Christianity's View of Government’s Role:
Thus far Yoder has set up the idea that Christ's life of willing subordination is a model for us as Christians. This subordination is done within the context of culture, but more pointedly for the Christian, it is done within a specific culture of a new kingdom, the Kingdom. It is here that reconciliation takes place and where the world sees the inexplicable, undeniable, compelling love of God. But that leaves the Christian with a very important question. If we are in a new Kingdom and we are to live as Christ, what implications does that have for our relationship to human kingdoms - to the political sphere?
"The entire text thus sees Christian nonconformity and suffering love as driven and drawn by a sense of God's triumphant movement from the merciful past into a triumphant future. Any interpretation of 13:1-7 that would make it the expression of a static or conservative undergirding of the present social system would therefore represent a refusal to take seriously the context. Any interpretation in which God's mercies are not seen as overcoming hostilities through the creation of community, reaching even the nuts and bolts of financial sharing and missionary support, has covered over the meaning of each part of the text by not seeing the whole...The immediate concrete meaning of this text for the Christian Jews in Rome, in the face of official anti-Semitism and the rising arbitrariness of the Imperial regime, is to call them away from any notion of revolution or insubordination. The call is to a nonresistant attitude toward a tyrannical government. This is the immediate and concrete meaning of the text; how strange then to make it the classic proof for the duty of Christians to kill."
When one begins to look back to chapter 12 of Romans and read about enduring persecution, being patient in affliction, not repaying evil with evil, allowing the Lord to avenge, feeding our enemies, and allowing good to overcome evil - it seems strange then for Paul to move into a passage that tells Christians how government is the one institution in which their killing can be justified. This is even stranger when you look at the verses immediately following the government passage that discusses love doing no harm (vs. 9-10). No, it seems the point of Romans 13 is that even when the government oppresses us, we know that God is sovereign over it. We can be good Christians by subordinating ourselves to the government - even a bad and idolatrous one. Even bad governments provide a structure wherein individuals can function and thrive and justice can be served - more so than in anarchy, and always in light of God’s sovereignty.
In context, the first important thing to note is that Paul is telling the Christian how to subordinate to the government, not how to work within the government. He has told the Christian concepts that should mark a Christian life - enduring, patience in affliction, repaying only with good, giving vengeance over to God, and love as never doing harm - and puts the notion of government right in the middle. The government doesn't endure persecution, they stamp out oppression. The government isn't patient in affliction, they look for effective results immediately. The government does not repay evil with good. The government does not give vengeance over to God, but bears the sword. The government does not love, for it constantly distributes harm. It may be true that governments are better than anarchy, it may be true that God is sovereign over political kingdoms, and it may be true that Christians should willingly subordinate themselves under the governments into which they are born. But Christians live in the Kingdom Christ established - a kingdom that willingly subordinates in relationships, accepts social status with the patient movement towards freedom, and cannot do harm if love is to define them. How is it that a Christian can then participate in most or any governmental function? Even in a democracy, subordination is not the standard outworking. The will of the majority overpowers the will of the minority, the greater brother over the weaker. Government does not live out the Kingdom community, and in many ways is contrary to the true freedom found there.
In thinking about this view of the Kingdom's relation to government, it is important to note two particular points. The first is that while Romans 13 tells us that God is sovereign over government, this in no way implies that God approves of their methodology. One of the clearest places such a concept can be shown is in Isaiah 10, where God, in a sense, raises up Assyria’s militarily to judge Israel, but at the same time condemns Assyria for their violence against Israel. While God ordained the circumstances for Israel's judgment, God also judged the wickedness of the Assyrians for their hearts and actions. Yoder says,
"There is a most specific dialectical interplay around the concepts of vengeance and wrath. Christians are told (12:19) never to exercise vengeance but to leave it to God and to wrath. Then the authorities are recognized (13:4) as executing the particular functions which the Christian was to leave to God. It is inconceivable that these two verses, using such similar language, should be meant to be read independently of one another. This makes it clear that the function exercised by government is not the function to be exercised by Christians. However able an infinite God may be to work at the same time through the sufferings of his believing disciples who return good for evil and through the wrathful violence of the authorities who punish evil with evil, such behavior is for humans not complementary but in disjunction. Divine providence can in its own sovereign permissive way 'use' an idolatrous Assyria (Isa. 10) or Rome. This takes place, however, without declaring that the destructive action by pagan powers which God thus 'uses' is morally good or that participation in it is incumbent upon the covenant people. That God turns human wrath to praise (Ps. 76:10) is an affirmation of providence overriding human rebellion, not ratifying it."
The second point to consider is that subordination to the government is a very different call than allegiance or obedience. Yoder explains this vital distinction as follows,
"It is not by accident that the imperative of 13:1 is not literally one of obedience. The Greek language has good words to denote obedience, in the sense of completely bending one's will and one's actions to the desires of another. What Paul calls for, however, is subordination. This verb is based upon the same root as the ordering of the powers of God. Subordination is significantly different from obedience. The conscientious objector who refuses to do what government demands, but still remains under the sovereignty of that government and accepts the penalties which it imposes, or the Christian who refuses to worship Caesar but still permits Caesar to put him or her to death, is being subordinate even though not obeying.
