A Godly Response to Government (Romans 13:1–7)

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Recent events in South Africa concerning the behaviour of our government have led many South African Christians to wonder how we are to respond to our ruling authorities. In recent days, the South African state president fired several government ministers and reshuffled his cabinet.

A very able finance minister was sacked, the second time in the past sixteen months. Markets have reacted as most predicted: the Rand has tanked and prospects of foreign investment have been dealt a heavy blow. Many businesses will suffer and, as is always the case, the middle and lower economic classes will feel the brunt of this. The resultant economic decline could very well have a negative impact upon the church in South Africa, especially regarding our involvement in the Great Commission. But this is not my only concern. I am concerned that we Christians respond in a godly way to this God-sent trial.

Many are angry—and rightly so. Many—including Christians—are deeply concerned about both the short- and long-term effect of this irresponsible action. But it is precisely here where we must let our light shine before men and glorify our Father in heaven. It is precisely here where we need to display our gospel-driven hope. We need to respond counter-intuitively, counter-culturally and create the questions in the minds of others, “What is the reason for your hope?” (1 Peter 3:15).

It is for this reason that I want to address the matter of the Christian and human government—specifically, a godly response to government.

Christians do not live in a cultural bubble, allowing us the luxury to ignore what is occurring in other institutional realms (family and government). We should avoid the erroneous two kingdoms dichotomy, which says that the church should have nothing to do with government. The church should speak prophetically. Consider Nazi Germany to see what happens when the church is silent in the face of a godless government. While we are Christians whose citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20), we are also citizens of a particular nation (Acts 21:39; 22:28). We therefore have responsibilities to both kingdoms.

In fact, I would argue that the Christian should view all the world as God’s kingdom, which we are aiming to see extended by plundering Satan’s kingdom.

Let me put it more clearly by quoting the words of the late Charles Colson: “It is impossible to be a good Christian and a bad citizen at the same time.” I want to help us to be good Christians and therefore good citizens.

Government matters, and it matters how it matters. Both are major themes of Romans 13:1–7. Government matters. It is one of three institutions (in addition to family and church) ordained by God. But how a government governs also matters. And ours, like so many around the globe, is not governing properly, wisely or biblically. That is, it is not governing righteously. In fact, as I aim to prove, our government, along with so many governments globally, is governing contrary to its God-given mandate (Romans 13). Governors must be held accountable. They are not untouchable when it comes to critiquing them. This is not unchristian. We are on solid biblical ground to pray and to vote for their removal.

Those are strong statements, but Scripture supports such assertions.

Our state president has demonstrated, time and again, a failure to be God’s servant (and that of the people) in his role as a governing authority. (By the way, the constitution, not the president, is the supreme authority of the land.) His disregard for the Word of God (polygamy, pro-abortion, sexual infidelity, abuse of public funds, etc.) provides little substance for trust in his integrity as a leader. The chaos that characterises his leadership does nothing to enhance the nation’s respect for him as a person or for his office. So, how should the Christian respond? How should our church respond?

Again, in this study, I want to present the biblical response to help to shepherd us through what might be long and difficult days ahead. I am sure that most of us have felt that recent events have given us a sense of prescience as we reflect on our northern neighbours in Zimbabwe. Many may be seriously concerned, even anxious, that South Africa is heading in the same direction. Perhaps. If so, this message is especially relevant and needed. I want to lead us beside the still waters of God’s sovereignty and to help us to lie down in the green pastures of His truth. May we find rest in these turbulent times. And may our rest help us to help others.

I will address several issues in this study to help us to think clearly and to help us to respond faithfully.

The Righteous Role and Responsibility of Human Government

The righteous role and responsibility of human government is clearly stated in vv. 1–4:

Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgement on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.

