If you were to isolate and read one passage in 1 Peter or Romans, you would get a very positive view of government where it seems that the state does nothing more than the work of God. But then, if you were to read the entire book of Revelation, you would get a very negative view of government where the state seems run by demons and darkness.
Instead of embracing both sides of this coin, Christians often look a bit crazy, quoting Paul and Peter when they like a politician and John when they don’t. We choose one side of the coin or the other, but we rarely look at the whole coin itself.
God is not a God of anarchy. In fact, one of the most crucial themes of the creation story is that God is a God of order. Even when New Testament characters (including Jesus himself) want to understand the way in which life is supposed to work, they reference the order of creation as God’s basic order. That being said, since God is not a God of chaos, he has established government so that order, structure, justice and good might be brought to fruition on the earth.
And that’s exactly Peter and Paul’s point: When governments are doing what they’re supposed to be doing, we shouldn’t be worried about following them. After all, they’re supposed to keep the kind of order and justice in place that God cares about, and we can side with that. Indeed, we should fear God’s wrath through the government if we do something evil!
But the sad fact is that the government doesn’t always care to do the good things they’re supposed to do, which is illustrated by the same Bible characters that endorse their power. For example, Jesus told Pilate that Pilate’s power came from God, but Pilate still let Jesus hang on a cross. This was proper power used unjustly. Paul recognized that we should obey the government and yet he was put in jail for years. This was proper power used unjustly. Daniel saw in a dream that God gave Nebuchadnezzar power and yet Nebuchadnezzar tried to feed him to lions. This was proper power used unjustly.
Even the spiritual realm has this problem. Over the kings of this earth are the little-g-gods of the spiritual realm. According to Deuteronomy 32:8, these gods were established to rule over countries when they were all divided up at the Tower or Babel. Yet even these spiritual beings took their proper power and used it unjustly. And so, in Psalm 82, God judges these gods for not using their power for justice and good and tells them they will one day die as punishment.
And this is why John sees the demonic overtones of government. For behind the veil of this world is another world of false gods who (much like human kings) were put in place to create order, but instead sow chaos. And the human governments of this world sometimes listen to these false gods and create more chaos, instead of listening to God to create order and justice. The realms and their royalties are in disarray.
This is exactly why Christians must recognize good when they see it and side with it, and why they must recognize evil when they see it and speak prophetically and respectfully against it. And if we do good where the government does evil and they bring suffering upon us for doing so, Peter says we’ve done a “gracious thing in the sight of our God.”
And that is both sides of the coin.
*This devotional was created out of the themes of 1 Peter 2:11-25 found in today’s reading at CommonPrayer.net.