With politics taking center stage in our society due to a divisive Supreme Court confirmation and pending midterm elections, maybe it is time we consider what the Bible has to say about political matters. For the record, this will not be an investigation or critique of political ideologies, platforms, or parties; instead, it will be a three week study of some key biblical principles affecting the Christian’s relationship with the government.
What is the relationship between God and government?
In Romans 13:1-2 Paul wrote,
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.
In this passage, Paul indicates that all “governing authorities” receive their authority from God. In particular, he says government was “instituted” by God and “appointed” by God. Thus, God is depicted as the originator of government. Just as He “created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1), authorized marriage (Mark 10:6-7), and built the church (Matthew 16:18), God instituted and appointed government. He is its author.
Additionally, Paul says “there is no authority except from God,” which indicates that God is the ultimate authority. In other words, God supersedes government. Paul was not the first individual in the Bible to make this declaration. Daniel told King Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 2:21, God is the One who “removes kings and sets up kings,” and, in Daniel 4:17, he referred to God as the One who “rules the kingdom of men.” Jesus also acknowledged God’s sovereignty over “governing authorities” in John 19:11when He told Pilate, who served as a Roman governor, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.” Such statements identify God as possessing authority greater than that of government. Thus, He is not only the author of government, but He is also superior to government.
How are civil authorities “ministers” or “servants” of God?
In Romans 13:4,6, Paul refers to “governing authorities” as “God’s servant” and “ministers of God.” To understand how government agencies can be identified as “God’s servants,” we must first make an observation about the character of God.
In 1 Corinthians 14:33, amidst a series of instructions about speaking roles in the worship assembly, Paul said, “God is not a God of confusion but of peace.” Paul inserted this declaration about God’s character because he was educating the Corinthian congregation on how “all things should be done decently and in order” in the context of the Christian assembly (1 Corinthians 14:40). So, Paul described to the character of God, which is absent chaos, confusion, or disorder, in order to instruct the church to mimic His nature by operating in a decent and orderly fashion during their assembly.
Since chaos, confusion, and disorder are opposed to the nature of God, we can conclude that “governing authorities” are His “servants” and “ministers” because they are instituted by Him for the purpose of maintaining societal order. This is evident from what Paul said in Romans 13:3-4.
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, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.
Here, Paul identifies the function of the government as a purveyor of order by being a dissuader of chaos. In other words, Paul says government exists in order to punish “bad” conduct so as to serve as a motivation for people not to do what is wrong. Do governments always get it right? No. Do governments occasionally overstep their bounds? Yes. We have to remember that “governing authorities” are not inspired. Although they are “instituted by God,” they are made up of flawed, mortal beings, and, as a result, they are susceptible to idealistic distortion, abuse of power, and other failings. However, their failures do not diminish the fact that government originated with God for the expressed purpose of maintaining some degree of societal order.
Since God instituted government and refers to civil authorities as His “ministers,” it causes us to consider some very challenging questions:
- Does God have a preferred form of government?
Yes! God’s ideal government is a theocracy, which is “a form of government in which God…is recognized as the supreme civil ruler.” This is the form of government God originally instituted with the Israelites. According to Exodus 6:7, God told the Israelites, “I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God,” but, eventually, they rejected this form of government and requested a monarchy (1 Samuel 8:4-7). However, God’s theocratic rule abides in His eternal kingdom. In Revelation 21:3, heaven, which is the consummation of His kingdom, is depicted as “the dwelling place of God” where “He will dwell with [man], and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.” Thus, I think it is fair to say that God’s preferred form of government is one in which He reigns supreme.
2. Does God approve of every individual who holds government office?
Absolutely not! Even though God instituted “governing authorities,” those individuals holding such authority are not always chosen by Him. In fact, some are in direct opposition to Him (e.g. Ahab in 1 Kings 16:30). God’s gift of free will extends beyond the arena of personal matters to political matters. Civilizations possess the free will to establish their own system of government, and individuals serving in government have the free will to exercise their authority as they see fit. As a result, “God’s will is not always done in the political realm, just as it is not always done in the personal realm,” which results in situations where God may be displeased and even disappointed with the agents of government (e.g. Saul in 1 Samuel 15:11).
In conclusion, we must acknowledge that God is the originator of government. That does not mean He approves of every government, but it does mean that we have a responsibility to every government. In particular, we have the responsibility to “be subject to the governing authorities” as Paul said in Romans 13:1, and we will explore what that entails in next week’s article.
Bryan Wilkerson, “Thinking Biblically About Government,” Preaching Today, n.d. Accessed on October 17, 2018 at https://www.preachingtoday.com/sermons/sermons/2011/june/biblicallygovernment.html