(Romans 13:1–4)

The Role of Human Government

The role of human government is to mediate God’s rules. This is the reason that God “appointed” human government. Our sin leaves us incapable of governing ourselves; therefore, there is need for humanity to be protected. The law restrains human sinfulness. Paul says so right here (vv. 3–4) and elsewhere (1 Timothy 2:1–3). The first institution of human government makes the same point: “Surely for your lifeblood I will demand a reckoning; from the hand of every beast I will require it, and from the hand of man. From the hand of every man’s brother I will require the life of man. Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God He made man” (Genesis 9:5–6). The Old Testament case laws (Exodus 21–24) were given to protecting people by restraining sinful behaviour.

In short, the biblical role of government is to restrain those who do evil, to protect and give praise to those who do that which is good, and to wield the power of the sword to punish. Simply put, government is responsible, before God, to punish wrongs, to protect rights (as revealed by God’s law), and to promote the welfare of a people.

The context is extremely important. Consider the preceding verses in this letter.

Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. Therefore “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

(Romans 12:18–21)

How then will wrongs be avenged? Who will exercise judicial wrath in space-time history?

The answer is found in Romans 13.

Here, Paul reveals God’s good government. This is not a description of every government, but of government as God intends it to be. It is a description of  God’s gospel-grown government. Willson writes, “God has ordained civil government … not by merely willing its existence, but by prescribing its duties, its functions, its end, and its limitations.”

The gospel has wide and real implications that go far beyond the walls of the church. This brings us to the next important observation.

The Responsibility of Human Government

The responsibility of human government is primarily to serve God by providing the safety and security of those who obey the rules and by punishing those who break His rules. The failure to see this is the reason that our criminal justice system is criminal minus the justice. Rulers of human government are responsible to God, not primarily to those they lead.

The human governor is here called “God’s servant” (v. 4) and human rulers the “ministers of God” (v. 6). Human government is under God. The word translated “servant” in v. 4 is the Greek word from which we derive our English word “deacon.” “Ministers” translates the word from which “liturgy” derives. Human governors are to govern according to God’s rule and in accordance with His rules. God’s purpose for human government (see above) is to be honoured. Otherwise, we have every right to righteously do what we can to expel godless rulers.

South African citizens over the last eight years or so have witnessed President Zuma’s loyalty to the ruling party trumping his loyalty to the nation. This has been cause for much complaint. However, both are wrongheaded. Those how govern are to do so in the fear of God. David understood this, as clearly displayed in his last words:

Now these are the last words of David. Thus says David the son of Jesse; thus says the man raised up on high, the anointed of the God of Jacob, and the sweet psalmist of Israel: “The Spirit of the LORD spoke by me, and His word was on my tongue. The God of Israel said, the Rock of Israel spoke to me: ‘He who rules over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God. And he shall be like the light of the morning when the sun rises, a morning without clouds, like the tender grass springing out of the earth, by clear shining after rain.’”

(2 Samuel 23:1–4)

David’s son, Solomon, added, “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people” (Proverbs 14:34).

The Restrictions on Human Government

According to Romans 13, human government  is to rule in terms of “good” and “evil”—as defined by God. If it ignores these, then the door for tyranny is opened.

Willson writes, “Paul gives us the character of human government, as God approves it, and then enjoins subjection.” The biblically-defined role and responsibility of human government carries with it implied restrictions and limitations. When such restrictions are transgressed, tyranny results, and tyranny is to be resisted. Not many Christians would argue the rightness of resisting a foreign nation that sought to rule over us. But the principle remains the same when it comes to a nation’s own government when it becomes tyrannical. It was right for Iraqis to oppose Saddam Hussein and for Germans to oppose Adolf Hitler. But be careful: Economic tyranny and megalomania-driven governance that makes our lives harder is no justification for the kind of drastic actions of a Dietrich Bonhoeffer. However, to resist such is certainly within our right . In fact,  would argue that it is our responsibility. We should do all we can to legitimately seek the removal of tyrants. In our culture, among other things, we call this the voice backed up by the vote.

The Right to Rule

But, isn’t every government ordained by God? Are we not therefore obligated to submit to it? Are we not obligated to respect it? Are we not obligated to never resist it? These are important questions.

