This is part 2 of a 2-part series I wrote for the OBF Visitor on what I believe to be an unhealthy preoccupation with politics among American Christians, the first of which may be found here. It was originally published in January of 2009.
People have a seemingly insatiable desire to criticize government. Certainly there have been times and nations in which the King or Queen was loved and revered, but for the most part people love to hate government and complain about it loudly. The knee-jerk reaction of the governed is to say “Phooey on government!”
While I doubt that the Caesars spent much time polling, I don’t imagine that Caesar Tiberius’ approval rating in Palestine during the time of Christ was very high. The Jews of Jesus’ day loathed their Roman rulers and longed to cast off their authority. They assumed that the promised Messiah would deliver Israel from Roman oppression, not from personal sin, and Jesus’ failure to meet their expectations is one reason why “he came to his own, his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11). The Lord Jesus spoke out loudly against hypocritical religious leaders, but he said very little about political governors, even when given the opportunity. In the final days of Christ’s earthly ministry, against the tumultuous backdrop of Roman oppression and Jewish frustration, the Pharisees and Herodians baited Christ with a question about God, government, and citizens. They asked him whether or not it was lawful to pay taxes, assuming they had him in a no-win situation (Matt 22:17). Should he answer “no” he would offend the Romans; should he answer “yes” he would offend the Jews. Instead, his deft answer embarrassed and silenced his questioners and provided instructions for Christian citizens today. Pointing out the image of Caesar borne by the coins of the day (and implicitly, the image of God borne by all people of all times), Jesus asserted that we must “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”
What does that mean exactly? How do the three parties Jesus discussed—God, government (Caesar), and citizens—relate to one another? Specifically, how does God relate to government, and how does the Christian relate to government? The Bible provides clear answers to these questions. First, what is the relationship between God and Government?
God Has Ordained Human Government.
Government was God’s idea, not man’s. He ordained government immediately following the flood of Genesis 6–8. In Genesis 9:11, God promised not to destroy the world with another flood. However, man’s sinful bent which caused the flood hadn’t changed. How, then, would God protect humanity from its own sinful impulses? Part of the answer was the institution of human government in Genesis 9:6—“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.”
Some may wonder what that command has to do with government. Well, God wasn’t setting up a system in which the bereaved could seek their own version of justice in a vigilante state. Indeed, that was one thing from which God was protecting his creatures (cf. Gen 4:23–24). Rather, God was ordaining a system in which organized, authorized leaders would carry out justice on behalf of others. God delegated his authority to human governors for the defense of the innocent by the punishment of the wicked. That is government’s basic, God-given responsibility—the protection of citizens from threats at home and abroad. This point is clarified in Romans 13:1–7, where the role of government is reinforced. Speaking of human political authority, Paul writes, “But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he [the governor] does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom 13:4). This is why many Bible-believers who defend the sanctity of life by opposing abortion are also committed to capital punishment. There is no contradiction between the two positions. Government should protect life, both by laws preventing the slaying of innocent children and by laws punishing murderers. Scripture’s “life for life” policy (Exod 21:23; Deut 19:21) was instituted to provide justice both for the victim and protection for society at large, including the assailant’s loved ones. The governor “bears the sword,” and he does so as “the servant of God.”
God Ordains Human Governors.
Not only has God ordained government abstractly, but he ordains governors individually—all of them, whether local or international, whether good or evil. So when Romans 13 speaks of the political leader as “the servant of God,” it is describing not just the Abraham Lincolns of history, but the Alexanders, Neros, and Hitlers of history. Psalm 75:7 teaches that “God…executes judgment, putting down one and lifting up another.” As Romans 13:1 describes it, “the governing authorities…have been instituted by God.” God has continued to assert himself, installing and removing kings, dictators, presidents, and mayors from Noah’s day until our own. He wasn’t troubled by the 2008 election or by any other. Indeed, the results were both known to him and controlled by him—a truth that should bring great comfort to worried believers!
