How Should Christians Think About and Relate to the Government?
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. - Romans 13:1-2, ESV
Sometimes a bit of perspective really helps. We can feel agitated by the inconveniences of our lives and the inefficiencies of our government, but at least we don't live in North Korea, right? We may be disappointed in our political leaders and feel like we can't respect our government officials, but Paul wrote Romans 13 to the church in Rome while Nero was the emperor and the Coliseum was in full gladiatorial glory. Nero would later behead Paul, have Peter and Andrew crucified (on an upside-down cross and on a X-shaped cross respectively), and make some Christians into human torches to light his garden parties.
Surely, Nero's antics put the worst of American politicians into perspective, but we might scratch our heads and wonder how Paul could have written today's passage under the rule of such a cruel tyrant. One excellent explanation, offered by John Piper and others, is that Paul is describing the good purpose God has for government. Just as God has good and right purposes for marriage, which not all marriages embody and fulfill, so God also has good and right purposes for governments, which not all governments embody and fulfill.
So, in the light of Romans 13, how should we think about government? Well, it seems clear that governments are appointed by God to protect those who do good and to punish those who do evil. Police officers and armies have weapons, which God has given them, so they can arrest and imprison criminals, defend and protect innocent people, and wage just wars against those who harm innocent people. This doesn't change the sad fact that many police officers abuse their power, many armies commit atrocious war crimes and many governments persecute those who do good. At those times, those governing authorities are not acting according to God's purpose for them.
How should we relate to government? We should respect and honor those in authority and we should obey their lawful commands. We should pray for them and seek to help them in their God-given calling. We should pay our taxes and support our government to the best of our ability.
However, all submission to human authority has limits. We should not obey unlawful commands of those in authority. If someone in authority asks me to harm an innocent person, I must refuse to do so, even if doing so costs me severely. (Like some nurses who have been fired for refusing to participate in abortions.) I must also speak the truth to those in power, encouraging them toward justice and righteousness.
The limits on human authority do not give me the right to ridicule, mock, insult or seek to undermine the lawful authority of those in power because I disagree with their political position or their policy decisions. Too many Christians are too quick to insult and disparage those in power, if we disagree with their politics. We can also be too slow to speak the truth to those in power, if we happen to agree with their politics, thinking that the ends justify the means.
Ultimately, our loyalty to earthly governments is one expression of our greater loyalty to God. Ultimately, King Jesus is our king, and we bow the knee in absolute obedience and reverence to Him alone!
I would be interested in your opinion of the Founding Father's. Were they in rebellion against this passage when they penned the Declaration and by force of arms overthrew the British govt.ReplyDelete
James, thank you for the excellent question!Delete
No, I do not think the American colonists were in rebellion against this passage when they declared independence. They were acting through their duly-elected representative bodies in response to repeated violations of their constitutional rights as English citizens. The principle that taxes must be approved by the elected, representative legislature was well established in English constitutional law. The colonists' rights to representation in taxation, their property rights, even their very right to have a representative legislature were repeatedly violated by the Parliament and the Crown. Many Presbyterian and Congregational pastors made compelling biblical cases for independence.
The more egregious case, in my opinion, is the secession of the Confederate States in 1860-61. They had no substantial grievance, no just cause for independence.
Thank you for your reply. It's heart warming to hear that position in this climate of historical revision and leaving God's word. I do ask you to do more research on the Confederacy. I realize victors write the history books and uncovering the truth requires some research. My forebears were the grandchildren of Revolutionary patriots. They were taught the principles of both Romans 13 and of our founding documents. While being opposed to secession there is nothing illegal about it if you understand the federal govt. as a voluntary compact of sovereign states. My forebears only took up arms to defend there native VA. when Lincoln called up 750,000 troops to go down and suppress the rebellion. Up to that point Va. was looking for any Avenue of peace. In this they were biblical justified and although there labors were not successful that was God's divine plan.Delete
I respectfully disagree on the confederacy. I have done research. My opinion is an informed one. Thank you for contributing to the discussion.Delete