First, let us acknowledge that, since the institution of government is ordained by God, we need to be careful how we respond to a government. But here many go wrong. Romans 13 does not teach that we are to always give what Willson called “unresisting, unquestioning subjection to civil authority of whatever stamp.” This has been the pietistic exposition for too many for too long in places like the United States. It was my own view for a long time.

However, not all government, as revealed in Scripture, is given carte blanche legitimacy by God. Through Hosea, God said, “They made kings, but not through me. They set up princes, but I knew it not” (8:4). Kings were resisted by God’s people: David was opposed by Nathan. Uzziah was withstood by eighty priests because he went outside the bounds of God’s Word (2 Chronicles 26:18). Both Daniel and John referred to tyrannical, evil kings as “beasts” (Daniel 7; Revelation 17).

This is equally true with other institutions. Take family, for example. No man has a right to speak where God has already spoken. For safety’s sake, sometimes authority in the home is to be resisted. The same principle applies to the church. There are times when the congregation should, out of duty to God, resist its leadership: in instances, for example, of heresy and clear violation of Scriptures. If a church leader, for instances, is living in open immorality, he must be resisted.

It is important to note that Paul is speaking of the institution of government, not an individual. This is important because Paul is assuming God’s purpose of that institution, not man’s perversion of it.  Under God’s sovereign providence, Kim Jong-un is the ruler of North Korea. However, he in no way fits the description of God’s intention for government. Would it be wrong to seek his overthrow? Not at all. In fact, to not be intent on his removal would be unrighteous.

What about South African government? It is in power under the sovereign hand of God. But when it fails to deliver on what God has prescribed for human government, it has lost legitimate authority. We are right to seek its removal. We are right and, if our motive is pure, we are righteous to pray for and to legitimately work for the removal of Mr Zuma from the presidency. It is silly to suggest that the church should not pray for his removal.

Let us remember that Paul likely wrote Romans during Nero’s early years as emperor. At that time, Nero was an excellent ruler under which the Pax Romana was flourishing. Within a few years, he would become the beast (Revelation 13:1–10)—hardly a respectful description. When Romans was written, Nero exemplified the description of government in Romans 13:1–7. When the Romans first read the letter, they would have considered Nero a good ruler; in later years, not so much.

In summary, government does not have legitimacy simply by virtue of its existence—any more than sin and its fruits has legitimacy simply because sovereign God has ordained that it exists. We don’t simply “accept” disease since God has allowed it. No, we fight it. We try to cure it. We resist it.

A Realisation Concerning Human Government

Government is given for our safety, not our salvation. In Why Government Can’t Save You, John MacArthur makes some good points, but he goes too far and not far enough! It is true that government was not given to us to save us, yet it was given by God to serve Him. And Christians should hold it accountable to do so. The fact is, when government functions as God intends, it is good for the church and good for society (see 1 Timothy 2:1­–5).

Those who govern themselves need to be governed. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. So, be careful.

The Righteous Response to Human Government

How should Christians respond to human government? We can say at least four things in answer to that question.

First, we are to render respect to the institution of human government. That institution is ordained by God. To choose autonomy is to choose anarchy. Every one of us must be governed. Even anarchist organisations cannot exist without rules of some sort.

Second, we are to render respect to those in the institution of human government. They are people made in the image of God. When Paul urged Titus to “speak evil of no one,” he did so in the context of human government. We need to guard our hearts and our mouths. If you call your leaders derogatory names, you are disobeying the governor of the universe. I for one don’t appreciate the jokes about President Zuma’s math skills. Since when it is a mark of godliness to mock the inadequacies of others?

Third, we have the responsibility to righteously speak and to righteously select. Martin Niemoeller was a German pastor who was arrested for speaking out against the policies of the Nazis. He was arrested and charged with “abuse of the pulpit.” It was a righteous thing for him to do.

