Part One of a five-part series on how to think biblically about our governments, and about our vote
They do say you’re not supposed to discuss politics or religion in polite company. In this series of posts, I’m going to boldly (or maybe foolishly) attempt to do both at once! And I can guarantee you I feel unqualified to talk about this – at least about the political side of things. Don’t get me wrong, I’m interested in politics and I think it’s vitally important – even if much of what I’ve learnt about it comes from The West Wing. But it’s not my specialty. And who could ever do justice to two areas of thought that are so profound and so varied?
I know we all approach this subject with different views on politics – different issues that we are passionate about, different voting histories, different backgrounds that have led us to our views. I hope to be sensitive to those differences, while also outlining some areas of thought where as Christians – following the guidance and instruction we receive from God’s word, the Bible – we can be of the same mind. I can’t change your political views – and I wouldn’t want to, at least not in this forum – but maybe God’s word can.
I’m also not going to address any specific political or social issues (except occasionally by way of example). So everything from abortion, to climate change, to taxation, to euthanasia, to multiculturalism, to education, to foreign policy, to ‘same-sex marriage’, to freedom of speech, to asylum seekers, to bioethics, to monarchist or republican – it will all have to wait until another time.
My goal over these five posts is simply to provide an overview of how Christians should think about politics. I hope to cover:
1) An introduction to Christians and government
2) Christians and interacting with our government
3) How not to vote
4) How to vote (NOT who to vote for!)
5) The limitations of government
As well as addressing the specific topic, I have another goal in mind. Too often, Christians segregate their faith from other parts of their life – including their views of politics. We can completely divorce our faith in Jesus from our voting patterns. Or we can connect the two – but in a superficial way. In 2 Corinthians 10:5, Paul says that Christians are to “take every though captive to obey Christ”. At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, in the Great Commission, Jesus says that ALL authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him – meaning he has total authority over every single part of our lives. We may confess these things to be true and important, but the reality of sin means none of us acts or thinks as though they are really true. While these posts will only scratch the surface on one area of thought, I hope that thinking about these issues goes some way towards helping us all see that the Lordship of Jesus has to impact and transform every single aspect of our lives, without exception.
To begin our introduction to Christians and government, I want to turn to a key passage in the New Testament, Romans 13:1-7.
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 servants 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, honour to whom honour is owed. (ESV)
We could easily spend five articles on this passage alone, but for now we’ll settle for some very brief comments. In sum, Romans 13 tells us that regardless of the human processes that lead to their appointment, all earthly governments are instituted by God himself. And why does he give them power? To administer justice, and to bring order to society as they work for the good of their citizens.
Governments receive their authority from God himself. In some sense they reflect his universal authority – and we could almost say that they mediate his authority to the world, almost as though God chooses to govern societies as a whole through his appointed governments.
This means that no government needs to be in any sense ‘Christian’ to be legitimate before God or binding for God’s people (as we’ll see again in a moment by looking at what Jesus said in Mark 12). All kinds of institutions can be a blessing to people and to society as a whole, even if they are not specifically Christian. This is certainly true of governments – which, incidentally, is one of the reasons that today we can reject the notion of pursuing a ‘Christian nation’, and why we believe that the modern day nation of Israel has no special place in God’s purposes (as OT Israel certainly did).
With this God-given authority, governments have the right to make and enforce laws (Romans 13:4). For example, the government has the right to decide that there is a bus lane outside your local shopping centre between the hours of 3-6pm. And even if I don’t like it, they have the right to fine me $150 for driving in it! Not that I’m bitter. But remember, “Those who resist will incur judgement.”
Of course, this is the most trivial of examples. The government has the authority and the responsibility – two things that always go hand-in-hand in the Bible – to make laws that will restrain evil and promote order and civility. They have the right to enforce those laws and to judge and punish those who break those laws. As our passage puts it, they ‘bear the sword’, and can even be described as ‘an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer’.
