Let’s begin with some Scriptural facts: The civil government is the sword-wielding agent designated to deliver and dispense justice in our community. Yes, this is the foundational purpose of the civil government. We see the first manifestation of this in the garden when an angel was designated by God to bar entry to Adam and Eve through the use of an instrument of force—a sword.
In essence, the civil government is the entity that is legally endowed with the right to use force to compel its citizens to obedience. Yes, that is the Scriptural picture of governance and that is the fundamental purpose of an earthly government. While we understand that civil government would include many other webs of jurisdiction, it certainly helps to know that on the onset, its primary established role is to get people to obey.
What does that tell us? It gives us an idea that left to our sinful selves, we are all crime-making machines. We are all anarchists, arsonists, racists, rioters, rapists, and murderers waiting to happen! Thus, the earthly government is the institution ordained to curb the external manifestation of the inner fangs. It is a God-ordained provision of mercy. Without the government, it will be a wild pandemonium.
Israel was a theocracy, a nation led by God through different ordained magistrates. The priests, prophets, and kings didn’t need to beat each other up with debates over the separation of the state and the church. It was a non-issue because both offices were interdependent on each other. However, we would discover in the New Testament that this was no longer the case. Jewish Christians eventually found themselves exposed and subjected to secular governments. For a number of years, these governments weren’t hospitable to Christianity at all. Interestingly, this is where we find ourselves in. We are Christians living in a post-modern world that has a growing hostility against us. This is where we will find Paul’s exhortation in Romans 13 helpful.
In a nutshell, Romans 13 calls us to be subjects to governing authorities. I would understand if an eyebrow is raised.
Let us settle a few things first. First, all governments are representative of fallen humanity. Meaning to say all earthly governments are corrupt. All. Corrupt hearts produce corrupt governments. So, understand that no matter how excellent a policy or reform is, a corrupt system cannot bear the weight of a good policy. Wild as it may seem, Augustine calls the government a necessary evil. It is then incumbent upon a Christian man to never latch his hopes on politicians. Our hope should only be on the one who can truly make all things new. It is so stupid of us when we become messianic about political parties. It is absurd and laughable when we hail a president or a governor when in fact they are mere chess pieces in the timeline of providence.
Secondly, if we will look into the Scriptural mandate of every Christian, we will realize that regardless of the kind of government we are subject into, the non-debatable aspects are always honor and prayers. We are called to honor and pray for the government and its officials. If our words tear more than build, then we are tearing the nations all the more. Paul did not write Romans 13 in a perfect Christian-conducive environment. The persecution of the church went pedal to the metal pre-Christendom. Yet, the knowledge of providence, the understanding of redemptive history, and the fruit of the Spirit enabled Christians to honor and pray for secular governments that have run amok with their sword wielding.
So, does Romans 13 mean conformity to evil? Is there a boundary to submission? Let’s answer that by looking into some stories. First, remember that there would be no Moses if his mother obeyed an edict to kill all the baby boys in their land. The Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar ordered all his subjects to bow before the golden image of his god. At the sound of the trumpets, everyone bowed, yet three God-fearing folks remained defiant. When Peter and John were asked to stop preaching Christ, they can only laugh at the command. These stories tell us that the demand for subjection is relative, not absolute. If the demands of the governing authorities require us to disobey God, then we will choose to disobey the authorities. We will always honor God above the state.
Lastly, I mentioned that the government is the institution ordained by God to curb the external manifestation of the inner fangs. The job of the government is merely external. The internal fangs can only be remedied and unarmed by the gospel. Thus, our ultimate mandate is to honor God and make disciples. As we preach the gospel, make disciples, raise and send leaders, we will see growing concentric circles of transformation in the nations of the world.