Human Government: the Good and Bad
Scripture shows both a positive and negative outlook on government. Balancing the two viewpoints is a challenge. For example, Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17 present more positive outlooks on governing authorities. A government is authorized by God, is supposed to punish evil and reward good, and Christians are to submit and pay taxes. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.
On the other hand, Revelation 12-13 with 17-18 present a bleak picture of government as it receives its authority from the devil. Here the governing authorities seek to force Christians into an idolatrous form of state worship. Think Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 3.
Which is it? Does a government get its authority from God or the devil? Perhaps in an uncomfortable answer, the truth is both. Sometimes a government can be friendly (see Acts 19:31), and other times it will be an enemy. Sometimes it can be what a Christian might appeal to (as did Paul in Acts 25:11), and at other times it will become a force of severe opposition to the people of God, as in Revelation.
God does authorize government, and we should recall that Paul and Peter wrote what they did at a time when people in charge were … well let’s just say they were less than moral people. The Roman Emperors were not generally known for great moral restraint. God has often used governments, even bad ones, to accomplish His purposes, primarily of judgment (see Habakkuk… or just about the entire OT for that matter).
When a government does seek to exceed its boundaries to determine its own good and evil apart from God, and pretty much every government will do this at some point, then the authority it receives to do evil and persecute the righteous is more of the devil. This is Revelation’s perspective. I find it interesting that Revelation uses Babylon as the type for evil government. Daniel, though working in Babylon and providing a righteous influence, still knew that he was living in exile. He experienced both the good and bad first hand. Yet ultimately, Babylon’s wickedness caused it to fall and God’s people were given an opportunity to return home.
In both cases, Christians have an obligation to submit to the governing powers. In both cases, the New Testament indicates the kind of attitude Christians are to have. In neither case are Christians authorized to take violent actions against a state. To the Christian, violence and insurrection are anti-Christ and should have no part of our thinking.
When a government is doing right, that is praiseworthy and Christians should do what they can to promote all that is good and right as directed by God. When it does wrong, Christians can speak up for what is right still, but if it comes to the state being an enemy, our path to overcoming is the same as that of the witnesses (God’s people) in Revelation: “And they overcame him because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony, and they did not love their life even when faced with death” (Rev 12:11).
We are told to pray for those who are in governing positions “so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity” (1 Tim 2:1-4). If persecution comes our way, we are to follow the path of Jesus (1 Pet 2:21-25). Our prayers for those in authority are not based on whether or not we agree with them or like them. Pray for them no matter who they are or what they do. If the state is our enemy, then heed Christ’s words: “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 5:44-45).
The Christian’s task remains the same regardless of what current governing powers are doing. We are to live the Gospel through the good and bad, doing what we can to be positive influences in our societies. This includes the following instructions from Paul:
“Do all things without grumbling or disputing; so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life…” (Phil 2:14-16).
May I stress “Do all things without grumbling or disputing” as essential to providing a positive influence on those around us? That would include when things are “crooked and perverse.” We are to be lights, holding out God’s word as a beacon of hope for a world that has lost its way.
Government will sometimes do good and be friendly to us, but it will also turn bad and become enemies of the cross. No matter where we are on that spectrum, our standards and goals are the same. Pray hard. Live the Gospel. Teach the Kingdom of God. Point everyone to the risen King of kings and Lord of lords. Always render to God what is His: that’s us! God will take care of the rest.