The Message of Jesus governs how we relate to government.
As citizens of a higher domain, we remain grounded in this domain through humility and servanthood, living lives of unimpeachable integrity.
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Not of This World
The Gospel of the Kingdom of God is at war with the kingdoms of this world. However, it’s a very strange war. It’s ironically not for the warmongering.
At distinct odds with the Empire, the King’s war is waged through love, humility, kindness, patience, gentleness and servanthood. It utterly shuns violence, force, manipulation and coercion. As Paul said, “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood” (Ephesians 6:12) and “the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh” (2 Corinthians 10:4).
While few would disagree with this as a sentiment, many believers are unsure of how to apply this knowledge in today’s polarised, politicised world.
“We need to take back the culture for Jesus! We need to fight for what we believe. We’ve been passive for too long. It’s time to get aggro…”
While this type of reaction may be fuelled by commendable passion, it can easily result in picking more of the wrong battles and doing more harm than good. Misplaced and misdirected religious zeal is a dangerous commodity.
Many in Jesus’ day mistakenly assumed He was spearheading a militant revolt against Rome. The religious establishment used these fears to instigate trouble for Jesus, ultimately leading to His crucifixion. However, for many Jews, Jesus’ kingdom-talk created the hope of deliverance and victory against the oppressive Roman Empire. Finally, the Warrior Messiah had arrived to set up a geopolitical kingdom like that of David’s.
John, Chapter 6 tells the story of how the crowds misunderstood His intentions. With Jesus’ popularity at an all-time high, a massive hungry crowd of over five thousand gathered to Him. Jesus fed the multitude through a miracle … just five loaves and two fish filled a lot of tummies and twelve doggie-bags to go (John 6:1-13).
The miracle, however, backfired.
Jesus “perceived that they were about to come and take Him by force to make Him king” (John 6:15).
The multitude misread the moment, equating Jesus’ food distribution with the political manoeuvring of secular leaders, who often provided bread before election time to bribe the people. “Jesus for Emperor! Down with Rome!” Can you imagine the visions of triumph this sign-crazy mob entertained?
What an army we will be! No need to carry provisions … just a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish will do! Injured in battle? No worry … healing is part of the package! Bad weather? No sweat, He commands the storms! Come to a river? No need to build a bridge … hey, He walks on the water! Even if we get killed … no problem! He even raises the dead! Charge!
But Jesus “departed” (John 6:15).
He left them! He wanted absolutely nothing to do with it.
Jesus withdrew from the public eye and immediately sought solace in His Father’s presence. He only returned the next day and deliberately began to thin the ranks and disabuse the crowd of their false notions by talking about eating His flesh and drinking His blood (John 6:22-71).
Later, Jesus spelt it out emphatically,
My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight … but My kingdom is not from here.”
As the ekklesia, reunited with the Father and restored to our God-given stewardship as custodians of this earth, our participation in society and response to civil authority is critical to understand.
Render Unto Caesar
Long before Thomas Jefferson penned the phrase “wall of separation between church and state” in his letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802, Jesus spoke about the important separation between these two domains.
When asked if it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not—given His claims as King of a new, transcendent, otherworldly Kingdom—Jesus discerned their scrupulous motives. After asking whose image was inscribed on a coin (Matthew 22:15-22), Jesus said,
Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
In other words, as citizens of God’s domain, we live in accordance with God’s will. As citizens of secular society, we adhere to the authority of civil government. Jesus said we are “in” but not “of” this world; in fact, He has “sent us into the world” (John 17:9-18). Sent into this world, we’re to represent our King with unimpeachable integrity.
The early church took this to heart. Both Paul and Peter called the early believers to honour and submit to the governing authorities (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17)—the former going so far as to refer to civil authority as “God’s minister to you for good” (Romans 13:6). And let’s not forget, the rulers they were referring to were tyrants and despots.
Jesus and the apostles had much to say on the issue of authority. In fact, the way we respond to authority is a core value of the Kingdom of God.
