Matt Connally is a pastor in the United States. He received an MDiv from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a Bachelors of Journalism from The University of Texas, where he served as editor of The Daily Texan from 1991-92. He has also worked with Campus Crusade for Christ for several years both in the United States and Asia.
When the Apostle Paul wrote that there is no governing authority except from God, “and those that exist have been instituted by God,”(Romans 13:1) Nero, the Emperor of Rome, was known to have a particular contempt for Christians. When in 64 AD a fire burned much of the capital,he viciously blamed it on them. As Cornelius Tacitus, a senator and a historian of the Roman Empire, later reported:
Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty [of following Christ]; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted,not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. (Tacitus Annals XV.44)
So how could the Roman government really be seen as “instituted by God”? For that matter, how can we view many modern governments that way? What is the Christian to do?
In answer to this question, we should first consider that these verses speak in general terms. Just as the verse “God created man in his own image” applies to Adolf Hitler as well as to Abraham Lincoln, so also these verses about government can apply to tyranny as well as democracy. To the extent that Nero was ruling a government that held off anarchy and mass chaos, his work could be understood as instituted by God.
The second thing to consider is that when it comes to justice, societies can move in one of only two directions—either toward self-righteousness or toward trusting in God. Therefore, the very presence of government forces people to wrestle with notions of absolute right and wrong, and who the author(s) of those absolutes might be. To the extent that people find tyranny to be unjust, they are acknowledging that there is a standard of justice against which men and governments can be measured. Who is the final judge? Again, we can finally conclude either that we are (self-righteous) or that God is.
At one end of the spectrum is communism; at the other end is theocracy. But where does democracy fit in that spectrum? Can you have a self-righteous democracy? Does the party with the most votes get to legislate morality? How would that be any different from might-makes-right?
Perhaps John Adams, the second president of the United States, said it best: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” (October 11, 1798) Or another quote, one which is often misattributed to James Madison (our fourth president) but which will have to remain anonymous, makes the point even clearer:
We have staked the whole of all our political institutions upon the capacity of mankind for self-government, upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.
That is to say that morality cannot, at the end of the day, be legislated. No matter how many statutes and lawyers we produce, we will not be able to create a just society if the citizens do not in their hearts submit to a higher moral Authority: in God we trust. By contrast, to the extent that a people are self-righteous, any government they do institute will be a power game among elites.
Karl Marx, with an enormous log in his eye, declared that “religion is the opiate of the people.” Quite to the contrary, it is the claim over moral authority—the perceived usurpation of God’s power—that is so intoxicating. As atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell put it: “Power is sweet; it is a drug, the desire for which increases with a habit.” (Saturday Review, 1951) Or as Baron John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton (1834–1902) put it, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."
That is simply to say that self-righteousness is never edifying and inevitably leads to corruption. For example, Marx did not think that the poor, huddled masses were capable of thinking for themselves and so needed rescuing, and we saw the results of this worldview in the last century.
The Bible, by contrast, shows great respect for people’s ability to realize the self-evident truth that God is and that He is just and righteous. In Paul’s address to the Athenians he talked of how God intends for men to grope and search for Him, knowing that He is there:
The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him.” (Acts 17:24-27)
Perhaps that is why, when our forefathers declared independence from an oppressive crown, they knew that the sense of justice that was written on our hearts—the words like “fairness” and “equality” and “righteousness” that simply cannot be removed from human vocabulary—all have a very self-evident Author:
When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Perhaps that is also why Barak Obama wants to end his oath of office with the words “so help me God.” The oath dictated by the Constitution is 35 words long and reads: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." When George Washington took the oath at his 1789 inaugural, he added the words "so help me God". Most presidents have used it since.
So what is a Christian to do when dealing with ungodly leaders or with a government doing unbiblical things?
Preach the Gospel. That is, after all, why we are here—not to govern or to be comfortable, but to make disciples.
Do the same thing Paul did in Athens: gently remind people that God has revealed himself in nature (Romans 1:20) and in our hearts (Romans 2:15). Ask them if they can really trust in themselves, or if they ultimately need God’s salvation. Remind them that if there is truly going to be justice in the world, then we will all be held accountable.
We preach this and help people struggle with these questions, “in the hope that they might feel their way toward [God] and find him.”
And tell them that might never makes right—even with the Almighty. “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts.”(Zechariah 4:6) For Jesus derives his authority as King of Kings, as the Prince of Peace, as the one who justifies the many, from the fact that 2000 years ago he humbled himself to the point of death on a cross. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)