Aussies have a rebellious streak. We couldn’t list the names of our Prime Ministers, but we remember Ned Kelly. We love Waltzing Matilda, the ballad of a sheep rustler who drowns rather than surrender to the authorities.
So, do we have a bad attitude to government? Are we meant to respect our government, treating it as God’s servant to maintain order in our society? Or are we right to be suspicious?
Are governments servants of God, or substitutes for God?
Servant of God
Those who see governmental authority as divinely appointed love this text:
Romans 13 1 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. … 4 It is God’s servant to you, for good. Fear it if you do wrong: there is a point to that sword it carries, for it is God’s servant to execute justice in anger on the one who practices wrong.
Does that strike you as strange? A Jewish man writes to Rome, the Empire that claimed power over the land God had given to Abraham’s descendants. A son of David was supposed to rule forever (2 Samuel 7:13), but this Empire was obstructing God’s decree.
Paul himself had often been locked up by Rome, and would ultimately die by its sword. Where on earth would he get the idea that this idolatrous power was the authorized servant of the living God?
Actually it’s because God had decreed the land of Israel and the kingship for David that Paul says these things. If God had decreed these things, and no one can override God’s decrees, then the invaders could not take the Promised Land unless God decreed that too (as a consequence of Israel’s disobedience).
This wasn’t just Paul’s idea. Daniel could say of to the Babylonian king who destroyed Jerusalem, “The God of heaven has given you dominion and power and might and glory” (Daniel 2:37). From the Jewish perspective, Nebuchadnezzar was the Hitler of his day, so you can appreciate how some would have found these words offensive.
The truth is that God has authorized human government, even though it’s not his ideal. In the beginning God reigned directly: God investigated the crimes himself and brought the perpetrators to justice (Genesis 3:9-19; 4:9-15; 6:11-13). But violence corrupted humanity, so in re-establishing his earthly realm after the flood God authorized communal government in order to limit violence (Genesis 9:5-6). A Jewish man can therefore say that even gentile governments are God’s servants — Babylonian, Roman, German, North Korean, Australian.
It’s true. Since people don’t submit to God, we need human authorities. Where there’s anarchy, the bullies win and violence takes over. The human governments are in place because God authorized them to protect us.
And yes, human governments get it wrong. Paul’s life ended with the sword God had placed in Rome’s hand. But as flawed as they are, the alternative is worse. Human authorities govern at God’s command. We owe them respect and taxes.
Substitute for God
So how do humans manage with the power God entrusted to us? Not so good:
- Acting out of his shame, Noah used his power to introduce the curse of slavery (Genesis 9).
- Since God authorized the community to take lives, Nimrod perverts that power into war, the mechanism by which warriors build kingdoms (Genesis 10).
- Inevitably, people want to build a world-dominating city, with a tower designed to bring heaven’s authority within their grasp (Genesis 11).
In just three chapters, we’re told that government is God’s servant to limit violence, yet governments act violently and want to replace God.
Knowledge is power. Governments want our metadata so they know who we speak to, when, for how long, and how often — a kind of omniscience. Face recognition technology identifies us as we walk through the city or drive down the freeway, the ever-present eyes of CCTV. Omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence — they used to be called “the incommunicable attributes of God” (attributes that don’t transfer to us), but technology is blurring the lines.
The Bible constantly warns us to expect governments to act as if they were God. It’s everywhere: the Pharaoh who enslaved Jacob’s descendants, the invaders in the time of the Judges, the kings of Israel and Judah who triggered the downfall of the kingdom, the imperial powers of Assyria and Babylon, the Persian rulers of Esther’s time, the forced Hellenization under Antiochus IV, the crucifixion of Jesus, the imperial persecution of Christians at the end of the first century, and another 2000 years since then.
The idolatrous governments of this world are better than nothing, but they’re a poor substitute for God’s government. Jesus must reign until all who oppose him are under his feet, until the kingdom is restored to God where it belongs.
One day, the destroyers of the earth will be destroyed. Kingship over the earth will return to the one God had always appointed to reign. We look forward to the day when this good news rings out:
Revelation 11 15 The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever.
They’re not our salvation, but thank God for human governments. They’re like a leaky pump on a leaky boat, working to keep things afloat until we’re fully restored as the kingdom of God.
Don’t expect too much from them: they’re only human. If we treat them as more than that, we’ve fallen into idolatry.
Governing is a tough gig. Our leaders are people who struggle with power. Instead of looking to them to solve the world’s issues, our trust must be in the higher power.
Let’s lodge our petitions with the one who truly reigns, and pray for the humans he has given responsibility to govern us.