As Christians we believe that our citizenship is in heaven and along with our father Abraham, we are looking forward to a city whose architect and builder is the Lord. And yet, we find ourselves living in cities that have been designed and built by men and women and living under the authority of men and women who know very little and care next to nothing for the things of God. What are we to make of that? How are we to think about human government in the time before the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven?
The Bible seems to suggest that we ought to think of human government in the following four ways.
1. As generally helpful
In Romans 13 the Apostle Paul says that human government has been instituted by God and invested with legitimate authority. The passage in question reads as follows:
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. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. (Romans 13:1–7 ESV)
According to the Apostle Paul God commissions civil government to promote human flourishing and to restrain human wickedness. Human beings flourish in a context of order and cooperation. Roads and hospitals cannot be built by individuals – they require extensive collaboration. Human beings require peace and stability in order to build such societies and to prosper within them, therefore looting, stealing, intimidation and violence must be restrained. Government exists and has been given extraordinary powers by God to facilitate such an environment. It is, in that sense, a blessing to be received with thanksgiving. John Calvin certainly took that approach, he said:
“Mankind derives as much benefit from it as it does from bread, water, sun and air, and its dignity is far greater than any of them.”
Government is a gift from God and those who work and serve within it are worthy of honour and respect and ought to be considered ministers of God just as much as the pastor, elder or deacon. In Romans 13:6 the Apostle Paul refers to the civil magistrates as “ministers of God” (Romans 13:6 ESV). Commenting on the remarkable use here of the Greek word leitourgos, generally reserved for church officers, Douglas Moo says:
“Paul could not more strongly have shown that civic leaders are, in fact, serving God’s own purposes.”
The Christian should be generally thankful for government. Honour and respect should be given. Taxes should be paid. Service should be rendered when required. A posture of constant hostility and cynicism toward government is out of keeping with the general teaching and tone of Scripture.
2. As thoroughly fallen
Even though government in general is a force for good, as with all things in a sinful and fallen world, government will inevitably reflect the quality of the people employed and empowered within it. It will frequently fall short of its own ideals and it will often be used as a club to advance the interests of the ruling elite.
Governments legitimately claim a monopoly upon violence within their borders so as to restrain evil and to protect and promote those who are doing good. As the Bible says, the magistrate, “does not bear the sword in vain.” However, whenever the right to violence is monopolized, the potential for abuse increases exponentially. When this occurs, it is entirely appropriate for Christians to call government leaders to account. The Apostle Paul did this is Acts 16. As a Roman citizen he was entitled to due process and yet, due to the prejudice of the local magistrates and due to the pressure of an unruly mob, he was denied due process and was subjected to brutal discipline and unlawful incarceration. The local officials attempted to sweep the matter under the carpet, but Paul would have none of it. The story is recorded in Acts 16:36-40:
And the jailer reported these words to Paul, saying, “The magistrates have sent to let you go. Therefore come out now and go in peace.” 37 But Paul said to them, “They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and do they now throw us out secretly? No! Let them come themselves and take us out.” 38 The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens. 39 So they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city. 40 So they went out of the prison and visited Lydia. And when they had seen the brothers, they encouraged them and departed. (Acts 16:36–40 ESV)
Paul held the magistrates accountable to their own legal standards. He didn’t expect them to help him in his mission as an evangelist, but he did expect them to wield the authority given to them in accordance with their own agreed upon protocols and procedures, and as Christians, we ought to be prepared to do the same.
It is not rebellious to question the legality of an action or decision by the civil magistrate. It is not seditious to question the equity or fairness of a new piece of legislation. That is our duty as citizens and that is part of our responsibility to our fellow man. An abuse suffered by us today will be suffered by someone else tomorrow so Christians cannot retreat from their engagement with civil authorities. Wherever abuse is spotted, it must be named and called into question. Never in a disrespectful way, never in a self-interested way and never in a violent or anarchical way – but it can be done, and it should be done.
Practically speaking, this means that Christians can simultaneously support the police as an institution while at the same time asking questions about the unnecessary use of deadly force. White Christians in particular, should be asking why it is that deadly force seems to be used more often against people of colour. If there is a good answer for that question, then let it be given, but it is right and appropriate for Christians to be asking it. The magistrate does not bear the sword in vain – but thanks be to God – in a country of laws the magistrate does not bear the sword without accountability. Thus, Christians may be thankful for government while also exercising watch over government because of what they knows about the capacity of fallen human beings for sin and wickedness.