*If you’re interested in the intriguing context of Thomas Jefferson’s phrase, “wall of separation between church and state”, and the two-way street implications, see the Notes section below.
The Role of Government
So, what’s the Biblical role of government?
This is the key question, one answered by both Paul and Peter. Because they don’t mince their words, let me add them here in full:
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.”
(Romans 13:1-7 NIV, italics added)
Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.”
(1 Peter 2:13-17 NIV, italics added)
Firstly, both Paul and Peter made it clear that all authority stems from God, and they exhorted believers to honour and submit to governing authorities as unto God.
Yes, we live by a higher code as citizens of another Kingdom. God shapes our ethics not civil laws. Yet it’s this knowledge that informs our honourable response to civil government regardless of whether we think our governing authorities are up to scratch or not. Again, we need to remind ourselves of the rulers Paul and Peter had in mind when giving these instructions.
Therefore, we honour the office of elected officials, even ones we perceive as controlling and heavy-handed or bungling and inept, because we trust God.
Secondly, both Paul and Peter made it clear that the role of government is to protect the rights of their citizens.
All their citizens. And all their rights.
Without exception. And without discrimination.
There are two important implications here. The first has to do with the limitations of a religious government.
A religious political party cannot remain consistently impartial. That’s no criticism but a statement of the obvious. Religion, by its nature, delineates between insiders and outsiders. It offers privileges to those on the inside who adhere to the religion’s code and discriminates against those who don’t. Thus, a religious government will favour some of its citizens and impinge on the rights of the rest.
While we don’t need a Christian political party, we do need mature followers of Jesus, who know how to govern with wisdom, justice and mercy, to serve within our secular political parties. In doing so, they serve as the leaven of the Kingdom that leavens the whole meal (Matthew 13:33).
The second implication concerns the limitations of government itself.
The role of government is to protect the rights of their citizens—government is not the source of these rights.
This is where the framers of The United States Declaration of Independence saw things so clearly. They wrote that every human being is created equal, “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights”. And “to secure these rights”, governments are established by the populace, “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”.
Thus, our rights are God-given; they are inherent in every person because we are all created in the image of God irrespective of culture or creed. These rights are universal—applicable everywhere and at all times. And they are egalitarian—they are the same for everyone. While these rights include the right to life, liberty, speech, religion, privacy and the like, they may be summed up in the ethic of reciprocity: treat others as you would like others to treat you.
In other words, government does not confer these rights, nor can government revoke these rights. Government exists solely at the will of the people to protect their God-given rights. Nothing more … and increasingly less to the degree its citizens become more self-governing.
And to come full circle, the role of government is to protect all its citizens and all their rights. Not just the rights shaped by Christian conviction. All their citizens and all their rights.
The rights of the religious and the non-religious.
Thirdly, while both Paul and Peter call us to submit to governing authorities, they don’t call us to blind allegiance or obedience to all their decrees.
Biblically, when governing authorities specifically outlawed freedom of religion, God’s people found ways to live out their faith in submissive disobedience to this decree. As has the underground church for millennia.
In other words, a healthy dose of scepticism for elected officials is a good thing—although it should be nested in an honouring attitude towards the office the elected officials hold. Elected officials should be held up to the highest scrutiny and if there’s overreach or laxity, we should remove them via the democratic mechanisms available to us.
But when is disobedience necessary?
If governing authorities enforce laws that contradict God’s commands, submissive disobedience is required.
But Peter and John answered and said to them, ‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard’.”
(Acts 4:19, 20)
In Acts Chapter 4, the governing authorities in Jerusalem banned the early believers from speaking or teaching in the Name of Jesus. Peter and John first responded submissively by lodging an appeal. Secondly, they remained true to God and disobeyed the order (Acts 4:1-31) yet submitted to the legal and civil consequences of their actions.
That last phrase is important and often missed. Not only is submissive disobedience done in such a way as to honour the authority opposed, it also submits to the penalties of disobedience.
