What does it mean that God has established government? And what does it mean to submit to it? These two concepts are quoted narrowly to us by men who would claim power over us, as well as by those who see submission as silent obedience. Let each person act according to his own conscience, but let it be after thoughtful consideration, for much is at stake.
Both main sections of the New Testament that expound on this problem (1 Peter 2, Romans 13), tie it closely to the idea of honest behavior for the good of all involved. The government is said to be “a minister of good,” implying that it protects citizens from harm intended by others. The advice to the individual is based on the idea that to disobey these “ministers of good” would only be due to maliciousness or intent to do wrong.
Nothing more is discussed. The specifics of right and wrong are not delved into right there. To make things more confusing, we know that then AND throughout history, those who have taken on the role of “governing” have more often than not used that power in selfish and harmful ways. Most have definitely not been ministers of good. Many have claimed the connection with “God” only so that they can exercise what they see as god-like power. Does this have any bearing on the Christian perspective?
The details of God setting up His nation indicate that although he called various people to action in different circumstances, He was to be recognized as the only ruler. Authority of men was designated at the moment of need. (except when discussing marriage, all references to “men” are grammatically inclusive of all people, God did give authority to some women) The Hebrew people only got a king when they begged for one and then it was seen as a sign of rejection of God. (1 Samuel 10-12)
The bulk of mentions of “rulers” throughout the Bible is referring to their wickedness and oppression of their fellow man. Even the prophecies of the end of the world speak of total rebellion of all the governments of the world. Up to their final breath, they will deny God and basically spit in His face.
In our more immediate world history, we see extreme examples of harm involving outright mass murders or policies of deprivation such that people starve to death. Other, possibly less tangible, harm is done when children are treated as property of the government. Almost everyone recognizes the need for family cohesiveness, yet governments exert power to weaken parental bonds and influence. Not only that, but people are made to suffer dearly for vocal disagreement and they are hardly allowed to defend themselves from man or beast.
It seems that most rulers have denied that they are accountable to anyone. Whether one person or many are running other people’s lives, such rulers see governing as an opportunity to manipulate. People are only of value as long as they fit a certain description that has little to do with good character or habits that are beneficial to the general community. Worth, to the government, is determined by whim at best or by revenge at worst. Imagined superiority or general grudges take on a much more destructive ugliness when codified and implemented by governments.
Now might be a good time to go back to the word “submit.” This word implies a choice on the part of the person being advised to submit. And while it implies a non-selfish, self-controlled approach, it does not imply silence or lack of appropriate action.
When used in the marriage context, there is a reciprocity to submission. Or there should be as it is presented to the Christian. In a community sense, one should consider the (Biblical) injunction to “love one’s neighbor as one’s self.” This second scenario suggests that such loving begins with a strong sense of self-love; that is, it is natural for people to look out for their own interests. It doesn’t mean letting someone else always get their own way. Everyone is supposed to be concerned about everyone else.
In view of all this, it seems that any governing laws should foster that same mutual care. If the government governs counter to this, it is the godly duty of men to question it and oppose it, should it come to that, because it governs against the principles of God. So, to say it should not be opposed because “God establishes governments” is like saying that a wife should not flee from the beatings of a husband because God has established marriage and wives should submit. It is like saying a wife should not step in when a drunk father is harming his children because wives should submit and children should honor their parents.
These analogies should in no way be taken as a condemnation of men or a claim that women have better natures. Both sexes are equally capable of making life miserable for the people around them. But the parallel for questions of authority and submission should be obvious. When (God-given) positions of authority are used in a destructive manner, the right to exercise authority may not be claimed based on a link to God. Others of conscience may have to step up to attempt to topple such power in order for there to be a place for a better authority.
Part of the problem is in deciding when this might be appropriate. When is the abuse of power “bad enough?” Fines for governmentally decreed traffic rules are hardly an issue of morality, unless they are so heavy that the people are stripped of resources in the process. Also, not everyone agrees about whether or not policies are harmful. Lack of knowledge and experience affect evaluation, but so do basic assumptions about what is right and wrong. It can be challenging to agree at what point the infringement of a current government on personal well-being is worth the effort for a change of power.
And that is partly the point. Because not all men will look to God as their King (we are assuming here that there are some who will parade as godly who do not really know Him), and because not all men are equally mature or trustworthy in their thinking (there are some who are new to the wisdom of God and there are some who have not acknowledged God who make an effort to live by His principles because they have an inherent understanding of morality), there will always be some people who have more power than others. Even in a situation of limited government, keeping it limited will depend greatly on those with the ability to wield power. Whether it be intellect, resources, or a selfish thirst for power, some men will have greater opportunity for gaining and maintaining power.
Which brings us back to the idea of loving your neighbor as yourself. This can’t really be done if the government is controlling all aspects of life. We are then left with few ways to personally interact with each other. Everything is mechanized and regulated. The only thing left is to speak up for, and maybe fight for, that neighbor who is being oppressed by the government.
Because, in reality, we are all called to be “ministers of good” to one another. We should discuss among ourselves the best ways to do this, but we must be honest about what really helps. There is evidence available to guide us. We have to acknowledge the tendencies of human nature, but admit to the God-given value of all.
Examination of history shows that no man comes to power by himself. He (or they) must convince others to embrace a certain view of the world; then, those people must be convinced to carry him (or them) to power on their shoulders and with their sacrifice. This is often done with promises of shared power, which usually doesn’t happen.
Occasionally, a group of people will simply gain power in order to give freedom to all men. This is not easily maintained. Most people have ideas about controlling other people.
I am lead to conclude that while God “establishes” government, it is not His ideal that men rule over one another. He works with it, but rulers pervert authority, often creating the need to alter or set up a new government. As with most things, just because God has the final say, controlling and directing up until that final day when He will again be the only government needed, we still have a responsibility. We have choices and spheres of influence. We have times to take action because he has given us conscience, reason, and insight to impact the world around us as ministers of good.