Perhaps no book of Scripture portrays God’s authority over the nations more clearly than the book of Daniel. In Daniel 2 and 7, God lays out a prophecy of world empires—Babylon would fall to the Medes and Persians, who would fall to Greece, which would fall to Rome. One of the most striking lessons of my recent trip to Turkey was reading the secular history of cities such as Miletus, Assos, and Sardis. Again and again we would read how these cities (and many others) were ruled by the Persians (beginning in 547–546 B.C.), the Greeks (beginning in 334 B.C.), and the Romans (beginning in 133 B.C.)—just as God foretold! Indeed, Daniel indicates that God didn’t merely prophesy these kingdoms but actively brought the change in regimes about. As stated and exemplified so forcefully in Daniel 4:25 and 32, “the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will.”
God Controls Human Governors.
The authority of God over governors doesn’t stop with their installation. Rather, God controls the leaders he has put in office—another encouragement! The passive God of the Deist is found nowhere in the Scriptures. God is active in the affairs of men, including their politics. Proverbs 21:1 tells us that God sovereignly controls every human leader: “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.” Biblical examples of God’s sovereign control of leaders abound. God controlled pagan King Cyrus (Isa 44:28; 45:1). God’s fingerprints are all over the books (and politics) of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. The message is clear and repeated: God rules rulers.
That’s not to say that kings don’t rebel against God. They certainly do! We read of kings and nations raging and plotting against the Lord and his Messiah in Psalm 2:1–3. We read of the hardness of Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus, of evil kings throughout the Chronicles, and of the murderous Herods in the Gospels. Yet, even the rebellion of kings is ordained and controlled by God. Thus, in an amazing portrayal of God’s absolute sovereignty, the conspiring murderers of Christ (including Herod Antipas and Pontius Pilate) were doing exactly what God had predestined to take place (Acts 4:27–28)! God-ordained rulers rebel against him, but they do so under his control. He laughs at them (Ps 2:4), and one day he will judge and replace them (Ps 2:5–12).
God Will One Day Replace Human Governors.
We have summarized the rise and fall of world rulers from Daniel 2, but we stopped short of the passage’s climax. Following Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome, a final, irresistible kingdom is promised: “And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever” (Dan 2:44). This climactic kingdom is the kingdom of God in which Christ is the perfect and eternal Ruler. It is promised throughout both Testaments (e.g. Isa 9:6–7; Zech 14:1–9; Luke 1:33), and its ultimate arrival is described beautifully in the book of Revelation. “The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever” (Rev 11:15b). “Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ” (Rev 12:10b). “On his [Christ’s] robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords” (Rev 19:16). God’s use of flawed human governors is only temporary. We need a perfect and eternal King and kingdom, and we eagerly await it. “Come, Lord Jesus!”
God rules over government and governors. What about the relationship between Government and Christians? In Matthew 22:17–21, we learn that Christians have responsibilities both to government and to God. We have a dual citizenship. One is heavenly and spiritual, the other is earthly and political. Thus, Peter calls Christians “sojourners and exiles,” (1 Pet 2:11–12) but also commands us to obey our earthly rulers (1 Pet 2:13–17). Likewise, Paul speaks of us as citizens of heaven (Col 1:13; Eph 2:19), but also appealed to his personal rights as a citizen of Rome (Acts 16:35–39; 22:24–30; 25:11). Other examples could be cited as well. Abraham, Moses, Joseph, David, Daniel, Nehemiah, and others interacted with (or as) human governors, yet prioritized their relationship with God. All of them “rendered to Caesar what was Caesar’s and to God what was God’s.”
Whereas everything belongs to God, what does the Bible say we owe to Caesar? Several things—many of which Christians are notorious for withholding. Let’s consider our obligations to government briefly.
Christians Must Submit to Human Governors.
