On submitting to rulers

Feb 8, 2017 by

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During our current transition of political power I have heard a refrain that has been repeated during previous transitions of power: “Even if we don’t like who is president, we need to respect the office and submit to his authority.” I’ve also heard, again, the distinctly Christian version of this phrase: “God has ordained the person to take the office of president.” Along with this sentiment is almost always the idea that because of the office of the presidency, or because he was placed there by God, that we should then approve of, or support, or at least stay silent in the face of whatever that person does with his political power.

This sentiment continues to cause me to ponder what exactly it means to say that political leaders are “ordained by God” or what it means to “support” a president or other leader, or even what it means to “submit” to the government in general. As I ponder the implications for this in our modern-day political landscape, I also cannot help put look to the history of Anabaptism for insights into this conundrum.

What immediately comes to my mind is the writing of an early Anabaptist leader named Menno Simons. Perhaps you’ve heard of him. Back a few years ago when I was in seminary, I had the pleasure, or assignment, of reading a good chunk of Menno’s writings and discovered that he had a rather interesting view of the rulers of his day. On one hand Menno clearly states that magistrates (rulers) are placed there by God. In his “Reply to False Accusations,” Menno responds to accusation “…they say that we will not obey the magistracy” by saying, “We publicly and unequivocally confess that the office of a magistrate is ordained by God…” (Complete Writings of Menno Simons). There is a clear sense in which Menno not only viewed the office of government as necessary, but even saw the person in those positions as ordained by God.

What’s interesting, however, is that this did not stop Menno from criticizing those rulers or even breaking laws that he saw as contrary to God’s higher law. In fact, after the quote above, Menno’s next sentence is, “…we have obeyed them when not contrary to the Word of the Lord” (emphasis mine). Menno says that they are ordained by God, but then he goes on to say exactly what they are ordained to do.

“Secondly, you may understand from these Scriptures that you are called of God and ordained to your offices to punish the transgressors and protect the good; to judge rightly between a man and his fellows; to do justice to the widows and orphans, to the poor, despised stranger and pilgrim; to protect them against violence and tyranny; to rule cities and countries justly by a good policy and administration not contrary to God’s word, in peace and quiet, unto the benefit and profit of the common people, to rule well.”

Menno made several things clear. First, rulers are ordained by God, for very specific purposes as identified in Scripture, and to the extent that they do not fulfill those purposes they will incur the wrath of God either in this life or the next. What’s more, as Christians, we need not be silent in pointing this out. Second, followers of Jesus are called to allegiance to God’s kingdom above earthly kingdoms, and to the extent that the two do not conflict, we should follow the laws of earthly rulers. However, he says that those two kingdoms will inevitably conflict, and when they do, we must obey God’s laws over human laws.

All of this makes me wonder what Menno might say in our current political landscape. Yes, we should respect those who have been elected. We might even go so far as to say that they have been ordained by God to those positions. However, we must also be clear about the tasks to which those rulers have been ordained and we have every right and responsibility to hold them to account when they fail to fulfill those tasks. And what’s more, with our allegiance firmly grounded in the kingdom of God above the USA, we have an obligation to follow God’s laws when they inevitably conflict with the laws of our land.

Alan Stucky is the pastor of First Church of the Brethren in Wichita, Kan.


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