Christianity was established during the days of the Roman Empire with a radical claim for which many of its early adherents gave their lives: God made Jesus of Nazareth Lord and King, declaring Him the Son of God through His resurrection (Acts 2:36, 17:6-9, Romans 1:4). All Christians, therefore, recognized they were part of the great spiritual and trans-national Kingdom of God in Christ over whom Jesus rules as Lord (Philippians 3:20, Colossians 1:13, Revelation 1:12-20). Yet subjection to God in Christ in the Kingdom did not automatically mean rebellion and resistance against the earthly Roman power: Paul explained how earthly authorities have been empowered by God for their purpose, and both he and Peter encouraged Christians to honor the Emperor and remain subject to civil authority (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17). For at least three hundred years most Christians lived and died under the authority of the Roman Empire, yet today Christians live under diverse forms of government. One prominent form of government is democracy, in which all citizens maintain the opportunity participate in the governance of the state, either through direct decisions or indirectly through elected representatives. What principles can we find in Scripture to direct the Christian in how he or she should interact with or participate in a democratic form of government?
The Roman Empire, as its name suggests, was by no means a democracy. Despite the presence of democratic governments in some local areas there are no commands in the New Testament for the Christian to participate in democratic governments or examples of any Christian doing so (Acts 19:39). Nothing is said specifically about Christians living in democracies or how they should conduct themselves in light of a democratic form of government. Christians therefore must consider what Paul and Peter have said about government in general and strive to apply those principles to their particular form of democratic government (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17).
Christians do well to keep in mind that Peter and Paul both specifically commanded Christians to honor and be subject to “the authorities,” the king and his governors (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17). They exhort subjection to the actual people in whom God invested the authority, not a document or the philosophical principles behind a document. The New Testament gives no authority for a Christian to disobey or disrespect a governing official simply because he or she in their view has not been true to a nation’s founding documents; the Romans maintained the “Twelve Tables” in theory but were flaunted by the Emperors in practice, yet Paul and Peter still exhorted Christians to honor the Emperor (Romans 13:7, 1 Peter 2:17). Thus, in the New Testament, people are empowered with civil authority, and the laws they decree and uphold are to be obeyed save where they contradict what God has decreed (Acts 5:29, 1 Peter 2:13-17).
The Christian’s level of participation in a democratic government will depend on the particular laws of each democracy as well as the conscience of the Christian. If voting is compulsory, the Christian ought to vote so as to obey the authorities (1 Peter 2:13-17); if voting is optional, each Christian will have to decide for him or herself whether to vote or not. According to 1 Timothy 2:1-2 Christians are to pray for all men, especially those in authority, so that Christians may live “a tranquil life in all godliness and dignity,” and such a principle works quite well as a voting philosophy: who will govern so as to allow us to practice the faith in peace without hindrance, not expecting us to compromise our faith?
Many democracies give its citizens a wide range of opportunities to participate in government well beyond voting: many as individuals or groups will advocate for particular policies, laws, or initiatives, many demand government action on specific issues, and there remains the opportunity to become an elected official on a local, state, or national level. All such things are left as matters of liberty, and each Christian will have to decide for him or herself how actively they feel comfortable participating in their government in light of their commitment to the transnational Kingdom of God in Christ, knowing they will all be held accountable by God on the day of judgment (Romans 14:10-12). Yet all Christians who would participate in government do well to remember that the Gospel is God’s power unto salvation, not the legislation or the behaviors of earthly government (Romans 1:16), and that the Apostles never expected the earthly government to be a vehicle through which to impose the Gospel or its dictates on others. A Christian may be able to glorify God and advance His purposes through their advocacy or work in government (Matthew 5:13-16); the decisions of a government may work to help or hinder Christians in their attempts to glorify God and advance His purposes; but God has never and will never establish one particular nation-state or even a group of nation-states as “Christian nations.” Jesus’ Kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36) and does not resemble the governments of the world (Matthew 20:25-28).
Christians can certainly serve God in Christ as citizens of the Kingdom of God while maintaining their earthly citizenship in a democracy, obeying its laws and honoring its rulers. Christians can be thankful for the blessings of tranquility and the ability to proclaim the Gospel without hindrance under a democratic government and should pray for its leaders and its citizens (1 Timothy 2:1-4). But Christians do well to remember that the particular democratic government under which they live is not permanent, and such is why the greater part of their energy ought to be expended toward the advancement of the eternal Gospel and Kingdom of God (Matthew 6:19-34). Let us honor our elected and civil authorities if we live in a democracy, but always maintain a greater allegiance to God in Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry