In the wake of the recent election, I have seen many Christians quote the biblical command to respect authority and pray for the leaders that God has placed over us. Two texts have been prominent in this admonition: Romans 13:1–3 and 1 Timothy 2:1–2. They read:
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 (Romans 13:1–3)
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. (1Timothy 2:1–2)
Quoting these texts is fine, and as the word of God, they are to be commended to the conscience of every Christian. However, to pretend that the bible says that the full extent of the Christian’s duty is prayer and submission would be a robust and dangerous misreading of the entire biblical witness.
There is an equally strong tradition in the New Testament of vocal and sustained critique of those in power. Consider John’s description of the Roman Empire in Revelation:
And on her forehead was written a name, a mystery: “Babylon the great, mother of whores and of earth’s abominations.” (Revelation 17:5)
He called out with a mighty voice, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! It has become a dwelling place of demons, a haunt of every foul spirit, a haunt of every foul and hateful bird, a haunt of every foul and hateful beast. For all the nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication, and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her, and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxury (Rev 18:2–3).
John was anything but quiet and submissive. He used vivid language to condemn the way of life he discerned therein. In particular, John found the immorality of the wealthy with its inevitable impact on the weak to be problematic. I fail to see how Revelation’s witness of public protest isn’t as important as 1 Tim 2 and Rom 13.
But John was not the only one who had some harsh words for leadership. So did Jesus:
At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. (Luke 13:31–32)
In the time of Jesus, foxes where known to display two qualities: crafty deceitfulness (black folk might call it being shady) and insignificance. Therefore we have Jesus himself publicly calling out the established authority for his immoral behavior. John the Baptist landed himself in prison for the same thing (Matt 14:1–3).
I could go on, but the point should be clear enough. Yes, Christians should pray for and respect those in authority. Nonetheless, when those in authority act in a manner that falls short of God’s will for the world, it is our duty to call that leadership to account. It is biblical. For the Christian, who has had harsh words for our President Elect, we have had them precisely because his words have made some wonder whether he will treat all people with the dignity they deserve. So yes we will pray for him. And If he shows repentance for his former actions, and charts a new path forward, we will commend him for his just deeds. If he does not mark out a path towards unity, we will do our duty as Christians in the public square.