In the last several months, not only our own church, but churches throughout the country have struggled to adapt as government regulations have affected our public worship in ways that we’ve never experienced before. Many of us have struggled to reconcile our duty to our nation and communities with our duty to God. Furthermore , many Christians fear that the regulations being imposed and the ways in which they are being imposed constitute real threats to our religious liberty. This series seeks to deal with the biblical approach to how God’s people interact with governing authorities.
As our country and the world have grappled with how to limit the destruction of the Coronavirus, we’ve begun to experience a level of government interference in our personal lives in ways that feel unprecedented. For some, the imposition of simple restrictions, such as face coverings, feels like an encroachment on our rights. This becomes even more difficult to stomach when the government not only begins to directly regulate how we can meet together in worship but even restricts us from gathering at all. At what point does our submission to governing authorities give way to our right to gather? Furthermore, at what point does our duty to God’s commands trump our submission to the government? Didn’t Peter tell the Sanhedrin, “We must obey God rather than man?” By this did he mean that it was the Christian’s duty to remove himself from the government’s authority? Of course, there is a strong argument for loving our neighbors by doing all that we can to limit the spread of a virus that may take away their loved ones. But I want to quickly address what the scriptures have to say to us regarding our submission to governing authorities.
There are three main New Testament texts that address the church’s relationship to government. In my last post, I looked at sections of scripture that show that government is not a necessary evil but a God-honoring good affected by the evil of humanity’s fall into sin. These texts largely deal with a government populated by people of God. In this article, it is my aim to address how we, as Christians, should relate to the government when we are not the ones in charge. The early church found itself in exactly the same position. In the time of Paul’s letters, Christianity was vulnerable to persecution from both Roman government officials and the Jewish officials in Jerusalem and Palestine. So when we find ourselves at odds with our governing officials, we are blessed to have, in the New Testament, direct words from the apostles who had first-hand experience dealing with cultural and political marginalization.
In this article I would like to simply list the scriptural texts themselves and draw some main points from them individually.
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he 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. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.” (ESV)
These verses teach that:
1. Christians are subject to government as instituted by God.
– Therefore, to resist government authorities is to resist the authority of God.
2. The purpose of government is to punish bad and promote good.
– A Christian, therefore, submits to the good purposes that are promoted by the government and seeks to avoid the unrighteousness that the government punishes.
3. The Christian’s submission to government is (a) for the sake of God and (b) for the sake of his own conscience.
– Christians harm their conscience when they set themselves in basic opposition to government.
– This submission, therefore, extends not only to overt acts of obedience but also an attitude of respect and honor.
“Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people. For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” (ESV)
These verses teach:
1. A Christian’s relationship to government should be characterized by submission, obedience, readiness to labor for the common good alongside the government, and gracious speech and attitude towards the government.
– Quarrelling against and speaking evil of governing officials is prohibited.
2. The Christian minister is obligated to instill the gospel in his congregation by teaching them to show gospel grace towards governing officials.
– Our attitude towards government is not grounded in the native goodness of governing officials but rather in God’s goodness towards us. Because God saved us even though we did nothing to deserve it, we give honor to governing authorities without requiring perfection from them. Because God in His grace overlooks our sin, our attitude towards governing officials should be characterized by a propensity to overlook sin ourselves.
1 Peter 2:13–17; 19-24
“Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor… For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.”(ESV)
These verses teach:
1. In the case of a government hostile to Christian faith, submission to God is the foundation for submission to government.
– Thus, the Christian is to be submissive to the government, but only insofar as that submission does not lead to disobedience to God.
2. When submission to God over government is necessary, the Christian must be ready to suffer punishment rather than disobey God.
– This is done contrary to the attitude that desires to fight for rights and privileges .
– Rather than grumbling about it, the Christian rejoices in this as an opportunity for fellowship with Jesus in His sufferings. The Christian sees suffering unjustly, such as being punished for doing good, as a good thing in God’s sight.
– When we must resist the government in order to be obedient to God, we should still seek to honor those whose demands we are resisting.
Questions for Reflection:
As you read through these texts and applications, how does your attitude towards the government line up with what the Holy Spirit tells us in these verses? What do you have a hard time swallowing? Why? Do you find that your identity as an American conflicts with what scripture demands of you? How so?