Are Unbelievers Subject to the Authority of Christ?
On account of Jesus life, death, resurrection, and ascension, God the Father gave Him all authority in heaven and on earth, and He now rules as Lord (Matthew 28:18-20, Acts 2:36). By confessing that Jesus is the Son of God Christians voluntarily declare their allegiance to Jesus and thus fealty to His authority and the standard of conduct set forth by Jesus through His Apostles as recorded in the New Testament (Romans 6:16-23, James 4:17). Yet are unbelievers subject to the authority of Christ and therefore amenable to His standard of teaching and conduct? Will they be held responsible for their conduct before they came to an understanding of Jesus’ lordship or if they never hear of Jesus and the good news of His life, death, and resurrection?
This question stems from the understandable assumption that people are only responsible for what they know or understand; it is easy to feel that it is unfair for someone to be held accountable to a standard regarding which they were ignorant or unaware. Such is why Paul, when declaring that God’s wrath will be displayed against all who practice ungodliness and hinder righteousness, makes it clear that no one will have this excuse: all should have known about God because He made His existence and nature clear in the creation (Romans 1:18-20). The pagans are condemned because they rejected God and made “gods” in human and natural forms, giving the honor due the Creator to the creation (Romans 1:21-25). In Romans 2:12-16 Paul affirms that those who sin outside of the Law of Moses would perish outside of that Law, but there would be some who demonstrated that God’s law was written on their heart, sought to live according to it, and would be excused on the day of judgment. Paul makes it clear that even if people have not heard the Gospel they still have been given enough understanding from the creation and the “moral law” written on man’s conscience to seek God and will be held accountable for their behavior.
We do well to note how both Peter and Paul, when preaching to Gentiles, emphasize the coming day of judgment as encouragement and exhortation to repentance (Acts 10:42, 17:31). In Romans 2:6-11 Paul declares that God will render to each according to his work on the judgment day, whether good or evil, regardless of ethnic status, since God shows no partiality! The New Testament does not leave us in doubt when it comes to the standard by which all people who are presently alive will be judged: the words which Jesus has spoken, the Gospel of Christ (John 12:48, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9).
Jesus’ lordship is not limited to those who voluntarily submit to Him; the Bible confesses that He has been given all authority so that every knee will bow before Him (Matthew 28:18-20, Philippians 2:9-11). Demons declare Jesus’ power and shudder (Matthew 8:28-29, James 2:19). Jesus’ lordship explains the imperative to evangelize: the good news of Jesus’ authority must be declared around the world so that all may voluntarily submit to His excellent rule before it is too late (Mark 16:15)! Since Jesus is Lord of all and will judge the world in righteousness, it is evident that unbelievers are as amenable to the authority of Christ as are believers.
The question of whether unbelievers are amenable to the authority of Christ or not is raised particularly in discussions of the marriage and divorce of an unbeliever: since the unbeliever did not submit to the authority of Christ, was he ever really “married” to his “first wife”? Does God join in marriage two people who do not recognize His authority? As we have seen above, even if an unbeliever does not willingly submit to the authority of Christ, he will be judged on the final day based on the standard of righteousness embodied in Christ (John 12:48, Acts 17:30-31, Romans 2:6-11, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9). When Jesus speaks about God’s intentions for marriage He does so in terms of how God made man and woman from the beginning for the two to become one flesh (Matthew 19:3-6); the impulses to marry and to honor marriage are part of that moral law written on the heart, as demonstrated by the existence of the institution across culture and time (Romans 2:12-16). In 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 Paul first declares that “adulterers” will not inherit the Kingdom of God, and then how some of the Corinthians had formerly been in that condition before they converted and were cleansed in Christ: adultery demands that at least one of the persons in the affair is presently married to another, and such demonstrates that Paul indeed considered the Corinthians to have been actually married to their spouses even though their marriages took place before they recognized the sovereignty of God in Christ!
Matthew 19:6 is not limited to believers; God joins in marriage a man and a woman who both have the right to be married to one another, whether believers or unbelievers. If the husband or wife is not a believer, their unbelief does not nullify the reality of the marriage (1 Corinthians 7:12-13). Since unbelievers are subject to the authority of Christ, they are amenable to the same standard of marriage as believers as set forth in Matthew 19:3-9: whosoever divorces their spouse and would marry another commits adultery unless the divorce is on account of the sexually deviant behavior of the offending spouse. Let us affirm that God shows no partiality and that all remain accountable to the authority of Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry