It’s easy to get cynical about government and politics. Read the papers, watch TV and you see how bad things are. Everywhere. The British rockers, The Who, sang, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss,” which, in its own way rephrased Lord Acton’s dictum, “Power corrupts; and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Or, there’s the old joke, “I’m from the government. I’m here to help.”
Really? Help? Bashar al-Assad drops barrel bombs on people as he clings to power in Syria. Nouri al-Maliki openly favors his own branch of Islam, the Shiites, over the Sunnis, and has spent his time as prime minister of Iraq creating sectarian division instead of building a nation. Vladimir Putin meddles in Ukrainian affairs as he attempts to rebuild Mother Russia. The Chinese government continues its one-child policy, bulldozes churches, and arrests Christians. All in our enlightened twenty-first century. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. They’re here to help.
Even in America, an exception to the general rule of chaos, tyranny, and disorder in history – at least for the moment – we have issues. Republicans and Democrats can’t pause their politicking for power long enough to do much helpful governing. They just want to win the next election, or, in a moment of candor, the next news cycle. We continue to murder babies in Planned Parenthood centers and “medical” clinics, violating the Hippocratic Oath to do no harm under the guise of Roe vs. Wade legality. The divide between rich and poor worsens. Even with all the charity of individuals and government welfare, poverty surrounds us.
That’s just modern day, “ripped from the headlines,” stuff. Think of Hitler and Stalin. Think of America’s “original sins”: the near genocide of Native Americans and the near-suicidal battle to defend slavery in the nineteenth century that caused a civil war as we boasted that “all men are created equal,” while, in Orwell’s words, we really meant that some are more equal than others.
Keep searching history and you’ll find more. You can even find it in the Bible. Read Daniel and Revelation, especially Daniel 2, 7, 10, 11, and 12, and Revelation 6, 12, 13, 17, 18, 19, and 20.
The Holy Spirit showed these prophets downright scary visions of government. They define power corrupting. Daniel sees wild animals, fearful and fearsome, iron toothed beasts that destroy one another and attack the saints of God, the Christian Church. In Daniel 11 he describes a time of nearly unending, back and forth war, a picture of events a couple hundred years before Jesus birth that foreshadow the back and forth struggle in the last times.
In Revelation, John sees the devil attack the church. Satan tries to swallow Christ; then tries to eat the Church. When that fails, he watches as his allies emerge from the sea and from the earth. The one from the sea represents earthly governments. This beast blasphemes God and was “given power to make war against the saints and conquer them. And he was given authority over every tribe, people, language and nation.”
And God has the gall to say, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.” “He who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God instituted.” “Rulers hold no terror for those who do right.” “He is God’s servant to do you good.” It makes us cry out, “Are you kidding? Have you seen what your governments have done?”
It puzzles us, doesn't it? God establishes authority. Any authority that exists comes from God. He is the highest power, God the Father Almighty, as we pray. He delegates some of his authority to human agents. And he gives us Hitler, Stalin, Assad, Mao Tse-tung, atheistic Communism, government approved abortion?
Yes. And no. Remember, sinful man abuses God’s gifts. God gives us marriage. He instituted it. Look what we do: widespread divorce, overwhelming numbers of couples simply cohabitating, gay “marriage.” Likewise, God instituted the family and gave authority to Mom’s and Dad’s in the fourth commandment. Look at what we’ve done with that: child abuse, deadbeat dads, parents with completely mixed up priorities. God gave us brains and we came up with evolution, white supremacy, and crack cocaine. Something about babies and bath water comes to mind.
I’m not trivializing the evil that governments, authorities, and leaders do, often cloaked in “divine right,” or “God’s will.” Murder is murder. Corruption is corruption. We call spades a spade. Habakkuk did that once. Read his prophecies. He looked around at his country and saw bad leaders and corrupt government. He prayed to God, “How long? Won’t you save us from this?” And God said, “Yes, I will. I’m going to send the Babylonians.” And Habakkuk said, “Hey! Whoa! Hold on! Beep, beep, back the Babylonian truck up! The Babylonians? They’re worse than our guys!” And God says, “Yes, I know. I’ll send someone to punish them too.”
