When it comes to the relationship between Christians and the government of our United States, we want to root our attitudes, ideas, and actions in Scripture. Yet, when it comes to our historical situation, we don’t match the hierarchies in place during Old and New Testament times. As a Democratic-Republic in which supreme power is vested in the people as we select men and women to represent our views, we are a different creature than what we see with Israel and Rome.
Israel was a theocracy. God created a community of people and he established the rules. Even after giving the nation a king, the monarchy was to be subject to the rule and commands of God. The kings were expected to learn, know, and obey God’s Law, though most failed miserably at this. The church exists as a singular people spread throughout many nations. This means that from culture to culture and period to period, the church lives and thrives under many different types of governments, including monarchies, dictatorships, and democracies.
The early church existed primarily within the Roman Empire that at times sought to persecute and kill Christians. Still, Jesus, Paul, and Peter all taught that God’s people should pay their taxes, pray for their leaders, honor authorities, and submit to just laws.
Though, situationally, our relationship to our government is different than that of Old Testament Israel or the early church, we find guiding principles in scripture that help us determine our Christian duty in regards to the government. Briefly, I want to detail five primary duties we have.
First, we have a duty to honor and pray for those in authority. “Authority” in our system is different than what we see in a monarchy or empire. The opening line to the preamble of the constitution is “We the people.” Authority ultimately resides in the voting population. Still, we elect persons to represent us and thus grant to them representative authority. Therefore, we will not equate our president or senators or representatives like an “emperor as the supreme authority” as Peter writes, but we can still see them as fitting the bill of governing authorities in passages such as 1 Peter 2:13-17, which tells us to honor those in charge (as a subset of “honoring everyone”), and 1 Timothy 2:1-4, which tell us to pray for those in authority that we might live peaceful lives and that they might be saved.
We live in a climate where respect has almost become an artifact of the past. Social media and polarized “news” channels have brought out the worst in us. We need to relearn respect, for those in government and for our fellow citizens, even those with whom we deeply disagree. We must relearn what it means to argue against ideas without belittling the person. Followers of Jesus should pave the way in this. A person made in the image of God is of much greater worth than winning a particular argument.
And praying for someone will help build respect. If we truly pray with deep concern that another might act in wisdom, know Jesus, and follow Jesus, then it will change for the better the attitudes we harbor toward them.
Second, we have a duty to obey just laws. In the gospels when Jesus was asked if it was lawful to pay taxes, he replied, “Whose image is on the coin?” When those testing him answered, “Caesar,” Jesus said, “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” In Romans 13, Paul continued this thought, telling us to obey governing authorities and pay our taxes. Then in 1 Peter 2, Peter commanded that we “submit to every human authority.” For, as both Paul and Peter state, government exists as a representative of God to punish evil and support good.
We, of course, know that in a post-Genesis 3 world, governments struggle to do this well and some flat fail. Still, we are to obey the laws of government when they are just. How do we know what a just law is? Peter wrote in 1 Peter 2:17 that we’re to “honor everyone, love the brothers and sisters…honor the emperor.” The phrase in that ellipsis is “fear God.” This is Peter’s way of saying that as much as we are to honor those in authority, we are to honor God far, far more. A king might be supreme in the land, but Jesus is the King of kings over creation.
So, if a law contradicts God’s commands or results in us treating another person in a way that degrades the image of God in them, then the law is unjust. If the law is unjust, then we are justified in disobeying it, indeed we even have a responsibility to disobey it because God is the greater King. But any law that does not contradict God’s commands or degrade another person is to be obeyed, even if we dislike it.
The great thing in the United States, however, is if we don’t like a law and enough of our other citizens don’t like a law, then we can vote in people who will work to change said law. But as long as it is law, it is to be obeyed.
Third, we have a duty to vote for men and women of character. In 1998, the messengers of the Southern Baptist Convention passed a wonderful resolution on “Moral Character of Public Officials.” The first “resolved” states: “We, the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention, meeting June 9-11, 1998, in Salt Lake City, Utah, affirm that moral character matters to God and should matter to all citizens, especially God’s people, when choosing public leaders.”
Scripture tells a consistent tale: Governmental leaders of good character lead to a better nation; those of immoral character lead to ruin and disgrace. We see this in the pattern of the kings where those who “did evil in the sight of the Lord” often brought political, social, and spiritual damage. And we see this in Proverbs 14:34, quoted in the resolution: “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people.” Or in Proverbs 11:10-11, “When the righteous thrive, a city rejoices… A city is built up by the blessing of the upright, but it is torn down by the mouth of the wicked.” And in Proverbs 28:12, “When the righteous triumph, there is great rejoicing, but when the wicked come to power, people hide.”
At the last presidential election, when the two major parties presented candidates of poor moral character, some held their nose and voted “for the lesser of two evils.” Some voted for the party with the platform they saw as being the least morally repugnant. And others of us voted third party.
What was shocking and continues to be shocking is seeing some Christians enthusiastically support a candidate of poor moral character. That flies in the face of the wisdom of scripture. Some respond, “Well, God can use evil men for his good ends, just look at Nebuchadnezzar [or: insert a different Old Testament governmental head].” That might be all well and true, but God’s people didn’t vote in Nebuchadnezzar, and neither should we.
Fourth, we have a duty to vote from a biblically informed conscience on various issues. Every election cycle there is a home in my town that places a big sign in their front yard with words you can see from the highway: “Vote the Bible.” In a way, they’re right—the Bible should inform our decisions; but the Bible doesn’t directly speak to a variety of issues. For example, the Bible gives no specifics about tax rates or infrastructure funding or gun control or automotive emissions or health care coverage or trade deals. In these cases, one platform isn’t necessarily more morally right or good than another.
But there are certain realities we find in scripture that should thoughtfully and prayerfully shape our views on such things. For example, the Bible teaches that every person is made in the image of God, that we are to honor all people, and that our lives began within our mothers’ wombs. Thus “sanctity of human life” should be a foundational principle for how we as Christians vote. Abortion, obviously, is a large part of that. But, how does sanctity of human life play into the other issues?
Some might say we have a responsibility to provide basic health care for everyone. Others might argue that a free market health care industry is best. Some might say that stronger gun control laws will help preserve life. Others might argue that an ability to protect oneself and one’s family is the better route.
And here’s the thing: As faithful followers of Jesus, we might actually come to different conclusions about these matters. That’s why Paul wrote about respecting each other’s conscience on secondary matters. That same principle applies here.
But however we end up voting on such issues, we should let our hearts and minds be guided and convinced by what the Bible clearly teaches. Then we vote our biblically informed conscience over popular thinking or strict platform/party lines.
Finally, we have a duty to seek for just causes. If you miss this one in Scripture, then it’s because you have your eyes closed while reading. In the prophets, nations are judged all the time by the way the marginalized or less fortunate are treated by the culture. We seek for just causes as we lift up those who have been marginalized and as we work against laws and attitudes that degrade the humanity of another. This means we stand against the various isms—racism, sexism, classism, ageism, etc. And we stand for that which elevates the dignity and potential of others.
We could say more on each of these topics, but as we draw near to yet another election day, let’s keep in mind these things that Scripture calls us to. Let’s cast off attitudes and political maneuvering that degrades others. Let’s stand for the kingdom of God above all others—the kingdom of love and light as the hymn goes…
All scripture quotations taken from the Christian Standard Bible.