Challenges to Humanity

God and Lesser Authorities: Who Should We Submit to, and When?

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Editor's Note

This article is part of a series called, “God and Lesser Authorities: The Who’s, When’s, Why’s, and How’s of Institutional Submission.”

It starts when we’re still in diapers: we want to do what we want to do. For instance, we don’t want to submit to our parents’ authority. We don’t want to go to bed on time, eat our vegetables, brush our teeth, or clean our rooms.

We all grow up, but we don’t grow out of our “cosmic authority problem.”[1] Even out of Pampers, we still don’t like being told what to do. We don’t like our parents telling us to minimize the time we spend playing video games or scrolling social media. We don’t like our coaches and teachers telling us to be on time or to stop talking.

And, even as adults, we don’t like being ordered to do things, such as paying our taxes or obeying the speed limit. Submission, especially for Americans, is a fighting word.

In this three-part series, we are going to explore the who’s, when’s, why’s, and how’s regarding God’s command for Christians submit to institutional authorities. In this, the first installment, we will look at the who and when of institutional submission.

Rebel Hearts

If you are familiar with St. Augustine’s The Confessions, you know he tells an interesting story about him and his friends breaking into an orchard to steal pears.[2] But he also tells the reader two interesting facts: he doesn’t like pears, and he wasn’t hungry. So, why did he steal the pears? Augustine says he found delight in doing what was forbidden.

I guess that shouldn’t surprise us: our first parents were rebels. Adam and Eve did the very thing they were forbidden to do because Satan told them they would be like God (Genesis 3:5). Unfortunately, we are all like our primal parents: We don’t want to do what God and lesser authorities tell us to do because we want to be in charge. We want to define good and evil for ourselves.

And yet Scripture calls Christians to glad submission, to willing obedience to God and lesser authorities. 1 Peter 2:13 says, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution.”


In the context of 1 Peter, “every human institution” includes the institutions of marriage (1 Peter 3:1-7), households (1 Peter 2:18-25), and the state or government (1 Peter 2:13-17). However, these institutions, which were especially relevant to Peter’s first audience, do not exhaust the list of institutions Christians are called to be subject to. Obviously, the institutional church would be another example of an institution Scripture calls us to be subject to (Hebrews 13:17). Every lawful institution, such as a school or a workplace, should also make the list.

In short, this passage tells us that we are to honor and obey the authorities in each of these spheres. Within the family sphere, children are to submit to their parents. Within the church, members are to submit to the elders. Within a school, students are to submit to the teachers and administration. And within the state, citizens are to be submissive to government officials.

So, being “subject to every institution” means to honor and obey the authorities of each institution within their jurisdiction.


But this verse doesn’t mean that each institution has unlimited authority (it’s impossible for there to be more than one highest authority). Rather, each institution has a limited jurisdiction. For example, school teachers can’t issue you a citation for speeding any more than the police can determine what questions are on your midterm. And neither the police nor the administration at your school determine your bedtime.

Of course, some institutions have authority across institutional lines. A parent has authority over their children, whether at home, school, or church. And while the state shouldn’t tell a pastor what to preach or a parent what to cook, the state does have the authority to enforce the law within other spheres. For instance, the police can arrest a physically abusive parent, teacher, or boss regardless of where the abuse occurs. The government’s charter is to order society and uphold justice—enforcing the law across institutional borders falls within its purview (Romans 13:4).

So, being “subject to every institution” means to honor and obey the authorities of each institution within their jurisdiction, so long as they do not require disobedience to the God who gives them their authority and to whom every individual and institution is ultimately accountable.

As we know, there is only one person who has authority everywhere and over everyone—God. Therefore, Christians do not have to obey an institution when it requires disobedience to God or acts outside the scope of its jurisdiction (e.g., a teacher can assign homework but not chores).

Indeed, civil disobedience is required if an institution compels a Christian to disobey God (Acts 5:29). We will explore how a Christian should or should not obey human institutions in the third installment of this series. For now, suffice it to say the Bible provides numerous examples of one’s allegiance to God rightfully surpassing one’s allegiance to family, employer, or state (Acts 5:29, Daniel 6:10). God commands our highest allegiance in every conceivable situation.

And yet we must be mindful that God is the one who commands us to be subject to institutional authorities: As Paul writes, “There is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1). Even pagan authorities, like Claudius, Nero, Darius, and Pontius Pilate, have been given their authority by God (John 19:11). So, barring a biblical exception, Christians are to obey the authorities God has placed over them in the various arenas in which they live and move and have their being.

Tune in to the next installment to learn why God calls us to be subject to every human institution.

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[1] Thomas Nagel, The Last Word (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 160.

[2] Confessions, Book II

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Jonathan Darville

Jono Darville is a former Global Master Trainer with The Center for Leadership Studies and Co-Leader of the New York branch of Models for Christ (an international non-profit bringing the gospel to the fashion industry). Due to a decade-plus long battle with chronic illness, Jono almost lost his life in 2017. After spending a number of years bed-bound, God graciously intervened in 2020, using UNC Hospital to restore Jono’s health. Jono is now finishing an M.A. in the Philosophy of Religion at SEBTS, while serving as a Ruling Elder and Youth Director at Peace Church in Cary, NC. He and his wife, Jillian, have one son, Jono Jr.

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