Jesus lived, died, arose, ascended, and was made Lord and Christ during the days of the Roman Empire; His Apostles proclaimed the good news of these things in various villages, towns, and cities of the Roman world. The Roman Empire pretended to still represent the Senatus populusque Romanus (SPQR), the “Senate and people of Rome,” as if it remained a republic; many cities maintained a republican or democratic style of self-government regarding local matters (cf. Acts 19:39); nevertheless, Rome had become an empire under an imperial system of rule, with the Emperor’s will as sovereign and governors eager to plunder the wealth of subject peoples. Today, however, few Christians live under an empire with an imperial system of rule. In America, Christians live in a representative republic in which the government is presumed to be by the people, of the people, and for the people. What can we gain from the Scriptures regarding how Christians ought to participate in a representative republic?
The New Testament described governing authorities as maintaining two minds. On one hand, all governing authorities exist from God and are given authority by God (Romans 13:1-2): they are God’s agents to establish justice on the earth, to honor good conduct and punish evil conduct, and thus Christians were to give honor to governing authorities, to submit to their rule and laws, and to pay their taxes (Romans 13:3-7, 1 Peter 2:11-17). On the other hand, all governing authorities fall prey to the influence of the Evil One and the powers and principalities, and thus prove likely to glorify itself above all else, to perpetuate injustice to the benefit of some at the expense of others and to persecute the people of God who cry out for justice and righteousness to be done on the earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 4:8-9, 2 Corinthians 4:4, Revelation 13:1-18); to this end Christians might well be called upon to have to obey God rather than man, to love not their lives even unto death, and suffer hostility from governing authorities (Acts 5:29, Revelation 12:11). While the specific contextual application of these refer to the Emperor and governors of the Roman Empire, they are written on a grander scale: Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:11-17 would prove true of any governing authorities, and John saw Roman power in terms of the powers of previous nations, suggesting Rome was just the most recent avatar of a worldly power arrogating itself against God and His purposes. Therefore, we should expect our representative republic, even though it is theoretically “by the people, of the people, and for the people,” to reflect this same dual dynamic.
Peter invited the Christians of Asia Minor to consider themselves as exiles and sojourners, very much like Israel during the Babylonian captivity (1 Peter 1:1-2, 17, 2:11-12, 5:13). Paul called upon the Philippian Christians, many of whom likely held Roman citizenship, to consider themselves primarily as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, and to behave as citizens of that kingdom (Philippians 1:27, 3:20-21). Christians in a representative republic must therefore always remember they are never quite at home in that republic, even if they were born there and participate in its culture. The United States of America as a power desires full loyalty and complete commitment, just as Rome did; Christians will seek to honor its authorities, but must uphold the values of the Kingdom of Jesus above all else. To this end many have fully renounced participation in the customs and traditions of America’s representative republic. While there is no mandate to vote, or to involve oneself in the politics of the day, there does remain the command to do good to everyone (Galatians 6:10), and Jeremiah’s premise to “seek the welfare of the city” remains in alignment with that vision (cf. Jeremiah 29:7): any renunciation of participation in politics cannot extend to renunciation of participation in society or the manifestation of care and concern for one’s fellow citizens. At the same time, Christians must always be aware of the totalizing claims of the propaganda of the United States of America and the seductiveness of the idol of nationalism; much damage has been done to the Kingdom of Jesus by those who have sought to baptize America and its ideals in the blood of the Lamb and have thus strayed from the ways of the Crucified One. The United States of America is as the grass of the field: it will die and fade away one day, but the word of God endures forever (1 Peter 1:24-25).
In order to do what is honorable in the sight of all men, and to show appropriate honor to civil authority, Christians in representative republics do well to participate as called upon in ways which glorify God in Christ.
Christians should pay all appropriate taxes without grumbling (Romans 13:6-7). If Christians get a say in how and whether taxes should or should not be levied, they ought not consider the matter simply in terms of what would benefit them personally, but to also consider the needs of others and the common good (Romans 12:16-17, Philippians 2:1-4).
Christians must continually pray and make supplication for all of their fellow citizens in America, particularly those in authority, so that we might live in tranquility and peace and for all to come to a knowledge of the truth and be saved (1 Timothy 2:1-4). Paul leveraged his Roman citizenship to provide the opportunity to proclaim the Gospel to many people and those in authority (Acts 21:37-40, 24:1-21, 25:1-26:32); we should leverage the freedoms given to us to proclaim the Gospel to others, and make appeal for rulers to consider Jesus as Lord and to uphold righteousness and justice. We may exercise voting privileges to the end of living in tranquility and peace and to uphold righteousness and justice, understanding that we will be held accountable for those whom we empower by our endorsement with that vote.
The state may make request of Christians to participate in its use of coercive force, be it through the police force or through military endeavors. Christians must live according to their consciences in Christ regarding such matters and ought to give serious consideration regarding how they can glorify God and participate in such things. Christians must ask themselves if they can continue to love their fellow humans as themselves and to value each human as made in God’s image as part of those forces (Genesis 1:26-27, Luke 6:27, 32, 10:25-37), and perhaps look for ways to serve in ways that demonstrate how their primary loyalty is to Jesus, as Cornelius did before them (cf. Acts 10:1-48).
For any representative republic to function as intended requires participation by its citizens. Christians do well to find ways to participate in the public life of their place to seek its shalom, peace and wholeness: to do good to those around them, to speak up for justice and righteousness, and to provide material, mental, emotional, and spiritual support to the poor, marginalized, and downtrodden among them (Matthew 25:31-46, Luke 6:27-37, Galatians 6:10, Romans 12:9, 17-18). Some may serve as elected officials if they can do so in ways that glorify God in Christ like Erastus of Corinth before them (Romans 16:23). Most early Christians were numbered among the poor, and might well have participated in creative nonviolent resistance to expose the injustice and shame of those who oppressed them (Matthew 5:38-42); James prophetically denounced their wealthy oppressors (James 5:1-6). Christians among the poor and marginalized ought to find support and strength from their fellow people of God, and not shame and abuse (1 Corinthians 12:12-28); Christians with material wealth, power, and influence do well to leverage their resources to serve, advocate, and assist those who do not (Ephesians 4:28, 1 Timothy 6:17-19, 1 Peter 4:10-11). In this way Christians ought to be seen as lights in their community, known for their good works and their stand for justice and righteousness in Christ (Matthew 5:13-16).
Christians loyal to the Lord Jesus Christ may live and even flourish in a representative republic like the United States of America, but they must never be primarily of such a republic. They must always prioritize their loyalty to Jesus and strive in every respect to bring His lordship to bear on their engagement with their fellow citizens and their nation. May we serve and glorify the Lord Jesus in the midst of this representative republic and obtain the resurrection of life in Him!
Ethan R. Longhenry