The meme on the right has some truth to it. If you look at history and examine how governments in the past have betrayed its people, one would be foolish to trust the government… at times. It is true that there is corruption in the government, but let’s be honest here: government is not entirely an unnecessary institution. Corruption certainly exists in the American government (*cough* Hillary Clinton *cough*). However, that does not mean all of government is tainted with corruption and it certainly does not mean government is unneeded. It would be racist to say all black people are criminals just because there’s a high rate of crime among African American communities. It is unfortunately true that a lot of black communities are involved in crime, but certainly not all black people are criminals. Likewise, corruption exists in some parts of the government, but not all government is corrupt. If we want to be intellectually honest with ourselves, we must acknowledge this fact. I don’t think we should entirely place our trust in the government, but neither do I think the other extreme is true: entirely distrusting the government. We are to partially trust the government since it derives from God’s authority, but our ultimate trust is in God
Government is not an inherently bad thing, and neither is it unnecessary. God did not intend to use government for our demise. God institutes government for our protection, and it is we as sinners who work in government who make it fail. Paul says the following about government in Romans 13:1-7:
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. Therefore, whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore, one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honour to whom honour is owed.
Keep in mind that Paul wrote this during the reign of Emperor Nero who was one of the worst persecutors of Christians in first century Rome. Since Paul wrote these words during those bloody times, imagine how silly he’d find our opposition to the government’s existence.
Government is a lot like the first use of the Law: the curb. The first use of the Law restrains us from sinning. In a way, that’s the purpose of the government. The government’s job is both to protect us from the sin of others (both foreign and domestic) and to prevent us from sinning by legislating laws. Every authority that exists comes from God. We know this because of the fourth commandment, “Honour your father and mother.” Martin Luther explains this commandment in his Small Catechism, “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise or anger our parents and other authorities, but honour them, serve and obey them, love and cherish them.” All authority on earth is a representation of God’s authority; therefore, all forms of authority come from God. As sinners, we abuse this authority and when that happens, it is not from God but a perversion of His will. When we resist righteous authority, we resist God, as Paul says. Resisting arrest, for example, would be resisting God’s authority to use the law to judge your sin.
Rulers are a terror to bad conduct, Paul says, not good conduct. I’ve seen recently on social media people saying we shouldn’t feel afraid when we see a police officer, but protected, implying that there’s something wrong with the police system because some people fear them when they see them. Sure, we should feel protected, but there’s nothing bad about feeling fear when you see the law. As Paul said above, “Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority?” We’re supposed to fear the law because by being afraid, we are more cognisant of our actions and are less likely to break the law—our sin is being restrained, as is necessary. For example, when you see a police car on the road, what do you do? You immediately check your speed and slow down, right? You do this because you properly fear the law, which you’re supposed to. If we never feared the law, then we would break it all the time, and that would only lead to more evil, not less evil.
Laws are in place to prevent danger from happening to yourself and other people. If, for example, everybody drove however fast they wanted to on the roads, danger is high and more people would get injured. There are speed limits to lower the danger and therefore protect people from reckless, irresponsible human behaviour. Let’s also consider drunk driving laws. Before these laws even existed, people were more likely to drive under the influence of alcohol, and thus more people got injured and even killed. With these laws now in place, people are now more likely to be responsible and not drive if they’ve had too much to drink, which has lowered injuries and deaths caused by drunk driving. People are still injured and killed by drunk drivers, yet this is not the failure of the law since the purpose of the law is not to completely control human actions (hence restrain). There is still individual responsibility, and as we live in a sinful world, as sinners people are still bound to break the law. The sinful behaviour is restrained, but not controlled, yet it is far better to have restrain on sinful behaviour than none at all.
