I was born in the U.S., but I will die in a different country. At the current rate, I might even have lunch in a different country. Our government is redefining itself, even as we speak, and the old rules no longer apply.
What does this mean for American Christians, who have long assumed a connection between governmental authority and virtue – a strong connection that made submission to the government an obvious requirement for believers?
We often quote St. Paul on this subject, and his words are plain: Submit to authorities because God ordained governmental authority. To resist such authority is to resist God.
And there we often stop, though Paul does not stop.
Reading a little further, we see that the connection between governmental authority and virtue gets more attention from him than it has from us.
We might recall, for example, that George Washington and Joseph Stalin were both heads of state, but were they both governors? Paul says no. He defines a governing authority by the ruler’s behavior, not by their power or title.
* A governor commends those who do good but terrifies those who do evil.
* A governor is good to those who do right but an agent of wrath to punish the one who does wrong.
* Good people have no reason to fear him.
* A governor’s policies are to be followed, not only because he has the power to enforce them but because they echo the claims of God and our own conscience.
* Governors are servants of God who give their full time to governing. Their faithful service creates a debt of gratitude we are obligated to pay.
We notice several remarkable things. First, that the moral law is timeless and global. Every human in every century on every continent knows the difference between good and evil.
Second, rulers have a mandate and the authority to enforce this divine moral code, even though they are human. Even, in fact, if they are not Godly humans.
Third, he says that governors are policemen, not lawmakers. The law has already been written – on our hearts, and by God himself. Governors are ordained to enforce that law, protecting the innocent and punishing the guilty.
In short, Paul is saying something quite different than we might have imagined.
He is saying that God-ordained governments are implemented by human rulers, not that every human ruler is a God-ordained government.
When rulers step outside of their mandate – by failing to enforce the natural law or by replacing that law with ideas of their own – they step outside of their authority as governors.
This explains the rather frequent episodes of civil disobedience in scripture.
* Jesus disobeyed human rulers. (Mark 2, Matt. 12, Luke 6)
* Moses’ parents, the Jewish midwives, and, later, Moses himself disobeyed human rulers. (Ex. 1,2.)
* Elijah disobeyed human rulers. (1 Kings 18)
* Jeremiah disobeyed human rulers. (Jer. 38)
* Daniel and his friends disobeyed human rulers. (Daniel 3, 6)
* Esther disobeyed human rulers. (Esther 4)
* Mordecai disobeyed human rulers. (Esther 3)
* The Wise Men disobeyed human rulers. (Matt. 2)
* Peter and John disobeyed human rulers. (Acts 4)
* The apostles disobeyed human rulers. (Acts 5)
* Paul and Silas disobeyed human rulers. (Acts 6)
* In our own era, faithful people like Corrie TenBoom and Deitrick Bonhoeffer have disobeyed human rulers.
And so, it is not a simple thing, this question of obedience to authorities, or not simple in the way we have long considered it.
Rulers have no inherent moral authority. Morally unqualified people are often desperate to rule, and history is littered with the wreckage and misery caused by their success. Christians are not called to cooperate. To obey a rebel is rebellion.
Rulers who accept God’s mandate inherit moral authority and maintain it through righteous (not to say religious) conduct. No ruler will do this perfectly, but Christians should lean toward respect for human authority, remembering that we were designed to live in obedience to God under the protection of a human government.
Of course, I’m raising this question because a strong connection between governmental authority and virtue no longer exists in America. Our rulers increasingly reject their mandate, approving those who do wrong and punishing those who do good. This puts a heavy weight of discernment on individuals and, especially, on pastors.
We should not falsely simplify Paul’s guidance on this difficult issue. Like many before us, we must prepare for the expensive choice to obey God rather than men.
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.
For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing.