…but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights. [1 Samuel 8:7-9]
The first thing we must recognize is that human government is not part of God’s original design. When the Israelites requested a King, “such that all the other nations have” [1 Samuel 8:5] it greatly grieved God. God’s chosen people were to be set apart from all the other nations, not conformed to their ways. God’s design involved priests and temple attendants but not a king. God was and still is the ultimate ruler. In this way the Israelites were to show submission to His rule and act as stewards of His creation. It is clear to me from a careful reading of 1 Samuel 8 that God granted Israel at King reluctantly and not without issuing a strong warning about what that could potentially mean for their future.
As Christ-followers and “new Kingdom” theists part of our mission is to help establish God’s Kingdom on earth. In many ways that would be a return to his original design where God is the King and we are his subjects. But because we are suspended here in the world of “promised but not yet”, how are we to live under the rule of a worldly government that does things we may not agree with, and how are we to influence the decisions of that government in a way that reflects God’s will for our lives and our society?
That’s the million dollar question, the answer to which I have come to call the “two kingdoms” mindset. We live in one kingdom, the worldly government and society we are a part of while serving another kingdom, the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus said we cannot server two masters, we have to pick one and we should obviously pick his.
But how do we live that out? It’s certainly not going to be easy. Part of how we can start to do it is explained in Roman’s 13.
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. [Romans 13:1-5]
I have to admit, this passage has given me more than one sleepless night. Taken out of context it appears as though Paul is saying that no matter what the governing authorities do they are doing so with God’s tacit approval and any type of civil disobedience or protest is sinful. It also appears as though Paul is giving God’s blessing to all sorts of violence and war mongering and oppression as long it is done by the government, they are his servants after all, right? But nothing could be further from the truth.
Thankfully, because I can count, I know that Romans 13 comes after Romans 12. So if we are reading scripture in its own context this passage follows in the heels of this:
Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. [Romans 12:9-20]
Did you see it? Romans 12: 19, “leave room for God’s wrath, it is mine to avenge; I will repay.” After concluding his thought on what our role is, to live peacefully with everyone, Paul goes on in Romans 13 to talk about how God can use worldly governments and institutions to punish those who do wrong.
In short, according to Romans 12, it is the role of the Christ-follower to sincerely Love one another, serve the Lord, share with those in need, bless those who persecute you, be willing to associate with those of low position, be careful to do what is right, live at peace with everyone, serve even your enemy and over-come evil with good. God’s role is to use whatever human construct he has at his disposal to exact punishment on the evil doer, he can even use worldly governments that do not serve him in any meaningful way.
The danger in reading Romans 13 in isolation is that we may begin to think that it is somehow our job to help God by working for or influencing the government for his purposes. Nowhere in Romans 13 does it say that Christ-followers are to be involved in government and serve the earthly kingdom in any way. On the contrary we are to be submitted to it, no matter how evil, because God may decided to use it for his purposes, but if we are doing what is right, as spelled out in Romans 12, we will have more than enough work to do without being involved in the earthly government and nothing to fear from what any evil or neutral government may do. That’s their business and God’s job.
In the end earthly kingdoms are in a sense blasphemy. Setting anyone or any system up as ruler in place of God is nothing more than blasphemy.
Right from the start, God made it clear to the Israelites that by asking for a king they were rejecting Him as their ruler. The first century Christians knew that in order to bring about the promised Kingdom of Heaven, all earthly kingdoms would one day have to pass away. There is no point in working for a dying institution. If you want to influence the world for God’s purposes and the Kingdom of Heaven, you don’t do it from within the early kingdom, you work to establish a new kingdom, a new heaven and a new earth. That’s what the church, at her best is called to be. And that’s just one more reason why I believe the only true calling of the Christ-follower is the calling to live a life of pacifism.