When forming a biblical view of government the most important principle to keep in mind is this: God ordained human government. First Peter 2:11-17 and Romans 13:1-7 provide the foundations for developing a biblical view of government and supply the principles from which everything else should flow. As we examine briefly Peter’s first letter, it is important to keep in mind that he lived under the authority of the Roman government in 64 AD—a hostile, pagan government ruled by Emperor Nero that required its citizens to bow the knee to the Caesar and honor him as deity.
The call to bow the knee to Caesar would have been a direct compromise to their faith and something Christians at the time would not tolerate. Yet, to refuse worship to Nero would have led to their unjust execution. Nevertheless, Peter instructs his people to submit themselves to this wicked government.
Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul…Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God. Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king.1 Peter 2:11-17
In this text, Peter is addressing Christians in this passage, and he beseeches them to submit to political authority. They are not to overthrow the government, be a rabble-rouser, create civil disobedience, or become vigilantes. Remember: Peter’s king slaughtered Christians.
Romans 13 provides a similar exhortation from the Apostle Paul regarding what should constitute a Christian attitude toward government:
Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.Romans 13:1-7
Paul is not referring to a Christian government in this text; he is referring to the ruling government—the pagan, unbelieving, sometimes hostile, often compromising government that was in force during the writing of the New Testament. Yet Paul says the exact same thing as Peter. Incredibly, he is specifically referring to a government that would eventually behead him for being a Christian.
Paul also teaches us that every country, nation, king, or governor that exists is placed in that position of authority specifically by God—including the good, the bad, or the ugly. This texts tells us that God sovereignly determines who will be in a position of authority. It also explains that if you break the law, you will suffer the consequences of the law, and the government has the right to punish you. If you do not want to have fear of authority or government intrusion, do what is good and right.
Paul uses interesting terminology when he refers to governmental authorities as “ministers of God” and “servants of God.” This means that police officers are ministers of God. Soldiers are ministers of God. Government officials are ministers of God. They were given that authority by God who delegated it to them as a stewardship responsibility. They are accountable to God the Creator for it. While they may wrongly abuse such authority, they remain accountable to God the Creator to serve with justice and in accordance to the law. This includes every single person who serves in a civil and leadership capacity, which is why Paul calls them “ministers” or “servants” on behalf of God, for your good.
God has allowed and delegated the authority to execute judgment, including the death penalty, to governing authorities. God instituted the death penalty during the days of Noah long before the Mosaic Law (see Gen 9:6). When I hear pacifist Christians claim that capital punishment is wrong, unloving, unchristian, and not what Christ believed in, I point them to this particular text in Genesis where God specifically institutes the death penalty as something that can be justly executed by local governments.
As a matter of fact, God instituted the death penalty in Genesis 2:16-17 when He told Adam that he would die if he ate of the forbidden fruit. The death penalty has been in force from God’s point of view ever since Adam’s disobedience, and it is even reaffirmed by Jesus in the New Testament (see Luke 13:5). It came from God, and when Jesus returns again in Revelation 19:11, He will be coming, not as a Suffering Servant, but as a warrior to fight against His enemies and execute the death penalty upon them. It is the biblical position that Paul affirms in this text when he says that God gave them government authority to “bear the sword” as a minister of God. Governing officials are to serve as avengers who bring wrath and justice upon those who practice evil.
Notice also that Paul refers to governmental authorities as “ministers” or “servants” of God in Romans 13. You might be thinking, “Well, they sure don’t act like it!” Unfortunately, many times that is the case. Many rulers abuse authority; but this was not God’s intention. There are some respectable governing officials who devote themselves to pursuing justice, but there are also many evil officials who neglect or undermine the authority God has given them.
Nevertheless, Paul tells us to “render to all what is due them” (v. 7). Tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom is due. This is one of my least favorite Bible verses, especially when I drive to seminary class and get hit with a $5.00 bridge tax. Oftentimes, as I hand them my cash and there are hundreds of cars passing through, my first thought is, “Where is all that money going?” Then I turn in my money, smile, and drive off thinking, “That was literally highway robbery!”
But that is the wrong response on my part. Scripture clearly tells us how to handle these situations: Custom to whom custom is due; bridge toll fee to whom bridge toll fee is due. Fear to whom fear is due; honor to whom honor is due. As believers, this should be our primary perspective and attitude when thinking about human government, because everything else flows from these two passages.
Here are some corollary points to keep in mind when thinking about human government as it was ordained by God:
God Determines Who Our Political Leaders Are
Ultimately, God is sovereign. That is the truth we find in the book of Daniel. It is God who changes the times and the epochs of history (Dan 2:44; 4:3, 34-35; 6:26-27; 7:13-14). He has a plan for history, and it is going somewhere. There is a culmination and fulfillment of history, and the book of Revelation tells us what that is. In order to get there, God removes kings and establishes kings as He wills. In His sovereignty God determines who our political leaders are. During an election season, God takes your vote into account, but He ultimately establishes the political official that suits His good purposes, as we see in the next point.
God Uses all Political Leaders for His Purposes
Through the good, the bad, and the ugly, God uses all political leaders for His purposes. In Romans 9:17, God tells Pharaoh, “I raised you up to demonstrate my power in you.” In other words, God is saying that He chose Pharaoh as king, despite the fact that Pharaoh was a murderous, brutal, evil and lousy thug, in order to display His Divine power. To what power is God referring? The power of the Exodus: the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea. Pharaoh’s power was less than a drop in the bucket compared to Almighty God. We cannot be sure of the exact reasons for why God establishes certain leaders, but we can be certain that in every case, He establishes those leaders for His righteous purposes.
God Created Government to Maintain Order
One of the primary reasons God ordained human government is to maintain order, whether it is civil order, or public order such as roads and traffic laws—everything that gives public order to humanity. In Romans 13:1, we see that we need order from an external force because we are finite, sinful, and selfish beings who need God’s help.
God Created Government to Punish Sinners and Restrain Evil
As sinners, we need to be restrained in order to keep order, protect other people, and bring about justice. God has given internal restraints so we can preserve order in society, and those internal restraints include the human conscience. By God’s design, every human has a conscience; this is what we call internal governance. If you become a Christian, God gives you another internal governance through the indwelling Holy Spirit who helps restrain evil even more.
God also gave us external governance, and this includes formal government. God created government for the purpose of punishing sinners and restraining evil, as we have seen in Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2. Rulers and authority figures, including police officers, are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Sinners and lawbreakers should be afraid of the police when they see them, because the police are given for the primary purpose to evoke fear in those who do wrong. Police officers are ministers and avengers of God who bring wrath on those who practice evil to protect and to serve. Restrain evil, preserve justice, and protect the innocent—those are the primary roles of government.
First Peter 2:14 says the same thing: “[G]overnors [are] sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right.” Why do we have laws, policemen, and the military? The answer is found in 1 Timothy 1:8-10, where Paul says,
But we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully, realizing the fact that law is not made for a righteous person, but for those who are lawless and rebellious for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching.
This is the law that God gave, and all of it was good. For example, if you have courtesy towards your neighbors who have nice lawns and you purpose to never step on their grass, you don’t need a law or a sign that says, “Do not step on the grass.” These laws are made because there are people who could not care less, who don’t respect other people, and who step on the grass. That is why we have laws, and that is why God gave laws.
God not only ordained human government; He is the one who puts governing officials in their position of authority, and removes them when He sees fit. This is a crucial truth to keep in mind during an election season. No matter who finally wins an election, we can know for certain that God, for His own good purposes, has placed that leader in the position of authority. Their presence in office may make things better or more difficult for individual Christians and the corporate Church. Either way, we can lean on the solid truth that our God is in the heavens and He does all that He pleases (Ps 115:3). We need not fear, for God is in control in 2020, as He always has been.