By Nathaniel P. Scott
My Bible tells me my citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20). My birth certificate makes me a citizen of the United States of America. How can we bring harmony to this “dual citizenship”?
Simple: we must honor God in our responsibilities to our earthly government.
But that is not so simple… this issue has been a point of contention for many Christians in many eras. I believe that errant ideas, teachings and movements on this subject have been a major stumbling block for “evangelical Christianity” in the last several generations, have led to much hypocrisy, and hindered our ability to demonstrate the gospel of Christ. I suggest we reconsider our goals in our participation in government in light of our responsibilities before God as taught in the New Testament, primarily in the following two passages.
Romans 13:1-7: Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. 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.
1 Timothy 2:1-4 First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
The teaching in these two passages can be summarized by two commands:
- Be in Subjection to Authorities
- Pray for Authorities
These commands are motivated by four goals:
- Avoid Wrath
- Keep a Clear Conscience
- Lead a Tranquil and Quiet Life
- Live in Godliness and Dignity
Note first of all that there is no command in either of these passages for the Christian to vote or even to participate in his government. This is doubtlessly because when these passages were written, governments were rarely set up to encourage participation (as has been the case in many times and places throughout history and across the world).
However, in a number of countries today, Christians have the special privilege of being involved in the authority structures, the governments of their countries. This involvement is not a Christian duty, but is an opportunity that many Christians eagerly volunteer for when they register to vote, when they support a campaign or when they protest the actions of their governments.
Do you participate in your earthly government in these or in other ways? If so, what are your goals? Think very carefully here: are the goals that you set for this extra-biblical arena consistent with the responsibilities God has given you?
Unfortunately, history generally shows that when Christians ascend to power in the government, our God-given goals fall by the wayside. Our often unconscious attempts to bring heaven on earth result in the following anti-biblical goals:
- Bring wrath on those who do not conform to our conscience
- Lead a power-driven and meddlesome life
- Force others artificially into our religion and moral structures
Our motives are often pure: we despise sin as God does, we want to protect the innocence of our children, and we grieve when we see others reaping the consequences of their sinful behavior. And we are especially concerned at the aggressive ways in which the legal systems are manipulated and ungodly behaviors are pushed into our governments, our societies, our neighborhoods and our homes.
So we borrow the tactics of those we oppose. We manipulate the legal systems.
The entire premise of the Moral Majority of the ‘80s and its unofficial continuation into the present is a reaction to the secular activism that has waged an all-out war on any Christian foundation of our culture. Unfortunately, this Christian movement has oft forgotten that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). Having God’s truth, as one author put it recently, “we put secular powers in charge of spiritual wars.”
The “culture war” will not be won by threatening imprisonment to everyone who disagrees with us. It will not be won by banning the desires of sinful hearts. It will not be won by making Christianity the unofficial religion of our country.
We often try to justify these tactics by the argument that we are not making up our own rules for people’s lives, but enforcing God’s absolute definitions of right and wrong. I would agree that God’s definitions of right and wrong are absolute, but definitions don’t change men’s hearts. Not even God’s Laws change men’s hearts.
God’s Spirit changes hearts.
The epistle to the Romans makes it clear that keeping laws, even God’s Laws, cannot save us. The more laws we have, the more our rebellious hearts will break them. But “what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin…” (Romans 8:3-4).
For this fundamental reason, there is absolutely not the slightest precedent in the scripture for a “Christian government.” Many point to the Old Testament Law and the strict standards of morality that were enforced. But if you read the history in the Old Testament you find these strict standards did very little to ensure godliness in the nation of Israel. Even with God’s holy laws, they quickly slipped into forms of idolatry, wickedness, and immorality that make our sinful society look tame.
If God’s Laws did nothing to change sinful hearts and “save the culture,” why do we think that our laws will do any better?
Our culture can only be saved through the propitiatory work of Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of men. This is the age-old conflict between Law and Grace, and the actions of many Christians involved in politics fall on the wrong side of the argument.
This is a dangerous mistake to make for a number of reasons:
1. History shows us that when Christians attempt to change or save their culture through the strong arm of the law, that eventually other Christians become victims of this power-grabbing meddling. Those godly believers who don’t fit in with this utopian culture defined by their “Christian” rulers have been burnt at the stake, imprisoned for preaching without a license, forced to flee their homelands and experienced countless other government-imposed tragedies. Galatians 5:13-15 warns, “If you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.” If we set the stage for forcing our views on other people, it is only a matter of time before someone will be forcing their views on us, and often in the name of “Christianity.”
2. No human deserves this kind of power. Even if you can find a man that can be trusted with authority over other men’s consciences and lives, you are only paving the way for another man to take his place—one who cannot be trusted. “Christian” dictators will be followed by godless tyrants.
3. Using the law to enforce the dictates of our consciences on others puts us in grave danger of violating the Golden Rule (Luke 6:27-36). Through most of the world and most of church history, Christians have been the minority in their societies. This is again becoming the case, even in countries once dominated by “Christians.” The way we choose to treat the Muslims and the secularists who intimidate us by their attempts to subjugate us to their worldviews may soon be the way they treat us. If we wage legislative warfare against them, we make them hungry for our power so that they can turn the tables on us. If you panic and pursue a blatantly unbiblical “final solution,” killing everyone who may be a threat, then you had better not leave even one dissident alive… or else. The proper application of the Golden Rule is to defend equal liberty under the law for all, even for those with whom you disagree. Perhaps one day they will return the favor and defend your liberty.
So if these mistaken tactics are inconsistent with the gospel of grace in Christ Jesus, then what should our participation look like to further our God-given goals? Once again, the principles are simple:
Avoid Wrath: We should labor to prevent the government from prohibiting things that are necessary for our obedience to God.
Keep a Clear Conscience: We should labor to prevent the government from mandating things that would force us to violate our consciences.
Achieving the above will help us to avoid a “we must obey God rather than men” scenario (Acts 5:29).
Lead a Tranquil and Quiet Life: We should labor to promote justice for all, thereby protecting ourselves and others from all who would do evil against us.
Live in Godliness and Dignity: We should labor for the freedom and simplicity to live out our faith without accusations of false or self-serving motives.
We cannot show up on someone’s doorstep with the gospel of God’s forgiveness of sins, and threaten to show up the next day with the cops.
It is true our society is in bad shape. It is true that laws have been enacted and are being enacted that are damaging to the cause of Christ. We want to see people changed, to see society become more godly.
The solution is not more laws, but rather a revival that can only come through the Holy Spirit’s work. I don’t believe in a values-neutral society, but let us not confuse government with society. Neither let us confuse our civil government with the Kingdom of God. Jesus didn’t come to save our culture, our society. He “came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15). The best laws in the world can’t do what Jesus has done, and is doing. So keep them out of the way, relegate the government to the basics of justice: defending the life, liberty and property of its citizens. Then “go into all the world and preach the gospel” (Mark 16:15).
Nathaniel Scott is looking for a heavenly country while currently residing in Tulsa, Oklahoma where he works as an electrical engineer. As a husband of less than 5 years, a father of less than 3 boys, and a writer who only exercises his craft during alignments of the planets Time and Motivation, he is decidedly an expert on nothing. He wishes he could better reconcile his youthful idealism with the harsh realities of boring adult life, but is supremely delighted when he sees believers living in the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ.