So you want to talk about Christian government. (Or, at least, many Christians just south of my border certainly did a few weeks ago). Let’s talk.
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them – taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honour to whom honour is due.” (NRSV)
Romans 13:1-7 is a highly contested passage throughout Christian history, often used by Christians to unanimously support any and every form of government, particularly in its the expansion of military might and endeavours (whether just or unjust, I am not addressing here). Of course, this is a problematic interpretation on many levels, which I wont go into here. I simply want to draw attention to one thing, and that is this: If Romans 13:1-7 is describing the purpose of government within the sovereign rule of God we can at the very least affirm two things, a) government as such is ordained by God, and b) the purpose of government is to praise the good and punish the wrongdoers. Now, bracket that for a moment and consider two other prominent passages (though perhaps less familiar among Christians…) on government and/or kingship.
“You may indeed set over you a king whom the Lord your God will choose…Even so, he must not acquire many horses for himself, or return the people to Egypt in order to acquire more horses, since the Lord had said to you, “You must not return that way again.” And he must not acquire many wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away; also silver and gold he must not accept in great quantity for himself.” (NRSV)
Horses, it must be understood, are the ancient Near East’s equivalent of modern day tanks. Thus, where the people of God are permitted a king, and to organize themselves like other nations, (which is also contested within the OT accounts of Israel’s history) kingship and governance as ordained by God is severely limited: the governing body may not grow and army and may not acquire wealth. Interesting. Do any of the nations of our world that claim Christian government look like this or write this into their governance?
Psalm 72:1-7, 12-14
“Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son. May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice. May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness. May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor. May he live while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, throughout all generations. May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth. In his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound, until the moon is no more. … For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight.” (NRSV)
This psalm and prayer of Solomon calls for righteous kingship, which is emphatically characterized by defense of and help for the poor and oppressed. Again, I wonder, do any of the nations in our world that claim Christian government look like this? This is certainly not the kind of rhetoric you hear in election campaigns.
Therefore, I beseech you, dear readers of Romans 13:1-7, to consider how divinely ordained government is described throughout the Christian scriptures, before assuming that the passage (and therefore Christian discipleship) calls for unanimous support of military expansion and exploitative economics. Yes, we are to subordinate (Gk. hypotasso, lit. to order under) ourselves to government as such for government as such is ordained by God. However, Rom. 13:1-7 describes the purpose of divinely ordained governance to approve the good and to exercise judgement on the bad. But what does that look like? The passages from Deuteronomy and Psalms illustrate and elaborate on what righteous kingship/governance consists in and what it doesn’t. I submit that to the extent that governments that claim to be Christian do not fit the form of righteous government they are also not fulfilling the purpose to which God has ordained them. Thus we must call our governments to account. If we want to talk about Christian government, these passages must be included in our discussion and especially in interpretations of Rom. 13:1-7.