IN RECENT years governments the world over have become increasingly plagued with suspicion, distrust and scandal. Who could have guessed that within one year's time, the United States' political scene would be marred with, among other things: • The notorious Watergate affair, which has been labeled by some as "the most devastating scandal in American political history." • The resultant en masse firing, and resignation, of numerous top White House aides. • The resignation of the nation's Vice-President and the appointment of a new one. • The firing of the "special Watergate prosecutor" followed by the resignations of the Attorney General and the Deputy Attorney General. • The controversy swirling around the missing White House tapes. • The virtually unprecedented calls for the resignation or impeachment of the President. Government corruption and controversy, however, have not been strictly limited to the United States: As an example, West Germany experienced its own "Watergate on the Rhine" when it was disclosed that a former Bundestag Deputy had sold his vote to keep the Chancellor in power.
But where does all of this leave you, the average citizen? What should your attitude be toward government leaders accused of official wrongdoing? Whose side should you take — if any? Is it worth sifting through all the voluminous rhetoric, finger-pointing, and self-justification to try and come to some sort of intelligent conclusion? What is a citizen's obligation toward governments which are found to be less than perfect? Should the people respect and submit to public officials who are accused of indulging in corrupt and scandalous practices?
Source of All Government
Actually, there is an authoritative source which defines the relationship between citizens and human governments. That source is the Holy Bible, the Word of God. Here is what it has to say on this most current topic: "Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God" (Rom. 13:1). According to the Scriptures, all human government and authority proceed from Almighty God. Since it is God who has created the universe and everything in it, it is God who is ultimately responsible for all power and authority — particularly that of civil governments. Jesus informed Pontius Pilate of this fact as He stood trial for His life almost 2,000 years ago. Here is what prompted Christ's response: "Then saith Pilate unto him ... knowest thou not that I have power to crucify thee, and have power to release thee?" (John 19:10.) Notice Christ's answer: "Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above..." (verse 11). It took the ancient, world-ruling, Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar seven grueling years to grasp the reality of this truth. He was given the mind of an animal and dwelt with the beasts of the field to learn this vital lesson. After finally regaining control of his mental faculties, he admitted: "... The most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will, and setteth up over it the basest of men" (Dan. 4:17; 2:21). It should go without saying that history's tragic chronicle of countless wars, disasters and upheavals sparked by faulty human governments clearly demonstrates the reality that human beings inherently possess neither the wisdom nor the ability to govern other fellow human beings. But Almighty God is a God of order, not chaos (I Cor. 14:33, 40). And since mankind as a whole has never submitted to God's government and rule, He has ordained that in this society — during this age — that physical humans be allowed to exercise the authority of civil offices. Of course, those in positions of governmental authority frequently fail to fully live up to the responsibilities of their offices. They may, in fact, even corrupt the government. But does that give the people living under the jurisdiction of such officials the right to maliciously malign and accuse them? The answer, according to principles based on the inspired Word of God, is this: As long as God allows officials to remain in office, citizens are obligated to respect their offices and remain subject to their authority. No matter how corrupt government figures may be — or how high accusations against them may mount — it is God's ultimate responsibility to deal with them. Since it is God who has set them in office, it is His responsibility to remove them — which He is perfectly capable of doing whenever He desires.
King David of Old Testament Israel was one man who was fully aware of this principle. As the Scriptures make clear, David was but a growing youth when the nation was given its first human king — Saul. Despite the fact that God had not originally intended it that way (see I Samuel 8), God allowed Saul to exercise the authority of the highest position of national leadership. David knew that Saul's office and kingship proceeded directly from God Almighty. As the scriptural record makes clear, during the early years of his reign Saul obeyed the commandments of the Eternal God who had placed him in power; but, due to his own human weakness, Saul eventually rebelled and turned his back on his Creator. David, whom Samuel had anointed to be the next king, was personally acquainted with Saul's disloyalty to God. On several occasions, Saul had even attempted to murder David by running him through with a javelin. Humanly speaking, it would have seemed that David had every right to remove Saul from office. Yet, did David react impulsively to what appeared to be humanly right? No. Instead, David restrained himself and remembered that it was God who had chosen and anointed Saul to be the ruler of the nation. David knew that it was God's sole responsibility to remove Saul from office — at the time of God's choosing — not David's. Though at times he found it hard to keep himself from striking back in retribution at Saul, David restrained himself and placed the entire situation in the hands of God. Notice David's trusting attitude: "... The Lord shall smite him; or his day shall come to die; or he shall descend into battle, and perish. The Lord forbid that I should stretch forth mine hand against the Lord's anointed..." (I Sam. 26:10-11). Those familiar with the story know that David's trust in God eventually paid off — for Saul did descend into battle and God allowed him to be slain. It was then, and only then, that David took over the throne.
