What is Government?

Two blog posts in the past month from very different voices (Tony Jones and Travis Gilbert) have me thinking a lot about the nature of government the past few days. Over my life, I have given much thought to the idea of government, what is considered a legitimate government, and how Christians are to respond to government(s).

Americans tend to assume that government refers to the nation-state. Thus, the government is the United States of America or Great Britian or Russia or Iran. We remember that other types of governments used to exist such as the city-state of the ancient world, but for the most part government has come to mean nation-state. We understand that local government do exist, but believe in a hierarchy of government where the city is in a county, and a county in a state/province/district, and a state in a nation.

However, I have always seen government in terms of power. Who is in charge? Who is ruling this place? Because of this, I see many types of government in our lives everyday– sometimes in cooperation with one another; often in conflict and in competition with one another.

Anyone living in the inner-city knows that there are at least two forms of government: 1) is the local gang or mafia; 2) is the supposedly “legitimate” government of the city in the form of police, judges, and jailors.

When I was a child in school, I knew that several authorities or governments existed when I was at school. One was the principal and teachers. Second was the very powerful peer groups. Third was the bullies on the playground and in the locker room.

Today, I watch and feel the power of corporations on my life. I am governed and ruled by Verizon, AT&T, the electric company, etc. Sometimes these various companies cooperate with the United States government and even with one another. Sometimes they are at odds with the US government and with one another. But these companies often have more power, rule, and control over me than any nation-state or local government.

In addition to all of this is the question of what makes a government legitimate. If my government doesn’t recognize your government and I’m theoretically supposed to submit to my government and you are to submit to your government, then what are we to do? I dwell on this because my friend Travis brings up the argument that we are to submit to all earthly authorities except when their authority is in opposition to God. This creates for a very complex situation. First, when will any government not be in opposition to God in some way? Every government is always asking its citizens to do something that opposes the ways of God. Second, how are we to respond when we do feel like we should resist or disobey? Is this an active disobedience that results in some sort of action against the government (perhaps violence)? Or is this a peaceful resistance or non-participation? Something in between?

Finally, if you are a Christian who believes violence can be okay and even God’s will for a particular moment, then how do you respond to the revolutionary war, or the civil war here in the United States? One could make the case that Christians should not have rebelled against England because it was the legitimate government. However, at what point did the colonialists become a legitimate government that Christians should submit to? Also, if the colonial powers did become legitimate, were Christians supposed to submit and against the English army and the Christians in that army? Were Christians from England then supposed to submit to their government and kill Americans? (Questions adapted from blog reply to Travis.)

The nature of government is very complex. Even more complex is the Christian’s relationship to government. The Bible presents very different voices on this relationship. Jesus seemingly cooperates with government while also using rhetoric that questions the legitimacy of these human governments (essentially asking, “Are they real?”), Paul seems to support submission to government in Romans 13, uses his Romans citizenship in Acts, but also makes trouble with various local governments. Peter tells us to submit to earthly authorities and to honor the king. John’s Revelation is a stark contrast that places the kingdoms of this world in sharp opposition with the kingdom of God. Even participation in the economy of Babylon makes one a follower of the beast.

Very complex indeed!

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