When the disciples were charged for their disobedience, they didn’t resist arrest, stage a protest, or revolt and promote anarchy. In courageous faith, they submitted to arrest, and even torture, powerfully demonstrating their respect for the role of civil government. It was on the back of such courage, and in the blood of the martyrs, that followers of Jesus transformed the Roman Empire. Our attitude must remain above reproach.
From this passage in Acts 4, and other passages such as the Book of Daniel, it seems obvious that a state order that impinges on our freedom of religion certainly calls for submissive disobedience.
It’s important to stress, however, that submissive disobedience only applies when the state commands us to act contrary to the direct teachings of Scripture. It can’t be used to condemn government directives that contradict Christian conviction but aren’t enforced or imposed upon believers.
The Christian Country Myth
Much of the Western world was founded on Judeo-Christian values and some countries were heavily influenced by Christendom in their origin stories. In many countries, Christianity was the official state religion and in some, Christianity remains the predominant religion. Several countries still identify as Christian states or have state churches, including the likes of England, Greece, Norway, Argentina, Malta, Samoa, Tonga and Zambia.
However, today, no country is a Christian country per se. Certainly not in the way ancient Israel was a religious country under King David or the way the Roman Empire was a religious country under papal power. Western world society is multicultural and pluralistic, founded on, among other liberties, the freedom of religion.
More importantly, neither Jesus nor any of the writers of the New Testament ever advocated for the idea of a Christian country. They never so much as hinted at the concept. Only when Rome co-opted the Christian faith in the fourth century did church and state become one, a marriage that few would deny was unhealthy and at odds with the Gospel.
We are sent into the world but we’re not of this world. Our mandate as salt and light is to transform society from the inside out, not through a religious-political agenda.
In my experience, it seems that many believers unconsciously assume that society would be better off with a ruling Christian party or that the ultimate goal is to contend for a Christian country. Perhaps not in so many words, but the sentiment is present.
The sentiment might sound right and it’s probably shaped by a bad copy-paste job of Old Testament Israel onto modern society. That is, we assume that since God’s people lived in a nation state in the Old Testament, this represents the ideal today.
Firstly, it’s worth pointing out that God gave Israel a King reluctantly, acquiescing to their juvenile, nationalistic demands: “now make us a king to judge us like all the nations … a king [who will] judge us and go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Samuel 8:5, 20). And God only did so after warning them of the grave consequences (1 Samuel 8:11-18).
Secondly, it’s worth reminding ourselves of the spectacular failure of the “king project,” which merged state and religious power. After Saul’s abject failure, both David and Solomon compromised themselves and the nation. The nation then split three years into Rehoboam’s reign. Only 8 of the 20 kings of Judah were righteous; not a single righteous king sat on Israel’s throne.
As John Dalberg-Acton famously said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Nothing speaks of absolute power more than the coupling of religious and state powers.
The marriage of church and state is a flawed union. It was for ancient Israel, even in what may be considered “perfect” conditions (given that all the people were willingly of the same faith). And it certainly would be so today.
Preoccupation with the Old Testament Prophet
Along with the false notion that we’re contending for a Christian country (a type of religious nationalism), it seems modern Christianity has a preoccupation with the Old Testament prophet.
That is, assuming we’re contending for a Christian country, the church’s role today is often positioned as that of the prophet. Like the brave prophets of old, we believe we must speak out against the nation’s sins. We assume it’s up to the church, like Israel’s holy prophets, to publicly decry the country’s moral decadence. And like the courageous prophets we admire, we anticipate public backslash and wear it like a badge of honour.
This is not just a misguided assumption based on a form of religious nationalism but it’s an erroneous view of the role of the ekklesia and the New Testament prophet.
Firstly, the prophets of the Old Testament were God’s bullhorn, His mouthpiece: the very words they spoke were God’s Word. And most prophetic utterances were a mixture of warnings of judgement and promises of restoration following judgement. The expected response was that of repentance and obedience.
While this is a subject for an article in itself, the nature of New Testament prophecy is distinctly different. On the one hand, we prophesy in part (1 Corinthians 13:9); on the other hand, our response to a prophetic word is to test it (1 Thessalonians 5:20, 21; 1 Corinthians 14:29-33). In short, New Testament prophecy is more subjective.
