Usama bin Laden is dead; Republicans and democrats are fighting over the debt limit.
So how should a Christian react to civil government?
This is a very important question in our current political, religious climate. I believe the New Testament clearly gives us answers from a time when the government the early believers lived under, Rome, was extremely hostile to them.
Firstly – The New Testament contains no teaching about how a civil government should conduct itself.
Jesus and the apostles taught about the Kingdom of God. The New Covenant Kingdom of God cannot be governed by any man made laws because the King lives and rules within the heart of each “citizen” and there is no land or territory to rule over outside of the human heart. One day the whole earth will be His literal territory and He will literally rule it. But in this present age, we cannot apply any of the teachings of Jesus to how a civil government should act.
Are there right principles in the New Testament that would be good for all people to live by? Yes, but the principles only truly work when the individual hearts are ruled by the King. If you doubt that, just look at how often the Body of Christ is broken, fighting and divided against itself because we do not allow the King to rule within us now. The apostles only address civil government by saying, “Honor the king, Honor Caesar, honor all men with gentleness and respect”. And though they were often mistreated, persecuted and many were “legally” killed, they trusted God to take care of them under any form of earthly, civil government.
Secondly – How we should act as citizens living under any earthly government is clear- “Render to Caesar what is due him”.
In saying this, Jesus saw there was a clear difference in civil governments and the internal Kingdom of God, which is designed to flourish under any type of civil government.
As I travel around the world training leaders in Asia, Africa and South America, I am constantly reminded that most of the world (and most of God’s people) lives under hostile, corrupt governments. Or at the very least, these governments are inapt and self-serving. But the Kingdom of God and its citizens are equipped to flourish under any form of civil government.
Paul tells us in Rom 13:1-7- “Obey the government, for God is the one who put it there. All governments have been placed in power by God. So those who refuse to obey the laws of the land are refusing to obey God, and punishment will follow. For the authorities do not frighten people who are doing right, but they frighten those who do wrong. So do what they say, and you will get along well. The authorities are sent by God to help you. But if you are doing something wrong, of course you should be afraid, for you will be punished. The authorities are established by God for that very purpose, to punish those who do wrong. So you must obey the government for two reasons: to keep from being punished and to keep a clear conscience. Pay your taxes, too, for these same reasons. For government workers need to be paid so they can keep on doing the work God intended them to do. Give to everyone what you owe them: Pay your taxes and import duties, and give respect and honor to all to whom it is due.” NLT
Paul understood the role of civil government and how a citizen of the Kingdom of God should relate to it.
He exercised his lawful right as a free born Roman citizen to appeal to Caesar when he was beaten unlawfully; he did not turn the other cheek. Clearly, he knew of Jesus’ teaching but had a very different interpretation of it then we seem to have today.
Some have taught that Paul was wrong to object to his unlawful beating and that is why he was imprisoned out of the will of God and his ministry cut short. That is a very poor, and dangerous, reading of the Scripture. Paul made it clear over and over that his chains were the work of God’s will and that they were for the “furtherance of the gospel”. And he never felt God let him down by not getting his freedom.
Nor did he ever pray that God would curse Nero for jailing him. He certainly could have cursed Nero or called for the judgment of God against this mentally deranged, demon-possessed Caesar who despised believers and delighted in finding new ways to make them suffer (lions come to mind here). In Acts 13, one leader who withstood him was smitten with blindness!
Rather, he gave thanks for every situation because knew that God was the ultimate authority who was in complete control of his destiny.
Thirdly – When the law went against clearly defined instructions from God, the apostles disobeyed the law, obeyed God…AND… took the painful, and sometimes deadly, consequences without cursings or threats. They trusted God in all situations without anger or revenge.
Jesus did use His power and stopped the Pharisees from hurting Him or killing Him on several occasions because it was “not yet His time”. When it was the Father’s time, He surrendered His life and allowed them the ultimate power, without anger or revenge, but instead He said, “Father, forgive them”. But this was for what they did to Him, in God’s timing, not what they did to others, wrongfully. He had choice words for the rulers when they took advantage of others, wrongfully.
The Old Testament teachings gave instruction on how a civil government should rule itself because Israel was an actual earthly government with a geographical area and borders to rule. Although we must remember that God’s desire was to be their King, He did bless them when the demanded a king and allowed them to reap some bad things from their choice. However, He led them to have an army and defend themselves. He led them to make and keep agreements with other “pagan” nations. Even when it came to war. They were a literal earthly nation. The Kingdom of God is not a literal earthly nation.
Lastly – As citizens we have legal civil rights but we must exercise them with humility of heart and love for all, knowing we are “pilgrims and strangers” on this earth.
And we must not mistakenly try to apply the values of the New Covenant to any literal nation. America is not now nor has it ever been a “Christian nation”. There is no such thing. It is a nation that has had much Christian influence and I am deeply grateful to have been born here. But there is no such thing as a Christian nation. When He returns He will restore paradise on earth and it will be a “Christian universe” because He will be all in all and God over all!!! I grieve over the unholy mixture of politics and Christianity when it seeks to do what only He can do at His return. At the same time, I do believe that humanly righteous, just values exalt any nation.
I believe abortion is wrong for any nation because it devalues life and is destructive to any people, regardless of whether they believe the Bible or not. I was brokenhearted when the abortion doctor was murdered under the horrible guise that the killer was “doing God’s will”. If that were true, the first century would have been awash with Christians killing lots of people who treated them horribly. The apostle Paul would have continued his role as a killer. It would been just been against the Romans instead of the Christians he killed before his conversion.
I believe capital punishment is humanly just, not because it is “Christian”, but because civil nations must protect their people in the best way humans can do that. Though human justice will always be far less than perfect, in Old Testament Israel, it was based on just the testimony of two or three people. We have far better ways to ascertain the truth about a crime today. Until the Kingdom fully comes and divine righteousness reigns, civil governments must strive to do the best humans can do. I have twice been the foreman on juries and took my role as a citizen very seriously, knowing we could not do our job perfectly, but we had to do it, nonetheless.
I was greatly relieved when I heard Bin Laden was dead. I didn’t “rejoice” that a human being was dead but I was glad that human justice came to one who had years of opportunity to respond to the call of God on his heart, rejected it, and caused such horrible injustice to so many around the world.
How do I know that he had ample opportunity to respond to the call of God? Because Romans 1 says all of creation declares the reality of the one true God and anyone who responds to the message of God’s reality in creation will find God responding to him with greater revelation of Himself. And God has never been restricted to human help in revealing Himself to any who sought Him, thank God! And God is the one who is ultimately in control of life and death.
Mark Drake is an internationally known author, teacher and leader. He focuses on equipping leaders around the world in New Covenant Grace.