How should Christians interface with the government?
1 WE PRAY FOR THE GOVERNMENT.
A converted Saul, now Paul, wrote powerfully, “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone–for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (I Timothy 2:1-3). As people who carry two passports, one way we show our allegiance to our earthly state is through prayer. Before Paul instructed Timothy on matters of worship, leadership, eldership, widows, and finances, he exhorted him concerning the priority of prayer for government leaders. Must be important. God help us. We pray for civil leaders so the gospel can go forth. Paul saw a great advantage with peace–free movement in the Roman Empire. He used his citizenship when he needed protection from religious leaders (Acts 22:28). The time from Caesar Augusta (27 BC) to the death of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (180 AD) has been called the “Pax Romana,” the peace of Rome, a period in which Jesus came and the Gospel went forth powerfully under stable government! “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus…” (Luke 2:1).
Paul puts prayer at the top of the list on how we connect with civil government. When are we to pray? When we gather for public worship. If Christians do their part (prayer), government is better able to do its part (protect). The best way to impact government is not through lobbies or rallies or debates or criticism or even political parties–it is through prayer. If we feel a responsibility to vote, we should feel a stronger responsibility to pray, because that is commanded and voting is not. God likes peace and order, so He directs His children to pray for it. It must make God sad and mad to see so few churches and individuals praying for the government in public and private worship.
2 WE SUPPORT THE GOVERNMENT WITH TAXES.
When Jesus said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17), he was addressing Pharisees who didn’t like the Romans but didn’t want to cause trouble with them either. It wasn’t the answer they wanted to hear. Peter didn’t think that way either until Jesus got a hold of him, and certainly not Simon the Zealot, whom Jesus called as a disciple. Government to zealots was the enemy, not the servant of God. Jesus legitimized the authority of the godless government of Caesar to require taxes to do their work. We pay taxes so the government can govern. It takes people and it takes pesos. To be subject includes paying “taxes to whom taxes are due…honor to whom honor is due” (Romans 13:7). Paul didn’t believe that when he was Saul. I know a few people who think it is wrong to pay taxes to a pagan government. Jesus made it too clear to even suggest that.
3 WE SUBMIT TO THE GOVERNMENT.
In Paul’s longest doctrinal letter, he addressed the issue of the state. His opening line: “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established” (Romans 13:1). How do we function as citizens? By submitting, a word Paul used often when talking about relationships–elders to congregation, husband to wife, parents to children, employer to employee. God exercises His authority in the earth through human authority, and that includes government. Paul saw himself in a place of submission to the government that was serving the purpose of God. This is strong language for one who was mistreated by the government. But he was also protected by it. He used his citizenship to his advantage. To resist legitimate government is to resist God. Out-of-control protesters don’t get this.
God is concerned for the proper ordering of society, not just the church. The functions of the government and the church are radically different. The government is commissioned by God to provide safety for its citizens. They bear the sword and execute God’s wrath on wrongdoers (Romans 13:4). Don’t expect the government to support the church, but neither should it attack the church. It should do what it is called to do (keep the peace and punish the rowdies), so that the church can do what it is called to do. We need to pray for good government and submit appropriately to its authority.
Government is not a Christian institution; it is a human institution. It operates under the law, not under grace. It exists to praise and to punish. Paul says that “it does not bear the sword in vain” (Romans 13:4). It should be a terror to bad behavior. When I watched the Watts riots back in 1962, I wondered where the police were, the national guard, the military, the U.S. Marines. We are called to love our enemies, not punish them. The state has a different mandate. It does the punishing. Paul boldly calls the government a “servant of God.” Government assumes human irresponsibility. That is, some will come against the law. They need to discover that the law does not budge.
We are seeing in these days what happens when the law is not enforced: “Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil” (Ecclesiastes 8:11). When protest gets violent and the government does not step in to stop the offenders, crime erupts and escalates. Good government allows us to live “a peaceful and quiet life” (1 Timothy 2:2). Bad government or government that does not protect its people invites crime, because the unconverted heart of humankind is evil and self-centered.
4 WE MAKE THE GOVERNMENT OF GOD OUR HIGHEST PRIORITY.
Peter calls us “sojourners and exiles” (I Peter 2:11). And Paul writes that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippianns 3:20). We are camping out in the present. Our time on earth is short. So that informs our ultimate outlook. Jesus told Pilate, an earthly ruler, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). That reality determined where he put his energy. He didn’t come to beat up on the Romans. He came to beat up on the devil. Huge difference. We take our queue from the King. We are not giving our life to make this government a little better. But we don’t take this to the extreme and become anti-government. Human government is God’s idea. We see it in the family, in marriage, in the workplace, in the community. Government is ordained by God, and we will see it functioning in the new earth. Plan to really enjoy the government of God in the new earth, and maybe you will be participating as a ruler. He promises that “if we endure, we will also reign with him” (2 Timothy 2:12).
Our submission now to human authority is conditional; our obedience to the King is absolute. When the government chooses tyranny over peace, flaunting its leadership, then citizens should disobey, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer did in Germany. Lutherans and Catholics were keeping their mouths shut. Their silence supported an illegitimate government. They should have formed anti-government coalitions. Thank God for those who defied the government and provided asylum for Jews, like Corrie ten Boom and her Dutch family. In the last days, the antichrist will call himself god and demand worship, and he will get it from people who vote for self-rule, which leads to anarchy, which leads to dictatorship. This will be a time of great suffering for the church.