Romans 13 makes it clear that God has ordained civil government to restrain evil. But what recourse do Christians have when the government itself becomes evil? Is anarchy an option?
Until recently, Christians could rejoice in the tremendous amount of political freedom, human rights and democracy that we have enjoyed throughout the West. Civil rights, liberties, and basic human freedoms have been rare throughout history. So the West, with its emphasis on the rule of law, checks and balances, and accountability for governing bodies, has been an immeasurable social good.
All that seems to be starting to unravel now. Over the past two years, we have witnessed a clear-cut case of this unravelling. We have seen shocking examples of the erosion of freedom and basic human rights throughout the Western world and the massive expansion of state power and control.
The Christian believer takes his views on the state, government, and earthly rulers – like everything else – from Scripture. While we should undoubtedly be open to political philosophy and theory, our starting point is what we find in the Bible. The Bible may not be a political textbook, but it does have plenty to say about civil government.
Different Spheres of Governance
The first thing to say is that government is God’s idea. God has ordained the state for a fallen world. As Romans 13 clarifies, the purpose of the state is to keep selfish and sinful people in check and prevent evil from running amok. Read more here.
We must understand that God has ordained different spheres of government. First and foremost, there is the government or rule of God. That is paramount.
Following this, humans have different kinds of governance, the most important of which is self-government. God wants us to govern ourselves – under Him and his authority, of course.
The family is also a type of government, where parents have authority over children. The church also has its own rule. Church government is vitally important. Then there is the state – or civil government. While all of these human forms of government are separate, there is some overlap between them.
Different Types of Civil Government
Let us consider some quick definitions of the types of civil government that exist along the political spectrum.
An anarchist favours anarchy – “a society being freely constituted without authorities or a governing body”. The idea of no government might sound good, but as we saw in Romans 13, Christians cannot support this.
A libertarian seeks to “maximise autonomy and political freedom, emphasising free association, freedom of choice, individualism and voluntary association”. Libertarianism is a more tenable position for Christians.
A conservative believes that government is necessary in a fallen world, but they prefer limited government and emphasise individual and group moral responsibility. Conservatism sees freedom not as an absolute but as a tremendous good nonetheless.
Leftists and statists tend to see the state as the solution to all – or most of – our problems. They seek to expand the size and range of government. Some would like to see more control and power, especially in the form of a one-world government.
The Difference Between Violence and Force
I sometimes encounter objections from those who disdain the state. One person recently wrote on one of my posts, “Government is violence. Plain and simple.”
Civil government can indeed be violent at times. But we must not confuse force with violence.
In general, we can say that violence is the wrong or immoral use of force. But not all force is wrong or immoral. Some is amoral – such as the force of a raging river.
But even when speaking about force used by people, not all of it is wrong. We use force all the time in good and proper ways. If a father pulls his child’s arm away as he tries to strike another child, this is a use of force – but it is not violent (although it can become violent).
And it need not be just in parent-child relationships. Let’s say a group of adult friends are out having a night on the town. Some may have had too much to drink and start getting aggressive toward each other. A few others in the group may step in and seek to break up a fight. They may well use force, but that is not an example of violence.
The Legitimate, God-Given Use of Force
The truth is that God has given the state the right to use force to maintain peace and order and to prevent wrongdoing. As Romans 13:3-4 teaches:
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, 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.
In other words, there is a legitimate and God-given use of force. In various ways – whether through judges, courts, police, armies, or other means – the state can use force to keep evil in check and punish those doing evil. Of course, these powers can easily be abused and misused, so great care is needed. And the desire of politicians and rulers to want more power and control is always with us.
That is why God has given us the right balance. Because we are all fallen, sinful and selfish – including rulers, magistrates, political leaders, police and soldiers – we must remember that all human authority and power is delegated to us by God.
The state is under God and is to be subject to God. As Romans 13:1 puts it, “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.” Precisely because the state is not absolute nor perfect, there are times when rulers must be resisted and disobeyed.
The Place for Civil Disobedience
The state can go wrong, and at times the proper recourse for people – whether Christians or non-Christians – is to defy the state. Defying the state is a contentious matter, and we need to be careful and prayerful as to when and where to disobey. Nevertheless, it remains one of our rights as citizens. Read more here.
Indeed, not only is there a place for civil disobedience, there can also be a place for just revolution. Read more here and here.
Let us consider one further comment the same person made:
Anyone who wants to control the lives of others has mental issues to begin with. This is why I abhor politicians no matter how much ‘good’ they claim to be doing or what flag they fly under. They’re still stealing your money and forcing their ideas on the population.
Christians would disagree with this, too, for various reasons. There is a place for control. Divine control is evident for the Christian, and God has delegated various forms of control and authority. Families should control and discipline their children – that is not the state’s role. Churches should be able to exercise some control and discipline over their members. And the individual should, of course, practice self-control.
Control per se is not wrong – but it can become wrong, sometimes relatively easily. But we are not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Do some parents abuse their power and control over their children? Yes. Should we, therefore, outlaw parents and parenting because some misuse and abuse their position? No.
Do states abuse their power and control? Yes. And it seems that they are doing so even more lately in the West. But that does not mean we jettison all civil government or declare it illegitimate and evil. Instead, we seek even further to reform it, keep it in check, and deal with power-hungry rulers.
How to Enact Political Reformation
Political reformation can take different forms. Sometimes we patiently wait for the next election and seek to vote the bad guys out of office. Sometimes, as in American states, a recall election can be attempted, as with Governor Newsom in California recently (which failed, unfortunately). Even United States presidents can be impeached if they go too far off the rails.
Many other means are available, including people power. An example of this is the peaceful mass protests on Australian cities’ streets over recent months. Seeking to withhold part or all of one’s taxes as a protest against unjust policies is another option.
The point is that politicians can often be corrupt, laws can be unjust, and governments can stop serving the people. In each of these cases – at least in theory – the rule of law and the democratic process should allow for various ways to confront corruption and seek political reformation.
Sadly, it does not always succeed. Sometimes corruption and arrogant leadership can get so bad (think of the state of Victoria here in Australia) that it appears that the ordinary means of cleaning up the mess are no longer available to us. That may be when we start thinking about just revolution as a last resort.
Of course, Christians will also be heavily involved in prayer and spiritual warfare as an additional means by which we seek to clean up or drive out bad government and bad leaders.
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