When Paul tells us be subject to the civil authorities in Romans 13, he also tells us what such government does. God has instituted it and given it the sword to punish evildoers and to be a violent terror to bad conduct. That’s not a pretty job. The nature of its work means that government is always going to involve some brutal people. It’s also going to involve a lot of mistakes as God has given this task to sinful humans. There will be no perfect government this side of heaven, and when it screws up, those screwups will be ugly.
Being a Roman citizen, Paul knew all of this very well even as he delivered God’s instructions to submit. We are to be subject to earthly government, not just perfect government. Accordingly, we don’t just obey the civil authorities insofar as we approve of what they do.
At the same time, however, civil authority is not absolute. The same Paul who wrote this was executed by his government for refusing to submit to it. The only authority government has is given by God, so like the other apostles, he obeyed God rather than man whenever the two were in conflict. And that’s not limited to the work of Apostles or clergy as our theologians often presume. There are many vocations, and even as civil authority goes, government is not the top dog. As I’ve written about before, civil authority is delegated from God to fathers and then fathers delegate to civil government. When it comes to his own household, a father’s authority established by the 4th Commandment supersedes the government’s. Accordingly, resisting government is sometimes part of God-given paternal vocation.
There is, however, another way in which civil government’s power is not absolute: Not everything is truly civil government. There are counterfeits. In functional societies, it’s easy to tell what is and isn’t government; and the West had enjoyed functional government for a very long time. But that doesn’t last forever. There is, for example, legitimate confusion during transitionary periods–when one God-ordained government is fading and God puts another begins taking its place. There are many reasons a governing institution can cease to govern.
But what happens when a governing institution becomes inverted–that is to say, when it retains the sword but makes itself a terror to good conduct rather than bad? By way of analogy, consider a mafia. It’s a sword-bearing institution with enforced rules, authority structures, territories, politics, taxes, and many other characteristics common to government. Nevertheless, we don’t recognize mafias as legitimate civil authorities instituted by God. Why not? Because it does not concern itself with the fundamental responsibility for which civil authority is ordained: punishing wrongdoers and commending rightdoers according to Natural Law. Rather, it’s purpose is the inverse–protecting its own wrongdoers from those who would do right against them.
Now that’s all a mafia ever is, but nothing says institutions which were once legitimate civil authorities can’t descend into the same position. Government can become anti-government; it can become an institution dedicated to punishing rightdoers and commending its own evildoers. I don’t mean when this happens by mistake or unwise policies (accidentally terrorizing good conduct and rewarding evil) but by a fundamental and far-reaching corruption of purpose.
This is a possibility that every American needs to consider with respect to some of our own governing authorities. If they are not inverted already, they are quickly becoming so.
As our cities burned during the BLM riots, government lied and called them mostly peaceful while “law enforcement” protected the rioters rather than their victims–some even knelt to them. In contrast, when men went to protest an LGBTP pride event, they were arrested for conspiracy to start a riot. (Yes, many people believe Patriot Front were feds in disguise, but it doesn’t matter. Either law enforcement terrorized good conduct by arresting good protestors or they terrorized good conduct by staging an event to threaten would-be protestors in the future.) And as we recently saw in Texas, the police not only steadfastly refused to wield their sword against an active school shooter, they had no problem using it to threaten the parents who intended to fulfill their own vocations by recusing their children. More and more, American laws are only being applied in one direction for the sake of terrorizing rightdoers.
During the pandemic, our government actively promoted fear and terror among the population. It promoted falsehoods, hid truths, and anathematized good-faith investigators. It destroyed our economy and supply chains, traumatized children, sparked rampant inflation, and enforced empty rituals like mask-wearing which range from useless to harmful. Worse yet, it actively tried to coerce my family and many others into taking an unneeded experimental medical treatment by threatening us with destitution. That was an overt, unrepentant, and unprovoked attack against the higher civil authorities God has established. It even forced its way into God’s house and attempted to control or forbid the Divine Service.
As our food supplies are being rapidly and mysteriously destroyed, our government is (at best) abdicating its responsibility to investigate and take action against wrongdoing. Gasoline is becoming unbearable expensive and eventually scarce after the Biden administration deliberately stood in the way of oil production and transportation. As American parents can’t feed their babies amidst the ongoing formula shortage, government is deliberately diverting supplies away from them and giving it to foreign invaders at the border instead. Meanwhile, the government attempts to address inflation with more inflation, and is stopped only because of the supply chains it already destroyed.
And then, of course, there is the all-out attack on the family and God’s order of creation by governments unwavering support of the LGBTP lobby. Hubris month only shines a spotlight on what happens all the time. Government schools are grooming children–inducting them into a world of sexual depravity for the sake of a gaggle of perverts who want to take advantage of them. Every government agency is flying their flag to show their support. From top to bottom, government policy commends these wrongdoers and punishes the rightdoers who would call it out. Sometimes, law enforcement is even deployed against parents who do their jobs and protest this despicable action.
Stuff like this isn’t a matter of accident or poorly constructed policy. Everything on the list is either negligent (absent government) or malicious (inverted government). If it were only one or two of these, you might dismiss it as merely poor government rather than inverted government. But dismissing all of it as such strains credulity to its breaking point.
All that unnecessary strain is merely for the sake of a comforting lie. People are quick to say “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” But one should likewise never attribute to stupidity that which is adequately explained by malice. Neither malice nor stupidity have ever been in short supply, and we shouldn’t let the existence of one blind us to the other. Conservative Christians pretend to ignore malice out of courtesy or magnanimity, but far more often, acknowledging malice would require action on our part that we’re just too scared and lazy to provide. It’s something Christians tell themselves so that we can use Romans 13 to pass our own pusillanimity off as piety.
But where’s the line between incompetence and malfeasance? At what point is it safe to say that a government has become inverted and thus ceases to be a legitimate civil authority which we must obey? The truth is that there is no such line because self-justification isn’t the point. It’s never “safe.” God often uses evil governments to punish evildoers, and Americans certainly fall into that category.
The question is never “when am I justified in rebelling against an inverted civil authority?” Rather, the question is always, “when and how do my God-given vocations require me to oppose an inverted civil authority?” That is a judgment call that depends on your vocations; I cannot answer it for anyone but myself. But as a father, I am a civil authority appointed by God. When there are actions I could take to defend my family against imminent harm, it’s my responsibility to do so.
Of course, one must also keep in mind that an inverted government won’t simply sit back and allow us to defend ourselves. Some rash actions could bring vicious reprisals that make it a net loss for those under our care and therefore unwise. But my point is that when inverted government threatens those in our care, their violent opposition only presents a practical impediment–not a moral one. We always have a responsibility to be wise. We do not have a responsibility to be subject to a mafia passing itself off as a government.
God never leaves us without civil authorities for long. But He also works through earthly means to establish them. When an anti-government arises, those who oppose it will necessarily become terrors to evil conduct. Insofar as they are successful and begin establishing a reliable pattern of restraining wickedness and establishing a just peace, they also become a legitimate government. That’s why governments have continuously changed throughout history, and sometimes Christians are called to be a part of that change.
As Americans now live in a time of change when the old orders are falling apart, we need to understand what God demands of us and be able to distinguish it from the mere traditions of men.