Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
(Romans 13:1-7 ESV)
When it comes to God’s guiding providence in political affairs, it’s easy to see the “big stuff.” When Emperor Constantine rose to power, ending the official persecution of Christianity in the Roman Empire, God’s providence seems obvious to us from 1,700 years out. When Frederick III became Elector of Saxony just in time to hide Martin Luther from the Roman Catholic church, allowing him to translate the Bible into German, God’s providence is again obvious to us today. Even an infamous figure like King Henry VIII, by no means a paragon of godliness, was instrumental in bringing the Protestant Reformation to England. The rest, as the fellow said, is history.
It is far more difficult to discern the hand of God in the smaller and more recent events of human history. What exactly was God thinking when Grover Cleveland won the Presidency in 1884, lost it in 1888, and won it again in 1892? Still, our inability to immediately comprehend the secret councils of God is no reason to assume, as some even within the evangelical community have, that God is simply not at work in the world when things don’t go our way.
I doubt anyone has forgotten, but when Paul penned the words of Romans 13 the Roman Empire was ruled by Nero, a man who is infamous for burning Christians alive in his garden as a source of light. This is the context in which Paul tells the Roman Christians that all earthly authorities have been instituted by God and must be obeyed and honored.
Barack Obama is no Nero. He is a decent person, a good father and a loving husband. He may be a bad President, but he’s not a tyrant or a persecutor of Christians. For that reason alone, the church has an obligation to step back and be thankful, praising God for the continued (if sometimes slow and frustrating) increase of His Kingdom to the ends of the earth.
On the other hand, we cannot make the mistake of assuming that because God has placed a certain person in a certain position of earthly power that He approves of that person. God used the wicked Assyrian Empire to judge the nation of Israel, but that does not mean that God sanctioned all the wickedness of the Assyrians. The mere admission that Barack Obama’s second term as President of the United States was ordained by God does not mean that God is now pro-choice. This would be equally true if Mitt Romney was our new President. God’s secret councils are, well, secret. We can only guess at the “why?” behind every event of history, and the closer that event happens to be to us, the more likely our guess is to be wrong.
God’s revealed council is quite clear, however, and it is found in His Word. For Historic, evangelical Christians, nothing changed yesterday. Our President is still more openly opposed to religious liberty, pro-life values, and traditional marriage than any President in America’s history. We must remain the loyal opposition. But in our opposition, however strong it may need to be over the next four years, we must remember that we are still loyal.
Ultimately, what Paul has to teach us in Romans 13 is that Christianity is fundamentally a religion of hope. No matter what happens in history, whether we find ourselves submitting to a Nero, a Constantine, or someone in between, we know with confidence that God’s providential plan is working beneath it all, guiding history towards His gloriously ordained ending. As Paul put it, just a few chapters earlier in his letter to the Roman Christians:
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
(Romans 8:28 ESV)