Aren’t you thankful for the government? …Awkward silence… Anyone?… Well then… before we get too uncomfortable, let me place that question in context. The sad thing is, it is a valid question, but one we probably have had trouble answering positively in recent years.
In many ways our time is defined by a distrust of those in authority, especially the government. Some of that distrust is a genuine necessity for a democracy. Some of that distrust is because we live in a time that does not hide injustice, but rather exposes it. So light is shone on all the ugly hidden places of people in the public sphere. Some of that distrust, probably more than we would care to admit, is facilitated by social media platforms that coerce our suspicion as we bicker over whether we distrust the police or our health officials more. This distrust is really a factor of rebellion.
Most of us Christians are familiar with Paul’s command in Romans 13 to be subject to the governing authorities. We may be equally familiar with Peter’s encouragement in 1 Peter 2 to submit to those in authority for the Lord’s sake. The difficult thing for us—the question that always comes up as quickly as we read those verses—is, “What if the government is evil? Does God want us to submit to an evil government?”
Setting Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 aside for a moment, let’s get at something more foundational in this relationship we have to the government. Something even more basic. The Fourth Commandment: “Honor your father and your mother so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.”
What does that mean?
Martin Luther responded in the Small Catechism, “This means that we should fear and love God so that we do not despise our parents or those in authority, nor provoke them to anger, but honor, serve, obey, love and think highly of them.”
Let’s focus on the opening phrase of that explanation, “This means that we should fear and love God so that…” In Luther’s explanation of the Small Catechism, “fear and love God” acts as a synonym for trust or faith. Each of the Ten Commandments demands faith, as they all flow out of the First Commandment that we fear, love and trust God above anything else.
Now just stop for a second and consider Luther’s argument. He is saying that as we have faith our approach to those in authority will change. Who must we trust so that we can honor, serve, obey, love and even think highly of those in authority? We must trust God first.
Our honoring and submitting to those in authority is not based on whether they are worthy or unworthy of that honor. We honor and submit to them because we trust the Lord. The primary relationship at issue is not our relationship to the government, rather it is between us and Jesus. Because of our faith in Christ, our relationship to the government is changed. We trust the Lord who gives us and our neighbors the gift of government.
Now we can return to Romans 13:4-5, “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.”
Authorities are established by God to punish the wrongdoer; they are established by God for our good. We live in a world so corrupted by sin, that if left to its own devices, sinful humanity would so harm and abuse itself that it would be devoured. But the Lord has placed the government over sinners to punish their wickedness and to force them to behave well toward their neighbors. When we actually stop to think about it, we see that the government is an amazing gift of grace to a sinful world.
As Christians, we are given this awesome gift of faith and salvation through which we trust our gracious God. We therefore love what he loves and want to do what he desires and wills. One of the things God wills is that we honor, serve, and love those whom he has placed in authority over us. God wants us to do this for the good of our neighbor. God’s desire and purpose for the government is to help us love and serve our neighbors. This should actually have us Christians seeking out authorities whom we can joyfully honor, serve, and obey.
There is still that troubling question: “What if the government is evil?” In a sinful world, governments and authorities on every level are also corrupted and twisted by sin. Governments may set themselves in opposition to those they are supposed to serve. At times they may even set themselves against God. Some devastatingly horrible events in history remind us that we need to be careful.
Our first response to this question should be prayer. Our ultimate help does not come from government, nor does it come from the will of the people. God is the authority over every government, so our first call is to him. We can also pray for our leaders in their roles, pray for godly leaders, and pray for leaders who will submit to the will of God.
As we discern what it means to submit, consider the lives of the Apostles. The Apostle Paul used the legal channels at his disposal when those in authority were sinning against him. He used the privileges of being a Roman citizen to challenge sinful actions in those above him. The key is that Paul was still submitting to the authorities. Paul was working within the structure and system of the Roman government. We should remember that there are legitimate ways to challenge sin within government that do not involve rebellion. We can challenge while still submitting.
We can also firmly stand upon the Word of God and proclaim it. We see Peter and the other Apostles doing this early in the Book of Acts. They preached, though those in authority had commanded them not to, and their retort was, “We must obey God rather than human beings!” (Acts 5:29). The Apostles proclaimed the truth and then they suffered for the sake of the Cross. They were punished unjustly by the government, yet they waited for God to deliver them. Even in that extreme case, they were under authority.
The expectation in Scripture is that Christians will see government in a new light after we are converted. We will understand government as a gift from God for the good of our neighbors. In this sinful world it is often a corrupted gift. However, God wills that we submit to the government, in every way we are able, so that our neighbors may live in peace, be loved and be served. Our attitude to government is part of our Christian witness. We do this for the sake of Christ, that his name will be glorified; we do it out of love for our neighbors.
Aren’t you thankful for the government?
Rev. Clint Knutson is Pastor at Birch Hills Community Church in Birch Hills, Saskatchewan and Saron Lutheran Church in Hagen, Saskatchewan.