[A14] Government and the Governed (The Small Catechism)

Listen to what the Lord says through the mouth of St. Peter: “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether it be unto the king, as supreme, or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by Him. For so is the will of God.”

Table of Contents

14. The Responsibilities of Government And The Governed

“Honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.” — Exodus 20:12.

“Let every soul be subject to the higher powers, for there is no power but God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God; and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same; for he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain; for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath; but also for conscience’ sake.” — Romans 13:1-5.

We have learned from a former address that the Fourth Commandment includes in the term parents all those who are in authority. There are many Scripture passages in which rulers of various degrees of authority, and in various spheres of work, are spoken of as fathers. Indeed, the community, the village, the state, the nation is, in a sense, but an enlargement of the family. Each smaller unit is an epitome of the one next above it. As God has ordained that the parents shall be the source of authority in the family circle, and receive proper respect and obedience from the other members; so has He ordained that those who are called to positions of responsibility in any of the spheres of the larger human family shall receive their due meed of honor and obedience. For all human authority, whatever its particular sphere, is but an extension of parental authority.

The obligations in the sphere of government, however, are not all on one side. Just as parents have responsibilities with respect to their children, which they cannot shirk without incurring guilt, so those who are called to discharge the affairs of a community, the social or political family, have great responsibility resting on them, which they cannot pervert, or shirk without sinning.

The problem of government is a great one. What the ends to be achieved are, how these ends may be best secured, what the relationship is to be between those who rule and those subject to authority, these and kindred questions have been discussed ever since society has grown to such proportions that it has become impracticable for the fathers of families to exercise proper supervision over the affairs of the people as a people. And in every age some of the best thinking has been along the line of this problem of government. But unfortunately much of the social, economic, and political discussion of every age overlooks the most important factor — what does God say about these matters? What principles does He lay down for our guidance in the development of these affairs? He has said much; and we Christian people cannot afford to be ignorant of what He has said, nor to be indifferent with respect to it. Let us, then, as Christian members of that larger family, the State, consider the duties of Governors and the Governed.

Government a Divine Institution

Before we can profitably consider the duties of either those who govern or those subject to authority, we must have an adequate conception of the nature and purpose of government itself. This is the proper point of departure in the study of the subject. Faulty and unworthy conceptions of the nature of government cannot fail to lead to unworthy conduct and carelessness on the part of those who exercise the rights of citizenship, likewise, to unworthy conceptions of their duties and to corrupt practices on the part of those who fill official positions.

We speak much of the dignity and responsibility of our citizenship. But why is there so much indifference on the part of many when it comes to discharging its duties? On the fourth of July, in campaign orations, in party platforms and pledges, as well as in inaugural festivities, we hear a great deal about the exalted dignity and far-reaching responsibility of having the franchise; also about the dignity of office and the effect upon the welfare of the people of the proper discharge of the duties of office. In view of all this, what explains the continued lethargy of so many voters, and the negligence and malfeasance of so many men in public office? The prevailing perversity of human nature accounts for much of it. But when we see so much of this culpable indifference among intelligent and, otherwise, well-meaning men, we cannot but conclude that they fail utterly to understand and to appreciate the true nature of government. They have evidently failed to grasp the fact that it is a Divine institution, that its obligations, both on the side of the citizen and the official, are a sacred trust, imposed on us by God Himself.

Our text from Romans gives us the gist of the whole great complex subject of human government. It tells us that this institution which we call government did not just happen to be. Nor is it a mere human development. As to form it has had a development, but its genesis was not human. Government is not a mere convenient mode of transacting public business. It is not a mere human compact whereby a certain individual, or individuals, are empowered to enact and execute laws for the common good. This is a feature of government, but it does not explain the final derivation of authority.

Government is an institution of God’s ordination. “There is no power but of God, the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever, therefore, resisteth the power resisteth the ordinance of God.” The real authority of government comes from the throne of heaven. Only in a secondary sense is it derived from men. The One who comes before us in the First Commandment and says: “I am the Lord, thy God; thou shalt have no other gods before me.” He it is who stands before us in the sphere of government, and says, I am the King of kings. “By me kings reign, and princes decree justice” (Prov. 8:15).

