Week 4—What Christians Should Do For Government: Be the Church Apart
Editor’s note: This is a manuscript from Jonathan Leeman’s class “Christians and Government,” which he is currently teaching through at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC. There will be 13 weeks in the class. Here is the course schedule, to be published as it’s taught.
What Christians Should Do For Government
What Christians Should Ask of Government
Week 6: To Not Play God
Week 7: To Establish Peace
Week 8: To Do Justice
Week 9: To Punish Crime, Tax, and Defend the Nation
Week 10: To Treat People Equally (Justice and Identity Politics)
Week 11: To Provide Space for True and False Religion
Week 12: To Affirm and Protect the Family
Week 13: To Protect the Economy
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Last week, we began to ask what Christians should do for government. We considered the church in its life together and said that the most important thing that the church can do politically is be the church. The local church should be the ideal and model political society. It should be cosmpolitian, multi-ethnic, and non-partisan. It’s a “sign-maker,” declaring the what and who of God’s kingdom. And in that sense every true local church is an embassy from the end of history.
This week and next we will shift our gaze from “the church together” to “the church apart.” And by “church apart,” I mean, how should we as individual Christians and church members relate to the public square?
Let’s see if I can answer that question in eleven statements:
1. The church should show honor and obedience to the state.
Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, says Jesus. Pay your taxes. Paul is very clear, too.
you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 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 (Rom. 13:6-7; see also 1 Peter 2:13-14, 17).
I think of how well Joseph served Pharaoh, and Daniel and the three Hebrew boys served Nebuchadnezzar. Except when the king called them into idolatry, they served vigorously. Paul shows much respect for the rule of Rome in Acts.
Christians should be the best citizens, said Martin Luther.
My wife and I recently remodeled our kitchen. Our contractor asked us if we wanted to pull the necessary county permits for the job, and said it would cost an addition $900, and that he recommended not pulling the permit based on his own sense of the right to personal property. I admit I struggled with this. A friend asked me to consider why the state has inserted itself into matters of building permits: primarily to help ensure the safety of its citizens, especially the poor. Builders too often will take short cuts and do half-rate work, endangering lives. Even if I trusted my contractor, that’s a good law generally. Why would I not support it? More to the point, I should obey it. So we paid it.
2. We should be good citizens by employing whatever authority we have for the good of our neighbors and for justice. For instance, if you have a vote, you should use it.
So we don’t just obey government because we’re under it. We help and serve the cause of government insofar as we are in it. Biblically, we’re also responsible to see to it that the work of government gets done. We have a share in its work! In a few weeks we’ll talk about at length about Genesis 9:5-6, which are the original commissioning and grounds of government in Scripture, but let me flag it now:
From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man.
“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed,
for God made man in his own image (Gen 9:5b-6)
The universalizing nature of the language in these verses—“whoever” and “by man”—tells us that the commissioning and the authorization here are universal. There is something vaguely democratic about the work of government in these verses, because we’re all commissioned right here.
“Listen John, Margaret, Sally, whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed. Got it? Are you going to make sure this happens, John, Margaret, and Sally?”
Historically, the citizens of a nation or empire often have had more status and more say in a nation’s government than a non-citizen. Every free male Greek had a vote. And the storyline of Acts, we’ll seen in a moment, suggest that the democratic mindset of the people in the Greek cities of Thessalonica and Ephesus remained active (see Acts 17:5-10; 19:24-40).
Sure, Paul never would have conceived of joining hands with Caesar to make laws, but there was still enough Roman Republic in the Roman Empire at the time of the New Testament that citizens did participate in political activity at a more local level. One historian of the ancient world observes, “A man who happened to have Roman status, such as Paul, would tend to look for an active political life in the municipal affairs of his own city.” Paul himself appeals to Caesar, knowing that his status as a Roman citizen affords him protections and a say in his own trial relative to the Jewish authorities.
What’s the point? It’s this: whatever stewardship you personally have in the cause of government, you as a Christian, like Paul, should use it. If you have been born as a prince, you should use that stewardship. If an American citizen, you should use the vote you have as an American citizen, because Genesis 9:5-6 applies to you. To be sure, if you were born as a citizen of Saudi Arabia, your stewardship will be even smaller. Maybe your only stewardship is being a courteous neighbor. But if so that’s the stewardship you must employ.
Different opportunities and resources will require different levels of engagement from individual to individual, whether voting, lobbying, nominating, candidating, adjudicating, or even participating in civil disobedience.
In a democratic nation like ours, rendering to Caesar means rendering to democracy what belongs to democracy. A failure to vote, if one is capable, is arguably a failure to love one’s neighbor and, therefore, God.
