“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.” (ESV)
This is one of the harder things Paul wrote. The relationship of Christians to the authority of the state has been a stubborn knot to untangle since the beginning. What does it look like to be subject to governing authorities as one who is chiefly subject to the authority of Christ? If there is no authority except what has been instituted by God, what do we do about authorities that do not in any way seem to be godly? Surely there have been authorities in place over the centuries that were not instituted by God…right?
These are no hypothetical questions either. In this country we are in the midst of a second straight presidential administration in which roughly half the country is as sure as could be that the occupant of the White House couldn’t possibly have received his authority from the Lord. Just look at all the awful things he’s doing to the country. Of course, I’m talking about…well, who do you think I’m talking about? Your answer to that all depends on your perspective.
This question was even less hypothetical in Paul’s day. He was writing this as Nero was the Emperor of Rome. This was probably before Nero’s intense persecution of Christians there, but he wasn’t a great guy before then. The timing there is worth keeping in mind. For Paul this wasn’t some academic issue. This was absolutely relevant to his life and the life of his audience. It was soon to be literally a matter of life and death.
While much ink has been spilled on this issue, here are a few quick thoughts to help make some sense out of it.
- In order to understand this properly, we need to be well-grounded in the Old Testament where God not only regularly did raise up and lay low leaders both of Israel, but also of their (sometimes hostile) neighbors, but He also declared that he had (has) the authority to do so. Sometimes God raised a leader up to lead the people, sometimes He raised him up to discipline them. Just because a leader is not using his authority in a way that honors God does not mean God did not grant it for some just purpose. Simply because we don’t know the reason behind what God is doing does not mean He doesn’t have a good one.
- Christians can safely submit to any authority because of our larger submission to Christ. This doesn’t mean we go along blindly with everything they say, but it does mean we respect them, show honor to them, and, should believe it necessary to disobey them, we do so with a humble, contrite, submissive spirit. It means we don’t fall to an endless series of criticisms (including and especially on social media) that become little more than angry potshots. That doesn’t help us or them and dishonors God in the process. Remember: He gave them their authority for a reason.
- Thanks to the testimony of John in Revelation, we know that sometimes governments can run off the rails and become evil. Before you fire up your political speech about why one President or another must be evil, though, know this: While life for Christians in the United States is a great deal more difficult and the likelihood of facing persecution is much higher than it used to be, we are still much better off than pretty much everybody else. Politics is not ultimate and we need to stop treating it that way. That being said, sometimes governments turn and oppose God wholesale in spite of having received their authority from Him. When this happens, our place is still the same: Stand with humble boldness for the truth, love our neighbors, pray for our leaders, and make absolutely certain that if we are facing persecution in the form of official government oppression, it is only because of our incorrigible insistence on following the path of Christ.
Here’s the practical conclusion: Trump will neither save nor destroy this country anymore than Obama had such power. Our duty toward them is to practice godly submission, defend the truth with humble boldness, call them to uphold the way of Jesus personally in order that such a commitment will spill over into their policy making (again, social media potshots are not the best way to do this, and generally do more damage to our own witness than anything positive for the country), and pray for them consistently. If we can practice such things, we will be on the right track and our nation will be better off for it.