The Christian’s Relation to the Government
The present pandemic that we are experiencing with all it’s frustrations is bringing into focus how we should relate to the government. Other factors are the political and moral situation in the western world. How should we relate to all this?
As with most subjects, the Bible has something to say about this. In fact, the Bible gives very clear teaching on this matter; the problem is that when people don’t like what it says, they begin to feel that it is difficult to understand.
Romans 13:1-7, 1Timothy 2:1-3, and Titus 3:1 give us clear teaching of what is the Christian’s responsibility to the government. We want to take a closer look at these passages.
To understand Scripture we need to look at the context and word meanings. First of all Romans is part of the New Testament which is under the new covenant. This affects the understanding of these passages to a great degree. We notice that in the Old Testament God’s people, the Jews, were a nation and as such had some form of government. The law gave direction on civics including how kings were to conduct themselves. It also gave direction on citizens of that nation. The nation went to war at God’s direction, and was instructed to practice capital punishment under some circumstances. However Jesus did not come as a ruler of an earthly kingdom, as the Jews hoped the Messiah would come. Jesus often spoke of the kingdom of God or kingdom of Heaven which He said was within them. It was a spiritual kingdom, with laws that are different and incompatible with some aspects of the Old Testament. For example, instead of “an eye for an eye” Jesus taught us that we should love our enemies and pray for those that despitefully use us. God’s people are no not a particular nation or race, but a spiritual kingdom that is spread all over the world. This means that His people dwell in various nations, and under various administrations.
We also notice that the ruler at the time of this writing was the infamous Nero. History does not treat him well, and he is reputed to have been playing his harp while Rome was burning with a fire he was instrumental in starting. He then falsely accused the Christians for the fire and had them cruelly tortured. Rome was not a friend of the Christians since they held Jesus as “Christ” which implies “king”. The emperor wanted people to worship him.
While reading the passage it is important to note the meaning of the words, and to observe the “person” of the pronouns.
(Verses 1-2): Everybody on earth has authorities over them that they need to be subject to. This is God’s plan. Ultimate authority resides in God. Earthly authority is an important aspect of God’s gift to mankind - the choice. When we are given a choice, we are thereby given responsibility, and responsibility needs authority to fulfil it. Some authorities mentioned in the New Testament are elders (older people) 1Peter 5:5, employers 1Peter 2:18, parents Ephesians 6:1-2, church leaders Hebrews 13:7,17, and the government Titus 3:1. But not only obedience is enjoined, respect is also taught, at least for the office.
We must reiterate that these authorities are ordained of God, and if we resist them we are resisting God’s plan. Part of any authority is the right to punish or judge (the word damnation here means to judge) those that are disobedient. If you are disobedient, expect punishment.
We must make one disclaimer here; all authority comes from God. We are all under several authorities which are delegated by God and which we must obey to be obedient to God. However, there may be a situation where a delegated authority ask something of us that would cause us to be disobedient to God’s Word, which is ultimate authority. In that case we “ought to obey God rather than man” Acts 5:29. Even with this we must be careful that it is not just our own idea that we use to justify disobedience.
(Verses 3-4): Rulers of nations are for a good reason. They are there to combat the evil works of those that do not obey the law. We can expect that unconverted people will need this discipline. If we respect and obey the law, we can expect to have amiable relations with the officers. This reminds me of what an officer said to a rather large group of plain Mennonite church leaders. He said that policing in Mennonite areas has it’s own challenges, for example, recently a man stole a tractor and drove around in the fields of several farmers causing crop damage and spoiling fences. They caught the man and would have charged him, but no farmer was willing to press charges. They all said they had forgiven him. The officer said however that it was a kind of nice problem to have!
If we break the law, our conscience should trouble us, but the fear of punishment will too, if the conscience is weak. The government has the authority to execute wrath on the evil doer, and it even says that he “beareth not the sword in vain”. To reiterate, the government has the right to make laws and enforce them, and being citizens of the heavenly kingdom does not exempt us from punishment by the authorities if we disobey.
(Verses 5-7) These verses give the Christian’s responsibilities to the government. First, be subject not only for fear of punishment, but also for conscience sake. We who are citizens of the heavenly kingdom need to be obedient to the earthly governments if we want to be obedient to our heavenly king. Secondly, we must we willing to pay taxes. “Tribute” here probably refers to taxes on land and possessions. The government needs money to operate and provide for the services they give, and we should not be stingy. We are not responsible for there use, and therefore should not withhold taxes because we think they are not being spent correctly. Then we are responsible to give other taxes (“tribute” here probably means taxes on transactions, tolls, and travel). We are not to only give partially (“custom” here is usually translated “end”). We are to not withhold what is due. We are to respect them. The word “fear” does not just mean respect though. There is a proper fear to do wrong that is proper and goes beyond respect. We should be ashamed to do wrong. We should honour the leaders and officers sincerely, and show the signs of respect. For example, if removing the hat is the proper sign of respect in the presence of the queen, we should do it.
