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Ask the Pastor

† Theological musings and answers to selected questions by a confessional Lutheran pastor.






18 March 2006

Obeying Bad Governments


Q: Romans 13 states that all authorities are established by God. It tells us to submit to these authorities. It also says that “rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. (v. 3)” When I read this passage, I thought of Nazi Germany. I certainly don’t see how Hitler’s Nazi Party can be an authority established by God. And historically it has shown that the Nazi Party persecuted many people who did right things (such as helping to save innocent Jews living under the Third Reich). I am a Christian and I believe what the Bible tells me. How am I to understand this passage?

A: Basically, if a government doesn’t do those things that God demands of it, then it is not a good government. If it engages in sinful, brutal, godless behavior and encourages or commands its citizens to do likewise, they are then free from obedience, for a clear division between God’s right and man’s wrong exists. As the disciples said, “We must obey God rather than man. (Acts 5:29)”)

Martyrdom by GovernmentIt helps us to compare Scriptures and to study the interrelationships we have in God’s kingdom of grace, which is exercised only in and through His Church, and in His kingdom of power, which is exercised also in society and nature. Notice that Paul and Peter (1 Peter 2:13-25) both write also of the good that government does. Thus, if it calls evil good and good evil, and especially if it commands us to sin, it is not a government to be obeyed by Christians, for it is not fulfilling God’s commands to do good for its people.

Note, however, that even wicked governments are sometimes used by God. Assyria, one of the most brutal and evil nations ever to exist, was God’s instrument of judgment upon Israel (Isaiah 7-8, passim). Babylon (the Chaldeans), an idol-worshiping empire, nevertheless was called by God (although they didn’t realize it) to similarly execute God’s judgment upon Judah (see Habakkuk 1:5-6). God employed the pagan (and often grossly wicked) Roman Empire to arrange the time and place of His Son’s birth, the means of Jesus’ death, and the wide and rapid spread of the Gospel following Christ’s resurrection and ascension.

God also brought down these great nations — in fact, Babylon destroyed Assyria and was later conquered by the pagan nation of Persia, which was an integral part of the Babylonian empire. Then the Lord turned around and used Persia to return the Judean captives! Rome blamed Christianity for many of its latter-day woes, but when it fell, Christ’s Church remained.

As we struggle to understand the whole picture and live under God’s grace, we should keep in mind several things. Chaos and discord belong to the devil; government works for order and harmony. No obedience is evil unless obeying leads us to do or directly contribute to evil. Some evils cause more harm than others, so choosing to disobey a sinful government shouldn’t contribute to even greater evil if that authority falls.

Lutherans have had a long history of interpreting the Christian’s place in society and under civil law. I urge anyone interested to study further the “two kingdoms,” vocation, our understanding of the Fourth Commandment (“Honor your father and your mother”) in the Small Catechism and the Large Catechism, and related topics.

Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.

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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.

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1 Comments:

Blogger solarblogger said...

I have pondered this one at length. One conclusion I've come to is that I think it's a mistake to file the Romans 13 passage under the general heading of "government." What is spoken of are rulers. Individuals. This is Christian ethics applied to a certain kind of neighbor.

The "Hitler reading" is difficult under any theory. Can you really say "Hitler is is not a terror to good conduct but to bad"? Or that you will receive his approval if you do good? (Romans 13:3) Either he is an exception to the rule, or most of us haven't understood the proper application of the passage.

20 March, 2006 14:03  

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