Gospel & government
If there is anything we can all agree on is that the political tone we are all experiencing in this day and age is abrasive, divisive and polarized. It is embarrassing and sometimes outright uncomfortable to see how “professionals” are engaging one another. The greatest tragedy in all of this is when the “church” becomes a willing and active participant.
In the midst of such antics and vile behavior, how do we reconcile Romans 13:1, “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.”
The usual response, particularly from Christians, is to demonize the government and label it as evil. Once it is rendered “evil” it then somehow justifies just about any action taken against it. We excuse our vitriol, hateful and offensive language and actions all in the name of Jesus Christ. What an abomination! Yet it is exactly what the right does to the left and the left does to the right – and these are the Christians.
Yet, when I look at the history of Israel and most importantly the example of Jesus, I fail to find where Jesus mobilizes us to take up positions of high righteousness and overthrow the authorities. For that matter, I don't find any semblance of such a message in Jesus or in his apostles.
After all, its not as if Jesus was ministering under the umbrella of a benevolent or righteous governmental authority. If anything, Rome was ruled by a series of ruthless rulers. Nero, who blamed the fire in Rome on the Christians and initiated the formal persecution of Christians in 64AD, was not only ruthless but also maniacal. This persecution lasted until 313 AD. Thus the church began its ministry and persevered during an age of outright hatred towards it and scholars will testify that what kept the church alive was not its “liberation theology” against the government but it was its testimony and integrity of love and forgiveness, an adherence to the integral values of the Gospel.
I hear people today cast disparaging remarks on our political leaders today because they are corrupt, self indulgent and not representative of our “spiritual values.” Yet when I look at Biblical history and world history for that matter, what I see is that God has always managed to forged God’s intent in history with some of the worst people in history.
Paul declares in Romans 13:2 that these authorities are “appointed” by God. It doesn't say that they are “endorsed,” “representatives of God,” or “servants” of God. It says that God has appointed them. In other words, God has a purpose for them. He uses them to accomplish something through them. Psalms 22:28 inform us, “For kingship belongs to the Lord, and He rules over the nations.” Psalms 110:6 states, “He will judge the nations …”
A quick review will help us understand this …
· Moses didn't lead a rebellion out of Egypt. He obtained permission. In order to obtain that permission he had to allow God’s time and revelation to take place so that everyone, including Pharaoh, would witness that this was of God. Pharaoh was no champion to be admired.
· Saul was appointed and proved to be an affirmation of Samuel’s message that the people of Israel were rejecting God’s leadership for a weak man who would only use them and take from them.
· David may have been a man after God’s own heart but in order to rule and bring the tribes together he had to be ruthless. He was so ruthless in what he did that God saw him as a man tainted with blood and death and he could not be granted permission to build the temple.
· Nebuchadnezzar was no spiritual champion but it because of his dominance and power he was able to bring the remnant of Israel into captivity and scholars agree that true monotheism was finally achieved with the Jews while they were in captivity in Babylon.
· We can even argue that the ruthless Roman Empire was appointed by God to bring the known world of the first century to a point where Jesus would be crucified by Gentile world and rejected by the Sanhedrin. In turn, the Gospel message would have a fertile ground with exhaustive regional reach to all of Europe and the Middle East because of the expansiveness of such an empire.
· If we believe in modern prophecy we could even argue that the barbaric nature of Adolph Hitler proved to demonstrate the absolute presence of evil in the modern age and a grand portion of that evil was directed at the Jews. As a result of such hatred, it galvanized enough empathy for the exiled Jews around the world that it paved the way for the rebirth of Israel in 1947.
Paul does not intend to justify evil in any leadership but he seems to be telling us is that evil is present but even then God is in control. The authority of government functions at another realm different from individual realm of authority. Paul simply calls on us to remember that in the end, God is sovereign and we must trust Him.
So if God is sovereign and we have to trust that whatever government is in office is appointed by God, then does this mean we have no role in modern day governmental affairs?
The answer is clearly no. We do have a role to play but here is where it gets tricky and I believe we often get “out of our lane” or exceed our paygrade. From the beginning of time we have always seen the authority of government placed on certain individuals to rule and govern. In Israel’s theocracy it was also accompanied with the role of the prophet who was charged with speaking truth to power.
The prophet was not endowed with any authority over the king or government. His role was traditionally to pursue his relationship with God so he can speak God’s word to the people and to power. He had the special gift of influencing but he had no legal authority. The power could chose to obey or disobey the prophet but when the prophet was truly a mouthpiece for God then God would exercise His own authority on heaven and earth to the matter.
When Jesus prepared to ascend he had spent 40 days with his followers. Just prior to ascending to heaven he had one final commandment. It wasn't go liberate the oppressed, pursue righteousness in government, or even feed the hungry. His final decree to the church was, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in[b] the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” – Matthew 28:18-20
In the same way that Jesus did not challenge the Roman government when asked if he was a king, he made it very clear that His Kingdom is of another world. We must remember that we can not allow the powers of principalities of this world to sidetrack us into believing that our call is to liberate groups of people under secular law. Our calling is not of a temporal nature but an eternal one, and if we really believe in the authority of scripture and the words of Jesus then we know that our mission is to liberate people one by one with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
If true freedom from sin and death are achieved and we are led by the Spirit of God then we shall be the greatest testimony and force of love that lead people to real innate transformation. The evidence of God’s love in us will lead us to seek to speak truth to powers. However the truth we must speak is not clothed in policy, laws or political agendas. The truth to power is always about the true love that liberates and that love seeks justice, seeks to feed the poor, to clothe the naked and free the oppressed but it always begins with the spirit.
In his book Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis reminds us, “Again, Christianity asserts that every individual human being is going to live for ever, and this must be either true or false. . . . And immortality makes this other difference, which, by the by, has a connection with the difference between totalitarianism and democracy. If individuals live only seventy years, then a state, or a nation, or a civilization, which may last for a thousand years, is more important than an individual. But if Christianity is true, then the individual is not only more important but incomparably more important, for he is everlasting and the life of the state or civilization, compared with his, is only a moment.”
We must note, speaking truth to power is not without consequence. Many have died standing to defend God over man. However when such persecution comes it must always be for defending the Gospel, the name of Jesus and the authority of scripture. Persecution is persecution when we are defending the name of Jesus. If we perish because we are aligning ourselves with a policy, a law or political power then it is mere foolishness for we are dying for the temporal and not the eternal.