This means there’s no room for apathy in a Christian’s posture toward the state. As the general public becomes more apathetic, Christians should remain civically informed and engaged.
Friends, very practically, vote this November. And do so in an informed way.
3. Members of the church, motivated by love and the desire for godly justice, should seek to influence the state for good. Seek to “win.”
Think of what God tells the prophet Jeremiah: “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (29:7). Or Amos who says, “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). Or Jesus who tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Therefore, you should go into the public square and make good arguments. And frankly, I’m a bit of a pragmatist when it comes to what arguments you make. Within the bounds of morality, use whatever kinds of arguments win the debate, win the vote, win the case. Some Christians use natural law arguments; I’m not sure how convincing those are. But the point is, there is some latitude for appealing to different kinds of arguments. Try to use arguments that carry the vote or win the case.
4. The church, when speaking as the church (principally through the pastors), should recognize that its competence and authority lie with interpreting and applying Scripture.
The work of the pastor, on behalf of the whole church, is to proclaim the gospel, and then to help both the congregation and the outsider know where the Bible draws a line between life and death, between the church and the world. A pastor’s work includes answering the question, what beliefs and behaviors should differentiate disciples of Jesus Christ as a property of the gospel or an implication of the gospel? A preacher lays out the path of obedience. Walking contrary to that path is disobedience and, in some cases, disciplinable. His is a conscience-binding occupation. And he should only bind the conscience of his hearers with the Word of God. A pastor without a Bible is a man with no authority and no message. But a pastor with a Bible stands in God’s place—so long as he speaks from it. It is not his political opinions, calculations, or best guesses that calls into existence the things that are not, and then gives order to this glorious new creation.
There are times when churches themselves, in the form of their pulpits, may need to speak prophetically. It is a tragedy that so many gospel-preaching White Evangelical churches in South Africa from the 1960s to the 1990s discredited their gospel witness because they did not speak against apartheid but implicitly accepted it. It is a tragedy that in the first years of Roe v. Wade evangelical Christians did not speak out against it, but treated abortion as a Roman Catholic issue. But, frankly, these moments in history are often easier to recognize in hindsight.
In general, then, pastors must take great care whenever they presume to speak the mind of God, to divide the church from the world, or to fasten the gospel and the name of Jesus to many if not most of the votes that their members must take in the public square. Pastors have the authority to interpret, teach, and apply the Bible. That surely is the mind of God.
5. As individual members of the church, “represent” Jesus, but take care before presuming to “speak on behalf of” Jesus.
Now I recognize that, ordinarily, to represent someone is to speak on behalf of someone. But I’m going to make a subtle distinction here. Last week we said that the local church and its officers have been given the ability to speak on behalf of Jesus in a way the individual Christian has not. The church is a sign-maker. Through the pulpit, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, the local church can bind and loose by declaring, “This is the gospel” and “These are gospel citizens” in a conscience-binding way. You might say it possesses a power of attorney for Jesus here on earth.
You as an individual Christian, walking out these steps on Sunday afternoon, surely can declare the gospel. You represent Jesus. But you cannot bind and loose. You do not have power of attorney. You are not writing statements of faith that bind all the members of a church. Instead, you essentially repeat what the statement of faith says as you declare the gospel. Make sense?
What does that mean for your work in Congress, my Hill staffer friends? What does that mean for your Facebook posts, my politically engaged friends? It means that you should always act and write as a Christian, because you represent Jesus as a baptized, Lord’s Supper-receiving church member, yes; BUT you should almost always stop short of binding and loosing the conscience of other believers by speaking as if you can declare the political position every other Christian “MUST” take as the “ONLY” viable Christian position. Can you try to persuade others (Christians and non) of your views? Of course! But remember you don’t have the gift of prophesy. You don’t speak Scripture. And if Scripture hasn’t revealed a verdict on House Resolution 486, go ahead and argue for your position on HR 486, even using biblical principles to make your case, but be careful before you put Jesus’ name on HR 486.
As mentioned last week, this is why I think we should probably not start a “Christian” political party, as various parties have done in Europe or South American in the last couple of centuries. That involves uniting the name and reputation of Christ to an institutional structure and a set of policies that he has never attached his name to.
So be careful before calling something a “gospel issue,” whether the issue is immigration reform, debt relief, affordable housing, environmental care, or balanced budgets. Or rather, be careful about calling your position on any of these things the gospel position, which is effectively what people mean by calling something a gospel issue.
What counts as a gospel issue? Go back to our discussion two weeks ago on the difference between straight-line issues and jagged-line issues, matters of biblical principle and matters of wisdom. Let me summarize this way: if you’re ready to bar someone from membership in a church, or excommunicate them, for having the wrong position, then it’s a gospel issue. If you’re not ready to excommunicate, then the issue probably remains a matter of Christian freedom, and you probably shouldn’t speak as if you represent the Christian way.