Gary Demar writes, “To obey Romans 13 is to call our civil officials to uphold their oath of office.” Most governments are installed under oath, many of which include the words, “So help me God.” In many lands, God allows those who are governed to choose those who govern. Be careful what and whom you ask for.

Of course, due to political processes, our choice is seldom truly free. We are often made to feel that we are forced to select the lesser of evils. But, at least in South Africa, we do have a choice. We should therefore vote for the party that best aligns with God’s prescription in Romans 13. Vote principally rather than pragmatically.

Fourth, we are to render complete respect to the one ruling all human government. That is, we are to obey God rather than men. When there is a conflict between the two, the choice is easy. This brings us to the next observation.

The Righteous Ruler Over Human Government

Of course, there is a righteous Ruler over all human government. Jehoshaphat said it this way: “O LORD God of our fathers, are You not God in heaven, and do You not rule over all the kingdoms of the nations, and in Your hand is there not power and might, so that no one is able to withstand You?” (2 Chronicles 20:6). David sang of God, “Rule in the midst of Your enemies” (Psalm 89:2). Or listen to these words describing Daniel’s vision:

I watched till thrones were put in place, and the Ancient of Days was seated; His garment was white as snow, and the hair of His head was like pure wool. His throne was a fiery flame, its wheels a burning fire; a fiery stream issued and came forth from before Him. A thousand thousands ministered to Him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before Him. The court was seated, and the books were opened.

I watched then because of the sound of the pompous words which the horn was speaking; I watched till the beast was slain, and its body destroyed and given to the burning flame. As for the rest of the beasts, they had their dominion taken away, yet their lives were prolonged for a season and a time.

I was watching in the night visions, and behold, One like the Son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven! He came to the Ancient of Days, and they brought Him near before Him. Then to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and His kingdom the one which shall not be destroyed.

(Daniel 7:9–14)

John reiterated the truth of God’s sovereign reign (Revelation 2:27; 12:5; 19:15). In the Bible, kings are often described as shepherds. God is the Good shepherd, who rules so well that those who submit to His will never lack.

A proper grasp of this reality will do several things for us. It will empower us to righteously rest and relax amid poor, inept, corrupt and godless government. It will empower us to pray for the removal of such a government to be replaced with a righteous government. It will empower us to keep on doing what we are called to do amid an unrighteous government. Think of the early church, which was Spirit filled in the face of godless rulers. When opposed, they turned to God in prayer. Their clear vision of Christ enabled them to be believingly bold in their praying. Will it do the same for us? Will we believingly pray for God to remove godless influences from our government? Will we pray for the strengthening of the economy in the face of overwhelming odds?

A proper grasp of God’s sovereign rule will provide hope for us. History has shown how God has allowed things to change and how He has built His church. Consider the history of European countries like France and the UK, where Christians were once terribly persecuted until God blessed and poured out gospel blessings so that godless governments became righteous governments. There are many places in our world where things will need to change if the gospel will spread. As I write these words, there are countries in the 10/40 window where gospel influence seems hopeless. But if we truly believe that God rules even there, it will give us hope that the gospel can conquer.

An understanding of God’s sovereignty will empower us to raise up a new government. The ANC prepared for the day in which they would rule. Should not the church do the same? Serving in government is a noble and worthy calling for the Christian. Who better to rule than the righteous? Will we train our children to be the next generation of leaders? Ought we not to encourage young Christians to pursue a career in politics so that the leaven of the gospel can spread throughout government?

I can already hear the objections. Did Jesus not say that His kingdom was “not of this world” (John 18:36)? Yes, He did. But He did not say that it was not in this world. There are two kingdoms that exist in the world, but one of the goals of the Great Commission is the reconciling of these into one righteous kingdom (1 Corinthians 15:20-28). We should expect a foretaste of this in pre-consummate history.

The Righteous Run from the Government

Finally, we must confront the desire to flee. When things go south in government, Christians—and non-Christians—often are tempted to run. Is this the responsible thing to do?

