Democracy, Politics, and the Christian
Imagine for a minute that you are living in London, England in the 1760s. Your business is successful, and you are able to provide a good life for your family. You respect your king and the members of parliament, and you love your country. England’s colonies in the New World, particularly New York, are intriguing to you. You have an entrepreneurial spirit, and the thought of trying your hand at business in America intrigues you. You know you have the resources to try it. So you book passage for you and your family across the Atlantic. As you settle into life in the colony, your business gains traction and you continue to do well. It’s a good life. But England’s taxes keep getting higher and higher, taking a bigger and bigger chunk of your income. You’re all for doing your part, but you begin to think that maybe England is overtaxing the colonists. You love your homeland, but are concerned that these taxes are being levied without any input from the colonists themselves. There’s talk of revolution. You’re torn. Should you turn your back on your beloved homeland and fight in a colonial militia, or even in the regular colonial army, or should you remain true to England, a land that you love?
Now, let’s fast forward to the mid-1800s. You are white, and you live a comfortable life on a southern plantation. You own several slaves, and make a good living growing cotton. Sometimes you wonder about the morality of owning slaves taken from their homeland in Africa, but your peers tell you that slavery is moral. And then, in 1960, a new president is elected, Abraham Lincoln. Your state soon secedes from the union, and soon all out war breaks loose. Do you abandon your plantation, move north, and fight for or support the abolitionists in the north, or do you stay in the south and support the confederacy?
Fast-forward with me one more time. You’re a German citizen living in Berlin in 1936. A dictator, Adolph Hitler, maddened by prejudice, has come to power and is supported by the German masses. His supporters are sometimes violent. But things look good for Germany as a whole. The country is once again prosperous, there are plenty of jobs, and your business is making money again, after years of recession and debt. Berlin is even hosting the summer Olympics, and Germany, humiliated, powerless, and impoverished in the wake of World War I, will be proud once again. One the other hand, your Jewish friends and neighbors are being forced to wear the ominous Star of David and some have been disappearing with no explanation, sometimes entire families, even neighborhoods at a time. And the pressure is mounting. You know you have to choose. Are you going to support Der Fuhrer and most of your peers, or are you going to advocate for the fair treatment of Jews and other “undesirables.” Are you going to stand against your government, or recognize it’s sovereignty and obey its commands?[i]
Now, imagine, in each one of these situations, that you are a follower of Christ. Does that change how you approach each situation? Should it impact your decision? What exactly should the attitude toward secular governments and the level of engagement with them be for the follower of Christ? What does the Bible have to say to us about this? Turn with me to Romans 13:1-7.
Now, there’s a lot going on here in this passage. For starters, in some ways, it doesn’t seem to fit with the context. Paul has been writing about the transformed mind of the follower of Christ, and about love for one another in the body of Christ, for those outside the body of Christ, and even for our enemies being at the core of the Christian life. In fact, after this seven verse rant about the government, he returns to talking about love. So what in the world is Paul doing here?
Well, remember, in telling us that our lives, filled with the Holy Spirit, our minds transformed by Christ, are to be marked by love, including love for our enemies, he tells us that we are not to seek personal revenge against those who hurt us in some way. Back in V. 17 he says, “Repay no one evil for evil …” And then in V. 19 he says, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” And then he launches into this passage about secular governments, secular authorities.
Now, remember that Paul has been clear that when we place our faith in Christ, we become citizens of the Kingdom of God above all else, that we are aliens and strangers in this world, and that our primary allegiance is to the Kingdom of God. We are his emissaries in this fallen world. So one of the mistakes Christians make is to assume that secular government doesn’t matter that much to us. That we don’t need to be involved or engaged in the process. That government is a human institution that no longer has any meaning to us because we are aliens and strangers in this world and citizens of the Kingdom of God. Our citizenship is in heaven, so nothing in this world matters.
That’s often the attitude that we as Christians take, not just toward government, but toward lots of human activity in this world. Things like care for our environment and social issues. “Not so fast,” says Paul. Yes, we are citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, and yes, we are aliens and strangers here, but we are still to be engaged as citizens of this world, members of the human family. In fact, secular governments are established by God to accomplish God’s purposes in this world.