Hitlers and Stalins, slavery and genocide, abortions and gay marriage do not please God. He punishes such “leadership” and “authority.” Perhaps it’s as simple as not getting re-elected. Sometimes it’s a devastating war toppling you from power. Wicked governments bring doom upon themselves.
Yet God still says, “Submit. Obey. Honor. Serve. Support.” He says that those who oppose, resist and battle against governments are in the wrong. He says those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. We must hear this word. What does it mean to oppose, resist, rebel, battle against? Is it voting against a candidate you don’t like? Campaigning against someone? Expressing disagreement with a policy, an initiative, or a regime?
Think of homes and classrooms. It’s easy to see what resistance and hostility is then. The child who sits for an hour in her chair, holding a carrot in her mouth, but not chewing or swallowing. That’s resisting. The student who refuses to be silent or do the work assigned the way it was assigned. That’s rebelling. That’s setting up an authority over against the legitimate authority. The parent or teacher will – must – discipline those children, right? And we wouldn’t bat an eye. They reap what they’ve sown.
Why? They set themselves up as a rival authority; and you don’t get to do that. At home, Mom and Dad rule. In the classroom, the teacher. In the state, however it’s designed, it’s the government, however it exists. God gives authority. We obey authority, because God gave authority to serve us, for our good.
There’s a word for authorities. We could paraphrase Jesus’ words about the Sabbath from this Romans text. Jesus said, “Man does not exist for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for man.” That is, the Sabbath helps man, it doesn’t run our lives. Likewise, “Man doesn’t exist for the government, government exists for man.”
It is not for leaders to dominate and tyrannize their people. Government doesn’t exist for the lining of pockets or to turn a people into pawns. Government exists to terrify wrongdoers, to punish them, to reward “good” and to provide peace and quiet. If governments aren’t doing that, then they need to repent and return to the first principles God gave them when he put them in charge. In other words, governments ought to fear the sword too.
What a tension then, for the Christian. Paul says, “It is necessary to submit to the authorities.” We bow to the inevitable, as we do with parents and teachers. We don’t kick against the goads. We don’t question every order. Yet, God doesn’t call us to be goose-stepping morons, either.
It comes down, as so many things do, to the Lord’s Prayer. Think of the petitions we pray: “Your will be done,” “Give us this day our daily bread,” “Lead us not into temptation,” “deliver us from evil.” In those prayers we acknowledge that in submitting to authority we don’t break the first commandment. We don’t put all our trust in princes. We put all our trust in God. Even when it looks like God gives us no reason to trust in him.
The greater context of Romans 13 teaches us well. In chapter 12 Paul reminds us, “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought.” So often our thoughts on government and authority cause us to do this. We have all the answers. Only we understand history. But we don’t have all the answers. We don’t get all of history. At the end of Romans 11, Paul sang, “Oh the depth of the riches of the wisdom and the knowledge of God. How unsearchable his judgments and his paths beyond tracing out! Who has known the mind of the Lord, who has been his counselor?” You haven’t. You don’t. And neither do I.
So we listen to the God who says, “I established authority. I give governments.” The God who says, as he does in Romans 12, “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.” The God who says, “I didn’t spare my Son. I gave him up to an unjust government in an unjust world, to make you just and right and good, holy even! Sinless.” And so, as Paul said in Romans 8, nothing, not even the best or worst government can separate you from that, from the love of God that is in Christ, the Christ who didn’t just die, but who rose, who sits at God’s right hand and intercedes – for you! The Christ who doesn’t content himself with giving you daily bread through governments, but gives you the bread of life, his body and blood for forgiveness. The Christ who doesn’t just care that your water is safe to drink, but sends his Spirit with water that washes clean, that anoints you in his blood, shed for you.
Such a God, such a Savior, such a Jesus, who reminds us that he is the King of kings, and Lord of lords, has given us, in this world, rulers and authorities. And he says, “I am on your side.” Even when it doesn’t look it. Even when the authorities are the worst. God still remains. Jesus still stands, ruling over all things for his Church, his believers, for you for whom he died, promising that he will come and put all things under his feet, up to and including death itself, as he transfers you from this world to the kingdom in which, through faith in him, you now hold citizenship, where he is the only – and perfect – authority – the kingdom of heaven. Amen.