God appoints governmental leaders to do good (Rom 13). And the Bible instructs Christians to pray and obey their leaders. Yet a tension exists between God’s appointment of governing leaders to good and what they actually do. Some leaders simply do wrong and are unjust.
So how do Christians manage this tension? The biblical answer is that Christians follow a middle way as the salt of the earth and as those who pray for rulers to protect these rulers from the devil’s monsters.
In Romans 13:1 Paul writes, “Let 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.” According to Paul, God appoints rulers, and rulers serve God by doing justice.
So it seems obvious that Christians should obey rulers because they obey God insofar as they do this. Paul explains, “Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted” (v. 2).
So the picture seems black and white. The government is always good. And Christians should always obey. And yet we know non-violent civil disobedience is authorized when a ruler forbids Christians to testify to Christ (Acts 4:8, 18–20).
Does the Bible say more than this?
The Devil’s monsters
Much more. In the Book of Revelation, John writes to seven churches in Asia Minor (Rev 1:4). In these churches, Christians suffered from all sorts of maladies from false prophets to persecution. So John writes to them what he saw in a revelation from Jesus Christ to help the churches to overcome their maladies.
To do so, John portrays heaven’s perspective on earth in chapters 4–18/19 of Revelation. He shows the Greco-Roman churches in Asia Minor what God actually thinks of the great empire of their day (Rome). It is Babylon, and from the empire comes the beast who crushes and the harlot who exploits.
Yet even Revelation does not proscribe violent opposition. Far from it. John tells his readers, in essence, that justice belongs to the Lord. The martyrs nevertheless cry, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Rev 6:10).
Those who are dead in Christ watch over the earth praying for their and our justice. Likewise, we too can pray for God’s justice against evil rulers. The psalms, in particular, give us a model of such prayers (so-called imprecatory psalms).
So here’s the tension spelled out: God appoints rulers but the devil uses power (beast) and money (harlot) to corrupt these rulers (more could be said here).
Christianity’s Middle Positions
As Christians, we see this battle played from the perspective of God’s word (God appoints rulers) and from the perspective of heaven (Satan vies to corrupt God’s earth).
So what do we do?
Scripture provides Christians a guide here. First, Christians are called to pray for rulers. Paul writes:
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. (1 Tim 2:1–2).
So the first way to understand the tension is to pray. And I think this is one way that we can protect rulers from dark powers because our prayers will lead us to live peaceful lives, not ones full of wars, exploitation, and persecution.
Second, Jesus calls believers “the salt of the earth” (Matt 5:13). Believers preserve the world like salt preserves meat. We keep it good. And we also make it good by shining our lights into the world (Matt 5:14–16). The intended result is “that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 5:16). In short, through remaining good and showing our goodness, we further preserve the world’s goodness and bring new people to worship God in opposition to the devil’s ploys.
So let’s return to the question at hand. What should Christians do when governments who are supposed to do good instead do evil? The answer seems to involve the following:
- Obey them
- Non-violently resist only when necessary
- Pray for them
- Preserve goodness
- Show goodness
By doing these things, you can defeat the powers of darkness that vie to influence and turn God’s ministers for good (i..e, rulers) into agents of evil.
Ultimately, this means a consistent Gospel witness that not only talks the talk but walks the walk. The best way to salt the earth and to let light your shine is by testifying to Christ and following him in all that you do.
That’s how the gates of hell tremble. And that’s how you deal with the tension of obeying your leaders which God appointed but yet sometimes do and act unjustly.
Andy Doerksen says
Does the Bible allow for revolution…? Relatedly: How do American theologians generally view the revolutionary origin of their own country?
Ronald Hundley says
What matters to God the most are his people. Especially his children. Putting his children in cages and separating them from their mothers and fathers is where you may have distanced yourself to the point of no return. The bible talks about you rather have a millstone tied around your neck and tossed into the sea rather than harm one of his little children.
Daniel Zelli says
Great perspective Wyatt. With the world gone crazy with COVID-19 lockdowns, the Christian far right sees every concivable evil in that government administration, leading to a proliforation of conspiracy theories-So I appreciated a calming, level-headed approach. Thanks, Daniel Zelli