The past few decades have seen several presidents who stood strongly for one thing or another, and the opposition has cried out for impeachment. Legal removal of the president based on legitimate transgressions. (I’m defining this for myself, too.) Although a few may have truly transgressed, none have been removed from office. With our current president, there’s been a dramatic shift in attitude and expression of disapproval. Louder than any cry for impeachment has been the shout of revolt. It’s dumbfounding how many people are calling for Trump’s assassination — in speeches, on social media, in plain conversation. And then there’s the new wave of bumper stickers like “Not My President” and “Rebel.” Rather than expressing disagreement, people announce their intent to rise up against the head of our government and those in office of the same political views. It’s gone from “I disagree with you and think you are mishandling our government” to “You’re not my president, and I wish someone would kill you.” It’s a leap from logic to emotion — a wild, crazy shoot-em-up rebellion.
But this is not Star Wars. President Trump is not an evil Emperor bent on the total submission of the entire galaxy, and there is no heroism in rebelling against the established government.
Somewhere in our recent history we have lost something important: understanding of and respect for authority. We’ve felt comfortable cracking jokes about our political leaders; creating goofy memes about them; and proclaiming endless opinions of their weaknesses, shortcomings, or whatever we find offensive. After all, we have freedom of speech, don’t we? We can say whatever we like, can’t we? And if we believe them unfit for public office, we can refuse to follow their rule and publicly condemn them, right?
No, we can’t.
Those men and women are in positions of authority over us, whether they were elected or given their jobs by those already in power. All authority comes directly from God; “The authorities that exist have been established by God” (Romans 13:1). And after his resurrection, Jesus was given authority over every heavenly and earthly ruler (Matthew 28:18). He is the ultimate creator and distributor of authority, and every person on this earth who leads owes their authority to him.
Now what of the tyrants? What of the cruel, scheming, murderous rulers? What of those who have killed or connived to attain power? Why would God allow or tolerate that? Are you saying, Marta, that he gives them authority?
I don’t know exactly. But since God seems to operate on a higher level of strategy, I bet it’s a case by case deal instead of a formula. Our little brains would probably explode trying to figure out why he does what he does, but we can’t accuse him of evil. Maybe he allows evil rulers to be in power because people ignore him and choose these leaders, or at least choose a path that allows these men to take power. If a certain group of people or a country rejects God, he tends to give them their way rather than force his will on them. But he also withdraws his protection and his blessing. Happens again and again to the Israelites in the first few books of the Bible.
But one thing is quite clear: no one can take authority. It is only given from one who has the power to give. He also has the power to remove those in authority, and he’s done so quite frequently. A quick skim of history reveals a startling number of coups, losses at war, sudden madness, or imprisonment that results in the termination of an evil man’s rule. Sounds rather extreme, doesn’t it? It’s rather sobering how seriously God judges those in charge. They are completely accountable to him, and he will deal with them justly either now or later. We can rest assured of that.
Just as serious, then, is our response to those in authority over us. We may not like them as people, we may disagree with their political views, but “everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established” (Romans 13:1). There’s a direct chain of command here; God, earthly authorities, us. We are directly told to obey those who govern us, no two ways about it. We can’t claim God as our only ruler and ignore earthly authority. We can’t claim the right to overthrow leaders. We can’t refuse to follow the laws of the countries we live in simply because we don’t like them or think they’re stupid. All of these upset the natural rules of authority God himself created. And there are consequences; “….he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves” (Romans 13:2).
Have you read any passages where God sends judgment on someone? Korah and company were literally swallowed up by the earth. Ananias and Sapphira died immediately after their sin was revealed. And according to Revelation those who persist in rejecting God must endure all kinds of nasty diseases and horrid living conditions on a cursed earth.
Most of us have seen or experienced the merciful, loving, intimately miraculous side of God. I can’t fathom what it would be like to bring his judgment on myself.
So we shouldn’t even consider disobeying our leaders. What should we do then?
1 Timothy “[urges]…. first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone — for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (2:1-2). If we pray to the one who holds the heart of the king (or president) in his hand, we may see some astonishing changes. Both in our own hearts and in the lives our leaders. And notice the “godliness and holiness” part? This is how we uphold the chain of command and make our Father’s heart swell with pride. He encourages us to pray, and he acts when we do so in line with his will and his desires. For all their power and wealth, our leaders need our prayers in order to govern well. We have an important job to do.
We can also show them honor and respect by watching our words and refusing to join the tide of angry arguments; “Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward all men” (Titus 3:1-2). Well, that’s definitely not the American way. Candidates for office regularly make fun of or sling mud at each other, and the rest of us follow suit. Even Christians that I know and like have gone on angry tirades, posted derogatory jokes on Facebook, and lashed out at each other for supporting the opposing candidate. It’s awful and embarrassing. How can we claim Christ and do such shameful things? We look no different from anybody else, and we’ll gain nothing but sneers if we try to share Jesus after such behavior.
That’s great, Marta, but what about civil disobedience? What if the authorities require I do something that directly contradicts God’s Word?
There you have the only case I know of for disobeying the established law and ruling authorities. In the book of Acts the religious leaders in Jerusalem and political authorities command Christians to stop spreading the gospel, which went directly against the Great Commission they had just received from Jesus. I love how Peter and John responded; “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God” (Acts 4:19). Notice how humbly and respectfully they put this to the leaders, how gently they refused to quit doing what they knew was right. They left their fate in the leaders’ hands with the clear knowledge that they were right before God. “Judge for yourselves.” It is a submissive statement, yet unyielding of their beliefs. Always these godly men gave true and noble answers to the authorities who grilled them. Never once did the apostles or their companions lash out, ridicule, or even refuse to accept punishment from the authorities. Think of Paul and Silas in prison; they could have escaped once those doors sprang open, but they didn’t. Think of all the abuse Paul took — stonings, whippings, imprisonment, jeering, death threats. Not once did he rise up against those in power or encourage anyone else to rebel against them.
We are so blessed to live in a country that isn’t after our blood for following Christ or forcing us to choose between following the law or following our faith. Not yet. We must remember, with all the political and racial turmoil in our country now, that the people in charge are not our enemies; “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12). What you’re really fighting is an invisible enemy who likes to pit you against the people around you, who loves nothing better than to watch us tear each other apart. Rebellion and division are his tactics. And the most effective way to fight this evil is to pray to the One who has the power to defeat our enemy and sway the heart of the king. Or President.