Augustus 2 - Photo by Nemanja Peric on Unsplash

THE NERONIAN DILEMMA

God allows evil rulers to govern us and uses them to accomplish His plans, but He also calls us to show them due respect and obedience.

Paul exhorted Christians residing in the heart of the Empire to respect governors and magistrates, to obey the emperor, and to pay their taxes. Existing authorities “have been arranged by God,” therefore, anyone who opposes the government is opposing “the arrangement of God.” That he stated this about the Roman government raises a dilemma for many of us.

We tend to agree with Paul’s teachings when we approve of the government and its policies. But when we disapprove of the system or who is in charge we begin to seek and even invent loopholes in his words.

For example, the famous New Testament Greek scholar, A.T. Robertson, commented in his Word Picture in the New Testament that “Paul is not arguing for the divine right of kings or for any special form of government, but for government and order. Nor does he oppose here revolution for a change of government, but he does oppose all lawlessness and disorder.”

But nothing in Paul’s words allows for violent revolution, which, if anything, is the exact opposite of “law and order.” Moreover, if we take it upon ourselves to advocate for a “change of government,” we are, in fact, “opposing the arrangement of God.” How do we know whom God desires to govern us?

And this passage follows immediately his exhortation not to take vengeance into our own hands. If we are disciples of Jesus, we must NOTrender to any man evil for evil.” Instead, we are summoned to leave judgment and justice in the hands of God. Believers must “not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.” To argue that Paul then approved of taking the law into our own hands by overthrowing the government because it abused us is ludicrous.

Moreover, such interpretations read modern democratic ideas into Paul’s words. At the time he wrote this, Christians had few if any civil “rights,” and they certainly had no “right” or ability to elect their political rulers or influence governmental policies. Christianity was not recognized by the Roman government as a legal religion, and the emperor was no champion of democracy, religious rights, or individual liberty. Yet Paul warned Christians that to oppose that government was to oppose the “arrangement” of God.

But the real problem with all such attempts to water down Paul’s words is Nero. At the time he wrote to the church at Rome, the empire was ruled by Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (reigned A.D. 54-68), one of the most despotic emperors in Roman history, a man who had his own mother murdered, kicked his pregnant wife to death, and became the first emperor to persecute the Church.

Nevertheless, Paul summoned the Christians of Rome to honor, respect, and obey the government of Nero. And rather ironically, the Apostle very likely was executed by Nero’s government when the emperor launched his pogrom against the Christians of Rome. And Paul was arguing from solid scriptural grounds.

The book of Daniel, for example, began by declaring that Yahweh GAVE Jerusalem and the “vessels of the house of God” into the “HAND of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon,” the same pagan ruler who would later destroy the kingdom of Judah, the city of Jerusalem, and the Temple, as well as exile a great many Jews to Mesopotamia – (Daniel 1:1).

No patriotic Israelite would have elected that idol-worshipping despot to govern Judah. Nevertheless, with this very king in mind, Daniel praised Yahweh as the one who “removes kings and sets up kings,” and even announced to Nebuchadnezzar himself:

  • You are the king of kings, for the God of Heavens has GIVEN YOU the kingship, the might, the power, and the dignity; and wherever the sons of men dwell, the wild beasts of the field and the birds of the air has HE GIVEN into your hand and made you ruler over them all.”

God’s hand is not limited. He can save by many or few, and He is well able to employ evil, good, mediocre, and just plain incompetent kings and politicians to achieve His purposes. Moreover, only He sees the “end from the beginning.”

Neither the form of government nor the nefarious plans of world rulers can derail His plans. Furthermore, the downfall of dozens of great empires throughout history, often suddenly and unexpectedly, demonstrates that He can remove them whenever He chooses.

The demise of the former Soviet Union in 1991 is a case in point, an event of tremendous significance to this day that NO ONE in the government, the news media, or the Church saw coming.

When we declare that God is opposed to a government or policy that we do not like, and therefore we must oppose it, how do we know that is, in fact, His will? Just because a government or ruler is “good” in our minds does not mean that God has chosen it or him to hold political power.

And the very fact that God used an idol-worshipping king like Nebuchadnezzar and a despotic ruler like Nero to achieve His ends and called His people to submit respectfully to their governments, ought to caution us against presuming to know who God wishes to run the government in our respective countries.

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