Questions From Readers
● What is the Scriptural thing to do when a Christian is expected to stand or bow before a judge or ruler or to use some exalted form of address for such a person?—H. A., Africa.
Christians are encouraged by God to show respect for civil rulers or persons of authority. In regard to such superior authorities, the apostle Paul wrote under inspiration: “Render to all their dues, . . . to him who calls for fear, such fear; to him who calls for honor, such honor.” (Rom. 13:1, 7) Paul also wrote that intercession could be made “concerning kings and all those who are in high station.” (1 Tim. 2:1, 2) The customary way in which this honor and respect are expected to be rendered varies from place to place. It might include bowing to the ruler, prostrating oneself on the ground before him, rising when he enters the room or using some special form of address. In such cases, the Christian is called upon by local custom to show respect for the man’s official position, his office.
There is Biblical precedent for showing a degree of respect by assuming some special posture. Jacob bowed seven times on meeting Esau. (Gen. 33:3) The patriarch Abraham bowed down to the pagan natives of Canaanland, the sons of Heth. (Gen. 23:7, 12) When Jesus was on earth, he, as Jehovah’s King-designate, allowed persons to do obeisance to him. (Matt. 8:2; 9:18) Since these actions did not involve actual worship of a human, they were permitted as demonstrations of respect.—Ex. 34:14; Matt. 4:10.
There are also Biblical examples showing how honor for persons in authority was rendered orally. Paul referred to the Roman governor Festus as “Your Excellency Festus.” (Acts 26:25) Both God’s servants and pagans used expressions such as, ‘Let the king live to time indefinite,’ indicating the desire that the ruler have a long life.—1 Ki. 1:31; Dan. 3:9.
However, this matter of rendering honor to human authorities has limitations. Christians must remember that Jehovah alone deserves one’s worship. (Ex. 20:3-5; Ps. 100:3) A law that Jehovah has long stressed is that worship must not be given to created things, including humans, for that would be idolatry. Paul and Barnabas knew this, so when the men of Lystra started treating them as gods, they implored: “Why are you doing these things? We also are humans having the same infirmities as you do.” (Acts 14:11-15) When prostrating oneself before a human is done in an attitude of worship, it is wrong! Hence, when Cornelius did such a thing, Peter would not permit it, saying: “Rise; I myself am also a man.” (Acts 10:25, 26) It would be wrong to perform worshipful acts even to an angel, as was pointed out to John when he was overcome by emotion and was about to lose his spiritual balance and worship an angel.—Rev. 19:10; 22:8, 9.
These examples need to be borne in mind when it comes to giving honor to a tribal chief, judge or civil authority. Scripturally it would be wrong to ascribe to such humans the powers of a god. (Acts 12:22, 23) As for any particular case, the ones involved must decide whether customary respect for the office of one in authority is being requested, or whether the words and deeds expected amount to religious worship or violate the injunction: “Flee from idolatry.” (1 Cor. 10:14) If a ruler is not even present and words or acts of adulation for him are required when only his picture is displayed or in greeting other persons, that would be an idolizing of him.—1 John 5:21.
The course of the early Christians is of interest in this regard. As we have already seen, Paul showed proper honor to Festus. Also, even though the ruling Caesar was by no means living according to Christian principles (having by that time murdered relatives, including his mother, and become notoriously immoral), Paul respected his office and appealed to “Caesar.”—Acts 25:10-12.
Was this respect typical of Christians then? Yes! The book The Early Church and the World says: “When they were brought on trial, they usually pleaded their cause with courtesy and deference to their judges.” Then commenting about men who in the second century wrote in defense of Christianity, it observes: “Their language is courteous; they observe the rules of official etiquette in giving the Emperors their full honorary titles, and they add complimentary expressions.”—Pp. 108, 109, 258, 259.
But does that mean that the early Christians could do everything they were expected to do in honoring civil officials? Could they, for example, call the emperor their Leader, Savior or God? Could they offer incense in his behalf? No, there was a limit as to how far they could go. We are told: “The normal expression of loyalty, alike to the emperor and to the imperial City, was to burn incense to his genius and to the genius of Rome. The Christian held that such action was to offer worship to gods or divinities that he did not recognize.”* What would the Christians do when called upon to sacrifice to the emperor, crossing the line, so to speak, from respect to religious worship? History answers: “Christians refused to . . . sacrifice to the emperor’s genius. . . . It was also carefully explained to [the Christian] that he was not worshiping the emperor; merely acknowledging the divine character of the emperor as head of the Roman state. Still, almost no Christians availed themselves of the chance to escape.”*
So the early Christians refused to ascribe to a human ruler the powers of a god or to perform religious acts of worship toward a civil authority, but they were willing to show proper honor. Yet, in some aspects of this matter conscience comes into play. Even when it is recognized that bowing to a ruler is just a common local form of respect for his position and not an act of worship, some Christians might decline participation. Or some might feel compelled to avoid using certain customary expressions of honor in regard to a specific ruler because of his actions, yet still striving to be peaceful, law-abiding citizens. The respect that others have for their fine conduct, and their own tact, might enable the Christians to follow the dictates of their conscience without interference. (Acts 24:16) But if not, then they would have to be willing to accept the consequences of their decision.—1 Pet. 2:19.
One final point that deserves brief comment in this context is the importance of the Scriptural position of neutrality. Sometimes individuals who could conscientiously make an oral expression of respect for a civil authority are urged to join in shouting political slogans or in singing patriotic songs. To do so would amount to taking sides in the political affairs of the nations. Could a Christian do that, since Jesus said that true worshipers “are no part of the world, just as I am no part of the world”? (John 17:16) If one refused to share in such activities he might receive opposition temporarily, but the apostle Peter counseled: “It is better to suffer because you are doing good, if the will of God wishes it, than because you are doing evil.”—1 Pet. 3:17.
In all these matters Christians want to think first about maintaining acceptable worship and God’s approval. Guiding their lives so as to do this will work to their everlasting good, as it did for Jesus, who said: “In the world you will have tribulation, but take courage! I have conquered the world.”—John 16:33.
The Rise of Christianity, Ernest William Barnes, pp. 300, 333.
Those About to Die, Daniel P. Mannix, pp. 135, 137.