What is Good Government?
I’d like to do a little civics survey as we begin this morning. How many of you regularly watch or listen to media focused on politics? How many of you don’t do this because you feel that everyone who enters politics is ultimately contaminated because the political process is inherently corrupt? Or to put it another way, how many of you would be proud to have your son or daughter enter politics?
No matter where I go, I encounter a basic mistrust of those in government. It’s as though most people consider government to be ungodly. The exception is if a politician is known personally. Then it’s not unusual to hear, “Oh, she’s one of the good politicians!” Every once in a while, one of them even belongs to the same church as we do. Then, of course, “He is one of the good ones! But he’d better be careful lest he be contaminated.”
Distrust of those who serve in government is so pervasive that one might even begin to think that God himself would want to stay away from it, lest HE be contaminated. However, that’s not the picture St. Paul presents. No, St. Paul declares that far from being disinterested in government, God is vitally interested. In fact, God alone establishes all authority.
We might wonder, “Really? All authority? Even those authorities that bring hurt and pain to others? Even those who persecute God’s people?” Yes, all authority!
The children of Israel had grown comfortable with YHWH, the God who delivered them from the hand of Pharaoh and defeated seven nations to give them the land of Canaan. YHWH was their God, their national God! Surely He would never leave them, not even if they grew lazy about obeying Him.
So imagine their horror, their outrage, when Isaiah proclaimed that God was going to use the Assyrians to punish them, His own people. Listen, “He lifts up a banner for the distant nations, he whistles for those at the ends of the earth. Here they come, swiftly and speedily!” (Is 5:26). Can you imagine the shock on their faces as they see their God whistling for the attention of the Assyrians, saying, “Hey! Over here!” Later, Jeremiah proclaimed that because the leaders of Judah would not “plead the case of the fatherless” or “defend the rights of the poor,” God was going to use Babylon “to destroy the Daughter of Zion” (Jer 5:28; 6:2).
Jesus surprised Pilate as he stood silent before him. “Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate asked. “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above” (Jn 19:10–11). Obviously shaken, realizing to whom he was ultimately responsible, Pilate was determined to set Jesus free.
The biblical truth is clear. No matter who is in authority, whether it is the king of Judah, the emperor of Assyria, or the Caesar of Rome, a dictatorship, a monarchy, or a democracy—all authority comes from God.
St. Paul makes it clear that God has a loving purpose in giving this authority. He gives it to bring punishment to the wrongdoer and to commend those who do right. It was because the leaders of Israel and Judah were turning the purpose of authority on its head, collaborating with evil and mocking the righteous, that God whistled up the Assyrians and Babylonians. At the same time he held those nations accountable. “Woe to the Assyrian, the rod of my anger,” Isaiah writes. “I will punish the king of Assyria for the willful pride of his heart and the haughty look in his eyes” (Is 10:5, 12).
God has a very sober assessment of humanity. Some hold the starry-eyed opinion that people can be trusted to do the right thing and, therefore, that governmental authority isn’t really needed; but God sees just the opposite. God sees that people are inherently sinful and will always put their interests before the interests of others. Therefore, He gives governments authority to keep selfishness from tearing societies apart.
Why is the conduct of health care companies debated in Congress? Because there is frequently evidence that corporate profits are placed ahead of patients’ health. Why are there laws governing monopolies in business? It is because large corporations in the past have used their size to gain an unfair advantage over the little guy. Why do highway patrol officers watch our roads? They watch because some drivers drive in such a way as to put others in danger.
All these rules and laws are put in place so that self-interests can be curbed and evil can be restrained. But we also know that governments can botch their God-given responsibilities even as they try to maintain justice among the people. Judah did! Rome did! Examples are plentiful. The fact that governments botch the job, though, isn’t the only reason we tend to resist their authority. More often than not we resist their authority because our sinful natures don’t like to be called to account.
God gives government authority to temper our old, sinful nature, but He knows that even the most wisely administered civil authorities can’t change our nature. God knows we that will act selfishly the minute we think the law isn’t looking. (We invented radar detectors, didn’t we?) It isn’t good enough for God that we behave ourselves as long as we’re being watched. God doesn’t just want changed behavior. He wants changed hearts.
It was for this reason that God sent Jesus into the world. He sent Jesus to call us under the authority of a different power, the power of His love. Jesus demonstrated the power of love by coming to us, even when we were enemies of God’s authority. Instead of condemning us, as we deserved, Jesus died for us. He took the punishment the Law assigned to us so that we might not be condemned, but saved. Then Jesus rose from the grave, offering us the opportunity to stand guiltless before His Father through the gift of faith in Him, and in this way, Jesus is the sinner’s righteousness. Because of what Jesus did to fulfill all righteousness, there should be no more bristling at the impossible demands of godly authority! No more sneaking off to do our own thing when we think God isn’t looking! Forgiven in Christ, we run to God as children run to a loving father. We stand cheerfully before Him, perfect citizens of His kingdom.
This love of God in Jesus’ life and death is the reason St. Paul calls us to obey those in authority, the reason he appeals to our conscience. As Christians we obey, not because governments demand obedience, but because we have experienced the freedom that being loved and forgiven brings. We obey because Jesus has freed us from blind slavery to our own selfishness and opened our hearts to loving others as He has loved us. We obey because Jesus has freed us to see God’s good purpose in government, because Jesus has freed us to appreciate that good government is godly. Under the power of this love we not only obey, but also we actively seek to help government be the good government God created it to be. And because we have this perspective on godly authority, we may even applaud a son or daughter on choosing to enter politics!