Penalty for Those Who Resist
Hundreds of years after David's time, the Apostle Paul magnified the principle of submission to constituted authority. Under God's inspiration he described the penalty which God will ultimately impose on those who willfully and deliberately seek to tear down the government over them. "... Anyone who resists authority is opposing the divine order, and the opposition will bring judgment on themselves" (Rom. 13:2, Moffatt translation). This penalty applies not only to those who assassinate or murder public officials and policemen, but to those who willfully incite civil strife, destroy public buildings, or maliciously accuse and condemn public figures. Why? Because: "... The magistrate is God's servant for your benefit... he is God's servant for the infliction of divine vengeance upon evildoers" (verse 4, Moffatt translation). The Scriptures make clear the fact that God has ordained rulers and officials for the control and regulation of society — especially for the punishment of those who would create domestic strife and anarchy. In this way society can be given at least partial protection from criminals and anarchists. Those who attempt to remove public officials from office through violence or character assassination are usurping an authority that has been established for the good of society as a whole. This principle holds even in cases where officials have admitted — or are strongly accused of — corrupting their own offices. This is not to say that God expects citizens to be naive or ignorant — that they can't mention a man's mistakes in a right attitude. Nowhere does the Bible even imply that God expects citizens to condone or ignore blatantly scandalous practices of public figures. But rather, that the office of government officials must be respected and honored regardless of what men might do — or have been suspected of doing.
Is Submission Always Obedience?
The apostles of the early New Testament Church knew what it meant to submit to public officials. On one occasion they were threatened by the religious and civil leaders of the community with beatings and imprisonment if they did not discontinue spreading Christ's gospel. But these servants of God knew that to submit to the orders of these public officials meant to disobey God and His instructions to preach the gospel. So what did they do? Notice what they told the community officials: "... Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard" (Acts 4:19-20). These leaders of the early New Testament Church were fully aware of the fact that in cases where a conflict between the two arose, obedience to God was more important than obedience to men. Yet, even then, they knew they were still obligated to submit to the penalty imposed upon them by their accusers (Acts 5:40). It is only in cases where adherence to human rules and regulations violates God's law that human ordinances are to be ignored. However, even then, the penalty is to be submitted to if there is no legal and godly recourse. (An example of such legal recourse is when the Apostle Paul was about to be scourged [beaten] by Roman soldiers in Jerusalem. But "... as they bound him with thongs, Paul said unto the centurion that stood by, Is it lawful for you to scourge a man that is a Roman, and uncondemned?" [Acts 22:25.] If you will read the rest of this chapter, you will see that Paul avoided a terrible beating by correctly calling this centurion's attention to his Roman citizenship.) The Apostle Peter wrote: "Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake..." (I Peter 2:13). Take special notice of the wording. Peter did not say "obey" every ordinance. Of course not. He was fully aware that some human regulations clearly conflict with the divine law of Almighty God. He therefore enjoined New Testament Christians living under the human governments of their day to submit to every ordinance.
No Human Government Perfect
Adding it all up, we see that God has established human governments for the purpose of maintaining peace and order within human societies during this age. It is a citizen's duty to submit patiently to public officials, not condemning or reacting violently against the obvious faults inherent in human leadership. No human government can be perfect. Most are far from it. But that gives no one the license or right to accuse, condemn, or malign — either physically or verbally — the human authority over them.