6. The work of Christians will sometimes prove subversive to idolatrous practices, including an idolatrous politics or economics, but the church should not seek to subvert the institutions of the state, even plainly idolatrous ones.
Two different passages in Acts are worth comparing, passages which point to a tension that we must maintain as we consider the church’s relation to the state and society at large. First, we read in chapter 19 about “a man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Artemis, and who brought no little business to the craftsmen” (v. 24). Demetrius gathers the craftsmen together and says,
“Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth. 26 And you see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods. 27 And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship” (vv. 25-27).
Following this meeting, a riot starts, and Paul’s companions are attacked.
What do we see here? The life and activity of Christians, whether meaning to or not, will disrupt false worship, and that disruption “unfolds economically and politically.” Business interests were at stake, which led to political rioting.
Does this mean that Christians are interested in overthrowing the state or the marketplace? Well, seemingly not. In the later chapters of Acts, the Jewish high priest Tertullus accuses Paul of “stirring up riots” in a hearing before the Roman proconsul Felix (24:5). His hope was that the Romans would not look kindly on such a disturber of the peace. But then a subsequent proconsul, Festus, examines the charges made against Paul and states, “I found that he had done nothing deserving death” (25:25; also, 26:31). Officially, Paul is no official threat to the Roman system. There is no “religiously-based bid for insurrection or imperial power.”
Putting all this together, we have to strike a balance:
- Yes, Christians and churches are a political threat to the stability of a Roman way of life or an American way of life; but no, they are not out to provoke civil strife.
- Yes, the presence of Christians in a society will prove to be bad for businesses and structures based on wickedness and idolatry; but no, Christians are not determined to take over the public market.
- Yes, false gods will be deposed; no, mobs of church members will not tear down their temples, their shops, and their networks.
- Yes, Jesus is Lord of everything, not Caesar or any of his historical successors; no, Christians are not revolutionaries.
In other words, Christians and churches both are and are not a political threat to the civic order. Jesus does not commission churches to wield the sword and challenge governments directly. But he does commission churches to challenge the idols and false gods that prop up every government and marketplace, whether the gods of the Roman Empire or the gods of the secular West. Since no government is free of idols, churches preaching the gospel will always pose a certain kind of threat. It’s not the threat of an invader or insurrectionist; it’s the threat of a virus, or termites, something that quietly works on the inside and chews away at the foundations, until an idol collapses, along with the regime or economy sustained by that idol. Therefore…
7. The church should expect the occasional opposition of the state in the form of persecution.
Insofar as Christianity does present a political threat to the gods on which the state relies, persecution is rational. Those regimes of history that have been unusually committed to their idolatry—from the early Roman Empire, to the 14th century Mongol Empire under Tamerlane, to 17th century Japan, to Nazi Germany—such regimes have been correct to fear Christian influence. And they are consistent, from their standpoint of preserving their idolatries, to neutralize the threat with persecution and punishment. Persecution is the rational consequence of idolatry.
We alluded last week to the unique ethic of the Christian community that we find in the Sermon on the Mount, an ethic that begins with poverty of Spirit and that ultimately yields loving one’s enemy. It’s worth observing what the Sermon also promises will happen when we live as this alternative society of true righteousness and justice: we will be persecuted. When we say, “Jesus is Lord, and therefore we won’t worship Artemis or buy things to support the Artemis industry,” we will put jobs in that industry at stake, and the lobbyists hired by that industry will oppose us. We should not be surprised when the press and non-Christians generally criticize how Christians live, and oppose Christians when we step into the political realm.
To be clear here, they don’t oppose and persecute just because we love Jesus. They oppose and persecute when we opposed their gods and idols, whether that’s Artemis, or the pornography industry, or the abortion industry, or being entitled to the American dream, or mammon, or a hundred other gods we might think of that run every nation around the world including our own.
8. Political success equals faithfulness.
I said a moment ago, you as Christians should seek to “win” when you enter the public square. Win the debate. Win the vote. Win the case.
That said, remember that the measure of success for Chrsitian must not be victory but faithfulness. God will judge a church’s faithfulness, not the outcome of its efforts. A church’s confrontation of the nations and their leaders, whether in a bill on the legislative floor or in a gospel tract at the park, is sure to meet often with failure and strident opposition. But that does not change a church’s task to speak faithfully as prophets and priests on behalf of Christ. Speak truly, and then expect the lions. Our witness will be vindicated over time, sometimes in this world, certainly in eternity.