Romans 13:1–7, Titus 3:1, and 1 Peter 2:13–17 require obedience to God-ordained rulers—even those that are oppressive! Indeed, rebelling against flawed governors is ultimately rebelling against God, who has given them their authority (Rom 13:2). Of course, the obligation to submit to human laws ends when those laws contradict divine laws. Midwives in Egypt (Exod 1:15–22), exiles in Babylon (Dan 3, 6), and preaching apostles (Acts 4:19; 5:29) provide examples of non-violent civil disobedience. However, the truth is that such cases are extremely rare. Further, none of these people raised a hand or weapon against the authorities they resisted. Those who did so—Moses (Exod 2:11–15) and Peter (Matt 26:51–54)—were condemned for it. Among other things, this means that the “cold dead hands” mantra of many Christian gun owners lacks biblical warrant. We are commanded to obey even overbearing rulers and rules.
Christians Must Pay Taxes to Human Governors.
Scripture could hardly be clearer regarding the obligation of Christian citizens to pay taxes. Christ was specifically addressing taxes when he said to “render to Caesar what is Caesars” (Matt 22:17–21). Paul specifically commands us to “pay taxes” (Rom 13:6–7). Christians who fail to pay taxes—whether dishonest criminals or “conscientious objectors”—do so in spite of clear biblical teaching, not because of it.
Christians Must Honor Human Governors.
Christians didn’t distinguish themselves with all of their Clinton jokes during his administration and scandals. The Bible commands us to give honor to our God-appointed leaders (Rom 13:1, 7; 1 Pet 2:17), not to ridicule or berate them. That’s not to say that we overlook their sins; John the Baptist certainly didn’t (Matt 14:3–4). But opposing sin and ridiculing sinners are two very different things. And perhaps it is worth noting that the biblical command to “honor the king” is as inspired and authoritative during Democratic administrations as Republican. We must “Honor the President” for the sake of obedience and testimony.
Christians May Appeal to Human Governors.
Submission, of course, does not rule out the exercising of our rights as citizens. Many Christians have very few rights to exercise, but those of us who are blessed to live under leaders where our freedoms are protected may certainly exert them. Indeed, in some cases, I think we must do so. Thus, we can appeal to the state for appropriate protection, as Paul did in the book of Acts (16:35–39; 21:39; 22:25–30; 25:11). Further, we can use our divinely granted influence to urge our governors to do right. Esther and Mordecai did so, as did Nehemiah. To some degree, Nicodemus did so (John 7:51). Perhaps the believers in Caesar’s household did so as well (Phil 4:22). It is valid for believers to vote on the basis of biblical principles, to influence representatives, even to seek political office. When possible, we should exert our rights for the cause of righteousness.
Christians Must Pray for Human Governors.
Though Scripture commends communicating with leaders for godly purposes, it commands communicating with God for our leaders. 1 Timothy 2:1–2 urges us to pray for all men, but especially for kings and others in positions of authority. We should pray for their conversion. We should pray that even the unsaved would rule in the fear of God. We should pray that they will enact laws allowing all citizens to “lead a peaceful and quiet life” (1 Tim 2:2).
Prayer is a fitting place to end this study, for it brings us back to Christ’s command to “render to God what is God’s.” Though we are citizens of two kingdoms, we must seek first the kingdom of God. We must put our confidence in God, not governors. We must preach the gospel message, not political agendas. We must be known as lovers of Christ, not political parties. We must be evangelists, not activists. We must meditate on the words of Scripture, not the words of political pundits or talk show hosts. We must rest in God’s sovereignty rather than fretting because of evildoers. J. C. Ryle’s comments on Luke 2 are timely:
The heart of a believer should take comfort in the recollection of God’s providential government of the world. A true Christian should never be greatly moved or disturbed by the conduct of the rulers of the earth. He should see with the eye of faith a hand overruling all that they do to the praise and glory of God. He should regard every king and potentate—an Augustus, a Cyrenius, a Darius, a Cyrus, a Sennacherib—as a creature who, with all his power, can do nothing but what God allows, and nothing which is not carrying out God’s will. And when the rulers of this world “set themselves against the Lord,” he should take comfort in the words of Solomon, “There is one higher than they” (Eccles. 5:8).
Above all, we must remember that the hope of our fallen world is not in leaders or laws or nations, but in the Lord Jesus Christ, the only King who will bring true and eternal peace to the earth. Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!