If you’re doing wrong, Paul says, be afraid! You should be, because the government does not bear the sword in vain—that is, the government does not have the power to take life for no reason. God gave the government this power, so they can justly sentence a criminal to death and declare war, so long as it’s just. What justifies a war? This question opens another discussion on just war theory, which is not the discussion here. But it should suffice to say that if the reason is to protect people from real harm and war is the last resort, then it’s just. Likewise, the government has the authority from God to punish criminals for committing misdemeanours, felonies, and other crimes—carrying God’s judgement against the wrongdoer. Ultimately, the government serves God, and God uses the government to carry out His vengeance against evil, whether it’s a criminal or a country or terrorist group that wishes to harm us.
“Therefore,” Paul says, “one must be in subjection.” In other words, one must obey the law “not only to avoid God’s wrath” but also to soothe our conscience. If you do what is right according to the law, you have nothing to fear. However, if you break the law, you have every reason to fear. So pay taxes and revenue and give respect and honour to whom it belongs. Honour and respect those in law enforcement and the military, for they are agents of the government and therefore act with God’s authority.
However, the government can certainly become corrupt. Revelation 13:1-10 depicts government as a beast that has the potential to take God’s place and persecute His people. This was the Roman government for a time. Apart from persecuting Christians, the Roman government took God’s place by requiring its citizens to pay tribute to Caesar, and it didn’t exactly treat foreigners or even its own citizens fairly. Sometimes the government passes a law or policy contrary to God’s Word. When this happens, we are obligated to obey God over government, even if that means suffering the consequences. Consider the apostles who suffered imprisonment and martyrdom for proclaiming the Gospel. They obeyed a greater law—proclaiming God’s Word that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead—and submitted to the consequences of Roman law.
There was a particular time when the apostles were preaching in Jesus’ name, which the Jews despised and the Sadducees grew jealous of the apostles and threw them in prison (Acts 5:17-18). Standing before the council of the Sadducees, the council commanded the apostles not to teach in Jesus’ name (Acts 5:27-28). But Peter and the apostles replied, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). According to the Sadducees, it was against the law to preach in the name of Jesus rather than the God of Israel (despite their lack of understanding that Jesus is the God of Israel incarnate). But the apostles, knowing their commission given by Christ, knew it was God’s will to preach in Jesus’ name. God’s will trumps human law, and where law attempts to usurp God’s authority, God’s Word reigns supreme and that must be made evident in our lives.
Today, there are laws that legalise gay marriage, endorse abortion, and try to forces churches to obey these laws as well as forcing them to make transgender bathrooms. They also try to force Christian universities not to reject transgender students despite their religious beliefs and moral consciences. Christians have every authority to disobey these laws and policies because they attempt to usurp God’s authority on these matters, and also because the government is attempting to run the Church when that is not the government’s job. (Notice also how the government and proponents of these godless laws do not try to force Muslim mosques and schools to accept gays and transgenders.) We can oppose gay marriage because God’s Word says homosexuality is an abomination and marriage is only between a man and a woman. We can oppose abortion because murder is a sin and specifically breaks the fifth commandment. We can oppose transgenderism policies because God as Creator assigns gender as He intends and our identity does not rely on what we imagine; rather, it relies on Christ and the gender God assigns us is not a mistake. It is part of the Christian witness to suffer on account of Christ. When we obey God’s Word by disobeying godless laws, we must submit to the consequences rather than resist, for this is the apostolic witness as well as Christ’s witness on cross. These Christian views, of course, are not popular beliefs, even amongst some Christians. It is not the world’s place, however, to tell Christians what to believe and what to practise. Anyone outside the Church does not get to tell the Church what to do. Indeed, why should those outside the Church even care about what the Church believes when they don’t believe in the God we worship? Even worse, in the effort to be all-inclusive with the fear of offending somebody, some Christians abandon God’s Word to obey the word of man. They end up fearing man more than they fear God.
God instituted government to protect us from sin and to help prevent us from sinning and He has given government the authority to take life when necessary. As its citizens, we therefore must responsibly obey the law and honour and respect those who carry its authority. When the law is against God’s Word, however, we must adhere to God’s Word rather than the word of man and submit to the consequences of disobeying godless authority, for God has the ultimate authority and He is ruler over all the earth.