Look at Vv. 1-2. Human authorities are God’s instruments. In fact, Paul describes them as servants of God, and the word he uses for servants is usually reserved for explicitly Christian service, such as leadership in the church. God has delegated authority to human governments for the ordered running of this world. Without legitimate human authority, we have anarchy. We often have an attitude toward authority that says, “You can’t tell me what to do.” That isn’t an attitude that can be embraced by a follower of Christ. Now, there’s certainly a caveat here, and we’ll get to that in a minute. But the truth is, Paul is writing to a group of Jewish and Gentile Christians living in Rome, the center of Roman rule and government, in close proximity to a quickly decompensating emperor in Nero, telling them that no human authority comes to power except that they have been instituted by God, and that those find themselves always resisting government are actually in rebellion against God.
Now, here’s the caveat. Human authority is granted by God, and is in submission to God. Human authority, granted by God, does not usurp or overrule God’s sovereignty and authority over his creation. Look at Vv. 3-4. One of the primary roles of government is, under God, as an instrument of God, to restrain and punish evil and to reward good. The government is one instrument with which God deals with evil in our world. God does not completely eliminate evil and bring his perfect justice in its complete and final form through human government, that will only happen when Christ returns and the kingdom of God is established in it’s fullness in the created order. But until then, God does restrain and punish evil through human government. In fact, that is the primary way God restrains and punishes evil in this world right now. We are not to seek personal vengeance against others, even those who really do us harm, but that does not mean that evil goes unpunished, even for now. Vengeance, repayment for evil, belongs to God because God’s justice is not subject to my fallen, imperfect human anger and hurt feelings and a sense of justice that is tilted a little more toward me than to real fairness and justice. And the one in human authority is “a servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”
This doesn’t mean that only Christ-followers can exercise legitimate, God-granted authority. The Old Testament book of Daniel speaks of the pagan King Nebuchadnezzar in saying, “The sentence is by the decree of the watchers, the decision by the word of the holy ones, to the end that the living may know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of men.” (4:17). Even Nebuchadnezzar, who invaded Judah and carried the Jews off into exile in Babylon had come to power by the decree of God. The same is said of Cyrus of Persia. Instruments in the hand of God who rise, and fall, at the hand of God.
Now, there are times when human governments, made up of fallen, sinful human beings, don’t punish evil and reward good, they do the opposite. They begin to punish good and reward evil. They begin to oppress and operate unjustly. They develop a slant toward the wealthy and the powerful, and begin to take advantage of other human beings. And at times, human government, human authority, becomes an object of worship itself. Human government is established by God, but we don’t worship it. We don’t worship the flag or the president or our favorite political leader. They’re aren’t infallible.
The Roman historian Pliny called Domitian, who ruled a decade or so after Nero, the beast from hell who sat in its den, licking blood. In the Book of Revelation, John of the Apocalypse may have referred to Domitian when he described a beast from the abyss who blasphemes heaven and drinks the blood of the saints.
Domitian repelled invasions from Dacia (modern-day Rumania), something later emperors would have increasing difficulty doing. He also was a master builder and adroit administrator, one of the best whoever governed the Empire. Suetonius, who hated Domitian, had to admit that “he took such care to exercise restraint over the city officials and provincial governors that at no time were these more honest or just.”
But there was something wrong with Domitian. He enjoyed catching flies and stabbing them with a pen. He liked to watch gladiatorial fights between women and dwarfs. And during his reign he was so suspicious of plots against his life, the number of imperial spies and informers proliferated, as did the number of casualties among suspect Roman officials.
Domitian was the first emperor to have himself officially titled in Rome as “God the Lord.” He insisted that other people hail his greatness with acclamations like “Lord of the earth,” “Invincible,” “Glory,” “Holy,” and “Thou Alone.”
When he ordered people to give him divine honors, Jews, and no doubt Christians, balked. The resulting persecution of Jews is well-documented; that of Christians is not. However, the beast that the author of Revelation describes, as well as the events in the book, are perhaps best interpreted as hidden allusions to the rule of Domitian. In addition, Flavius Clemens, consul in 95, and his wife, Flavia Domitilla, were executed and exiled, respectively, by Domitian’s orders; many historians suspect this was because they were Christians.[ii]
Now, there’s something I want you to notice here. Paul doesn’t strictly tell us to obey the government, he assumes we’ll have a general attitude of obedience, but he doesn’t use the word “obey,” he uses the word “submit.” Look at Vv. 5-7. Submission often includes obedience. All things being equal, obeying the law is part of submitting to the governing authorities. But submission isn’t exactly equal to obedience. Submission is an attitude that recognizes that there is an authority over you. Obedience is doing what that authority tells you to do and not doing what they tell you not to do. Obedience follows the rules. Submissions says, “There’s a rule-maker over me.” But are there times when we can disobey the rules and still be in submission to the government? The answer is yes.
