The Christian and Civil Government
The subject of Christian involvement in government is a very controversial topic. I cannot possibly hope to exhaust the issue, but I do want to express what I feel to be the Bible’s teaching on the role the Christian should play. I’m not going to say anything like: “Jesus was Republican/Democrat.” My goal is not to prove what Jesus’ political affiliation would have been, because I don’t think it’s possible to do so (and I don’t think He would be happy with either of those choices). My only goal is to talk about how the Christian is expected to relate to government.
The Kingdom of God and God’s Government
I can’t possibly due this subject justice if I didn’t talk about the Kingdom of God. It was Jesus’ main mode of talking about Himself and His reign: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mar 1:15). The Kingdom Jesus speaks about is not of this earth ruled by earthly powers; this Kingdom is ruled and dictated by God alone. The Kingdom is also not a New Testament invention.
The Kingdom manifests itself first in the garden where God sovereignly reigned over Adam and Eve. After transgression, God restored an earthly Kingdom in the land of Palestine. He set up, at that time, a theocracy ruled and governed by God’s laws. Unfortunately, like Adam, Israel profaned and largely rejected God’s Kingdom. By the time of Jesus the Jews were expecting the Messiah to be a conquering, political Messiah that would restore Israel and sit on David’s throne again, but we learn in the New Testament that those old manifestations of the Kingdom would give way to the fullest essence of God’s Kingdom.
All the way until right before Jesus’ ascension into heaven the apostles ask: “So when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, ‘Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?’” (Acts 1:6). This came after Jesus teaching about the Kingdom for forty days (Acts 1:3). Jesus gives a surprising answer:
He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.” (Acts 1:7–8)
Jesus was telling the apostles that the Kingdom would be complete when all of God’s elect are gathered from every tribe, tongue, and nation (Mat 24:14; Rev 5:9). The Great Commission is the greatest law of the Kingdom’s current manifestation. The next time God will set up a theocracy will be in the eschaton. Jesus even told Pilate, when asked if He was a King:
Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.” Therefore Pilate said to Him, “So You are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” (John 18:36–37)
Jesus saw a clear delineation between His Kingdom and the kingdom that Pilate ruled over (earthly, political), but it is important to notice that Jesus did submit to Pilate’s rule and took on the death sentence he pronounced upon him. He did say that the authority He had was greater than Pilate’s: “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above; for this reason he who delivered Me to you has the greater sin” (John 19:11). Jesus says that any authority over Him must come from above. Jesus submitted to the government’s decision, but He did not seek to change the political structure of the day through political means. Jesus knew, and we as Christians should as well, that the only thing that changes anyone˜or anything whether political or spiritual˜is the Gospel.
Augustine and Two Cities
Augustine enunciated the idea of two cities of citizenship for the Christian in his work The City of God. The two cities are the City of Man and City of God, or it is also called the Kingdom of the Secular and Kingdom of the Sacred. Paul tells us of our heavenly citizenship: “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phi 3:20). Our citizenship is ultimately in heaven, but we are not in heaven yet. This tension, the now/not yet, fills the New Testament. Augustine had a delineation between the two cities, but they did overlap. When you are a citizen you have responsibilities, and if you have a dual citizenship have dual responsibilities. But there is a difference in priority: Our priority is our citizenship in heaven.
All to often, there is a confusion in the mind of most Christians between which citizenship is more important. Even though it might not exist at the conscious level, it comes out in their actions. There is confusion on the part of most Christians in America on where our treasure and true responsibility exists.
Apostolic Teaching on the City of Man
Peter and Paul both have the most pronounced teaching on our responsibility on government involvement. Peter says: “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority” (1 Pet 2:13). It is for the Lord that we submit to our human institutions. It is so the world will look at Christians and (hopefully) see our good behavior in Christ and be put to shame and provoked to repentance (1 Pet 2:15, 3:16).
Paul also says very clearly: “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities” (Rom 13:1a), but he does not end with that thought. Paul is quick to strike the balance between which citizenship should guide all of our decision making: “For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God” (Rom 13:1). In the mind of Paul, whoever resists the authority of governing authorities are rejecting God, because God put them in place and will receive condemnation (Rom 13:2).
Keep in mind that Peter escape from prison (Acts 12:1–18), and Paul escape from King Aretas in Damascus (2 Cor 11:32–33). How does this behavior fit with their commands above? Both Paul and Peter had a higher calling in both of those situations; Peter was led out by an angel, and Paul still had work left to do. John Gill comments on Paul’s escape by saying that Paul’s escape was “an instance of divine Providence in the preservation of him, for much usefulness to the church of Christ.” When threatened with the challenge of both citizenships they both chose their heavenly citizenship.
Things To Caesar and Things To God
The Pharisees attempted to trap Jesus by asking Him if it was lawful to pay the tax to Caesar (Mat 22:16). Jesus has a surprising answer:
But Jesus perceived their malice, and said, “Why are you testing Me, you hypocrites? “Show Me the coin used for the poll-tax.” And they brought Him a denarius. And He said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They *said to Him, “Caesar’s.” Then He *said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mat 22:18–21)
The point Jesus was making was that be responsible to submit to the governing authorities, but remember to give God what is His. This is same teaching espoused by Peter and Paul. In fact, Paul also says something similar: “Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor” (Rom 13:7). The message is to submit to your governing authorities for such is the will of God, but remember the priority of our citizenship in heaven.
Beware of Confusing Citizenship
I believe that Christians should stand up against abortion, social injustice, and other moral issues; but the problem comes when we confuse those issues for the the Gospel and God’s cause to make His name great amongst the nations (Gen 12:1–3; Psa 46:10; Mal 1:11; Mat 24:14, 28:19). The Great Commission is at the top of God’s agenda, and I believe quite strongly that it should be the main concern of every human who professes Jesus as Lord. I do believe that many people who devote their lives to fighting abortion in the name of Jesus will be told: “I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness” (Mat 7:23).
Our Christianity doesn’t get check outside the polling booth, and we shouldn’t seek to insert such a drastic separation. If we truly our Christians then it should transform every aspect of our lives, but I think there is a real danger of placing priority on our citizenship in the City of Man and not the City of God. The City of God, His Kingdom manifest in full glory, is what we eagerly waiting with anticipation, and this is the attitude of all the Biblical writers.
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds. These things speak and exhort and reprove with all authority. Let no one disregard you. (Tit 2:11–15)
Let us be filled with jealousy for God’s name. Let us, as Christians, to take up our crosses and look forward to the New Jerusalem and not get sidetracked with Washington D.C. Submit, take part, glorify God in your political decisions and choices; but always remember that you are not of this world anymore, and be sure your desires reflect this glorious truth.