9. The church should be prepared, on occasion, to disobey the state.
Think of Daniel and the three Hebrew boys who refused to bow down and pray to false gods, at the threat of their lives.
We must render to Caesar what is Caesar, but we must ultimately render to God what is God’s, which incorporates everything that belongs to Caesar. Do you remember how Jesus first responds to the Pharisees who ask him whether or not Jews should pay the Roman tax? He asks whose image is on the coin, and they reply “Caesar’s.” The irony, of course, is that Caesar himself is in God’s image. And when Caesar requires something that has not been authorized by God and is evil, then “we must obey God rather than men,” as Peter put it when standing before the Sanhedrin.
There are times for civil disobedience; there may even be times for revolution. When is it time for civil disobedience? The easy answer is, when the government asks you to defy God’s law. Of course, it’s not always so easy to determine when that is. You’re a court judge, asked to perform a same sex wedding. Do you? Probably not. You’re a court clerk, asked to type up the license for the same-sex marriage that just occurred. Do you? Maybe. I’m not sure.
The best advice I can give you if you find yourself in such a situation is, talk to your Christian friends and especially your elders. Many of these will have to be treated on a case-by-case basis.
Okay, what about revolution? Is there ever a time for a Christian to participate in overthrowing a government? We have not yet discussed in this class what God’s purposes for government are. But, briefly, government is established in Genesis 9 to render judgment: “Whoever shed the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” (v. 6).
Ask yourself, does that verse apply to Hitler? “Whosever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” Or is Hitler above that command of God? I don’t presume to suggest that the ethical complexities surrounding Dietrich Bonhoffer’s decision about participating in the assassination plot against Hitler are simple. I will say, I do have a category for the possibility that such an action would be just, especially since he had shut down every possible peaceable avenue of removing him. Hitler is not above Genesis 9:6.
The bigger picture here is this. We will argue in a couple of weeks that God established government right here toward the beginning of human history to help preserve the civic order, to provide a platform of peace and tranquility, perhaps even to facilitate human flourishing. And God does this in Genesis 9 so that Genesis 12 can happen. He does this so that he can carry on with his plan of redemption through the line of Abraham. If everyone just kills one another, your plan of redemption won’t get very far.
When does a revolution become just and even righteous? Well, it’s probably never going to be as clear cut as this, but let’s just say, in principle, a government who is not sustaining human life but positively hurting, abusing, and destroying its own people is a government that has earned God’s judgment in light of Genesis 9:5-6. A government that refuses to let people worship the God of the Bible, potentially, can be legitimately overthrown.
Now, all sorts of other considerations come into play here, such as the likelihood of overthrowing a government. If, in all likelihood, your attempts at overthrow are just going to get your family and friends all killed and nothing more, your insurrection may not be just. Just war theory applies here, too.
There’s much more that needs to be said here. But hopefully you’re getting the broad outlines: God has given government a job to do. And if it fails to do it, and even works against it, it may well be time to fire the government. Incidentally, praise the Lord that we live in a country where there are so many peaceful ways to fire the government before you ever have to resort to civil disobedience or revolution. God does not promise that to us, but we live with that blessing in this country.
10. Pray for the state.
Sure enough, Paul instructs us to pray “for kings and all those in authority that we may live a peace and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Tim. 2:2). We should pray not only of the governments we like, but for the ones we don’t like.
11. The church puts its ultimate hope in the kingdom, not in the state.
Ephesians 4 begins with Paul exhorting the Ephesians to pursue the unity which they had already been given in Christ (4:1-6). Then, remarkably, Paul grabs a Psalm which describes the nation of Israel’s hopes in the authoritative rule of God, God’s victory over the nation’s enemies, and their national unity under God, and he transposes Israel’s political, kingly, national hopes into the life of the church (Ps. 68, esp. v.18; Eph. 4:8). The Ephesian church members, like all people, may pine for a new world of peace and justice. But that new world will not be established through toppling the present Roman regime and establishing a new one. It won’t be established by electing a new and better president, or by getting back to the constitution. The truly united society of justice and righteousness, where people of different ethnicities, genders, and socioeconomic status enjoy equality and shared hope, will be established as they build up one another by speaking the truth in love, growing to the full measure of Christ.
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Editor’s note: For a fuller description of Jonathan’s views on church and state, see Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Rule (IVP, 2016).
 From A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament: The Sarum Lectures, 1960-61 (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2004; orig. Oxford Uni. Press, 1963), 84, 179.
 C. Kavin Rowe, “The Ecclesiology of Acts,” in Interpretation: A Journal of Biblical Theology 66(3), 263.
 Rowe, “The Ecclesiology of Acts”, 264.
 Ibid, 267.