In church today, I heard a challenging message about honoring authority. By nature, I have a tendency to dislike authority. Outwardly, I have been raised to be respectful toward authority figures. But in my heart, I am often resentful and rebellious. I’ve been exposed to too many authority figures who have abused their power, and it has made me distrustful.
In church, we started with reading a Bible verse, Romans 13:1-2, which says: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”
Already, I started pumping the brakes. Wait, does this mean that God put Hitler in power? Osama Bin Laden? The Pharoah who enslaved the Israelites? What about the president of North Korea? These rulers have done evil things. Most people would call them evil people. Yet God put them in power?
Apparently, not only did God establish their positions of authority, but I am called to honor them. Honoring evil dictators is not something I can easily do, in my heart, or outwardly. I didn’t even know where to begin.
As a less dramatic example, I struggle with honoring President Trump. I didn’t vote for him, I would not have chosen him as the President, and I disagree with the attitudes he portrays, the words he says, and the actions he takes. I believe his actions are immortal, unloving, and against God. How am I to honor such a person?
Well, as usual, I started by researching. I read article after article about honoring the dishonorable, honoring authority while participating in civil disobedience, and the practical meaning of honoring people in general.
The best explanation I found goes something like this. Yes, God puts authority figures in power. No, God does not desire for those authority figures to do evil things, and he does not accept those evil actions. However, he has purposes and plans that we can’t always see or understand.
For whatever reason beyond me, God chose to put Hitler, and Bin Laden, and yes, Trump (sorry for the extreme juxtaposition), in power. We know that his plans are for the good, and that even when evil things are done, he has an eternal perspective and a plan for the good. All we can do is trust him in these situations.
So fine. I can accept that God arranged (not just allowed) President Trump to be elected, despite the immoral things he has said and done both before becoming president and during his presidency. But still, I struggle with honoring him.
Honoring means to hold in high esteem or to have great respect for someone. Respect means to feel a deep admiration for someone. Am I honestly being commanded to deeply admire and esteem President Trump? (Trump supporters can substitute President Obama).
Yes! And it’s not as impossible as it might sound.
We can do this by finding the fine line between our feelings and our choices. We can distinguish between honor and obedience, friendship, agreement, or enabling.
Let’s break this down.
I can honor a person’s position without submitting to their immorality. If the government passes a law that is contrary to God, I can still respect the government without obeying that immoral law. In fact, I am commanded to disobey that law and instead submit to God’s authority.
I can honor a person without enjoying their personality, or supporting the evil things they do.
I can honor a person without agreeing with them.
I can honor a person without enabling them to continue to do evil. I can honor an authority figure while still working respectfully and calmly to remove them from authority, or pursue justice for their evil actions, or affect change in how their authority is used.
So if I don’t have to blindly obey, enjoy, support, agree with, or enable a person to honor them, what do I have to do?
What does it actually mean, in practical terms, to honor somebody?
We can honor people by looking for things to respect. Even if 99% of the things a person says or does are not worthy of respect, we can look for the 1%. There is good in everybody, because we are all made in God’s image.
Which brings me to the next point. We are all made in God’s image, and we are all his creation. We can honor people by recognizing that they are God’s masterpiece.
We can honor people by remembering that God loves them. God loves them so much that he died for them. And if they have accepted Jesus, whether that shows on the outside or not, then they are also children of God, and our brothers and sisters in Christ. We are family. We are all loved by God.
We can honor people by viewing them through a lens of compassion. We are all imperfect and flawed. Yet God extends his grace to us, and we can also extend it to others.
We can honor the likelihood that most people are just doing their best. Sometimes, a person’s best falls far, far short of what we expect at a minimum. But still, most people want to be good people and do what they think is right. They are trying. Sometimes, what a person thinks is right is completely distorted and evil, but they don’t see it. They are blind. Whether they deserve it or not (and none of us do, really), we can honor them nonetheless.
My favorite way is this: we can honor people for their potential. Everybody has potential to be used by God. He has taken the dirtiest sinners and turned them around to do great things for his Kingdom. Nobody is too far gone for God to use for good. We can honor that potential in other people, no matter how much we despise the things they have done in the past and perhaps the things they are still doing.
When it comes to authority figures, from our parents to our bosses to police officers to our President, we can also simply honor the position. We may not know the person well (or like, or agree with them), but we do know that God put them in their position of authority, and we are called to honor that. (Of course, we are also called to use our influence to help bring godly people into positions of authority, and remove ungodly ones. We can still do that respectfully. And whether or not we succeed, we are called to pray for those in power, that God would use them for good.)
I think when we fully absorb this attitude of honor, we will reflect that in our hearts and in our words and actions.
Instead of saying that somebody is a bad person, I can say that they have done bad things. I can honor them as a person who God created, loves, and sees potential in. When I label a person as “bad” it leaves no room for change. When I label attitudes, words, and actions as bad, but still honor the person, I leave room for God to work.
I think that is the key to this command to honor those in authority, and those around us. We do our best to see God in each person, and in doing so, we leave room for him to work.