Thank God for . . . Government?
The criticism of government is probably as old as government itself, but it seems en vogue of late. A recent Gallup poll found that only nine percent of Americans said they have a “great deal” of confidence in the federal government when it comes to handling international problems, while nearly one in five said they had no confidence at all in Uncle Sam. Both numbers were lower when respondents offered their perspective on the federal government’s handling of domestic policies.
Often there are real blunders and evils that deserve a response. From corrupt local officials taking bribes, to congressmen who implode in scandal, to ineffective federal agencies, the failures of all levels of government are well-known to us. Government officials are rightly held to a higher bar than others, since their decisions and actions impact the public in unique ways.
Even stinging criticisms of government can be a kind of crude barometer of the degree of freedom of expression citizens enjoy. In some countries, the only “news outlets” are PR organs of the central government, like in North Korea. Even in Hong Kong, peaceful protests in critique of governmental actions have provoked harsh crackdowns by police. We can praise God for the freedoms of religion, assembly, and press that we enjoy.
Many criticisms of government also almost serve as proxies for larger debates over the role and size of government and its relationship to families, culture, industries, and private sector endeavors. These debates are deeply important and constructive in a free society.
But have you noticed how quickly substantive critique can quickly devolve into ungodly criticism? There is a fine line between the legitimate—even needed—criticism of a failed policy, and the caustic critique driven merely by egoism, partisan tribalism, or score-settling.
Unfettered, unrestrained critiques of government can be subtly corrosive—especially for evangelical Christians. Believers know how easily ugliness wells up in our hearts. So how do we honor God by not crossing the line between legitimate criticism and sinful bomb-throwing?
Not only that, how do we give real thanks for a gift that God has given?
The Apostle Peter says to “Honor the emperor.” The Apostle Paul teaches that a government official is “God’s servant for your good” who should be respected and obeyed with a clean conscience. Our obedience to authority reflects to a watching world our fear of God and respect of his sovereign, ultimate authority.
Many suggest Paul gave his readers a general instruction, not a blanket statement. Certainly, Paul was no Pollyanna. After all, he was a citizen of the Roman Empire—an empire built through bloody conquest on the backs of conquered kingdoms. He understood something of the evils that can be perpetrated by fallen, human governments. Paul knew the same Roman army occupying Jerusalem was complicit in killing Jesus.
There is a place to discuss what responses are appropriate for Christians when a government fails, embraces systematized evil, corruption, violence, or even bad policies that dishonor people made in God’s image. There is an article to be written there, too, as a helpful complement to this one.
But Paul’s focus in Romans 13 was not on the character of the government itself; his focus was on the character of God. Paul was teaching that our response to the authority of the government is part of our honoring God by respecting all God-given authorities, whether in the church, family, or government. So, for our purposes here, consider these four practical steps for cultivating a heart that demonstrates a biblical kind of honor and gratitude for the God-ordained authorities of government.
First, trust that God has ordained these authorities, and that obeying them is honoring him.
For instance, you honor God by paying your taxes. Did you know the IRS could be an agent of your sanctification?
God is sovereign and rules over all. We can trust his provision for us in our obedience in all circumstances. We can honor God by our obedience, even as we wait in long lines for construction permits, navigate a cumbersome process at the DMV, or wait at a stop light. In these quiet, routine moments, as law-abiding, authority-honoring Christians, we can bear witness to God and his ultimate authority.
Second, meditate on how government punishes evil.
Government officials, Paul says, are “agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”
Local governments take drunk drivers off the streets and slap fines on people who endanger others by running red lights and stop signs. Police and firefighters respond to calls of alarm, distress from physical and material threats. Law enforcement thwarts burglars, murderers, and thieves. They protect children from abusive parents and remove them from dangerous situations.
Praise God for that!
State and federal governments prosecute corrupt corporate and political leaders, thus providing more integrity and accountability in our commercial and civil arenas. They seek out and prosecute criminals who perpetrate unspeakable acts of evil, preying on children, the frail, and the elderly. Such officials apprehend and prosecute purveyors of child pornography and abuse. They thwart extremists and terrorists. They stop bombers and shooters. They enforce our laws against those who would use their wealth, power, status, or fame to harm people financially, emotionally, or physically.
Praise God for them!
While some—even in recent months—have been harmed by government officials who were supposed to protect them, such tragedies can provide a stark reminder of the imperfections and injustices of any human authority. In these darker moments, our hearts can be helped, even healed, by putting our hope in God and his perfect authority.
But even in these darker moments, a ray of light breaks through when we remember there are responsible individuals in government who seek to serve and protect their fellow citizens each day.
Praise God for them. What a wonderful common grace blessing their service can be to help provide security for those made in God’s image.
Third, reflect on how government can uphold the common good.
This is what Paul means in saying that government’s role is to be a “servant for good.” Like any good authority, when governmental authority is exercised with restraint and respect for those made in the image of God, the result can be life-giving, increasing the opportunities for the development and use of people’s God-given talents and skills.
Just think about how much good is done by a local city instituting laws to oversee and operate an integrated delivery system for clean water. How much more time is freed up for the study and teaching of God’s Word than if every household had to maintain their own well? How many families and children are spared from illness and disease because the water is clean and pure?
Praise God for the men and women who help design systems to provide clean water for millions of people.
Or consider the role of government in enforcing laws related to commerce and the workplace. How many men and women are protected by government actions who would otherwise be exploited by monopolies or unethical business practices? We need only look at the work conditions and living situations of workers in some countries—or the black market in our own country—to see the benefit of clear rules that are consistently enforced.
One more example: air traffic controllers. Every day some 15,000 personnel at more than 300 locations help guide more than 87,000 flights around the nation. Every day. It is a huge operation. What good benefits come from the passenger and freight travel by air.
Praise God for the men and women who help operate a system which brings order out of chaos, which provides safety amidst risk.
Think about the common grace benefit of government officials who help establish and maintain our highway system, who test the safety of consumer vehicles or pharmaceutical drugs, or who inspect our borders, passports, ships, or bridges. Much of governmental work in enforcing laws helps establish safety and create order so that men and women made in the image of God may flourish.
Do you know anyone that has any of these jobs? Who do you know that works in government prosecuting evil or upholding good? Have you considered what it looks like to honor their role?
Have you thanked God for them? This brings us to a fourth point.
Finally, consider biblical examples of those who have honored God in government service.
God used believers in pagan governments to protect his people. Joseph served in Egypt’s government and ultimately provided refuge and food for Jacob and his sons in a severe famine. Queen Esther won the king’s favor and saved a people from genocide. Daniel and the three Hebrew boys, as war refugees, proclaimed God’s truth before pagan kings and helped secure the freedom to worship God.
These are just a few examples of people who God used in government, not just to advance the good of a people, but to advance the glory of God. How would your heart toward the authority of government change if you started praying for Christian brothers and sisters in government to have wisdom in their work and boldness in their witness for the Gospel?
As Christians, we know that even the best of men are men at best. Even the most impressive government official is sinful and fallible. So while we never trust the individuals or institutions of government more than we trust God, we can praise God that he will preserve a remnant—in government—to bear witness to his goodness and advance his aims.
We can be thankful for the authorities God has ordained to punish evil and to uphold a common good. Remembering God’s sovereignty, and his ultimate authority, can help us avoid sinful behaviors like ad hominem attacks or ugly name calling—even when making critiques of governmental authorities we seek to obey.