There has been a lot written in recent years about the motif of empire critique in the Bible. The movie Braveheart quotes Robert the Bruce saying, “Historians will call me a liar, but history is written by those who have hanged heroes.” Yet, the surprising miracle of the Bible, which is still the best selling book in the world, is this simple fact: It was written by the hanged, by the executed, by the oppressed and downtrodden, and NOT by the executioners, NOT by the kings, NOT by the military generals or the victors. This is a very impressive feat. It is a celebration of the underdogs of history. It is the voice of the slaves, the women, the minority peoples, the pushed around, shoved around, beat up and displaced people of the world.
Though sometimes brandished in the hands of those on top, though sometimes quoted and used by a consumerist economic power, the Bible itself is actually a prophetic critique of those very things. It’s message is a drastic and dramatic warning to anyone who ends up in positions of leadership, influence, power, or control. And it is a call to those with power to make sure they use it to help those in need, otherwise their power will be challenged and eventually taken from them. History knows that there is something inherently blinding about power. Position can deceptively confirm the I-have-earned-all-this-by-my-own-prowess-and-effort narrative. But the Bible says to them, “I have put you in that position to be a river of blessing to others.”
Empire critique is a refreshing way to read the Bible again. But it can also be taken too far. An overly distrustful posture toward all forms of leadership and authority can lead to cutting oneself off from all of the benefit God created that position to provide you.
Let’s take a look at a couple of verses that speak to the God-given role of government.
Romans 13:1 “Every person should place themselves under the authority of the government. There isn’t any authority unless it comes from God, and the authorities that are there have been put in place by God.”
This verse is not saying that God deterministically chooses all leaders. It does not place God’s stamp of approval on Hitlers and dictators and rogue forces who use the most violence and corruption to get to power. It also doesn’t give a pass to all human systems of government. Some are better than others. Rather, this verse in Romans 13 means that Government as a realm is a system designed by God just as Business or Science or Education or Parenthood are realms, each with unique principles, systems, and laws of operation for us to discover. And the authority implicit in those God-given realms are also from God. Different people in different times and in different places step into those rivers of authority and become the gates of irrigation for society to grow.
Proverbs 21:1,5 “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord; He directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases.”… “The plans of the diligent lead to profit as surely as haste leads to poverty.” (NIV)
Government is meant to be a channel of blessing from the Lord, like a source of water irrigating a farm. The farmer directs the water where it needs to go to nourish the ground. God guides and directs the attention, governance, and policies of the king to provide opportunity, justice, etc. so that the people can flourish.
Can a ruler or government resist this guiding? Of course. Again, that’s why we have the Bible, which gives us a spiritual and prophetic history and destiny to keep praying for and speaking to those in power to remind them of their divine purpose—toward service and empowerment, not toward empire.
There is a generous flow of heavenly authority that God gives to every human government to fulfill necessary, good purposes for healthy human society to function. The passage in Romans 13 is not saying that every use of that authority is sanctioned. There are good ways and bad ways to use authority. It can be abused. But the authority is real and God wants people to learn how to operate with it righteously. A government’s role is to create systems that empower God’s people. This is the proper legacy of good government.
We must remember that as well as being a prophetic voice of constructive criticism for government and leaders in general, we are also the embodiment of Christ’s hope for the nations. Once we lose our hope, we lose our authority to influence leaders in a positive direction.
God’s perspective of leadership is inverse to ours. Though they see themselves as over tens or hundreds or thousands or nations, the Bible says leaders are under, serving, and supporting the flourishing of families and creativity. We have the choice to receive them as such, to the extent that they are providing space for prosperity. When those in power limit the ability of people to explore and grow and develop their potential and chase their dreams, then there may come a time that that people find it necessary to reject such leadership and remove them from positions of leadership. This is the power of good democracy. But we cannot replace government with anarchy. Leadership is still a spiritual gift and government will always be a necessary societal function.