The imperative and the enablement of this subordination are found not in fear or in calculation of how best to survive, but, as we saw, 'in the mercies of God' (12:1) or in 'conscience' (13:5). But how does conscience motivate subordination? If the ground of our subordination is not God's having created the governments, what is it? Further attention to the motif of subordination as it is urged upon the slave (I Pet. 2:13ff., 19ff.), or upon wives and children (Eph. 5:21ff.; Col. 3:18ff.), shows the reason to be that Jesus Christ himself accepted subordination and humiliation (Phil. 2:5ff.). The willingness to suffer is then not merely a test of our patience or a dead space of waiting; it is itself a participation in the character of God's victorious patience with the rebellious powers of creation. We subject ourselves to government because it was in so doing that Jesus revealed and achieved God's victory."
As Christians, then, it is our job to recognize as our only sovereign the Lord Jesus Christ. To God alone we are to be both fully subordinate and fully obedient - even unto persecution and death. Understanding that God is sovereign over all provides us with the peace of Romans 12, and the ability to willingly subordinate ourselves as Romans 13 calls us to. And both of these notions come together in the example of Jesus Christ, the bringer of the new Kingdom in which we are citizens. He has called us to be content with our status, to avoid violence, to have our actions aligned with God and independent of the powerful institutions of our day, and to avoid coercive power. Yoder summarizes in a similar fashion.
"It is not the case that two imperatives affirmed in the New Testament, obedience to government on the one hand and loving the enemy on the other, between which we must choose when they contradict. Romans 12-13 and Matthew 5-7 are not in contradiction or in tension. They both instruct Christians to be nonresistant in all their relationships, including the social. They both call on the disciples of Jesus to renounce participation in the interplay of egoisms which this world calls 'vengeance' or 'justice.' They both call Christians to respect and be subject to the historical process in which the sword continues to be wielded and to bring about a kind of order under fire, but not to perceive in the wielding of the sword their own reconciling ministry."
The Christian Life Under Government
So we have seen that Christians have two major obligations under government - subordinate themselves and maintain obedience to a sovereign God in their subordination. However, the big question that arises next is how the Christian can live a life of impact under such a worldview. While Yoder has pointed out that the metric of effectiveness is not a Christian one, we also understand that God has placed us in this world to make a difference. If we acknowledge that the government is largely a power structure to be avoided for the Christian, aren't we just giving in to the notion of Christian withdrawal? Yoder addresses this rebuttal well when he says,
"It is thus a fundamental error to conceive of the position of the church in the New Testament in the face of social issues as a 'withdrawal, or to see this position as motivated by the Christians' weakness by their numerical insignificance or low social class, or by fear of persecution, or by scrupulous concern to remain uncontaminated by the world. What can be called the 'otherness of the church' is an attitude rooted in strength and not in weakness. It consists in being a herald of liberation and not a community of slaves. It is not a detour or a waiting period, looking forward to better days which one hopes might come a few centuries later; it was rather a victory when the church rejected the temptations of the Zealot and Maccabean patriotism and Herodian collaboration. The church accepted as a gift being the 'new humanity' created by the cross and not by the sword...
All resistance and every attack against the gods of this age will be unfruitful, unless the church itself is resistance and attack, unless it demonstrates in its own life and fellowship how believers can live freed from the Powers. We can only preach the manifold wisdom of God to Mammon if our life displays that we are joyfully freed from his clutches. To reject nationalism we must begin by no longer recognizing in our own bosoms any difference between peoples. We shall only resist social injustice and disintegration of community if justice and mercy prevail in our own common life and social differences have lost their power to divide. Clairvoyant and warning words and deeds aimed at state or nation are meaningful only insofar as they spring from a church whose inner life is itself its proclamation of God's manifold wisdom to the 'Powers in the air.'...'Our duty is not to bring the powers to their knees. This is Jesus Christ's own task. He has taken care of this thus far and will continue to do so.'"
The church then has two roles within its subordination to government and obedience to God. The first role of the church is a positive one. It is to be the Kingdom community. "...the very existence of the church is its primary task. It is in itself a proclamation of the lordship of Christ to the powers from whose dominion the church has begun to be liberated. The church does not attack the powers; this Christ has done. The church concentrates on not being seduced by them. By existing the church demonstrates that their rebellion has been vanquished." As Yoder says, it is only a church that is living in new community that will be able to have influence in the world. This we see no more clearly than today, when the fractured church's moral calls fall on deaf ears due to the hypocrisy and enslavement to money, lust, and government so prevalent in the church. To be "effective" the church must be obedient to the foolish wisdom of God. It is only in this manner that believers, and subsequently the lives touched by believers, will be freed from the powers that be.
The second role of the church is a negative one. The church is to avoid being seduced by the powers that be. Just as Christ was tempted to bring the Kingdom throughout his ministry and refused, so it is to be with the church today. Money tempts us because it provides us with a larger platform from which to speak and access where we may not otherwise have access. And while money isn't inherently wrong, we must be very wary of its pursuit because it is a power that tempts us. Political platforms may be alluring because we believe we can circumvent the painful process of the cross in our lives by manipulating and coercing the volition of others, but this is a fool's errand, sacrificing the sovereign wisdom of God for a quick fix that is no fix at all. The church must avoid the seduction of the powers, no matter how strong their message of "effectiveness" is.
This is our assurance and hope, that in avoiding the seduction of the Powers and in the death - and just as importantly the life - of Jesus Christ, we have victory in the world.
"The Powers have been defeated not by some kind of cosmic hocus-pocus but by the concreteness of the cross; the impact of the cross upon them is not the working of magical words nor the fulfillment of a legal contract calling for the shedding of innocent blood, but the sovereign presence, within the structures of creaturely orderliness, of Jesus the kingly claimant and of the church which is itself a structure and a power in society. Thus the historicity of Jesus retains in the working of the church as it encounters the other power and value structures of its history, the same kind of relevance that the man Jesus had for those whom he served until they killed him."