In our land we have separated Church and State. And it is undoubtedly best that it should be so, for the ends sought are different. In the State the end is the preservation of order and the betterment of temporal conditions. In the Church it is the liberation and culture of the spirit. But, in our judgment, the matter of the separation of Church and State may be over-emphasized to the detriment of both Church and State. It has a tendency to lead men to consider government as but a contrivance of men, with the result that the devil often usurps virtual control of it. As government is of God, it ought to be in the hands of those who are God’s children — those who have the mind of God, are able to discern the will of God, and are willing to do His work in His way. With this principle conceded, I am in favor of separation between Church and State. The State exists for the purpose of carrying on a distinct department of God’s universal government: the securing of peaceable conditions and material prosperity. Under such conditions, government, though it exist as a separate establishment from the Church, will still be, as our fathers have ever declared it should be, a champion and protector of the Church. We do not believe in the leaders of the Church meddling in practical political affairs, especially when such interference has as its aim the aggrandizement of a particular church organization; but I positively affirm that the only stable foundation of any government is found in the eternal principles of truth and righteousness for which the Church of God stands, and which are set forth with clearness only in God’s revealed Word. All things, in heaven and on earth, have but one legitimate ultimate aim, the glorification of God’s name. And all temporal, as well as spiritual, good for God’s creatures is best achieved and most secure when God’s will is most truly done and His name thereby most truly glorified. When this condition prevails, then, whatever name men may give it, Democratic or Republican, in the truest sense we shall have a theocratic government — a government of God, the only one qualified to attain the Divinely appointed ends.

God’s Word does not prescribe the form of hu man government. Nor does he designate the particular persons who shall discharge its duties, nor specify the extent of power they are to wield. These things are left to be determined by the will of the people, under the overruling providence of the King of kings. The forms of human government change as human conditions themselves change. Where there is but little general qualification for self-government, or the discharge of the duties of public life, there we usually find the exercise of governmental functions in the hands of the few who are strongest and wisest, if not always the best disposed. As the people become better qualified for participation in the affairs of government, they inevitably become more and more the rulers, until, as in our land, they become the real sovereigns, who delegate to certain of their compeers the right to make and execute the laws. But in all, and over all, and under all circumstances, God reigns the supreme sovereign.

This Biblical idea of government does not eliminate all the elements of mystery which perplex the human mind. Indeed, it seems to introduce some. But where do we not find these mysteries? The chief perplexity presented to the devout mind is that of the ever-present problem of evil. If government is of God, why so much perversity among those who rule? Why so much self-aggrandizement, so much grinding of the faces of the helpless? Why so much governmental activity that is not only not prompted by the Spirit of God, but even inimical to His cause? This is the world old problem of sin. We find it everywhere. It crops out in the Church, among those who wear, not the royal ermine, but the vestments of the sanctuary. And this will continue till we come to the new heaven and the new earth, wherein dwelleth only righteousness. But in the meanwhile in the State, as in the Church, God overrules it all. Evil is ever contrary to God’s will, but He uses even the perversity of men to chasten the perversity of other men, to keep us all humble, to show us all our sinfulness, and, where men will yield, to lead them back to the tried and safe paths of reliance only on the grace and goodness of God. These perplexities must not overmuch discourage the children of God. Much less must we allow it to induce despair. God, our God, still rules. Sin has not become God; it has not dethroned God; nor shall it defeat his ultimate purposes. As in the Church so in the State, which is only one sphere of God’s general government — God’s will shall finally be supreme. God’s Word assures us of this, and that is enough for us. But the true philosophy of history corroborates this. It reveals a slowly but constantly progressive movement which builds on all the ruins caused by sin a higher civilization and more beneficent institutions. And it must be so to the end, for the supreme governor is Almighty God.

The Duties of Those Who Govern

With this understanding of the nature of government in itself, it ought not be difficult for us to come to some very definite conclusions with respect to the duties of those who bear rule in governmental affairs. Indeed, God’s Word settles the matter, at least as to its general principles.

What a different aspect the governmental affairs of the world would present if those in high places remembered that they are not independent lords, that they are not privileged to do as they please; but that they are God’s representatives, and that they have not been elevated to do what is expedient or easy, but what is right. And God’s decrees alone make right.

If men had this conception of the purpose of government, politics would cease to be a mere game played for the excitement and the gain it affords. If the true idea of government prevailed, the great problem of politics would not be what it too often seems to be; namely, the problem of getting one party out of power and another party into power. In that case public office would not be prostituted to the low level of being, primarily, a system of rewarding political henchmen and of enriching the incumbents of office as speedily as possible.

Government! Much that goes by this name is rather misgovernment. It is too often a system of spoliation; a system whereby the strong keep down and fleece the weak. That this is frequently the case is a well-known fact. But it is by no means new. This is a school in which men have long been adepts. Of the officials in the Roman Empire under Constan tine it is said that the majority of them were bent only on their own advantage, accessible to everyone who had a new scheme of corruption; they were striving only to raise themselves to large incomes, and brilliant positions, to the utmost possible nearness to the imperial sun, the dispenser of benefits. This sounds as if it might have been taken from a modern newspaper, but for the fact that very few of them would dare thus to tell the truth, because they are members of the political plunder-bund, and feeders from the dish of political pap. And this is so because our governments conform in vital respects to heathen standards. This and kindred evils will be corrected only when we get to the right principles that government is of God, that governors are His representatives, to rule according to His will.

Government exists for the good of the people. Our text tells us that the ruler is “the minister of God to thee for good.” Being the minister of God, and having as the aim of his ministry the good of the people, the ruler, whether he exercise his office in the smallest municipality or in the highest place in the state or nation, should be the wisest and best man that can be found — one whose qualifications are not only intellectual, but also moral. And there is but one true basis of consistent morality, and that is religion. The bearer of office should be a broad-minded, far-seeing man. He should be a man of the strictest integrity. But more than this, he should be a man whose heart goes out to the people. He should be a real father to the people. As the father of a family thinks and plans not only for himself but for the welfare of his children, so everyone who has to do with governmental affairs should think and plan for the good of those he serves. We have no sympathy for the doctrine of the Divine right of rulers when it means more than proper respect and obedience when they do what is right, but we do believe with all our hearts in the Divine right of the people to get a square deal. It is said of ancient Confucius that as a magistrate “he cultivated virtue, tempered justice with mercy, and made the people’s good his chief concern.” This sort of conduct we cannot expect from many in present official life, because, as to character, they are not even decent heathen.

Government exists, our text tells us, for the purpose of preserving peace and order among men. Rulers are to make and execute laws with this end in view. Peace-loving, industrious citizens are to be encouraged and protected, that they may enjoy the fruits of their efforts. The turbulent and unruly, who aim to live chiefly by preying on others, are to be made to feel the strong hand of the law.

Let any one who knows anything about existing conditions compare this picture of what rulers, governmental officials, should be, and the ends they should serve, with what we find in reality. There are, thank God! noble, upright, God-fearing, man loving men in public office. But there are far too many who are characterless and conscienceless; too many who are even steeped in filth. And as to the welfare of the general citizenship, that is the last thing in the world about which many of them think. Indeed, the heaven-born prerogatives of government are not infrequently prostituted so as to become in their hands the instrument of plunder and oppression. And the fault is largely our own. If the people generally, instead of being blind partisans, wanted good men, men of integrity, brotherly men, they could get them. The demand would bring the supply.

What a terrible reckoning awaits many of those who sit in high places. St. James speaks of those who keep back, by fraud, the hire of the laborers who reap the harvests, and he tells us that the cries of these reapers enter into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. And, as a result, the riches of these oppressors become corrupted, and their garments moth-eaten. Their gold and silver becomes cankered, and the rust of it shall eat their flesh as it were by fire (James 5:2-4). If this result shall follow the oppression of one person by another, what shall be the portion of those who do these things, as it were, by wholesale, as is the case with corrupt and oppressive officials?

Think of the vice which flourishes in many cities with official connivance, if not by official sanction! Why? Chiefly because it fills the pockets of political henchmen with gold. Many live in ignorance, contract disease, endure suffering and death as a result of conditions that could be remedied. Why is it not done? Why is there no legislation looking to the correction of these evils? Or, if there is legislation covering it, as is often the case, why are the laws not enforced? Because of the influence and the sharing of the spoils, of those whose purses are filled through the prostitution of government to corrupt personal ends. Furthermore let us think of the cities and villages reduced to ashes by the ravages of war, of the battle fields reddened by the blood of vigorous young manhood, of the wives that are widowed and the children that are orphaned, of the civilization turned back a century, of the burdens of taxation an already weakened people will have to bear for generations! Did the people invite these measures, so fraught with hardship to them? They but imperfectly understand the motives back of them. The pride of rulers is at fault, and the greed and envy of those who control them, and will fatten on the carnage. How terrible must the reckoning be! Is it not plain that men have forgotten that government is of God; and that its one legitimate object is to bless mankind?

