In an age of polarising politics and toxic political conversation it’s easy to be influenced by the way of the world. We’re likely to go along with anything which echoes something of our own views. There’s no shortage of cynical comment, media hounding, social media posts or biting political satire that mocks those in power. It’s frequently thought that those in the public eye are fair game for such attacks. It’s part of a wider contempt for authority within our culture. Political comment fuelled by frustration, anger or ridicule is likely to go far and wide these days. We may agree with some of our rulers and deeply disagree with others. We are unlikely to agree with all of them all of the time. We may be frustrated by them or irritated by their words, actions or decisions. But how should we respond?
One may feel such a sense of opposition to a ruler and their policies that it can inspire a feeling of loathing. Cruel nicknames, ridicule and contemptuous language can abound. Things may be passed on that are not absolutely established as fact but we might almost feel that we want them to be true because of our deep opposition. People may get carried away with emotion rather than stopping to reflect on their responsibilities. We need to stop and think.
We need to think a little more carefully perhaps about the position that rulers in society have. The Bible makes it clear that they deserve our respect and prayers (Romans 13:6-7; 1 Timothy 2:1-2). Are we as ready to pray for our rulers as we are to complain about them? There are a lot of duties that we owe to our rulers. The Larger Catechism shows how this issue is bound up with the fifth commandment. To some that is surprising because they only think of the fifth commandment as relating to our duty to our parents (Exodus 20:12). But the Larger Catechism goes further (Q124). It means not only our “natural parents” but all those who “by God’s ordinance, are over us in place of authority”.
This relates to the authority that God has placed in the Church. For instance Paul often speaks of himself in the role of a father to congregations (1 Thessalonians 2:11-12; 1 Corinthians 4:14-15; Galatians 4:19). God’s servants in the Old Testament were often honoured in this way too (2 Kings 2:12; 2 Kings 13:14). But rulers of nations and societies are also spoken of as parents (Isaiah 49:23). Authority is a great blessing ordained by God for society as well as the family (which is itself the foundation of society). Of course in one case it is natural and lifelong and the other case it is social and temporary. The degree of loyalty and support that a child owes to its parents is not however identical to that which a person owes to the state. The parental understanding of authority is helpful though because it explains that all relationships of authority ought to be marked by mutual respect and love within the context of their obligations.
We are in no way suggesting that rulers must never be criticised or opposed. Rather we are exploring what the Bible has to say on our overall attitude to rulers and how and when we must express our dissent and opposition.
1. How Should we Treat our Rulers?
We should treat them with proper respect. Those who have authority over us are to be honoured (Romans 13:7; 1 Peter 2:17). This honour is to be in thought (Ecclesiastes 10:20), word (2 Peter 2:10) and action (Ecclesiastes 8:2; 1 Peter 2:13-14; Romans 13:1,6). This includes giving obedience to whatever they require which is lawful according to God’s Word (Matthew 22:21). Honouring them also includes praying for them and expressing thanksgiving for their role (Nehemiah 2:3; 1 Timothy 2:1-2). We may also be required to protect them in certain circumstances (1 Samuel 26:15-16; Esther 6:2).
2. How Should We Not Treat our Rulers?
We should avoid displaying an attitude of envy (Numbers 16:1-3), unjustified rebellion (2 Samuel 15:1-12) or contempt (1 Samuel 8:7; 1 Samuel 10:27). We should avoid speaking evil of them (Titus 3:1-2).
There is justified rebellion but this is not at the least abuse of power or matter with which they are displeased. People should suffer long before they take the step of revolution in self-defence and use all lawful and non-violent means of redress in the meantime. When they resist they do not resist the office but the person who occupies the office who has exceeded the limits of the power of that office.
3. Should We Obey Anything Contrary to God’s Law?
It is never our duty to obey any commands that are contrary to the law of God (Acts 4:19; Daniel 6:13). Rather they must be resisted and disobeyed (Acts 5:28-29; Exodus 1:17; Jeremiah 1:16-18; 1 Samuel 22:17). No command contrary to God’s law has any authority. When any ruler requires something contrary to God’s law they are exceeding the bounds of their authority. Such laws do not derive their authority from God but are devised by “the throne of iniquity” (Psalm 94:20). Where we resist, however, it should be done with meekness and humility as far as possible (1 Peter 3:15). We should not be afraid of wicked rulers and wicked commands (Hebrews 11:23 and 27). Sometimes preserving our life from tyrannical rulers is necessary (1 Samuel 21:10; 1 Kings 19:3). But we need discernment as to how to act in situations where we may feel threatened (Ecclesiastes 10:4).
4. What Do We Do When we Disagree with Them?
It can be hard to respect some politicians. Sometimes indeed rulers cannot have our respect (2 Kings 3:14; 1 Samuel 15:35) and it must be withheld from them. But this should not be done hastily and in a fit of passion (Ecclesiastes 8:3). We must acknowledge the weighty responsibility and difficulty of their role. Patience and forbearance may be required at some times. It is easy for people in such circumstances to make mistakes and say things that are ill-judged. Sometimes we must give the benefit of the doubt and be charitable, other times we cannot. We read of some misgovernment more cautiously described as “an error” (Ecclesiastes 10:5). There may be certain weaknesses or “infirmities” (as the Larger Catechism describes them) with which we must be patient. We ought to be cautious too in our language in moderating how we express disapproval and dissent out of respect for the office of the ruler. When we protest against them or challenge them we ought to do so in a respectful way. It requires great wisdom for there is a time to speak and a time to be silent. Perhaps there are times when we must mourn and pray in secret (Amos 5:13).
5. What Do We Do About their Sins?
The Larger Catechism gives a very full summary of the duties required of rulers which are commonly neglected (Q128). Also covered are the sins that are only too familiar in those that exercise power (Q129). There may be sin and abuse of power in rulers and we are not to turn a blind eye to that (Ecclesiastes 10:5-6). We are not to excuse their faults any more than others (Mark 6:18). Sin and folly must be pointed out (Acts 4:8-10; Isaiah 5:23). It is often necessary to withstand a ruler in this (2 Samuel 24:3; 2 Chronicles 26:28; 2 Samuel 19:5; 1 Samuel 14:2). Their sin may often need to be rebuked publicly due to their position of influence (1 Timothy 5:20). The prophets were often required to do this. The sinful actions and decisions of rulers can have long last consequences for a nation (1 Kings 14:16). It is a great plague for a nation to have rulers who are wicked (Psalm 12:8). We can pray and speak against their sins and we can pray that they would be brought to repentance. But we must be careful that we are not tempted to have a sinful spirit ourselves towards them (Ecclesiastes 10:20). Vengeance belongs to the Lord (Romans 12:19).
We cannot hope to answer all the difficult situations that may arise in various contexts in such a short article. None of this is intended to give approval to any actions of specific rulers. But there should be enough here to make us reflect further on our attitude. We should not take our cue from the world in terms of our engagement with politics and with our rulers. Being salt and light means showing an attitude of grace in these matters. We should certainly care about how our nation is governed and express an opinion but that should not be coloured by the vitriol that commonly marks political conversation. It is very challenging. How do you pray for rulers that you believe are contributing to the moral destruction of your country? How do you express some measure of thanksgiving for them? It is very complex and requires a wisdom that we do not have in ourselves. We must seek it from God.