Ever since Jesus proclaimed the coming Kingdom of God, His followers have sought to make sense of how they are to relate to the earthly governments under which they live. How should Christians view their earthly government in light of their participation in the Kingdom of God in Christ?
Paul encouraged Christians to firmly ground themselves in our great hope in Christ:
For our citizenship is in heaven; whence also we wait for a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ: who shall fashion anew the body of our humiliation, that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, according to the working whereby he is able even to subject all things unto himself (Philippians 3:20-21).
The Christian’s primary loyalty is to their Savior, the Lord of lords, Jesus Christ, through whom we obtain the resurrection of the dead. Governments on earth come and go as the grass of the field; it is the good news of the Kingdom of God in Christ which remains forever (cf. 1 Peter 1:22-25). Therefore, as Peter put it so succinctly in Acts 5:29, we must obey God rather than man; we must never put the self-absorbed interests of a given nation-state over the mission of the Kingdom of God!
Christians must never forget that part of obeying God is to obey the earthly authorities to whom God has delegated power and authority (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:11-17). Earthly governments, though imperfect, have their place and purpose. Whereas God had decreed and appointed for a theocratic government in Israel in the Old Testament, the New Testament provides precious little in the way of policy for good statecraft. Such is consistent with God’s purposes in Christ: the Christian’s priority is not to maintain good governance on earth but to embody the ways of God in the midst of a fallen and broken world in the way of Christ (Matthew 6:10, Hebrews 12:1-2). The Christian can live under a dictatorship or a democracy; the government may be quite amenable and tolerant of Christianity or a violent persecutor. God expects the Christian to obey regardless; to pay taxes and give appropriate honor regardless; to live as free to serve God regardless.
Christians are thus expected to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s (Matthew 22:15-22). Nevertheless, we must remember that Caesar is always out for Caesar. The way of Jesus is not the way of political control; it was not at all His purpose to become the king the Israelites wanted (John 6:15); exercising political control proved to be a Satanic temptation and distortion of Jesus’ mission and purpose (cf. Matthew 4:8-10)! Jesus was exalted to receive all power and authority through humility and suffering (Philippians 2:5-11); such are antithetical to the principles and ways of the nation-state. Christians should prove wary of attempting to accomplish the mission of God in Christ according to the ways of the Devil and in ways Jesus and His Apostles avoided.
Christians also do well to maintain Peter’s emphasis in all things: the same Apostle who told the Sanhedrin that he must obey God rather than men also commanded Christians to be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human ordinance (Acts 5:29, 1 Peter 2:12). We may think Peter contradicts himself, but he remains consistent: he expects the Christian to live a life of obedience. “Civil disobedience” is never justified on its own ground, for God, Jesus, and the Apostles never commend disobedience on the part of the Christian. If a Christian cannot obey a decree of the government while remaining obedient to God, the Christian then obeys God over man; if the government demands the Christian to pay the penalty for disobeying the law, the Christian suffers that penalty, because he or she must remain subject for the Lord’s sake to that earthly institution. It is not given for the Christian to judge the governmental authorities; that role is for God alone (Romans 13:1-4, 14:11-12). It is given for the Christian to prove obedient for the Lord’s sake, making it clear that loyalty to Jesus does not demand treachery against the state. If persecution must be suffered, may the full force of God’s judgment come upon the persecuting authorities, and not on Christians more willing to rebel than to suffer!
While the New Testament does provide Paul’s example of using citizenship as a means by which to advance the proclamation of the Kingdom of God, the text provides little basis on which to expect the proclamation or purposes of the Kingdom of God to be advanced through participation in an earthly government (cf. Acts 22:24-29, 25:11-12). Throughout Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:11-18 the earthly authorities are “them” and the Christians are “us.” We do well to pray for “all who are in authority so we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity” (1 Timothy 2:1-2); by extension we may exercise our liberties under a representative democracy to vote for representatives to the same end. Nevertheless, over the past two thousand years, the Kingdom of God has not been established on earth faithfully through the political process or by fiat by the decree of earthly authorities. Instead, some of the most unspeakable horrors have been wrought on the world by men professing Christ coming to convert the masses by the sword.
The Christian has a specific relationship with his government according to the Scriptures. We must continue to obey the laws of our government as part of our obedience to God, and not refuse to suffer if we must obey God rather than man. We do well to remain quiet, praying that we might continue to lead a quiet and tranquil life in all godliness. Both Peter and Paul provided their instruction to Christians while Nero ruled over the Roman Empire; no matter how decadent and vile we may find our current crop of authorities, they are no match for the gross immoralities of Nero, a man who killed his own mother and thousands of Romans while wasting away in a most decadent life. Yet neither Peter nor Paul cried out against the government; they did not protest those forms of immorality; they did not expect the Roman authorities to legislate Christianity into the moral code of the Empire.
Christians will always find reasons to consider their earthly government unpalatable. Yet we do well to follow the Apostolic decrees: to live quietly, pay taxes, give honor, pray for those in authority, and obey God in all things. May we maintain the Kingdom of God as our ultimate priority and not allow focus on any earthly government to hinder us from proclaiming the Gospel of Christ and obtaining the resurrection!
Ethan R. Longhenry