The Duties of Those Governed

All of the responsibility for existing conditions, however, does not rest on those who govern; part of it rests, justly, on the shoulders of those who are governed. And nowhere is this truer than here in our own country. This will become clearer to us as we consider the duties of subjects. The chief and comprehensive duty of those under authority, as it is set forth in the Fourth Commandment and in the Apostle’s directions to the Romans is that of obedience to law, of respect for those legitimately in authority; in other words, of being, as we usually express it, law-abiding citizens. And this duty exists not only where laws meet our approval and the officials are of our party, but even where the laws do not specially favor our interests, and when those who interpret and apply the laws have been put over us without our approval. Only when those in authority do that which conflicts with the Law of God, and curtail our rights and duties as his children, do we have, not only the right, but the bounden duty, of protesting. In such cases we must say as did the Apostles when they came in conflict with those in authority: “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

The spirit of anarchy is entirely too prevalent everywhere. There is something of the anarchist in every natural man. He does not like to recognize any authority but his own will. Only the Spirit of God working in man can change this. He brings us to recognize that authority is primarily from God, and that its exercise is intended for man’s good. Men are inclined to forget that there can be liberty only where there is law, and on the part of those only who have brought themselves into harmony with rightly constituted law. The anarchists, those who fight against law, are the ones who are endlessly in conflict — and not only with men, but with God. “Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God; and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.”

Our constant aim as citizens of two kingdoms, a temporal and spiritual, an earthly and a heavenly, should be to cultivate more of the law-abiding temper, and to aid in its cultivation in others. We should begin with this in the home and the school. And nothing will so much help this as to keep mindful of the fact that government is of God, and that the making and administration of law, though in the hands of fallible men, and often perverted, is still, in its great fundamentals, of God.

Our responsibility as American citizens is so much greater in these matters because we have so much to do with the government. The ideal of this government is that it is a government of the people, by the people, for the people. This is a beautiful theory not yet by any means fully realized, but more fully no doubt than anywhere else on the earth. This ideal will be realized fully only as the people awake to their responsibility. As long as people ignorantly sell their votes for a few dollars, or allow scheming politicians to lead them like sheep by inflaming their party prejudices, or indolently re fuse to exercise the privilege so many thousands have died to win, so long this talk of a government by the people, for the people, will be a lovely sentiment backed by very little reality. With an intelligent electorate, which lives up to its privileges and its duties, this ideal will become more and more a reality. In our country the responsibility of the governed is so great, because of the fact that the character of the general public makes the character of the average law-maker and administrator of law. If the people of a community have lax ideas with respect to honor, truthfulness and honesty, not much more can be expected from those who administer their governmental affairs. It is because our American people, as a class, are greedy that we have scheming, grafting officials. A stream does not rise higher than its fountain. If the people generally come to entertain high ideals of character, to reverence authority, to have proper respect for those who administer the affairs of the government, then we will have officials of the same stamp, men who will bring honor to any office.

Brethren, we must cultivate nobler ideals with respect to all governmental affairs. We must recognize the part which each one of us is to play in this work. We ought to be ashamed to confess that we have failed to vote, or to discharge any duty which rests on us as citizens. We must get away from the idea that this is playing politics. Government is God’s business. And in this land He has put it into our hands. And in its time and place it is just as sacred as going to church, or any other duty. It is a matter concerning which, as the Scriptures often tell us, there should be earnest prayer.

Listen to what the Lord says through the mouth of St. Peter: “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether it be unto the king, as supreme, or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by Him. For so is the will of God.” If we are to submit to the requirements of the government as a service to God, then, assuredly, if we are privileged to have a part in the ordering of these affairs we ought to appreciate it, and discharge it as a service rendered to God. We owe it to ourselves, to our fellowmen, and to God, to do this.

When Christian men, and women, too, get to see this matter in the right light, and act accordingly, then we are going to have a better government, better administered. The good of mankind will be better served. God will be more fully glorified, for His will will be more nearly done on earth as it is in heaven; for even through the secular government we will have been contributing something toward the more complete realization of the larger Kingdom of God.

By God's grace, each week LutheranLibrary.org will present a new message on the basics of the Evangelical Christian Faith. Our guide is the Small Catechism, as expounded by Traditional Pastor Robert Golladay. May this series bless and inspire you.

Luther’s Small Catechism: Series A – The Ten Commandments

Publication Information

  • Author: “Golladay, Robert Emory”
  • Title: “The Ten Commandments”
  • Originally Published: 1915 by Lutheran Book Concern, Columbus, Ohio.
  • Lutheran Library Edition: 2019
  • Copyright: CC BY 4.0