So it is looking as though one way or another we are going to have to learn how to live under a government we believe to be at bottom illegitimate. And that looks to be the case no matter what happens today, actually, which happens to be January 6, the day when Congress ratifies the votes of the Electoral College. If Biden is confirmed, which seems likely, a very large number of Americans will believe he got there by fraudulent means. And if Trump is confirmed—by some sort of extraordinary long shot—that irregular process, whatever it was, will be considered by a very large number of Americans to have been fraudulent in a very different way. And even though a larger number of Christians will be in the first group, our numbers in both groups will not be insignificant.
And so here we are. How are we to conduct ourselves under a government we believe to be illegitimate? What principles should we remember?
Define Some Things First
Governments can either be good or evil, and governments can also be legitimate or illegitimate. Those are not synonymous alternatives. So this gives us a set of four possible combinations. A government can be good and legitimate, evil and legitimate, good and illegitimate, and evil and illegitimate. Not only so, but these categories can get really blurry, right? They can morph from one to another.
The Telmarines invaded and conquered Narnia, which they had no right to do, making their occupancy illegitimate, but over time, the circumstances changed. They changed so much that Miraz killing Caspian’s father made him a regicide and a usurper, and Prince Caspian the Tenth was the lawful heir to the throne, which Trufflehunter recognized. If you are not familiar with this story, you really need to read your Old Testament more.
In other words, the illegitimate can become legitimate over time.
And Rehoboam was the lawful heir to Solomon’s throne, but through a combination of hubris and bungling (1 Kings 12:1ff), he provoked a massive tax revolt, leading to the establishment of the northern kingdom of Israel. The legitimate thus became illegitimate, and Jeroboam became the legitimate king in the north.
Over time, legitimacy is therefore a function of stable occupancy. The House of Windsor replaced the House of Hanover, and nobody cares anymore about the Tudors and Stuarts. As we shall see, when it comes to legitimacy as biblically defined, there really is a large amount of de facto in it.
But good and evil find their definitional foundation elsewhere, in the Scriptures.
If you spend a little time looking at the inter-testamental period, you will realize that the ruling elites of Jerusalem of the first century were in their position because of any number of dirty deeds. This created a weird situation where the priests in Jerusalem were not quite legitimate, but the Temple there was the true Temple. To make things a little more gaudy, there was a false Temple down in Alexandria that was staffed by men who were true priests (sons of Zadok). Priests were supposed to be descended from Eleazar, Aaron’s son, which they had been (for the most part) down to about 174 B.C. when Onias III was deposed by Antiochus Epiphanes (he of abomination of desolation fame), and after that the high priesthood was a political appointment. This is to say that the high priesthood became dependent upon a class of largely scoundrels. So there were true priests in a false Temple, and false priests in a true one. Great.
And yet, even so, Scripture treats Caiaphas, a genuinely sinful man, a man guilty of one of humanity’s worst crimes ever, as a genuine high priest.
“And one of them, named Caiaphas, being the high priest that same year, said unto them, Ye know nothing at all, nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not.”
John 11:49-50 (KJV)
In other words, he was a true high priest without being a true man. And the office he held was recognized, even though it would have been possible (and fairly easy) to demonstrate from the historical record that he had no technical business being in that office.
And the apostle Paul treats the high priest Ananias with the respect due to that office, despite his manifest wickedness that had just been on display.
“And the high priest Ananias commanded them that stood by him to smite him on the mouth. Then said Paul unto him, God shall smite thee, thou whited wall: for sittest thou to judge me after the law, and commandest me to be smitten contrary to the law? And they that stood by said, Revilest thou God’s high priest? Then said Paul, I wist not, brethren, that he was the high priest: for it is written, Thou shalt not speak evil of the ruler of thy people.”
Acts 23:2–5 (KJV)
But What About Times of Muddle and Big Time Confusion?
After Nero was forced to commit suicide in 68 A.D., the Roman Empire was in a good bit of turmoil for a time. That year is known as the Year of the Four Emperors, and if we count the time that Nero occupied in it, it was a stretch of time that actually had five emperors. After Nero’s death, three men in quick succession took the throne—Galba, Otho, and Vitellius. And then Vespasian, who was the general besieging Jerusalem, left that task with his son Titus, and came back to Rome in order to establish the Flavian dynasty. But for a while there pretty much everything was up in the air. So if you were a tidy-minded Christian, wanting Romans 13 to remain simple, plain and clear, that would have been quite the year for you. You would have only been part way through your sermon series on why obedience to Otho was a biblical necessity, only to find out that you were going to be charged with treason for not preaching the biblical necessity of obeying Vitellius.
Waiting for the Flash Point
Looking at the above criteria, along with other principles we have previously gone over here, our previous form of government, from the Civil War on down, has been legitimate, and over time it became evil. And when that happens, it is just a matter of time before legitimacy is forfeited.
“It is an abomination to kings to commit wickedness: For the throne is established by righteousness.”
Proverbs 16:12 (KJV)
Got that? Rule is established by righteousness. No matter how many penumbras you justify it with, rule is never established by wickedness.
There were many indicators of this evil of ours, but the worship of the modern Molech through the abortion carnage would be sufficient to bring down God’s judgment all by itself. We used the legitimacy of the system to mask our evil, and so now God is disrupting the legitimacy of our system. Why do we have to continue to allow for abortion on demand? Because Otho says?
It appears quite plain to me that God is messing with us. Everything is on pins and needles because He is keeping us on pins and needles. It is not really the case that Trump is a lame duck; our whole political structure is the lame duck.
Absent clear leading from the Lord, it is our responsibility to sit tight as Christians, waiting on the Lord. We should be waiting for a clear view of what providence is assigning to us. Don’t try to gauge what we are supposed to do about it before you actually know what “it” is (Prov. 18:13).
And second, as we wait for this clarity, our prayer should be that God would do whatever it takes to bring us to repentance as a people. And as we have sinned our way into this mess over many decades, we are not going to be able to inch our way of it. The correction, if God grants us a reformational correction, is going to be convulsive. The central thing we will have to repent of is grounded in the first table of the law, not the second. Our great sin has been the sin of secularism, the false god we carved out of a Kantian log and gilded with some enlightenment fools’ gold.
There will be more about this here in the weeks to come.
“Arrogance now stands secure and gives judgement against us.; it is a time of calamity and raging fury. But now, my sons, be zealous for the law, and give your lives for the covenant of your fathers. Remember the deeds they did in their generations, and great glory and eternal fame shall be yours.”
Mattathias (1 Maccabees 2:49-51)
Fresh courage take, ye fearful saints,William Cowper
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.
The Lord Yahweh is coming to my help, who dare condemn me? They shall all go to pieces like a garment devoured by moths.
Isaiah 50:9 (Jerusalem Bible)