The Neronian Problem
The Bible claims that God gives political power to whomever He pleases, “even to the basest of men.” He “removes kings and installs kings” to accomplish His purposes, including rulers of whom many church leaders and members may disapprove. Disciples of Jesus who assume that certain politicians should hold governmental power presume on God’s patience and prerogative, and this is especially problematic in Western-style democratic societies.
In his letter to the churches of Rome, Paul exhorts believers to respect magistrates, obey the emperor, and pay taxes. Existing authorities “have been arranged by God,” therefore, anyone who opposes them opposes the “arrangement of God.” And he wrote this when Rome was ruled by a notorious despot, Emperor Nero - (Romans 13:1-7).
We tend to agree with Paul’s guidelines when we approve of the government that currently holds power, its leaders, and its policies. But when we disapprove, we begin to seek and even invent loopholes in the Apostle’s words.
For example, the famous New Testament Greek scholar, A.T. Robertson, commented in his Word Picture in the New Testament that - “Paul is not arguing for the divine right of kings or for any special form of government, but for government and order. Nor does he oppose here revolution for a change of government, but he does oppose all lawlessness and disorder.”
But nothing in Paul’s words allows for violent revolution, which, if anything, is the exact opposite of the very “law and order” promoted by Mr. Robertson.
Moreover, if we take it upon ourselves to advocate for a “change of government,” we are, in fact, “opposing the arrangement of God” and presuming to know what His will is in the matter. How do we know whether He desires a particular political party or person to run the government at any point in time?
And the passage in Romans follows Paul’s exhortation not to take vengeance into our own hands. If we are disciples of Jesus, we must NOT “render to any man evil for evil.”
Instead, we are summoned to leave judgment and justice in the hands of God. Believers must “not be overcome by evil, but instead, overcome evil with good.” To argue that Paul then approved of taking the law into our own hands by overthrowing the government because we dislike it, is implausible if not dishonest – (Romans 12:17-21).
Moreover, such interpretations read modern democratic ideas into the Apostle’s words. At the time he wrote them, the church of Jesus Christ had few if any civil “rights,” and his followers certainly had no “right” or ability to elect their political overlords or influence Roman policies.
In the first century, this new faith was not recognized by the Roman government as a legal religion, and the emperor was certainly no champion of democracy, religious rights, freedom of speech, or other individual and civil liberties.
Nevertheless, Paul warned the church of Rome that resistance to THAT government constituted opposition to God’s “arrangement.”
The problem with every attempt to water down Paul’s words is Nero. At the time the Apostle wrote to the church in Rome, the empire was ruled by Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (reigned A.D. 54-68), one of the most despotic emperors in Roman history, a man who murdered his own mother, kicked his pregnant wife to death, and became the first emperor to persecute the church in Rome.
Yet Paul summoned the church in Rome to honor, respect, and obey THAT man’s government and to honor its officers. And rather ironically, he very likely was executed by Nero’s government when the emperor launched his pogrom against believers in the city.
And Paul was arguing on solid scriptural grounds. The Book of Daniel, for example, began by declaring that Yahweh GAVE Jerusalem and the “vessels of the house of God” into the “HAND of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon,” the same pagan autocrat who later destroyed the Kingdom of Judah, Jerusalem, and the Temple, and exiled a great many Jews to Mesopotamia – (Daniel 1:1).
No patriotic Israelite would have elected THAT idol-worshipping tyrant to govern Judah. Nevertheless, with this very king in mind, Daniel praised Yahweh as the one who “removes kings and sets up kings,” and even announced to Nebuchadnezzar himself that:
- “You are the king of kings, for the God of Heavens has GIVEN YOU the kingship, the might, the power, and the dignity; and wherever the sons of men dwell, the wild beasts of the field and the birds of the air has HE GIVEN into your hand and made you ruler over them all.”
God's hand is not limited. He can save by many or few, and He is well able to employ evil, good, mediocre, or just plain incompetent kings and politicians to achieve His purposes. And only He sees the “end from the beginning” and knows what is in every man’s heart.
TESTIMONY OF HISTORY
Neither the form of government nor the nefarious schemes of world rulers can derail His plans, and the downfall of dozens of great empires throughout history, often suddenly and unexpectedly, demonstrates that He can remove them whenever He pleases.
Furthermore, this same history demonstrates eloquently that no political ideology or government lasts forever. Whether monarchy, democracy, dictatorship, capitalism, or communism, all political and economic systems and theories in the end fail.
When we declare that God is opposed to a government or policy we despise, how do we know that is, in fact, His will? Just because a political candidate or party is “good” to our way of thinking does not mean that God has chosen him or it to hold power.
And how many times have church leaders used arguments of this sort to justify getting into bed with corrupt politicians and administrations that are anything but Christ-like, let alone moral or “Christian”?
Despite its many faults and abuses, the Roman Empire did several things that helped pave the way for the rapid expansion of the Gospel, including building a system of empire-spanning roads and shipping routes, things that directly benefited the missionary efforts of the Apostle Paul.
Regardless of the often violent and pagan nature of Rome, the early church was able to spread the Gospel throughout the Mediterranean world in only a few short decades in part because of the infrastructure built by the Empire, along with the relative peace it brought and then enforced in entire regions.
The very fact that God used King Nebuchadnezzar or the emperors of Rome to achieve His plans and called His people to submit respectfully to these government ought to caution us against presuming to know who God wishes to run the government in whatever country in which we currently reside.
Instead of taking over governments and populations, the church of Jesus Christ is called to “occupy” in the period between his ascension and return, to proclaim his Gospel and the “Kingdom of God” until he arrives in glory, and not to work for “perishing meat.” In the interim, God alone decides who will exercise political power in this world. The church is called to do something much higher and holier.
His Kingdom is a political reality though one contrary to the ways of this fallen age. And since it is the only realm that will endure forever, in the end, it is the only one that matters.