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Just as the individual inevitably entertains some viewpoint on the matter of religion, so will government. Historically, governments fall within one of three categories in their approach to religion: they endorse the concept of God, deny the concept of God or make government itself God. I’m not specifying who God is at this point. I’m simply pointing out that religion, even if it’s a denial of it, will necessarily play a role in the state.

Examples of the first of these approaches are legion. The vast majority of governments over the millennia have adopted a god or gods to whom they’ve directed society’s worship. In ancient religions the priest class was typically the ruling class, or exercised at least as much authority as the elite. This often resulted in the religious/political leaders actually assuming worship as incarnate or representative gods themselves. Hence we see a combination of government both endorsing the concept of God as well as making itself God.

The Roman Catholic system, particularly as expressed in European society of the Middle Ages, is a specific example of state-endorsed religion. Kings allowed the Pope’s religion to be disseminated in their domains. In return, the Pope, as God’s so-called representative, gave his blessing to the king and his subjects. Everyone living within the Pope’s domain was a “Christian.” And the church used the state’s authority to enforce its viewpoint, even on pain of death.

Examples of governments flat-out denying God are much fewer and tend to be found in more recent history. Communist systems are officially atheistic in their approach to the religious question. Russia under Lenin and Stalin, and China from Mao Tse-tung’s reign up until the present, are representative of this approach. Basically, the state becomes God when the state’s religion is atheism.

America’s approach to religion was unique. Built on a political foundation laid by the British, the founders experimented with the concept of government not endorsing any specific religion and instead allowing its people to freely exercise their choice thereof. Though there were some who were Christians in the biblical sense, many of America’s original framers were Deists. But because such an open and largely unrestricted political policy toward religion allowed for the flourishing of Christianity, America is traditionally labeled a “Christian” nation.

Unfortunately, the American state has followed the same historical path as other nations, maybe just a little bit slower. All governments tend toward centralization. All governments seek more and more power. It’s in their nature. Hence, when there is no check on them, the end result is always some form of self-deification. This may not be as blatant as the emperor demanding incense be burned to him or some ridiculous dictator insisting he makes the sun come up, but it will manifest, even if subtly. When it comes down to it, the unregulated state always covets ultimate control. And if we unquestioningly bow to its demands, then logic dictates that the state has become our God.

But alas, people will worship something, whether it is God, gods or the State. We were created to do so. Where does this put the Christian who worships God and simultaneously lives under government? Are the two compatible? Yes. And probably the clearest passage to confirm this is Romans 13:1-7: “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God…for it [the government] is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.”

The problem is these verses have been parroted by everyone from the popes to Adolph Hitler to Mao Tse-tung to the modern evangelical pastor.

Here’s how I see the passage in question. The “governing authorities” are states. No type of government is specified, so all forms fall under this umbrella. God, we are clearly told, is the author of all authority. He “establishes” governments. So the question is: does Romans 13 teach that God endorses everything that governments do?

I think the answer is obvious. Of course He doesn’t. A just and loving God didn’t endorse Nazi concentration camps, Pol Pot’s killing fields or Stalin’s gulags. It can be rightly said that God allowed these things to happen, for He obviously does allow evil to exist in the world. But taking it any further than that (“what God allows is what God wills) becomes a sticky theological argument and wading into the monergism versus synergism debate is out of the scope of the present article.

So if we can agree that God establishes governments but doesn’t endorse everything that governments do, then we can come to another obvious conclusion. What God doesn’t endorse, the Christian cannot endorse either. The Christian is in subjection to government so far as government is in subjection to God—or at least, to the moral laws of God that are written on the heart of every man.

And this is precisely what Romans 13 verse 4 tells us. The primary role of the state is to punish evildoers. That is, God has ordained governments to be the earthly arbitrators of justice. Ideally the man who does good has nothing to fear. However, the evildoer need not be surprised when he is punished for his deeds.

Now we come (very quickly, I’ll admit) to the crux of the matter. What happens if the state begins to do the opposite of what God has ordained it to do? Or to put it another way, what if the state punishes good and rewards evil? This is exactly what happens when governments become corrupt and begin to rot from within. When this occurs, the Christian must then draw lines. He has no choice if he is to remain faithful to God’s Word. To blindly follow government is to make the state God. And it is irresponsible, if not downright dangerous, for a pastor to teach his congregants the government must be obeyed all the time, under every circumstance.

The only thing that Christians are called to obey at all times under all circumstances is the Scriptures. This is why totalitarian regimes traditionally seek to outlaw the Bible. They hate the fact that a group of people in society hold to a standard of behavior that takes precedent over everything else—even state edicts. The Christian measures the state according to God’s Word. And an evil regime cannot abide this practice.

The fact is Bible-believers are statistically among the most law-abiding citizens of society. No government should fear biblical expressions of Christianity. God-fearing men and women are the salt of the earth: they help to preserve the crucial moral ingredient in society and hold the state to account for its decisions and actions.

But it’s not only Christians that out-of-control governments persecute. Anyone that stands up for conscience’s sake becomes a target. Anyone who speaks out against corruption and injustice is singled-out as a troublemaker—or these days maybe even a terrorist. The secret police round up the artists, musicians, writers and whistleblowers right along with the Christians. We all end up in the same camp, suffering the same fate.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn perceived from personal experience, “To stand up for truth is nothing. For truth, you must sit in jail.” Solzhenitsyn sat languishing in communist prisons for many years lamenting that he and others didn’t speak up sooner against the evils of the system.

My point is we are all in this together. We all live our lives under government. And we all have a responsibility to keep the state in check for the sake of conscience, personal freedom and for the generations that will follow us. Christians too often have hidden behind a misinterpretation of Romans 13, refusing to point out wickedness in high places and thereby granting governments immunity to do as they please. We’ve tended to cower, shut our mouths and do what we’re told. This never works out well. We need to stand for truth now so we don’t have sit in jail for truth in the future. By then it’s a bit too late.

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