We should say from the outset that there certainly are times when the Christian should run. Who would begrudge Christians fleeing murderous regimes in Syria and Iraq?

There are several examples in the Bible of God’s people fleeing. On a couple of occasions before His appointed time of the cross, Jesus was confronted with hostility and wisely removed Himself from harm’s way (Luke 4:28–30; John 7:1). There were times when Paul’s life was under threat and he got out of town (Acts 9:23–25; 17:5–10; cf. 23:11–35). In Matthew 24:15–28, Jesus warned the infant church in Jerusalem to flee when they began to see the signs of His impending judgement upon the city. When intense persecution broke out upon the church in Jerusalem, the majority of the church fled the city (Acts 8:1–5; 11:19–21).

In the Old Testament, we could cite the examples of God’s command for Lot and his family to flee from Sodom and Gomorrah; the flight of Jacob and his family to Egypt during the famine; the exodus; and God’s command to the Jews to willingly go to Babylon when that nation conquered Jerusalem.

So, yes, there are several biblical examples to justify the conclusion that there are times when God provides a way of escape from a dangerous place. There are times when a Christian should leave a war zone for a safer zone.

But, be careful! The majority of Christians leaving South Africa are not doing so for this reason. They are running because they are seeking economic security and comfort. Be careful.

Allow me to quote from an article that I wrote last year, in which I addressed the reality that there are times to flee and times to stay put:

We need to be careful of drawing a direct line from these biblical examples to our own situation, particularly here in South Africa. When all the facts are considered, it seems that, in many cases, the two scenarios are chalk and cheese.

It seems to me that if a person, family or group of people are under direct or imminent threat of violence, they are wise to avoid it. I think of the many Jewish people in Germany, Austria and Poland in the late 1930s who, when they saw Hitler’s blood-drenched writing on the wall, took advantage of the opportunity to flee while they could. …the case in Acts 8 of the persecuted church in Jerusalem serves as an instructive example. Their lives were under threat and a living Christian is usually a more effective witness than a dead one (though the case of Stephen certainly defies this point!). When Paul’s life was under direct threat, and he had the opportunity to spare his life and to extend the length and reach of his ministry, he did so. But note that, in all of these cases, these individuals emigrated from a war zone to a safety zone because of the danger of physical violence—never because of the desire to protect their economic interest. One might object that Jacob’s move to Egypt would be an exception. However, even in that case, it was a matter of physical survival; they were not fleeing a difficult place merely for an economic comfort zone. And this is my concern, and hence my caution.

I am concerned that many of us Christians are tempted to leave South Africa motivated primarily by the quest for a comfort zone. In fact, the ones who can afford to emigrate are usually living in neighbourhoods that are far safer than those who cannot emigrate. If this is the major motivation for emigrating, then I would caution against it.

Someone has wonderfully and succinctly summed up what should be our response when faced with such difficulties: “The Christian moves towards need, not towards comfort.” Our country is in need of strong churches. Perhaps we should rather move closer to them than an ocean away from them.

So, what is a righteous response? Rather than running away from our ungodly rulers, we should run to the godly Ruler of all government. Pray and pay your respects. Pray and pay your taxes. Pray and speak out respectfully. Pray and cast your vote. Pray and make disciples. Pray and believe God. Pray and read the Bible. Pray and read history. Pray and raise a new government.

We live in very exciting times—challenging, uncertain, politically volatile, but exciting nonetheless. What is God in Christ doing? What is He up to? I don’t have the complete answer to that, but I do have the main answer: He is saving His people from their sins. He is building His Church. And He is doing this by discipling the nations.

Of course, discipleship is all about teaching those converted to Christ to obey all that He has commanded.  He has commanded us concerning how to respond to government. So, let’s be faithful disciples. Preach the gospel, and when given the opportunity, preach it to government. Participate in government. Prepare your children and your church members for government. Pray to the one who ultimately rules over all government.