Most tellingly, not a single prophecy in the New Testament so much as hints at warnings of judgement. Most of the prophecies centre around encouragement within a gathering of believers (1 Corinthians 14:1-5) and releasing believers into service (Acts 13:1, 2). Agabus, of course, warned Paul correctly of what awaited him Jerusalem but there was no judgement in the prophet’s words (Acts 21:10-13). In fact, Paul interpreted it as confirmation.
The only record we have of New Testament prophecy that addressed a sociopolitical event was when Agabus warned of an upcoming famine (Acts 11:27-30), one that befell Judea in AD 46 and 47. Again, it contained no judgement for wrongdoing and no call to repentance. Agabus didn’t condemn the Empire or point fingers at the obvious corruption in the governing authorities of the day. Instead, the prophecy mobilised generous relief work to assist those in need.
Secondly, the Old Testament prophet principally addressed two things: Israel’s idolatry and Israel’s injustice, especially the neglect of the poor.
They called Israel out on idolatry because they were a religious nation founded on The Shema, “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4).
Obviously, our society is not so founded. That the church has appointed itself as the moral police can only stem from conflating the role of the Old Testament prophet and our role as the ekklesia. Ironically, had we been consistent with our identification of the Old Testament prophet model and contended for the poor on par with our fixation with morality, we might have more public credit.
Self-appointed Moral Police
As the self-appointed judge and jury on all things morality, the modern church has felt obligated to point the finger at society’s moral failings and this has largely centred around the issues of sex and sexuality.
It goes without saying that every follower of Jesus prizes a society with good morals and prefers to raise their children in a culture resonating with wholesome values.
However, by attempting to impose our moral code on secular society, we’ve provoked the same response that every Christian would have, to say, the imposition of Sharia Law. Moreover, the infidelity and moral failure of many notable Christian figures has only made the church look hypocritical.
Is it not our duty to remind society of the values upon which we’re founded?
Speaking of duty, the answer is no.
Our duty is first and foremost to serve as witnesses of the Message of Jesus, which principally involves two things: firstly, being a testimony of the love of God and the unity of the Spirit, and secondly, serving society though outlandish generosity and outrageous good deeds.
That’s our duty.
In being faithful to our duty, and the integrity and credibility that comes with it, our counsel may well be sought.
Then it would be our privilege to serve society with a reminder of the values upon which we’re founded.
But what values are we talking about?
The Judeo-Christian values that have made the Western world one of the greatest civilisations ever centre on the sanctity of the individual and the equality and rights of every human being. For certain, the Western world is far from perfect and we’re only in the middle of completing the project.
However, if the church had focused on advocating for these values, it would have led the way in women’s rights and racial justice, to mention just two hot potato issues. And if the church had “done its duty“, keeping the unity of the Spirit and advocating for the poor and marginalised, it would have held the very heart and soul of society in its hands.
That we’ve failed in our duty and in many ways, opposed the equality of human rights—instead fixating on issues of morality—means we’re reaping a harvest of scorn and suspicion we can now see was coming.
Our Civil Response
As followers of Jesus, our response to civil authority and civil matters includes the following…
- Pray for the governing authorities in a spirit of humility and honour.
- Model citizenship that’s above reproach.
- Serve society with particular emphasis on advocating for the poor and marginalised.
- Exercise the responsibilities of democratic citizenship with a clear understanding of the separate domains of church and state.
- Support followers of Jesus called to serve in politics.
While the above is fairly straightforward, I’ve added an explanation on each point in the Notes below.
If you haven’t yet explored the Message of Jesus series, I recommend starting there first, as it provides the platform for all we cover on this website.
Otherwise, I recommend the below articles next.
The Message of Jesus governs how we relate to other believers.
We have far more in common with other believers than what we don’t. And what we have in common has far greater substance than what doesn’t.
The Message of Jesus governs how we relate to all people.
Jesus smashed the bounds of family, communal and national love, modelling a boundless love that includes everyone: our neighbour, the stranger and our enemy.
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