Recently as my husband Ed and I were reading the Bible, we read Paul’s assertion that “everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established” (Rom. 13:1). There have been deceitful, bribable, tyrannical governments in our fallen world ever since societies needed governing. Paul knew that, and he lived under the control of the Roman Empire.
So what is he actually saying? The more blatant corruption I see in my own country’s government, and in numerous governments around the world, the more I’m tempted to question Paul’s assertion. Is he implying there’s no room for civil disobedience (much less for armed rebellion against corrupt governments)? Over the centuries some Christians have interpreted him that way. But saying that God ordains governments doesn’t mean that those governments are necessarily doing God’s will or anything close to it. Other parts of Scripture make clear that God uses (yes, establishes) even evil leaders for his purposes.
We must “let Scripture interpret Scripture.” Thus, we shouldn’t forget how Peter and John react after being arrested and jailed (by the Sadducees, incidentally, not the Romans) and “given strict orders not to preach in [Christ’s] name” (Acts 5). They peacefully acquiesce to going to jail, but they refuse to quit preaching, and go back to it immediately after an angel releases them from prison. Their justification: “We must obey God rather than men” (cf., “human authorities,” NLT).
Taking a stand
At the same time Ed and I were reading Romans 13, we read in 2 Chronicles the disconcerting story of King Uzziah of Judah, “who set himself to seek God in the days of Zechariah [the prophet].” Uzziah was brilliant, noted for various inventions, and he consolidated Judah’s power. He grew strong, and when he grew strong “he grew proud, to his destruction.” He then took it upon himself to bypass the priests and burn incense in the temple.
Uzziah was “the government.” He was Judah’s civic leader and spiritual leader. But he was not a priest. Here’s the thought-provoking aspect of this event: 80 priests of the Lord, described as “men of valour,” confront their monarch (picture it!), bluntly tell him he is wrong, it is not for him to burn incense, and order him to leave the sanctuary. Uzziah reacts angrily. But he can’t counter these faithful priests: he still has the censor in his hand when God strikes him with leprosy. He is forced to live the rest of his life in isolation.
John Calvin emphasized that Christ is both head of his church and ruler of this world. A government’s role, properly executed, is to restrain evil, he said. But sometimes governments themselves do the evil they are meant to restrain. Those 80 priests acted as the conscience for their government. You can probably think of situations today, as I can, that somewhat parallel that, and Peter and John’s situation, in terms of government overstepping its authority and in telling us Christians (through force of law) that we may not do what God commands. Then the question must be: How should we respond? Are we, like the Apostles, ready to go to jail for “serving God rather than man”? Are we, like those 80 priests, ready to stand up to power-hungry leaders, possibly with serious consequences? Are we, ultimately, willing to sacrifice not only our livelihoods but our lives, should God – via our government – require that of us?
O God of earth and altar, bow down and hear our cry;
Our earthly rulers falter, our people drift and die;
The walls of gold entomb us; the swords of scorn divide.
Take not thy thunder from us, but take away our pride.
From all that terror teaches, from lies of tongue and pen,
From all the easy speeches that comfort cruel men,
From sale and profanation of honour, and the sword,
From sleep, and from damnation, deliver us, good Lord!
Tie in a living tether the prince and priest and thrall;
bind all our lives together; smite us, and save us all;
In ire and exultation, aflame with faith, and free.
Lift up a living nation, a single sword to thee.
(G.K. Chesterton, 1874-1936. Tune: KING’S LYNN)
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