3. As occasionally malevolent
Bible reading Christians are also aware that the power of the state may occasionally be co-opted by demonic forces intent on directly opposing and persecuting the church. In Revelation 13 we are introduced to a “beast” that is given power by “the dragon” and is permitted to wage war on the saints of God and to conquer them.
And the beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. 6 It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven. 7 Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. (Revelation 13:5–7 ESV)
Depicting governments and empires as “beasts” is fairly standard practice in Apocalyptic literature. In the Book of Daniel various nations and powers are described as lions, leopards, bears, rams and goats. One beast is so fierce and frightening that it cannot be described at all. It is terrifying, exceedingly strong and it devours all that it encounters. For reasons known only to Providence, these beasts are occasionally given limited permission to harass and persecute the people of God. In Revelation 13 the time of permission is stated as being “forty-two months”. Sometimes it is three and a half years or 1260 days. All three of those references are roughly parallel ways of recalling the extremely difficult time of persecution experienced by the Old Testament covenant community under Antiochus IV Epiphanes in the second century BC. It was brutal, it was demonic – but thanks be to God, it was relatively short. That seems to be the main idea here.
Christians should be aware that from time to time, the devil will be permitted to seize the power of the state so as to make war on the saints. In such times the prudent man will hide himself (Proverbs 27:12), flee to the mountains (Matthew 24:15-21) or go underground (as has been done many times in Christian history). He will wait for the Lord to bring the evil season to an end – and his faith will not go unrewarded:
“for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short.” (Matthew 24:22 ESV)
Bible reading Christians therefore view government as a general good, often corrupted by human wickedness and occasionally co-opted by demonic powers. They will also understand it as ultimately provisional.
4. As ultimately provisional
The Kingdom of Heaven will not grow out of any of the kingdoms currently known on planet earth. We will not point at it and say, “there it is”, for the Kingdom of Heaven is inside us and among us (Luke 17:21). The Kingdom of Heaven does not rise up, it descends and according to Daniel 2 its descent is catastrophic and epochal. In the dream that Daniel interpreted for King Nebuchadnezzar he spoke of a stone:
“cut out by no human hand, and it struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces. 35 Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold, all together were broken in pieces, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.” (Daniel 2:34–35 ESV)
The stone cut out by no human hand is Christ and his everlasting Kingdom. Its arrival results in the complete destruction of every other human kingdom on the earth. The destruction is total “so that not a trace of them could be found”. But the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.
The coming of Messiah’s Kingdom was understood by the prophets as bringing to an end all other human kingdoms and authorities. That’s why when John the Baptist saw Jesus he declared:
“the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matthew 3:10 ESV)
John understood that Jesus was the Messiah and that Messiah’s Kingdom would tolerate no rivals, what he did not see was that the coming of Messiah would be in two stages. First to offer peace to all who would surrender, and then later in triumph to destroy and trample all opposition and rebellion. The second stage of Christ’s coming is described in Revelation 19:
Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. 12 His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. 13 He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. 14 And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. 15 From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. 16 On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords. (Revelation 19:11–16 ESV)
That is the coming of Christ foretold in Daniel 2. That is the shattering! And that is the reason why the followers of Jesus Christ are not overly invested in the present kingdoms of this earth. Why invest your life and put your hope in something that will become like the chaff of the summer threshing floor and carried away by the wind and by the crush of Christ’s coming? Christians may pursue vocations within the various institutions of civil government because those institutions promote human flourishing in a provisional way and restrain wickedness in a provisional way. They may serve as Police Officers, local Magistrates, legislators, governors, Premiers and Presidents. But they do not ultimately put their hope in such things. Salvation cannot be achieved by government. Governments restrain, they do not redeem. Governments reward, they do not restore. For blessings of that magnitude we look to the cross and to the coming of the Christ.
The biblical view of government is admittedly a nuanced one.
It does not permit cynicism, disrespect, or disengagement.
It does not commend blind adherence nor does it condone violent opposition.
It permits patriotism but forbids idolatry.
It encourages volunteerism but not utopianism.
It suggests gratitude, vigilance, and dissatisfaction.
It reminds us to pray: “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Thanks be to God!
Pastor Paul Carter
To listen to the most recent episodes of Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast on the TGC Canada website see here. You can also find it on iTunes. To access the entire library of available episodes see here. You can find his personal blog, Semper Reformanda, by clicking here.
 John Calvin as cited in Harro Hopfl, Luther And Calvin On Secular Authority in Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 50.
 Douglas J. Moo, Romans in The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 423.