Article Aug 6, 2018

What does the Bible say about government?

Sometimes we can have our identity wrapped up in an election—in something that is going to happen, or has happened, in the arena of politics. But if we, as Jesus followers, understand that above all else, who we are is who we are in Christ, then we know that no matter what side we are on regarding the political battles raging out there, our identities in him do not change. I’m not a Republican, Democrat, or Independent above all else. Above all else, I’m not white, black, Asian, or Hispanic. I’m not even an American above all else. Above all, who I am is who I am in Christ.

As Americans, we are incredibly privileged by God to live in a nation where, no matter how divided we are, at the end of every four or eight years, two individuals sit down and enact a peaceful transition of power. That is unheard of in many places in the world; instead, a change in leadership can mean violence, war, or worse. The American tradition is unprecedented in the history of the world, and all of us should be thankful for that fact.  

Important passages about governing authorities

As believers in Christ, we know that the security of our future rests in the sovereignty of God—not in the governance of man. This principle comes straight out of Scripture, and it is true no matter your party affiliation. Scripture tells us that God is in control, and we can trust him. Not only that, it tells us that we are to pray for, submit to, and honor our governing authorities.

In Romans 13:1-7, Paul says,

Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.  Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.

Knowing that who we are is who we are in Christ gives us a foundation on which we can stand calmly, peacefully, joyfully, and with certainty.

Here, Paul is talking about governing authorities as ministers of God, designed by God for our good. God further unpacks this principle in 1 Peter 2:13-17. Here’s what Peter says:

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God.  Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king.

In essence, Scripture says that we are called to pray for, honor, and submit to governing authorities, while participating in the political process in a way that allows us to influence others for Christ.

Why we can be encouraged by Scripture’s teaching on government

When I explain this directive to Jesus followers, I often get the same response:  “But Pastor, Paul and Peter didn’t understand what our government was going to be like today!” Before we resort to that logic and discount what God has written as being obsolete, I want us to remember a few things.

  1. Paul and Peter wrote these passages under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit of God. He exists outside the parameters of time and can see tomorrow as clearly as he sees yesterday. To suggest that something in the Bible is not relevant to us because God may not have really understand how things were going to be today is to insult to the eternality and omniscience of God.  
  2. The government at that time was worse than ours. The government that Paul and Peter were writing about in their letters makes ours look like a cupcake. Their government allowed and encouraged slavery. As a matter of fact, there were 10 million slaves in the Roman empire—about one third of the population of the Roman Empire. That’s why, when Peter wrote this, he said, “Act as free men.” Many of the men to whom he was writing were not free.
  3. Government power rested in the hands of absolute rulers, often one person, during Peter and Paul’s day. Let’s not miss this: Paul and Peter were writing to people who lived under rulers who saw themselves as gods. In some instances, they demanded that the people they governed worshipped them as a god. Not only that, Paul and Peter’s government leaders allowed for extortion of the constituency using taxes. Roman law allowed collectors to prey upon citizens by demanding up to six times as much tax as was owed to the government—for personal profit.  
  4. The government of Paul and Peter’s day persecuted minorities, and did so heavily. The worst of the persecution was of a class of people called Christians. It was not uncommon for them to be encased in wax by the authorities, then hung on a stake and burned at night to light the emperor’s gardens. Some were crucified, and others were thrown to wild beasts. So, before we read these verses, and think, “Well, God just didn’t understand how bad we were going to have it,” I encourage you to remember the context in which these verses were originally delivered. Some of the people who heard these verses had to sneak their way into the church service in order to hear them—for fear of being killed by their government for their faith.  

It can be difficult to discern how to follow Jesus in our current times. God told us long ago that we would be living in a fallen world, where the enemy would be looking for ways to entice us. Knowing that who we are is who we are in Christ, however, gives us a foundation on which we can stand calmly, peacefully, joyfully, and with certainty. We know that no matter who is in power for this term, God is in control, and we can trust him.