What Does the Bible Say About the Government?


In answer to the question, “Can Christians dance?”, author, speaker, and writer Tony Campolo quipped, “Some can, some can’t.”  There are many things like that Christians struggle with.  Should Christians drink is another one.  Should Christians wear jewelry or listen to secular music or wear short skirts or buy life insurance or get a tattoo or read comic books or go to the movies or…well, the list goes on and on and on.  Little wonder so many Christians are so dysfunctional.  They live in a state of constant trepidation, always thinking they’re doing something wrong.

One of the more touchy subjects that drives believers nuts is the government and civic responsibilities.  Especially Americans!  Just saying the words “government” and “politics” can cause church members to suddenly lose their sanctification.  It’s humorous and a little sad; these folks should be as committed and devoted to the cause of Christ as they are to their “political philosophy.”  Years ago, Dwight Moody (yes, THAT Dwight Moody) took a strong political stand and was rebuked soundly by a fellow believer who said that “as a Christian,” Moody was “a citizen of heaven,”  the implication being that Moody had no business taking sides on this political issue.  Moody’s response must surely go down in history as one of the great zingers of all time:

I am a citizen of heaven, but at the present time I vote in Cook County, Illinois.

Mr Moody’s pointed reply was clever and illustrative because it says that regardless of a Christian’s political persuasion, he has a solemn responsibility to both his God and his government.  The Bible has a lot to say on this subject, and sometimes what it says can be quite baffling.  What should the Christian response be when an elected official lies continually and governs against the will of the people?  What is the church’s responsibility when the government tries to curtail its God-mandated ministry?  Let’s see how the Bible tackles questions like that.

Psalm 2:2—6 

Psalm 2 has been called “The Drama of the Ages.” In it, we see the governments of man aligning themselves against the King of Heaven.  But it’s not just any government that’s breaking away from God.

What fools the nations are to rage against the Lord! How strange that men should try to outwit God!  (Psalm 2:1  TLB) 

These “foolish nations” refers to the goyim, the Gentiles, as distinguished from the people of Israel.  The “rage” refers not so much to a mob action against God, but a “summit meeting.”  At this meeting, the heathen nations would plot their insurrection.

The rebellion of these godless nations is more than just political.  It’s to be a personal assault on the Messiah, Jesus Christ, which makes this a Messianic psalm.

“Come, let us break his chains,” they say, “and free ourselves from all this slavery to God.”  (Psalm 2:3 TLB)

The rebels are hell-bent on having their own way.  This is more than just sin; it’s a moral and ethical revolt against the revealed laws of God.  The question that pops into our heads is this:  Are heathen nations bound to observe the laws of God?  The answer according to Scripture is a resounding YES!  Yes, they are.  And the proof is in God’s swift and shocking response:

But God in heaven merely laughs! He is amused by all their puny plans. And then in fierce fury he rebukes them and fills them with fear.  (Psalm 2:4, 5  TLB) 

God is seen far, far above the rebellion.  He doesn’t even rise to meet it.  “God” in verse 4 is not Yahweh, but Adonai.  This is important because use of adonai shows that God is the sovereign ruler of the whole world, not just of Israel.  So these “puny” nations are supposed to be in line with the King of Heaven.

Man, in his arrogance, tries to go his own way.  This applies to the individual and to nations.  The destiny of all such rebels is not good.

Daniel 2:19—24 

This group of verses answers the question:  Who is ultimately in control of the nations of this world?  The answer to Daniel, as it should be to us, is God.

World events are under his control. He removes kings and sets others on their thrones. He gives wise men their wisdom and scholars their intelligence.  (Daniel 2:21 TLB)

Daniel’s list of God’s attributes says it all:  “power” and “wisdom” chief among them.  His power is demonstrated by His complete control over all the events of history.  Kings and presidents only imagine they are in control.  They have neither the power nor the wisdom to do anything.  In fact, we are told, God is the one who has given them their limited authority.  At any time—the time of HIS choosing alone—God may remove their transient authority and give it to someone else.  Not only their power, but their wisdom comes from God, as well.

The picture is one of utter dependence upon God.  Whatever power; whatever wisdom a ruler may seem to possess, it was derived from God, whether they realize it or not.  When we understand this fact, the proud and profane politician becomes a truly pathetic figure.  Swollen with pride and drunk with power, they foolishly think they have achieved so much when in fact it is only through God’s gifts they achieved anything at all.

Matthew 10:16—20 

If all political authority is derived authority (from God), how do we explain the persecution of Christians at the hand of the state or the stifling of the Gospel through over-zealous state regulation?  Truth be told, Jesus warned His followers that these very things would happen.

I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. Be as wary as serpents and harmless as doves.  But beware! For you will be arrested and tried, and whipped in the synagogues. Yes, and you must stand trial before governors and kings for my sake. This will give you the opportunity to tell them about me, yes, to witness to the world. 

“When you are arrested, don’t worry about what to say at your trial, for you will be given the right words at the right time.  For it won’t be you doing the talking—it will be the Spirit of your heavenly Father speaking through you!  (Matthew 10:16—20 TLB) 

Clearly this warning was given to the apostles.  But glancing at history shows us that the persecution of believers didn’t end with the apostles.  Even today in many parts of the world and even in our own country, believers have come under the heavy hand of the government, sometimes in the form of restricting laws or worse.  However, according to Jesus, their response, as ours, was to fear God, not man.   Not only that, Christians are to—get this—take advantage of such persecution to promote the Gospel!  You may wonder how a Christian, faced with fines or imprisonment, would be able to share his faith, or would even want to.  Jesus promises that at the right time, the Holy Spirit would provide the needed words and courage.

Our Lord never said it would be easy being His witnesses.  Freedom waxes and wanes as political parties and movements come and go, but the one constant must always be the promulgation of the Gospel.

Matthew 22:15—21 

On to our least favorite teaching of Jesus, we discover much to our chagrin that our Lord thinks we ought to pay our taxes.  But there’s much more going on this incident than meets the eye.

In the story, the Pharisees wanted to trap Jesus with a question regarding taxes.  But it wasn’t just any tax they were asking about, it was the deeply offensive “poll tax.”  Every time a Jew had to pay that tax, it was a reminder that they were living in subjection to the Romans.

Now tell us, is it right to pay taxes to the Roman government or not?”  But Jesus saw what they were after. “You hypocrites!” he exclaimed. “Who are you trying to fool with your trick questions?”  (Matthew 22:17, 18  TLB)

Now, some would say all taxes are offensive, and that may be the case.  But there is no way of re-interpreting these words of Jesus:

“Whose picture is stamped on it?” he asked them. “And whose name is this beneath the picture?” 

“Caesar’s,” they replied. 

“Well, then,” he said, “give it to Caesar if it is his, and give God everything that belongs to God.”  (Matthew 22:20, 21  TLB)

Jesus’ meaning couldn’t have been clearer.  If the coin has Caesar’s picture on it, then it must belong to him, so just give it back to him.  Paul would later teach the same thing:

Pay your taxes too… (Romans 13:6a  TLB) 

We know that Mary and Joseph made a grueling 100 mile journey to Bethlehem while she was pregnant just to pay a tax.  Unfair?  Yes!  Not necessary?  Yes!  But the young couple did what they had to do: they paid the tax.  Unlike today, they couldn’t protest or write op-eds about the tax code of Rome!  To disobey Rome meant death.  No wonder Jesus told the Pharisees:  just pay the tax.

But there is a second part to Jesus’ teaching that never gets much attention:  give God everything that belongs to God.  This means much, much more than merely paying your tithe.  When you stop to think about it, what do we have that He hasn’t given us?  Erasmus once made this comment,

Give back to God that which has the image and superscription of God—the soul.

