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Authorities are there to protect us and look after us. The authorities are run by greedy and power hungry tyrants. How do we reconcile these two views?
In churches today we see people with either of these two views regularly at odds with each other.
What does Scripture teach us about government? Can it give us any guidance on how we should act?
Here are some thoughts on Christians and government:
- Christ is King and has a Kingdom
This might seem self explanatory but many Christians seem to forget one of the main reasons Christ was killed and why Christians have been persecuted is because they claim Christ is King. His rule far exceeds that of the temporary reign of tyrants.
From early on in His ministry as for example in Mark 1:15 Jesus would preach “repent for the kingdom of God is at hand”. A kingdom which drives repentance, a change of mind, a change of path.
Moreover, in Mark 14:61–64 Jesus is charged with blasphemy for calling Himself the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power. If we have a look at Daniel 7 where this Son of Man term appears we will note that the Son of Man is someone who has co-rulership with God the Father and has a kingdom, dominion and glory. Jesus claim to kingship does not sit well with the worldly authorities who mock him inscribing “King of the Jews” on His cross in Mark 15:26.
In the Magnificat, Mary while praising God for the things which will be accomplished through Christ speaks of how God has “brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble state” (Luke 1:52).
Peter in Acts 4:12, during an era where salvation and peace was said to come through Caesar and the Pax Romana or peace of Rome he brought about, goes directly against the worldly view of salvation and says there is no other name under heaven other than Christ by which men can be saved. Here Peter is very controversially saying true peace does not come from delusional tyrants but through Christ. He is completely overthrowing the common concept at the time.
Peter continues this view of Christ being a higher authority than worldly kings in Acts 5:29, claiming we must obey God rather than men. Thus, Jesus being King is not a popular idea with worldly authorities. Christ exalts the humble and humbles the proud. We should not think the message of Christ will be a popular one with power hungry worldly authorities and should therefore be careful of blindly trusting authority.
2. Scripture warns of the nature of humans
Scripture is by no means naive about the nature of man and by implication governments. Isaiah 1:5 teaches the whole head is sick, Jeremiah 17:9 describes the human heart as deceitful above all, Jude 19 reminds us man is devoid of the Spirit, Paul emphasises in 1 Corinthians 2:8 that the rulers of this age crucified Christ and in 2 Timothy 2:26 that without Christ we are ensnared by the devil to do his will. When Jesus clashed with the religious authorities of his day, He told them they are liars and children of the devil the father of lies in John 8:44. 1 John 2:16 claims the world is comprised of the desires of the flesh or lust the desires of the eyes or greed and the pride of life or pride. This means greed for power and money, lust and pride explain much of what we see in the world.
From this we can see Scripture does not take a blind view of the nature of man. Deceit, greed, pride, hunger for power and lust drive much of human behaviour. By implication, we can expect much the same of people who rule in society.
3. Scripture warns of demonic entities behind governments
This is something we see in both the Old and New Testament. In Daniel 7 and 8 we see apocalyptic images of terrifying creatures providing spiritual representations of the nature of governments. The Leviathan sea monster is used to describe other governments in Scripture.
The Assyrians for example in Isaiah 27:1 and the Egyptians in Psalm 74:14.
Using terrifying animals to describe government rule continues in the New Testament in the book of Revelation. In Revelation 12, Satan is described as a dragon, another terrifying creature, who realises his time is short and in Revelation 13 uses a beast representative of government rule to make war with the saints.
Given Satan is the father of lies it is no surprise this beast is at its core a deceiver. Twisting truths and presenting lies as truths.
4. Scripture urges us to submit to governing authorities but with context
Legality and morality are two different things. Just because something is moral does not mean it is legal and just because something is legal does not mean it is moral. Two passages to consider on this include Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2.
Romans 13:1 urges us to submit to the governing authorities, verse 2 explains how God appoints worldly rulers and verse 3 expands on the context a bit more.
It reads, “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval.”
Verse 5 adds that in these instances submitting to the governing authorities is also in line with conscience.
Hence, if the government is being a terror to good conduct, punishing good and rewarding evil as well as going against your Spirit given conscience- that would be a context where this command does not apply. Rules based off lies, greed and excessive thirst for power would unlikely fall under this category. Pay your taxes to Caesar but realise he can overreach in his role.
1 Peter 2:13–15 makes a similar point.
“Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.”
There we see it again- submit so long as you are doing good and the ruler is punishing evil and rewarding good. This shows us the importance of reading these verses in context.
One only has to read the book of Acts to see how much the governing authorities hated truth and sought to punish, torture and execute Christians. What did the governing authorities do to our Lord when he was on the earth? They killed him.
In the words of Soren Kierkegaard,
“Christ was crucified because he would have nothing to do with the crowd (even though he addressed himself to all). He did not want to form a party, an interest group, or a mass movement, but wanted to be what he was, the truth, which is related to the single individual. Therefore everyone who will genuinely serve the truth is by that very fact a martyr. To win a crowd is no art; for that only untruth is needed, nonsense, and a little knowledge of human passions. But no witness to the truth dares to get involved with the crowd.”
Alexander Solzhenitsyn who survived a Soviet hard labour camp, under which he saw his whole society was enslaved by a big lie, urges us,
“The simple act of an ordinary brave man is not to participate in lies, not to support false actions! His rule: Let that come into the world, let it even reign supreme — only not through me. But it is within the power of writers and artists to do much more: to defeat the lie! For in the struggle with lies art has always triumphed and shall always triumph! Visibly, irrefutably for all! Lies can prevail against much in this world, but never against art.”
Let’s bring all this together. We need to respect government rule and submit to the authorities in instances where they reward good and punish evil. We should not however be ignorant of human sin and fallenness as well as the history of demonic forces working through governments to propagate deception. Our role is to serve Christ and live in accordance with the truth, understanding at times this will be rewarded and at other times punished. This should not, however, deter us from our role.
1 Peter 5:6–8 is a fitting way to close this discussion. This is only 3 chapters after the passage we recently looked at about submitting to the governing authorities. Many Christians are experiencing persecution at the hands of the Romans at the time of Peter’s writing yet are still urged to be respectful and submissive in matters where the government punishes evil and rewards good. They feel attacked by the government from all sides and are plagued with anxiety over what the government may do next. In chapter 4, verses 12–19 Peter speaks of the fiery trials some in the congregation are experiencing, being insulted for living by truth and the name of Christ.
Then we come to this section in chapter 5, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. Be sober minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”
There are 3 key instructions here. First, be humble, you might be cast out in the world, oppressed by governments but don’t seek worldly exaltation. Humbly fulfil your role in service to Christ. Humbly submit to the governments in areas where they are punishing evil and rewarding good. In areas where they don’t and punish good and reward evil, do not live by lies but humbly live in service to Christ.
Second, be prayerful casting your anxieties on God who cares. In a world where governments may seem to live by lies, it is fine to feel anxious. Know there is somewhere to turn with this anxiety.
Third, be watchful. Satan the father of lies is crafty. He will always be looking for an opportunity for you to stumble. Whether it be through the force of government oppression or in a more subtle manner by enticing you to sin and adopt a worldly lifestyle.
Humility, prayerfulness, watchfulness. Through the power of God this is how we need to respond to governments.