This brings us to the obscure but important NT teachings on principalities and powers.
(Rom. 8:37-39 ESV) 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
(Eph. 1:20-23 ESV) 20 that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. 22 And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
(Eph. 6:12 ESV) 12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
(Col. 1:15-16 ESV) 15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities– all things were created through him and for him.
(Col. 2:9-10 ESV) 9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.
The words “rule” or “ruler,” “authority,” “power,” “dominion,” etc. can be used of earthly rulers as well as spiritual or demonic powers, and Paul is not at all careful to distinguish the two — likely because he sees little difference. The man who rules on behalf of Zeus and Zeus himself are equally enemies of God.
Paul sees the victory of Jesus as a victory over not only earthly rulers — Caesar — but also any spiritual rivals of God. This kind of thinking is utterly foreign to the modern Christian, but in the ancient world, YHWH was the “God of the Jews.” The Greeks had their gods, as did the Egyptians, the Babylonians, etc. A war between human nations was seen by the ancients as a war between the gods of the two nations. The victor on earth would also be the victor in heaven, Mt. Olympus, or wherever the gods were believed to live.
In the neo-Anabaptist theology of John Howard Yoder, these powers and principalities are seen as structural forces that separate man from God — poverty, oppression, unjust economic systems, etc., and the church is charged, on behalf of Jesus, to help defeat such systematic injustices. And it’s not hard to see some support for this view in the Revelation, where the second Beast of Rev 13 seems to represent the Roman religious authorities, priests, and system.
Again, I doubt that Paul would have seen a distinction. While Paul likely included impersonal forces — greed, idolatry, economic injustice — as a power to be defeated, I doubt that he saw the powers as entirely impersonal.
Evil has a hidden dimension; there is more to it than meets the eye. This extra element, I believe, includes a force or forces which are no less real for being difficult to describe. This is, after all, an increasingly common feature of contemporary physics; if scientists had suggested the existence of ‘black holes’ in the universe a hundred years ago they would have been accused of talking nonsense, but we have now accepted that this is the only way to account for the data. Why should something similar be ruled out in other areas of discourse?
N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2006), 68–69.
In this complex situation, the Christian can never settle comfortably for the standard post-Enlightenment right-wing solution, where strong authorities rule subservient populations, or left-wing solutions, where revolution and even, ultimately, some kind of anarchy are seen as the ideal. The Christian (and, for that matter, the Jew; though again that introduces more complexity than this chapter can handle) is thus under obligation both to honour the ruling authority, whatever it may be, and to work constantly to remind that authority of its God-given task and to encourage and help it to perform it. That primary task is to do justice and love mercy, to ensure that those who are weak and vulnerable are properly looked after. Medical care (one of the great early Christian innovations was taking care of the sick, including those who were themselves neither Christians nor family members), education, work on behalf of the poor—all these are signs that Jesus is Lord and that the powers of the world are his servants.
This will, of course, challenge all the vested interests that at the moment rule the world, and that speak grandly of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ in reference simply to those things which serve, or as it may be oppose, their own ends. This is as true of those whose financial systems keep whole countries in unpayable debt as it is of those whose caste systems keep tens of thousands of lower-caste peoples in squalor and penury. And we should note carefully, as a call to readjust our priorities and our rhetoric as we in the West talk grandly about the rest of the world, that the early Christians, like their Jewish cousins, were not particularly worried in the means by which rulers and authorities came to power. They were far more concerned about what they did once they had obtained power. The idea that once some kind of election has been held the government that results has carte blanche legitimacy to do whatever it wants for the next few years is a travesty of the freedom and wisdom which the biblical writers seek and urge.
N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2006), 79.
This brings new meaning to such passages as —
(1 Cor. 15:24-26 ESV) 24 Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
If the enemies of Jesus include “every rule and authority and power,” then his enemies include civil government — every single one — even the civil government of a supposedly Christian nation. In fact, it makes “Christian nation” an oxymoron. How can an opponent of Jesus be Christian?
Of course, in Rom 13, Paul says,
(Rom. 13:1-4 ESV) 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. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 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, 4 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.
When Paul wrote this passage, the Caesar was Nero — before his cruel persecution of Christians, but Nero nonetheless. And the notion that the Caesar was a god was already developing — although it wouldn’t reach full flower until Domitian a few decades later — in time for the writing of the Revelation.
So the rulers are God’s servants and also God’s enemies. Perhaps the modern term “necessary evil” sums it up. God’s people need government — to imprison criminals and to provide prosperity. But governments inevitably presume authority and power belonging solely to God. (I’m trying to think of an exception …)
Is this because human power is corrupted by demonic forces? Or because of the fallen nature of all humans? Or both? Either way, human government is among the enemies of God that will be destroyed by Jesus when he returns.
On this logic, David Lipscomb argued in Civil Government that Christians should not take government jobs, serve on juries, vote, or otherwise involve themselves with the government. But Lipscomb’s thought was too black and white. After all, Paul converted a Roman proconsul (Acts 13:7), who didn’t have to quit his government job. Cornelius seems to have remained a Roman centurion after his conversion. Joseph, Daniel, and Esther served God’s purposes in prominent government posts.
Government can truly be God’s servant to do good — but it’s not inherently good and never always good. It will always be less than perfect and will never be a Christian’s lord or savior. Hence, a Christian’s loyalty to the government will always be conditional.
(Acts 5:29 ESV) 29 But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.”