What’s more important to you?  Worrying and fretting over taxes?  Or making sure your heart is right with God.  After all, what is more temporary than wealth?  And nothing on earth is as permanent as the human soul.

Romans 13:1—7

Romans 13 is unique in the Bible for it covers a surprising subject:  the Christian’s obligation to the state.  A common trait in the Pauline Epistles is the setting forth of lofty theological ideas followed by concrete examples of how these ideas fit into the everyday life of the believer.  In Romans 12, Paul warned his Roman friends against conformity to this world.

Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but be a new and different person with a fresh newness in all you do and think. Then you will learn from your own experience how his ways will really satisfy you.  (Romans 12:2  TLB

But, as some of his readers might have wondered, does that mean Christians should abstain from getting involved in political institutions?  Does that mean Christians should disavow any kind of loyalty to the state?   Since Jesus is Lord, does that mean Christians should simply ignore civil authorities?  And what about this teaching of Paul’s:

For our citizenship is in heaven…  (Colossians 3:20a  NKJV)

If this is the case, aren’t Christians free from any and all obligations to the state?

Paul’s teaching on sanctification and the Christian’s heavenly obligations are so strong, Romans 13 provides an important balance that needs to be noticed.  There are really four principles of worldly citizenship in these verses:

  • The Christian is to be in subject to the governing authorities and to Christ;
  • Human government is a divinely appointed institution;
  • Human government has two purposes:  to promote the good in society; to restrain and punish criminals;
  • The Christian is to be conditionally loyal to his government and is to support that government’s needs.

As to the second and third principles, James Madison in Federalist Number 51 (February 6, 1788) wrote a sentence that Paul would have quoted had Madison written it before Paul wrote Romans:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary.

Common sense tells us men are definitely not angels; we need some sort of government structure to keep me safe from you and you safe from me.

A quick lesson in history makes the first principle astounding.  The authorities Paul was referring to were the governing officials in the Roman commonwealth.  At this time, Nero was emperor of Rome, and he was a cruel, lustful, murderous leader.  How could a Christian be subject to and supportive of a man like that?   At the same time, however, Nero was aided by two governors, Burrus and Seneca by name, who were honest and actually sought to establish a functional, fair, and model government.  So, even though Paul himself had been mistreated by the Roman government from time to time, he understood it was essential for the Christian to be a good citizen, if only to avoid punishment:

So those who refuse to obey the laws of the land are refusing to obey God, and punishment will follow.  (Romans 12:2  TLB)

However, how far does the submit/support admonition go?  Paul’s entire teaching on the Christian’s obligation to human government is predicated on something he wrote back in Romans 12:

Be at peace with everyone, just as much as possible.  (Romans 12:18b  TLB)

That’s the conditional loyalty of the fourth principle.  The Christian conscience is to be developed and conditioned by the Word of God as understood by the Church and as prompted by the Holy Spirit.  Whenever the state insists that we do things or support things that violate God’s expressed will, we have no choice by to refuse.

But Peter and John replied, “You decide whether God wants us to obey you instead of him!  We cannot stop telling about the wonderful things we saw Jesus do and heard him say.”  (Acts 4:19, 20  TLB) 

But Peter and the apostles replied, “We must obey God rather than men.”  (Acts 5:19  TLB) 

Peter dealt with the same subject, and his advice gives yet another perspective:

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority…  (1 Peter 2:13a  NIV)

The word submit is the key to understanding Christian submission to earthly governments.  The Greek is hypotasso, which means “submit oneself.”  The Christian, exercising his free will, decides to submit to the government for the Lord’s sake.  So, from the Christian’s perspective, submission is voluntary.  We submit and support the state, not because we love the state so much or even agree with everything the state does or says, but because we are honoring the Lord.  And because our submission is voluntary, there may be times we have to withdraw our submission to and support of our government(s).  Both Paul and Peter leave the door open for civil disobedience if need be.

In the end, our ultimate authority must be the God and the Kingdom of Heaven.

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