Government: A Minister of God, or of Satan?

Capitol Building

Christians live in the world, but are not of the world (Romans 12:2). We are part of a kingdom that is spiritual and eternal (John 18:36; Daniel 2:44). Yet while here on the earth, we live under the rule of civil authorities. How are we, as Christians, to view these leaders?

Paul told the Christians in Rome that they were to be subject to the civil authorities:

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. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves” (Romans 13:1-2).

However, Paul did not mean that we are to obey the civil authorities unconditionally. When ordered not to preach about Christ, Peter told the Sanhedrin council, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Obedience to God is our first priority. We are to be subject to the civil authorities only if our subjection to them does not require the forsaking of our God-given instructions and responsibilities.

A Minister of God

When we study Paul’s teaching about government in Romans 13, we must do so with the above disclaimer clearly in mind. Government is not the ultimate authority – God is. Further, He has given a specific role for the civil authorities.

For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil” (Romans 13:3-4).

Government is called a minister of God. A minister is a servant. What role does government serve in God’s providential care for mankind? Government exists to punish those who do evil, protect those who do good, and to allow its people the freedom to live and worship according to God’s instructions (Romans 13:3-4; 1 Timothy 2:1-4). A government that fulfills this role is God’s minister because it is doing the work He has given it to do.

But what if a government is not doing this? Instead of protecting the innocent, they allow the innocent to be victimized, or they themselves actively persecute Christians. Instead of punishing evildoers, they ignore or even reward their crimes. Instead of allowing us the freedom to serve God according to His will, they attempt to silence gospel preaching or prohibit Christians from assembling. Is this government still “a minister of God to you for good” (Romans 13:4)?

Some will automatically affirm that an oppressive government is still God’s minister. But is that conclusion demanded by the context in Romans 13? And does the rest of the New Testament support this?

A Minister of Satan

In the book of Revelation, the Lord warned the church in Smyrna of the persecution that was coming. He said, “The devil is about to cast some of you into prison, so that you will be tested, and you will have tribulation for ten days” (Revelation 2:10). This persecution was being carried out by the civil authorities (the Roman government). Were these authorities acting as the minister of God here when they persecuted Christians? On the contrary, they were doing the work of the devil. Their service to Satan is so plainly indicated here that their work of throwing Christians into prison is attributed to the devil himself.

When a government rejects its God-given role and begins to do harm to the ones who should be enjoying its protection, that government ceases to be a minister of God and becomes a minister of Satan.

Our Responsibility as Christians

The Scriptures teach that a government can act as either the minister of God or the minister of Satan. As Christians, what is our responsibility towards the government?

We are to pray for all leaders, whether they are doing their divinely-appointed work or not. Notice what Paul wrote:

First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:1-4).

A government allowing its people the freedom to live their lives according to God’s instructions is the ideal condition for the spread of the gospel. If this condition currently exists, we must pray for our leaders that they would allow it to continue. If it does not exist, we must pray that our leaders might have a change of heart, or else be replaced by those who will be more favorable to the free spread of the gospel.

For those governments that are fulfilling their role as God’s minister, we are to be subject to them. After stating the role of civil government and labeling it as God’s minister, Paul wrote this:

Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake” (Romans 13:5).

Paul began that phrase with the word therefore. The reason for being in subjection is stated in the previous verses. We must be in subjection to the government because the government is acting as God’s minister, fulfilling the role He has given for the civil authorities.

What if the government is acting as a minister of Satan? First, we must be prepared to do what the church at Smyrna was told to do – endure whatever persecution and tribulation might come (Revelation 2:10). Second, we must refuse to submit to any law that requires us to forsake a divinely-given command or responsibility (Acts 5:29). Third, we should follow this principle: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (Romans 12:18). If we can continue to serve God, without drawing undue attention to ourselves, we ought to do so. This does not mean compromising on matters that pertain to the faith, but it means keeping a low profile so the wicked leaders will leave us alone as much as possible.

Remember God

Whether we live under good leaders or evil leaders, we must remember the One who is over all. In addressing our responsibility to civil authorities, Peter said, “Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God” (1 Peter 2:16).

Even though we may be citizens of a country here, we are primarily citizens of the kingdom of heaven (Philippians 3:20). Therefore, whether the government’s rule warrants our submission (Romans 13:1-5) or our rebellion (Acts 5:29), we must always remain servants of God.

Following His death, burial, resurrection, and ascension into heaven, Jesus was placed “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come” (Ephesians 1:21). Jesus is over all and we will all give an account of our lives before Him (2 Corinthians 5:10). Therefore, we must do all things “in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Colossians 3:17), regardless of what our rulers may say about it.

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