Those who insist that the Bible approves of violent government as the God-mandated institution by which men must order society can cite numerous scripture passages to support that thesis. There is, for example, St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans:
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 he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. Rom. 13:1-2.
Elsewhere, St. Paul writes: “Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities.” Titus 3:1. Some would say that Christians are here instructed to obey authority, without exception, but other scriptures make it obvious that there is more to the story.
In Acts 5:29, we see the apostles defying the their rulers saying: “We must obey God rather than men.” Later, St. Augustine adds: “An unjust law is no law at all.” On Free Choice Of The Will, Book 1, § 5. The Catechism forbids obedience to any law “contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or the teachings of the Gospel.” CCC 2242
Obedience to government can never be absolute. No Christian may obey a law that requires them to disobey God. No Christian may commit an inherently evil act, even for a good purpose. Rom. 3:8 and here.
They may, however, find themselves in a situation of obeying an unjust law simply because to disobey would cause more harm than to obey. Thus, I pay my taxes because going to jail would prevent my supporting my family. If any man with a gun demands that I give him money, I may question both his authority and his demand, but obedience may be the wiser, Christian course.
As to the notion that government is instituted by God, all creation is instituted by God, as well as our need for order and authority, but as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “the choice of the political regime and the appointment of rulers are left to the free decision of the citizens.” CCC 1901.
God has left the social order in human hands and mankind has made mixed bag of it. If we rejoice that men no longer offer human sacrifice or enslave their fellow men, we cannot deny that immense evils are still perpetrated by governments everywhere. We cannot lay this at God’s doorstep. He permits it, but He neither approves nor appoints such things.
In the early years after Moses died and Joshua led the Israelites into Canaan, the people were ruled by what were called the “judges.” This rule was minimal—one might say libertarian. The taxes (the tithe) were voluntary. The judges did not generally meddle in people’s lives. The main roles of the judges were to resolve disputes brought to them and to provide leadership during wartime.
Some judges did a good job, but some did not, so the people came to the prophet Samuel and said, “Give us a king to govern us like all the nations.” Samuel was displeased by this, for the Lord was their king and had given them the law of Moses and the judges. So Samuel prayed to the Lord, and the Lord told him not to worry about it: “It is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. . . . Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will do.” So Samuel did as the Lord directed and said to the people:
This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the LORD will not answer you in that day. 1 Sam. 8:6-18.
With Samuel, we want to shout–across three millenia–“Don’t do it!” but they did and then paid the full price they had bargained for.
The Church, the scripture and our common sense all teach us to obey the laws of coercive government as long as those laws do not command us to do evil, but that does not suggest that the institution of such government itself is not inherently evil. St. Paul’s commands to obey do not baptize the institution itself.
If we read biblical commands to obedience as commending the goodness of the institution of government, then we must also accept Ephesians 6:5, as commending the institution of slavery. Here St. Paul commands: “Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters.” He writes elsewhere: “Slaves, in all things obey those who are your masters on earth.” Col. 3:22
Such commands—in the Roman world—were wise for both spiritual and worldly reasons, but no one today uses them to justify the continuation of the institution of human slavery. Christians unanimously condemn slavery as a grave moral evil. The Catholic Church forbids the “enslavement of human beings, to their being bought, sold and exchanged like merchandise.” CCC 2414.
Ultimately, both citizens and slaves may be obliged to obey their overlords, but neither slavery, nor violent government are commanded by God. The modern state has grown monstrous in its destruction of freedom; in its thefts and murders of innocents.
When government turns aside from the only possible justification for its existence it becomes illegitimate. It exists to protect human rights, and as the Catechism teaches: “[i]f it does not respect them, authority can rely only on force or violence to obtain obedience from its subjects.” CCC 1930. Neither the initiation of force–nor any authority that relies upon it–is necessary to a just society.