

Submission in tough situations

In 1 Peter 2 and 3, the apostle Peter talks about three particularly tough situations involving our submission. The first has to do with government authorities, to whom Peter said we must show not only submission, but also respect and honor (1 Peter 2:13-17). This is striking because this letter may well have been written in Rome about the time of the Emperor Nero, who was a persecutor of Christians.

The second tough situation Peter addresses is that of slaves, whom he says should, submit to their masters “with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh” (1 Peter 2:18). I’ve read that there were fifty to sixty million slaves in the Roman Empire at this time, and for many of them with overbearing masters, their situations must have been extremely hard. But Peter says to them, “It is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God” (1 Peter 2:19). He says Christ is their example, who suffered even though he committed no sin.

Perhaps you are in a difficult situation now at work, and are looking for a way out. Maybe God wants you to get out of it, but maybe not. Think about it a second time. It could be he has something to teach you in that situation, and you need to be giving thanks for it instead of chafing under it. Ask God to use everything in that situation to help make you more like Christ.

When I first got the job I have now, I was feeling half-tired most of the time. I talked with a Christian psychologist about it, and after he listened to me for about twenty minutes, he said, “I think I know your problem. I think you’re a resentful person.”

I resented that remark very much. How could a man in twenty minutes be able to tell I was a resentful person? I said, “Tell me about it” He went on, “I think you are resentful of the men who work for you, because they don’t understand how big your job is and how busy you are. They come in to talk with you, and you can’t get to what you think you ought to be doing. You’re resentful of their intrusions. In fact,” he said, “you’re probably an irritable father at home. No wonder you walk around half-tired.”

He was right. When we give thanks for the situation we’re in instead of chafing under it, we won’t be under as much strain. This kind of attitude is part of the spirit of submission Peter is teaching.

The third tough situation he talks about is that of Christian wives with unbelieving husbands. He tells them to be submissive to their husbands so that “they may be won over without talk by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives” (1 Peter 3:1-2). Peter reminds them of the example of “the holy women of the past who put their hope in God” (1 Peter 3:5). A woman in this situation can submit to her husband confidently, knowing that God can and will take care of her.

I’ve had a number of opportunities to tell wives about this passage. I recall one instance when a woman said she just couldn’t get her-husband to come to church, even though she kept after him about it. So I showed her this passage, and said, “The first thing is to quit keeping after him to come to church. And don’t preach to him. Don’t pester him. Do what it says here, and in time his hostilities and prejudices will be worn down, and he’ll come to Christ.” She did this, and her husband eventually did come to Christ.

Giving your concerns to God

I would like to pass on to you something that has helped me a great deal in tough situations like those Peter described. Maybe you know the feeling sometimes of looking around you and seeing everything falling in. It seems as if seven or eight major things are going wrong: problems at work, problems at home, problems with your relatives-problems on every side.

In times like this I used to think that if I had a week to get off by a quiet stream somewhere in the mountains of Colorado, I could get my thoughts about all this straightened out. And if I couldn’t get a week, I could do it in a weekend. But maybe I couldn’t get the weekend either, so I thought if I just had one day to myself somewhere I could think everything through. But maybe I couldn’t get even a day.

Well, it’s amazing what you can do in sixty minutes. I have a place up in the rocks not far from where I work where I go when I really need to meet God, such as when several major problems are weighing me down. It doesn’t take much time, and I only go there when I really mean business. I have a few key Scriptures I meditate on, and then I take each of those major problems and give them to the Lord one by one. I pray, “Lord, I give this situation to you, and I believe you can straighten it out and handle it all by yourself.” Then I pray about the second one in the same way, and so on.

Finally I pray, “Lord I resubmit myself to you. I surrender. I’m your servant. And if you want me to do anything about any of these situations I’ve just turned over to you, all I ask is that you would prompt me to do it. And whatever you prompt me to do by your Spirit, I’ll do.”

Sometimes after praying this, an idea will come to mind right then concerning something I should do about one or two of those problems. Or maybe an idea will come as I’m walking back to the car, or on the next day. Out of seven or eight situations I prayed about, the Lord may prompt me to do something about only two or three. I know I should respond in these areas, and leave the other situations to him. He is well able to handle the rest by himself.

The right attitude

From 1 Peter 2 and 3 we learn to be submissive not only for the Lord’s sake and in tough situations, but also with the right attitude. We are to submit with a disarming, Christlike, winning spirit.

This attitude is disarming, as we see in 1 Peter 2:15—”It is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men.” We often think that submission is a mark of weakness but biblical submission is powerful in the way it overcomes evil.

Such an attitude is also Christlike, because it reflects his willingness to suffer which we see in 1 Peter 2:21-23.

This was also the spirit of the early church. In Acts 5:41 we read that the apostles were “rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.”

I don’t like pain of any kind, and neither do most of us. But if you know any Christian being greatly used by God, and know him well, you will find that he bears a cross of some kind, perhaps secretly. It may be poor health, or a handicapped child, or a persistent human adversary, or an irresolvable problem. In some way he carries a nagging cross, a thorn in his flesh.

There’s a Cross at the center of the universe, and Jesus said his disciples must take up their cross daily and follow him. Jesus took upon himself that which was not his own: our sins, our griefs, our sorrows. He suffered, and left us an example.

It has been said that if you are suffering without succeeding, it is so that someone may succeed after you. And if you are succeeding without suffering, It’s because someone has suffered before you. Somebody always pays. There’s always a price. God’s way is the way of the cross.

The issue of submission has been distorted by man’s self-centeredness, but our supreme example will always be Jesus Christ. We should always go back to his example as our guide.

Finally, the spirit of submission is also winning, as we see in the example of Christian wives submitting to unbelieving husbands. The reason for this submission, Peter says, is that the husbands may be “won over” by their wives’ behavior.

Biblical submission is disarming, Christlike, and powerful.

The wrong exercise of authority should be respectfully resisted

What should we do when someone over us exercises authority illegitimately? The Bible teaches us that the illegitimate exercise of authority should be respectfully resisted. For example, in 1 Peter 5:9, Peter tells us to resist the devil. James says the same thing in James 4:7. Satan should be resisted because he has exceeded the bounds of his authority. He exercises authority illegitimately. We are to resist him, and then he will flee from us. Should this be done respectfully? Apparently so, for we read in Jude 9 thateven the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not dare to bring a slanderous accusation against him, but said, “The Lord rebuke you!”

Without a doubt respectful resistance is the rule for dealing with human beings who have extended their authority too far. We find an example in Acts 4:18-20. After Peter and John had been commanded by the Jewish rulers not to speak or teach in the name of Jesus, they replied,

Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.

They firmly resisted this abuse of authority, but we can detect the respectful tone in their words.

The great solution
Since self-centeredness is the great problem, self-surrender is the great solution. Within the system of authority which God has setup, may he help us respond this way in biblical submission-in our homes, in our churches, and in our work.

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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