Why should I "submit" to a government that I believe is moving in the wrong direction? I love my country and want to cooperate with the political system, but I'm struggling to understand what the Bible says on this subject. How in the world can the apostle Paul tell Christians to submit to the authorities (Romans 13:1-7) when we know for a fact that many human governments are corrupt and unjust? What should a believer do when he feels that his own government is "ungodly"?
The Bible does in fact command Christians to "submit … to the governing authorities" (Romans 13:1) and to pray "for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence" (I Timothy 2:2). These words even more striking when we realize that Paul penned them during the reigns of the Roman emperors Nero and Caligula, two of the worst tyrants known to history.
The point is clear. As long as we can do so without denying Christ or compromising our faith, we must always strive to cooperate with the ruling powers. That doesn't necessarily mean that we will endorse all of their policies or approve of every specific action they take. This is especially true in a democratic society, where it is the duty of responsible citizens to examine public servants with a discerning and critical eye. Nevertheless, Christians are responsible to uphold biblical righteousness in a hostile culture while also expressing respect for its leadership.
The Westminster Confession of Faith provides us with some valuable insight into this problem. In Chapter III, section 1 ("Of God's Eternal Decree"), the framers of this document write the following: "God from all eternity did by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established."
What do these words mean? Simply this. God is sovereign over human events. At the same time, He gives people the freedom to make their own choices and go their own way. In other words, no one can become a king, emperor, governor, president, assemblyman, or senator apart from God's will. But this doesn't mean that possession of political power amounts to a stamp of approval from God. That's where the "will of the creatures" and the "liberty and contingency" of a whole host of secondary causes come into play. After all, the Bible calls King Nebuchadnezzar God's "servant" (Jeremiah 25:9). This obviously does not imply that Nebuchadnezzar was a godly man.
The long and short of it, then, is that God is always in charge. We may not trust the governing authorities, but we have to trust Him. Under normal circumstances, we can demonstrate that trust by cooperating with the state, paying our taxes, participating in the system, and staying out of trouble. But this doesn't mean that we should be blind. We can never forget that the power of human rulers is subject to a higher power. It's contingent upon the absolute sovereignty of God. Should a situation arise in which these two authorities come into clear conflict with one another, Christians have to "obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29). But we can hope that situations of this nature will be few and far between.
If you have further questions about this, or if you'd simply like to discuss these ideas at greater length, call us. Focus on the Family has a staff of pastoral counselors who would love to speak with you over the phone.
Christian Research Institute