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Purpose of 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.

Romans 13:1

Government is a deeply biblical idea. When God put Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, he told them to subdue the earth. Government is one way to fulfill that command. The Bible continually reinforces the basic goodness of government. Israel became a nation. When in exile, Jeremiah said, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile and pray to the Lord on its behalf.” (Jeremiah 29:7). There is a way to live a distinctly Christian life in relation to government. Jesus said so. Jeremiah said so.  

Romans 13 gives us the definitive New Testament teaching on the place and purpose of the civil government. Paul begins by telling us that “everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities,” because these “have been established by God.” 

What does it mean when Paul writes that these authorities are ordained by God? Were Hitler’s and Stalin’s governments ordained by God? Remember that Paul was writing this to the Romans. It was the Roman government that ultimately beheaded Paul himself and tortured and slew thousands of early Christians. Was this government ordained by God? 

To understand this, we have to remember Paul’s teaching concerning the sovereignty of God. He is the Lord of history. God raises up people and brings them down. We have to distinguish, however, between a government ordained by God and a government approved by God. God did not approve of Nero and Stalin, but it was His design that they come to power. God gives us wicked rulers as part of His judgment on our sins. 

Even under a wicked regime, however, Christians still have an obligation to render civil obedience. Peter writes, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right” (1 Peter 2:13–14). 

There are limits to this submission, however. This same Peter, when ordered by the authorities not to preach, said, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Jesus said to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s (Matthew 22:21). So the first principle is that we should always seek to obey the civil magistrate and bear witness as peaceful Christians. But the second principle is that if there is a true conflict in authority, we have to obey God and then suffer for the faith. 

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