There may be times when a legitimate authority tells you to do something that is directly contrary to the will of God and the goodness of God. There may be times when obedience to the government equals disobedience to God. That’s what happened to Peter and John, disciples of Jesus, in Acts 4. “So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Vv. 18-20). The authorities wanted Peter and John to keep quiet about Jesus, to not talk about Jesus at all, and their response was, “In this case, that is something we cannot do.”
Now, there were also times when the disciples were imprisoned for their unwillingness to keep quiet about Jesus. Obedience says, “I’ll follow the rules, no matter what.” Submission says, “There is an authority over me that makes rules. As a general rule of thumb, I will follow them. In the rare instances where I cannot, as happened with Peter and John, I will choose to disobey the law, and I will accept the consequences, whether it be paying a fine or even, in some places in the world, imprisonment.
Now, in America right now, there are some things that are legal that we disagree with or don’t like, but they aren’t mandated. For example, abortion is legal, but it isn’t mandated. Our government hasn’t said, “You can only have two kids. After that, you must abort” or something like that. Other countries of the world have taken approaches like that to control their population. We haven’t. So we can speak out against abortion if we wish, and work to have laws changed. But we don’t have to participate if we don’t want to. The same is true of many things. Gambling is legal, but you don’t have to gamble if you don’t want to. When it comes down to it, there really aren’t any restrictions on YOU living YOUR LIFE for CHRIST. Sometimes prayer in schools is touted as a restriction, but it really isn’t. Kids can pray in schools all they want. Kids can have Bible studies in schools, Christian meetings in schools, all sorts of stuff. Fellowship of Christian Athletes is an active club in most public schools. But kids can’t be FORCED to pray if they don’t want to. Teachers can even pray with students if they wish, so long as it isn’t during class time, is completely voluntary on the part of the students and kids can opt out without having their grades impacted. The closest we’ve come to something like that in our country is probably Christian pacifists, especially in the Quaker tradition, being drafted. But even then they were given the opportunity to take on non-combatant roles, at least for the most part. In spite of everything going on in our culture, we really are still remarkably free here in the United States.
So how do we submit to the governing authorities here in the United States? Well, Paul says, for starters, pay your taxes. And he places no qualifications on that. Even the taxes you don’t like or think aren’t fair. Take your legitimate, legal deductions and pay your share, whatever the government says that is. And I think this can be expanded to say, “Do your civic duty.” In other words, pay your taxes, vote, let your voice be heard at the polls, obey the law, serve your jury duty if asked and selected.
And then he says give honor and respect to those to whom it is owed. In other words, to those in authority, even if you disagree with them. That gets hard in a democracy because holding our leaders accountable publicly is part of the process. We can and should speak out when something happens that concerns us. And we make our voices heart in the voting booth. Democracy is built so that the need for violent revolution and violent transitions of power aren’t necessary. We choose our leaders and those who shape our laws on a regular basis. But we can honor and respect those in authority over us even as we disagree with them, perhaps passionately. And we can pray for them. I’ve prayed for President Clinton and his administration, and President Bush and his, and President Obama and his, and President Trump and his, and I will pray for President Biden and his administration. I won’t say “Not my president,” because they’ve all been my president.
No human government is perfect. No one gets it right all the time. If we expect perfection, we’ll be disappointed by everyone. But they are God’s instrument of justice, rewarding good and restraining and punishing evil. There may be times when we object. There may be times when we disobey the law to obey God’s higher law. That certainly happened with the Jim Crow laws in the south. Sometimes, as happened in Germany in the 1930s, a more radical approach is necessary. But until then, even when we disagree, we honor our leaders. Let us pray.
[i] Adapted from Chuck Swindoll, “Insights on Romans.”
[ii] “Persecution in the Early Church,” Christian History, no. 27.