On God’s Good Gift of Government
To those who know me, it is no secret that I have been very critical of the Canadian and Ontario government over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. By and large, I stand behind those criticisms. But I was challenged recently by a conversation with other believers that left me feeling like I was unintentionally giving off the wrong impression. It seems that my criticisms were leading some to believe that is the only thing I think about the government. Even worse, some may have gotten the impression this is the sum total of the Christian view of government. Neither is true. There are many things about the government for which I am incredibly grateful, and for which Scripture validates that gratitude. In a desire to correct and better articulate a biblical vantage point, this article will be in celebration of God’s gift of government, as Scripture reveals we should do.
If you read my last post, you’ll already know that human authority exists because it has been given to us by God. Humans do not have any innate authority over one another. Instead, the source of human authority is God himself. This delegation of God’s authority to mankind is meant to help keep an ordered and just society. The Bible testifies to this fact again and again. As I had quoted, Jesus himself said to Pilate “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above” (John 19:11). Jesus acknowledged that, humanly speaking, Pilate did have power over him. This power was given to him by God in his role as governor of Judaea. Jesus here is affirming what other Scriptures teach, which is that human governments indeed do have authority because it is granted to them by God. This, of course, does not always mean they use their authority in a way that God would have them. More on that later.
Let’s look at one of the most central passages on this topic, that being Romans 13:1-7. I will quote it at length first.
“1Let 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. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 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. 4 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. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. 6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.“
I will try to walk through a few of the key principles this passages teaches us about human government. This is not meant to highlight every point, but the major ones for my purposes in this article.
Principle #1 – Human government is established by God. This point is actually mentioned three times in the first two verses. Human government is part of God’s plan for life on earth. This reality does not undermine the fact that God himself is Lord of the universe (Psalm 103:19). His rulership is ultimate. Human rulership is not. This, we will see later, does have some practical consequences. But the fact that God is King does not mean that human government has no business existing at all. That would be a false and unscriptural conclusion. Rather, human government functions (or at least is supposed to function) as an extension of God’s rule over the earth.
Principle #2 – Human government is meant to serve God. Three times the government is labeled as “God’s servant”. Again, this means their authority is not ultimate or innate. Rather it is limited and delegated to them. Human government may rule over people, but it is simultaneously ruled over by God. It is intended to serve God and his purposes for mankind. Anyone who is still awake at this point will recognize that this is often not the case. Governments often do not pursue God’s purposes. But again, the fact that human government is flawed does not mean it should cease to exist altogether. We should aim to bring it into conformity with God’s purposes instead of preferring to disband it altogether.
Principle #3 – Human government is for our good. The alternative to organized government is essentially anarchy, each person living as they wish. This may sound great, but only if one forgets what Scripture teaches about human nature. The Bible over and over again reminds us that people are evil. The evil that exists in our hearts causes us to sin, and sin hurts God, others, and ourselves. There are essentially two forces that resist sin and evil in the world (and in you and I as well). The first is spiritual. God has given us a conscience that helps us to resist sin, and he has given his Holy Spirit to convict and change us from the inside out. The second force is external pressure. Put differently, society has punishments for wrongdoers. Those who murder, rape, and steal will face the consequences of the law. Penal law is meant to deter the acts of evil in society. A person’s desire may be to commit sin, but they are more likely to hesitate or refrain altogether for fear of punishment. This fear of punishment makes society a better place to live because it restrains some of the evil that would otherwise run rampant. This is what the Bible means when it says the government is for our good.
Principle #4 – The government rules through force. Verse 4, “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.” Why has God handed the government a sword? So that they can execute justice by force on wrongdoers. The sword forces compliance. In modern day, this is the reason why law enforcement officers carry weapons and firearms. This is the reason jail cells are locked. The law is not meant to be mere suggestions; they are commands. Those who are tempted to break the law are brought into conformity through the threat of force and those who do break the law are punished through acts of force. This is part of God’s plan for human government.
A Quick Interlude
Before I get to my fifth and final principle, I want to pause here and reflect on God’s good gift of government. Everything up to this point demonstrates in a very tangible way God’s love towards his creatures. God wants to see life on earth flourish. He wants to see the spread of evil slowed and justice executed for those who have been wronged. This is a wonderful and glorious thing.
In a thousand ways, I am incredibly grateful for the government. I am grateful for rights as a Canadian citizen. I am grateful for freedom. I am grateful for the rule of law. I am grateful for those who have risked their lives to defend our country. I am grateful for police officers who aim to serve and protect their communities even in the midst of personal danger. I am grateful for the ability to vote. I am grateful for the judicial system which aims to carry out the law of the land as best as they can. I’m grateful for these and many other things which make my life better, not worse. I’m grateful that, even though none of these duties are carried out perfectly, they are better as imperfect gifts than the alternative of a wholly chaotic and mob-ruled society. God’s gift of government, on the whole, is a good thing and we should thank him for it.
Principle #5 – The government’s purpose is to punish wrong and commend right. God’s purpose for government is inherently a moral one. The primary function (sole function perhaps?) of human government is the enforcement of a moral code of law in society. Those who do what is right are commended. Those who do wrong are punished. This seems simple enough.
But is it so simple? The thoughtful reader should have alarm bells going off in their heads at this point. If the government exists to punish the wrong and commend the right, the questions beg to be asked: who determines what is wrong or right? What is the source of the moral code which instructs civil laws? And what happens when a government gets this wrong? Is it still our duty to obey them?
These are extremely legitimate questions. I will be tackling them in future blog posts. But before we dive too deeply into them, I first want to challenge the reader not to see the legitimacy of these questions as reason to hate the government on principle. To do so would be to despise what God has given as a good gift. Living under a government that enforces a wrong moral code should be loathed, but not because the government exists per se, but rather because they have abdicated their responsibility as servants of God. The response should be to bring about reform, not do away with government altogether.
Remember that the author who penned Romans 13 is Paul the apostle, who wrote this letter to Christians living in Rome. Rome! Those who know their history will recognize that Roman rulership was not kind to Christians. Believers were often heavily persecuted by the Romans, who undeniably were an unjust, power-hungry, bloodthirsty, tyrannical government regime. It is to these believers Paul pens his letter, telling them to be submissive to the Romans and see them as servants of God.
It would be enough to make your head spin, if one weren’t careful. I say this because it is not fair to say that Paul desired believers to only see the Romans in this way. Rather, they are instructed to see human government this way in general. There are absolutely times and places where a different perspective is called for. But why can I say this, if this passage clearly calls us to honour and obey human government? Because it is equally true that Scripture also calls us to obey God, and that Scripture teaches that human authority is not absolute but rather delegated from God. This returns us to the questions raised earlier concerning what we are to do when human governments go awry. How should we respond to unjust human governments? I will seek to answer that question in the next post.