It’s in this sense that God’s authority and rule is mediated through governments. Back in Romans 12:19, Paul has told Christians not to seek revenge against their enemies, because, God says, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay.” Vigilante justice in unchristian. But God’s punishment delivered through the recognised, legitimate authorities is a good thing.
They also have a God-given responsibility to work for the good of their citizens in whatever way they are able. Our passage says Christians should see ruling authorities as ‘God’s servant for your good’ (v. 4). They are given power and authority from God – not for their own benefit, but for the good of others. The government is to promote welfare, peace and prosperity – recognising these things as God’s good gifts to his creation and to his image-bearers, and doing all in its power to create such an environment.
In a good government, then, the two will go together. Laws will be made that work for the good of the people being governed. As Christians, we know that the best laws will reflect God’s will and design for his world. The gospel certainly tells us that morality cannot be legislated. But good laws, in line with God’s revealed will, can certainly help to bless a society. Laws set norms and values, restrain evil, and over time help to set the direction and the ethos of a society. As Christians, knowing that God’s way is best, we will hope and pray (and sometimes actively work in other ways) that the laws of our land reflect God’s word.
Does any of this mean that every government on earth is equally pleasing to God, or that God doesn’t care how they use their authority? Emphatically, no! Indeed, the Bible’s picture is that rulers and governments will be held accountable by God for the wrong that they do. But even so, there is no authority outside of God’s sovereignty – and in his sovereignty he works out his purposes through these governments (no matter how they came to power).
This point is even more meaningful when we remember the first recipients of these words: Christians in Rome, living under the reign of Emperor Nero (54-68 AD), who persecuted Christians and found cruel and unusual ways to kill them. Paul is not saying that we are to submit to governing authorities that we voted for, that we like and that we agree with about everything. In some way or other, Christians today in Iran, North Korea, Zimbabwe, Somalia and Syria are to submit to their governing authorities.
Peter says much the same thing to Christians in a variety of areas which were all under Roman control (1 Peter 2:13-14): “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.”
We will return to some of these ideas in a later post, but let’s conclude with another vital (and closely related) biblical principle.
Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s
One of the most famous passages in the New Testament on God and government is found in Mark 12:13-17, (with parallels in Matthew and Luke):
Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?” But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” And they were amazed at him. (NIV)
It’s a brilliant question: “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar?” The Herodians and the Pharisees – from opposite ends of the political spectrum – are united by their desire to trap Jesus. Their simple question seems to leave Jesus no room to move. If he says yes, he has endorsed the idolatrous, oppressive Roman regime and will lose his popularity among the Jewish people. His movement will be thwarted. But if he says no, he’ll be labeled an insurrectionist, and he’ll probably lose his life.
But as brilliant as the question was, the answer is far more brilliant – not to mention startling. We’ll return to the second part of the answer in due course, but for now let’s look just at the first part. Jesus says: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.”
With one quick comment, Jesus validates the earthly rule of Emperor Tiberius (14-37 AD). His power is legitimate. Though the very coin Jesus was holding proclaimed that Tiberius was a god, the son of the divine Augustus, and though he opposed God’s people, his was a legitimate government worthy of recognition and support. Even though it was despotic, it fulfilled the role of providing order and at least some measure of justice.
It’s hard for us to grasp how revolutionary this simple statement would have been to a first century Jewish audience. When we put it together with Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2, we have a clear picture. Governments are not legitimate because of an election or “the will of the people”, as democracy proclaims. They are not legitimate because “might makes right”, or because the strong rise to power, or because of a Marxist notion that they are historically inevitable, or because of a social contract made in the past, or because of economic necessity.
Despite the questions this raises, and despite the limits of their power (which we’ll look at later), earthly governments are more than legitimate in God’s eyes: they are a good, God-given gift – positive and necessary for the good ordering of society. They are appointed by him to exercise authority that he himself gives them – to bring justice and good order to society. This fundamental principle has to shape our interactions with our governments, including how we’ll use our vote.
With this in mind, in the next post we’ll think in more depth about how Christians ought to interact with their governing authorities.