A couple of days ago I read an excellent little article entitled “The Authority of the State” by Cal Thomas, in this month’s TableTalk Magazine. In it he made a statement with which I both agree and disagree, and which has helped give some direction to my thoughts. He says, “Why do authorities exist? It is because we live in a sinful and fallen world, and without authority everyone would do ‘what is right in his own eyes,’ resulting in chaos.” Well, yes and amen… and no. I would like to begin by explaining what I disagree with and then move on to what I found helpful.
I do not believe authority is a result of the fall. God has been exercising it and delegating it from the beginning of creation. In the naming of man, for instance, God was establishing symbolically His authority over him. In bringing animals to man, to be named by him, God was demonstrating that he had given man authority over them. In naming his wife, Adam demonstrated his God-given authority over her. God ordained all of this and called it good. (This pattern is perpetuated after the fall in the naming of children, in which we demonstrate our authority over them as parents. And it was a frequent practice throughout the rest of Scripture, when God wanted to establish a more direct and particular rule over the life of an individual, He would give him, or her, a new name.)
Government, likewise, is not a direct result of the fall. Man, created in the image of God, was created to both submit to and exercise authority. Mankind was never intended to live ungoverned. From the beginning, in the Garden, before sin entered the world, God established government. God retained rule over Adam and his wife, which He demonstrated by designating where they should live, what should be their vocation, what they were to eat, and a single prohibition which if violated carried the death penalty. God governed Adam directly. Adam was the governor of Eve. Together they were to govern the rest of creation. Man’s sin was a rebellion against God’s established system of government. Adam allowed himself to be governed by the words of his wife rather than those of God. Woman’s sin was likewise a rebellion, she obeyed the serpent and her desires rather than her husband – God’s representative in her life. And mankind, has been rejecting the authority of God and government ever since.
And there has been government ever since. It continues in spite of the fall. And this is where I begin with my “amen” to Cal Thomas. It is a mercy of God that He did not leave us without it, or else, there would be chaos. We cannot know, and it would be sheer speculation to guess, what the world and its government would have looked like if man had never sinned. But notice that in the garden there was only one prohibition, and apart from that there was freedom. Mankind, for a brief time enjoyed very minimal government. Once sin entered the world, however, the floodgates of evil were opened, and along with this came the need for much more extensive and heavy-handed government in order to prevent chaos. Another unpleasant consequence is that all the humans who God raises up to rule as His representatives are as fallen and sinful and separated from direct relationship and willing obedience to Him as the people they are called to govern.
Rebels govern rebels, yet in spite of all this, God manages to rule and reign supreme, to accomplish all His purposes (Job 42:2, Is. 46:10). Even in sin and rebellion, fallen man is directed and restrained by God, via the “laws of nature” (which both drive and limit human behaviors), the moral law which He has written on their hearts and is experienced as conscience, His mysterious providence, and as we’ve been discussing, via human government. All of these are means God uses to govern humankind, and prevent them from being as evil as they would be capable of if unrestrained. (see: Rom. 2: 12-15; Jer. 10:23; Ps. 33:10-11; Prov. 16:9, 19:21; Daniel 4:34-35; Lam. 3:37-38) Each of these, though we desire to resist or pervert every one, is a great blessing to sinful humanity.
Finally I would add that when a society undergoes intense moral decay it can expect more heavy handed government. In fact, it requires it. Our own nation, at the moment, has ceased being a society that can be trusted to regulate itself. The latitude we once had is being taken from us. It is an agonizing thing to watch – to suffer. But it is a severe mercy. I grieve over what’s becoming of America, but am thankful that God has not taken away government and left us in chaos. Rather than complaining about government, let us remember to be respectful of it, thankful for it, prayerful for it, and subject to it, insofar as it does not require us to disobey God, recognizing it as an institution established by God Himself for our good.
"Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, and avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed." Romans 13:1-7