For some time, in evangelical circles, criticism of conservative politicians is often met with biblical rebuke. Dissenters are often reminded that “leaders are appointed by God”, and instructed that our only response should be to pray. Such teachings are misleading, at best.
We Are Not to Always Obey Our Government
“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. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” -Romans 13:1-2
Nearly two years after writing this passage, Paul was arrested and imprisoned for unlawfully spreading the Gospel in Rome. 10 years after writing this passage, he was executed for resisting the governing authority of Rome. Even during his imprisonment, Paul wrote letters to Christian churches spreading the same message that lead to his imprisonment. Paul’s life of resisting authority seemingly appears to be at odds with how many believers interpret this verse, but it’s not at odds with what he meant, and we’ll get to why.
The book of Romans was written in A.D. 57 while Roman Emperor, Nero, was in power. There isn’t any indication that at the time, Nero was a tyrannical or violent threat to Christians or Jews. The above remarks were made during a time when radical Jews acknowledged no leader but God and refused to pay taxes to the state. Paul sought to deescalate unnecessary conflict between a system of rule instituted by God and the Church who had begun treating earthly authorities with extreme disapproval. Violent Jewish nationalism has been regarded as the primary reasoning for their expulsion just a few years prior to Nero by the previous emperor Claudius.
Paul writes this passage while contextualizing the life of Jesus, a man who paid his taxes to Caesar out of humble submission to governmental rule, only to later be charged and crucified for his refusal to submit to that same system of rule. So how do we know when to follow Jesus’ lead in submitting to the government or when to follow His lead in resisting the government? Jesus explains quite simply when he says, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Submission for a Christian, means to discern what of yours is yours to give to man, from that which belongs to God.
The above verse explains quite clearly:
“For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”
Some assume this means that all authority exists by and for God; however Paul does not say this. He says, “There is no authority except from God.” He teaches us how to discern true authority. If it’s not from God, it’s not an authority. We are called to hold leaders and the laws they propose to a biblical standard of godliness that distinguishes who and what are actually “from God.” Jesus, and His disciples resisted their governing authorities. All, but two were executed because of it. Paul’s instruction is that we don’t behave like the Jewish zealots, who used religion to abdicate their responsibilities. Resistance should be an expression of godly goodness and not one of political opportunism.
Appointed and Anointed, or is God Just Disappointed?
In 1 Samuel 8 the children of Israel cry out to God for a King to judge them because they lacked trust in God’s perfect leadership. The voice of the Lord came through Samuel warning that a King would send their sons off to war, take their daughters for himself, take their grain and vineyards, and that they would be slaves to him. Still, they persisted, and the Lord relented. While some may discount Old Testament scripture as holding less weight, God’s character on this matter shows through quite clearly, and He according to scripture never changes. God allows people, even in their depravity to choose their leadership. The Lord was greatly grieved on the insistence of the people against His will, but he appointed and anointed Saul. A few chapters later in 1 Samuel 15 the Lord quite candidly expresses his disappointment saying, “I regret that I have made Saul King.” The Lord uses the word ‘regret’ to express how he feels 3 times in scripture, and twice was over the appointment of Saul as King.
Even when someone is appointed to lead, as Saul was, it is not indicative of God’s will or pleasure. In modern times, the selection process for governing authorities has certainly evolved. Most governmental systems are not a theocracy and in many countries, religious tests violate constitutional freedoms. Did God appoint Stalin, Mussolini, or Hitler? Maybe God used those men as opportunities to test his people? Did god appoint America’s founding forefathers to oversee mass genocide and enslavement? Unfortunately, these types of theological debates are often the reason why the Christian Church is slow to speak out and intervene when they don’t consider doing so to be politically expedient. It is why the German church was supportive of Hitler and at best became only complicit toward the height of the Holocaust. It is why the American Church (particularly Southern Baptists) were advocates of governmental oppression of black Americans. The actions of a secular government are not synonymous with God’s will nor are they his way of tempting or punishing us.
“Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.” –James 1: 13-14
Wicked leadership on Earth isn’t a result of God interacting with us, but rather the result of our refusal to interact with Him. We are tempted with oppressive rule when we are lured by our own desires to navigate political, economic, and cultural issues while only considering our own interests. God doesn’t appoint evil leaders. He is disappointed by them and our refusal to trust in His perfect leadership. Scripture clearly communicates that “all things work together for the good of those who love God” (Romans 8:28). This promise explains a particular faithfulness that God has to his children despite the reality that one of several scenarios hangs in the balance of God’s providence and man’s free will. God didn’t appoint Hitler. Political appointments exist outside of the biblical process; However, despite our secular attempts at self-governance, He intervenes for the sake of love (empowering us to course-correct), hopefully with our cooperation but also without it.
What Can Christians Do?
There are core values that God calls all believers to in scripture and affirms at the heart of our intrinsic humanity. Our responsibility is our commitment to these irrefutable values rooted in Jesus’ heavenly example of consistently refusing to compromise. Does this mean we should always find cause to rail against leaders who make mistakes and bad decisions? We all make mistakes and bad decisions, but the impacts of these mistakes are greater for Leaders, and because of such, scripture expresses quite convincingly that teachers are held to a greater condemnation (James 3:1) and that it would be better to never be born than to make the mistake of leading others astray (Luke 17:2). Scripture spends so much time explaining the requirements for leadership, because becoming a leader does not mean you were meant to be one. Any leader that invites us into a system of rule, or even a perspective that opposes our call to loving one another, should be met with resistance. The idea that dissenting a political leader is a betrayal of biblical values, is many things. It’s manipulative, dangerous, but most importantly… it’s wrong.
Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr. all resisted governmental rule and the leaders of their time. As we review the history of those who bravely dissented unjust rule, we think of them positively, but very rarely is dissent praised in the moment. The Bible is also filled with godly men who resisted their political leaders. Many were sentenced to death for it, including Daniel, the Hebrew boys, most of the disciples, Stephen, and even Jesus.
When asked, which of the commandments were of highest importance, Jesus replied:
“‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” –Matthew 22:37-40
Any leader whose politics interfere with our commitment to Jesus’ admonition to love the Lord and our neighbors must be met with resistance. The Church has missed key opportunities to side with God over our government. We cannot continue to follow the example of those from 1 Samuel 8 who cried out for a King when the Lord is still willing to lead us perfectly. The Jewish people, Native Americans, and African Americans deserved more than a Church who blindly sided with their government. Who are we siding with now?