In the U.S.A., we are less than one week away from selecting a new president. During the primaries, as hopes of my favorite candidate becoming president faded, a young friend made a remark that made me think. He said (and I paraphrase), “No matter what ends up happening, we know that God is behind it and He will do what is best.” As I was preparing a lesson on Romans 13, where St. Paul says “there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God,” I wondered: could it be that all rulers, good and evil, are placed in power by God’s direct will and intention?
I believe most Orthodox Christians would likely lean towards the “God does it” view, and I presume that is likely the case because people often resort to the “God controls everything” standpoint in order to feel comfortable about life’s ups and downs; if He is involved in directing everything, then everything must be good.
If that’s how you feel, you may not want to stop reading, because, wrong or right, I personally have difficulty attributing to God all things that happen, but think we should rather rely on Him for refuge and seek that He involves Himself as much as He is willing. I begin with the standpoint that God is the Pantocrator, the holder of all things, who knows all things, who can do anything. But He gave us free will, and nature has its laws, and for the most part mankind freely chooses what they choose to do, and nature will do what it does. For example, man chose to fly a plane into a building, and the building naturally came crumbling down. God will compensate the souls that passed on to the next life as merited, and He is ready to serve as a refuge to strengthen and comfort those who remain. But God did not direct the plane, nor the building, to take their course. Could He have stopped the plane? Yes. Could He have stopped the building from falling? Yes. But, as St. John Chrysostom points out in his sermons on Lazarus and the Rich Man: since God is good, and He wants everyone to be fairly compensated, if anyone’s life is cut short without adequate compensation for life’s difficulties, this is evidence that there is an afterlife during which time God can compensate everyone according to what they deserve.
WHAT DO THE FATHERS SAY ABOUT ROMANS 13 AND THE APPOINTMENT OF RULING AUTHORITIES?
I will give you the perspective of one early Father, St. Irenaeus:
Q: Why establish governing authorities and rulers?
A: Mankind was unwilling to obey God, so God made people subject to each other.
Bishop Irenaeus seems to say that God established rulers and authorities to keep mankind from hurting others, since people were unwilling to simply obey God.
“For since man, by departing from God… engaged without fear in every kind of restless conduct, murder, and avarice, God imposed upon mankind the fear of man, as they did not acknowledge the fear of God, in order that, being subjected to the authority of men, and kept under restraint by their laws, they might attain to some degree of justice, and exercise mutual forbearance through dread of the sword.”
Q: But what if the ruler is not good?
A: God will punish them.
St. Irenaeus says that if a ruler acts in a manner that is a “subversion of justice, iniquitously, and impiously, and illegally, and tyrannically, in these things shall they perish; for the just judgment of God comes equally upon all.”
St. Irenaeus then reiterates the point that God instituted earthly rule by mankind over mankind for the benefit of people. “Earthly rule, therefore, has been appointed by God for the benefit of nations.”
WHAT DOES SCRIPTURE SAY?
Aside from Romans 13, there are many passages in Scripture that give the perspective that God sets up rulers. “He removes kings and raises up kings” (Daniel 2:20-21). Yet, there are other passages that seem to indicate that the free will of people can choose rulers that God does not want: “They set up kings, but not by Me; they made princes, but I did not acknowledge them” (Hosea 8:4).
How do we reconcile these different messages? I would say that Romans 13 can be understood to say that God instituted the arrangement of government and authorities for the good of mankind, and to keep evil at bay. He has the power and can remove rulers and raise them up if He wants to, but for the most part it is up to us to choose (if in our power) rulers that will carry out God’s intention for His establishing governing authorities, and who will keep God in mind when making decisions.
In line with this perspective, we find in the Wisdom of Solomon, Chapter 6, that God talks directly to rulers and tells them they must obey Him as servants of His kingdom, or otherwise be punished:
Listen therefore, O kings, and understand;
learn, O judges of the ends of the earth.
Give ear, you that rule over multitudes,
and boast of many nations.
For your dominion was given you from the Lord,
and your sovereignty from the Most High;
he will search out your works and inquire into your plans.
Because as servants of his kingdom you did not rule rightly,
or keep the law, or walk according to the purpose of God,
he will come upon you terribly and swiftly,
because severe judgment falls on those in high places.
* * *
To you then, O monarchs, my words are directed,
so that you may learn wisdom and not transgress.
For they will be made holy who observe holy things in holiness,
and those who have been taught them will find a defense.
Therefore set your desire on my words;
long for them, and you will be instructed.
SO THEN WHAT?
In my view, God leaves it to our free will to choose rulers that we think will act in accordance with God’s desire to protect us, and who will act wisely and justly. God’s desire is that rulers will be, as it says in Romans, “God’s minister to you for good” (13:4).
Interestingly, the Declaration of Independence of the U.S.A. seems to echo the views expressed above, that governments are instituted among men in order to ensure the rights endowed by our Creator are secured. What can be understood as implied here is that God desired that governments be institute for this very purpose: to ensure His will.
“We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. To secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
What gives me comfort is, no matter who we choose, God is present and will be our refuge always.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Does God choose all rulers, or does He leave it mostly in the hands of mankind’s free will? I don’t claim to have all the answers, but simply present to you my perspective and I invite you to share yours.