(1Timothy 2:1-3) These verses teach us the work of prayer that we need to be engaged in for all men, especially to kings and all in authority. Three words that are various phases of prayer are our responsibility to them as well as “giving of thanks”. This was written during the reign of Nero, one of the rulers who has the worst reputation in history. We pray that we can live a quiet and peaceable life in holiness and uprightness. It needs to be our desire to be at peace with the leaders of our land.
A note on the person of the pronouns. Read the passage carefully and note that the government is always in the third person, and the believers are in the second person. There is a clear demarcation.
Applications for today
1.- We need to speak respectfully of the rulers. We will likely not agree with all that they do, or how they evaluate the situation they are in. Remember, they are not born again and thus not part of Christ’s kingdom on earth. We cannot expect that they will always be obedient to Christ’s teachings. We should use the proper titles and signs of respect, and avoid slang expressions like “cops”.
2.- Ideas and theories that are very disrespectful of the authorities are suspect. We should not give much audience to them. The world has it’s own way of exposing misdeeds. And God is sovereign and looks after those things.
3.- We should not judge them by Christ’s kingdom’s standards. They obviously cannot practice the teaching of the sermon on the mount if they have been given the sword. After all, they are unconverted. They are servants of God; we are sons of God. We are not in the business of making saintly sinners, but calling people to Christ and repentance.
4.- Mixing the heavenly and earthly kingdoms is unfruitful. It is also impossible, as living by the heavenly kingdoms is incompatible with the responsibilities of the rulers of earthly kingdoms. We have several examples when this was attempted and the evil effects of it:
-Constantine - a Roman emperor. Constantine in time of trouble was “converted” and became a “Christian”. We will not judge his motives, but he did remove the persecution of Christianity and it became the state religion. Along with that came military service in which the Christians were involved. Beautiful church buildings were built by state money and the pastors supported by the state. Constantine himself sometimes presided at church meetings. With a state church, children automatically were church members without conversion. After 50 years the persecuted church became a persecuting church towards the dissenters. Many evils entered into nominal Christianity that are still prominent today. Theologians were employed to justify the things and practices that had come into the church. Ultimately the state church brought in the dark ages, whereas before it was a beacon of light.
-Oliver Cromwell - an English ruler. Oliver Cromwell was a Puritan, and very religious. He was tolerant towards various Protestant sects, but not tolerant of Catholics. He vowed to not allow mass where-ever he had the power to stop it. He closed theatres, drink houses, etc. He instituted changes like banning most sports, fining those who swore, keeping the Lord’s day strictly. Hard work was encouraged and at least one fast day per month. Solders wiped off makeup, and colourful dresses were banned. However he was cruel to the point of genocide to Catholic cities in Ireland who would not surrender. After 20 years the people were tired of such rule, and the royalty was brought back. But there were some very negative effects of this period. The atheists, agnostics and evolutionists became more vocal, and there was a general drift away from Christianity and Bible principles.
-Hitler - a German ruler. Hitler’s approach, at first, was well received by many church people, including Mennonites. He encouraged families and helped the farmers. Germany was in a very difficult time due to the effects of the first world war. Hitler seemed to have answers, and was not afraid to talk about God. In fact, the German soldier’s belt buckle said (in German), “God With Us”. Hitler was opposed to communism, and some Mennonites felt that he might make it possible for them to live in Russia again. But later his true colours came through. He used religion to garner support.
Today there are some dangers that we should be aware of. Many fundamental Christians are involving themselves in government and trying to push morality from the top down. This will not work, and will only make the wicked more wicked. They will eventually get to power and then they will push their agenda, as the fundamentalists did their’s. And they will likely be very negative to Christian morality. How much better it is to do our duty as Christians in proclaiming the Gospel and living godly lives. This will bring change from the bottom up, as the early church did. Christians pushing morality through the government works against the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the unbelievers.
Also, we may not agree with the government’s response to Covid19. However, in light of the teaching in the New Testament, we still need to respect and obey them as much as is possible without violating Bible teaching. Perhaps God is giving us new opportunities!