The Church and the State1
Paul’s exhortation to Titus in 3:1-2 reads as follows: “Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.” His words to Titus in 3:1 “to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient” can lead to many questions. Do these words stem from nationalistic zeal? Does Paul propose blind obedience to government? Cannot civil disobedience lead to increased liberty? These are good questions that need a reasonable answer, especially in times when the relationship between the Church and the state assume increased tensions when topics like same-sex marriage and Planned Parenthood garner national headlines. Based on my study of this text and other similar passages, my answer is as follows: Paul’s instructions to submit and be obedient to the state is primarily a concern of public gospel witness, not an affirmation of authority maintained in lieu of God’s Word. Now let me support this idea with some technical and practical defense.
The word that Paul uses for “to obey/be obedient” seems to be used to communicate the intended goal of the action that preceded it (i.e. “to be subject/submissive”). This logically makes sense if we understand “to be ready for every good work” is a phrase that signals the verbs preceding it are intended to ultimately result in such a state of readiness. Therefore, we would translate the line in the following manner: “to be subject to ruling authorities in order to be obedient so as to be ready for every good work.” I believe this most accurately follows Paul’s trajectory. I find that Paul's argument indicates that if the end goal is to do good works, then you must live peaceably to prevent disrupting gospel progress.
Scholars agree that Titus 3:1 is speaking against the character of the Cretans in their insubordination shown in Titus 1:10 and 1:16. Some indicate that Paul is primarily concerned with maintaining a distinguishable identity from the present culture. The inclusion of the command “remind them” indicates that subordination to secular authority was discussed before at some juncture. But what about when authorities become tyrannical? It is likely that Paul wishes to curb any thought that spiritual freedom through Christ begets absolute civil freedom—allegiance to God and to the state don’t necessarily have to be at odds. Paul would most certainly not be one to promote pagan worship. Furthermore, there is evidence that suggests that emperor worship might not have been widespread in Paul’s day, otherwise he would have surely provided a caveat for such practice.
God ordained the state, so should we blindly obey? No. However, if Christians stir up all sorts of anarchy then what they might be implicitly communicating is that there is no order in God’s realm. Paul does not seem to put boundaries upon this theme here or in places like Romans 13. Living in peace is the driving force in Titus 3:1-2, something he discussed in 1 Timothy 2:1-2. Living peaceably requires public expressions of subordination (“obedience” in this sense refers to action while “submissiveness/subjection” refers to attitude). However, I believe that this does not necessarily constitute a subservient relationship to the state for Christians. We get a picture of “submitting” at the hands of authorities when saints’ faithfulness came in direct opposition to them in Revelation 6:9-11 and 12:10-11. Paul recognizes God’s ordination of the state and that our allegiance should be filtered through a primal duty to God. When those rub against each other, we must refuse the will of the state and be subject to and obey God. This is Acts: 5:29 at its core. Let me be clear: maintaining peace with the state is crucial, but when the state’s unjust rule attempts to curb the spread of the gospel then, with the evidence provided by the whole counsel of God, I believe it holds true that Paul’s instructions to submit and be obedient to the state is primarily a concern of public gospel witness, not an affirmation of authority maintained in lieu of God’s word.
We might think the “Christ against culture” paradigm that is often spoken of in such cultural discussions would call us to lawlessly fight against subordination to unruly authorities, but what Paul seems to indicate in Titus 3:1-2 is that it is rather a paradigm of public expression of the gospel, like exemplary citizenship (not nationalistic zeal or blind obedience), that subverts the culture to advance God’s kingdom. Our subjection to authorities is for the purpose of obedience so as to result in good works. And yet, that does not and should never hinder us Christians from the necessary role we play in our culture of defending the work of King Jesus from those opposed to him.