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It is often said that God ordains the "institution of government" and, therefore, supports all governments as institutions. However, this is not correct. God recognizes that chaos results when sinful humans are left free to do what is right in their own eyes, and, therefore, ordains the principle of authority. He then appoints individuals to exercise that authority in various areas of our lives. He holds these individuals personally responsible for their exercise of the authority he gives them and, in scripture, at least, appears largely to ignore the corporate mechanisms through which they exert their authority.
This can be seen from a careful examination of the three New Testament passages commonly urged as proof that God ordains government institutions. For instance, Romans 13:1-2 teaches that every "authority" (KJV "power") is ordained by God, so that those who resist authority oppose the ordinance of God. What is divinely ordained, however, is "authority," not governmental institutions, as is clarified in verses 3 through 6, which speak of individual "rulers" who are "servants of God" and bear authority or power as his "ministers," not of "government" or governmental institutions. Similarly, in I Peter 2:13-14, after first saying that we should submit to every "institution" (so in NASB; "ordinance" in KJV) of men, Peter goes on to define the institutions to which he is referring as "a king as the one who is in authority" and "governors as sent by him" (NASB). So, once again, it is asserted that the "authority" to which we should submit rests upon individual rulers, not corporate governmental institutions. Likewise, in I Timothy 2:1-2, we are instructed to pray for "kings and all who are in authority" — the individuals themselves, not the Sanhedrin or Roman Senate or United States Congress as a corporate body. Once again, the authority is said to rest in the individuals.
However, it is equally clear that God, in fact, appoints the individuals who bear authority. This is directly stated in Daniel 4:17, wherein God himself told Nebuchadnezzar, the greatest king of Babylon, in a dream that it is God who bestows rulership over the realm of mankind on whom he wishes "and sets over it the lowliest of men." See also verse 31, in which God removed sovereignty from Nebuchadnezzar for a time, demonstrating both that he maintains power over his appointments and that he holds his appointees accountable. Moreover, twice during his earthly ministry, Jesus explicitly recognized this principle of individual governmental authority. Thus, when the centurion in Matthew 8:5-13 came to Jesus asking him to just speak the word that would heal his servant, explaining that he believed Jesus had the same sort of authority over illness that the centurion had over the soldiers in his command, Jesus marveled at his "great faith." The centurion obviously had a correct understanding of the authority principle. Finally, in John 19:10-11, Jesus first recognized that Pilate's authority to try and condemn him had been given him "from above," then recognized his responsibility for his official acts by saying that "he who delivered me up to you has the greater sin."
God appoints individuals, not institutions, to bear authority, and in the scriptures he usually ignores human institutions or bodies which claim to be governments, except when merely pointing out that they opposed him. Indeed, there appears to be but a single instance in all the scriptures in which a corporate body claiming to be a government is said to have done God's will. In John 11:49-50, Caiaphas, the High Priest, prophesied before a meeting of the Sanhedrin that Jesus must die for the benefit of the whole nation of the Jews. It is then revealed in verse 53 that, from that day forward, the Sanhedrin corporately started planning how to kill him. So, in this one instance, a government body was used rather against its will to work God's will -- the death of Jesus!
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© 2000, 2001 Ian Johnson
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