How should Christians relate to civil government? Romans 13:1-7 says:
1 Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. 4 For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. 5 Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. 7 Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.
I Peter 2:13-17 says:
13 Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, 14 or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men— 16 as free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God. 17 Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king.
These two passages are clear, unambiguous, and easy to understand. They are consistent with numerous other passages throughout the New Testament about how Christians should relate to Civil Government.
Jesus and the Civil Government
The Israelites, including many of Jesus’ own apostles, wanted a Messiah who would overthrow Rome and restore the kingdom to Israel. In modern parlance, they wanted Jesus to Make Israel Great Again.
Jesus disappointed them.
He began His earthly ministry by preaching not about the restoration of an earthly kingdom but the advent of a heavenly kingdom: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). Throughout the rest of His earthly ministry, He framed His admonitions in the context of the kingdom of Heaven. When He sent his disciples out, He said, “And as you go, preach, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matthew 10:7).
Pilate asked Jesus if He was the King of the Jews. He responded: “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here” (John 18:36).
Despite all this, after His resurrection, His apostles still hoped He’d make Israel great again:
Acts 1:6 Therefore, when they had come together, they asked Him, saying, “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 And He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority. 8 But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
Shortly after that, He ascended to Heaven and left us here to fulfill this commission.
Jesus and the Civil Law
What did the disciples mean by “restore the kingdom to Israel”? They wanted a change in ruler; they wanted Jesus’ earthly reign instead of the reign of Rome. But they wanted more than that; they did not want Jesus to rule but keep all Rome’s laws in place. They wanted Theonomy, which is to say, they wanted Jesus to re-impose the Old Covenant’s civil law in place of Rome’s laws.
Jesus disappointed them.
Jesus was not a Theonomist. He did not call, compel, or even encourage unbelievers to follow the Old Covenant’s civil law. He called them to repent from their sins and become one of His disciples. This is still the Gospel call today. It is not a call to works. It is not a call to be a better-behaved unbeliever. It is a call to repentance, conversion, and lordship.
Jesus did not call believers to follow the Old Covenant’s civil law, either. He called believers to a far higher standard, a standard only possible to one with a regenerate heart:
- Matthew 5:21-22: “21 You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire.”
- Matthew 5:27-28: “27 You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
- Matthew 5:31-32: “31 Furthermore it has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.”
- Matthew 5:33-37: “33 “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.”
- Matthew 5:38-39: “38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.”
Jesus did not seek to require the Old Covenant civil law for either believers or unbelievers; thus, He was not a Theonomist. So it would come as little surprise that He was also not a hyper-Theonomist. This position holds that since governments may only impose the Old Covenant’s civil law, that Christians must only obey (or only need to obey) laws that are part of the Old Covenant’s civil law.
Jesus spoke quite clearly to this issue, too. Rome had imposed a law that stated that any soldier could compel a person in a country they’d conquered to bear that soldier’s burden for a mile. This law was not a part of the Civil Law. Did Jesus call His followers to defy it? No: “And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two.” (Matthew 5:41).
Rome imposed a tax that was used to fund its wars of conquest. Nowhere did the Old Covenant civil law call for Israelites to pay an additional tax of a conquering entity. The Pharisees tried to trap Jesus by asking if it was “lawful to pay taxes to Caesar.” He responded: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21).
The Attitude of the Government Toward the Christian
Jesus told us what the attitude of unbelievers would be to us:
18 “If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. 20 Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also. 21 But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know Him who sent Me. (John 15:18-21).
10 But you have carefully followed my doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, love, perseverance, 11 persecutions, afflictions, which happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra—what persecutions I endured. And out of them all the Lord delivered me. 12 Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. (II Timothy 3:10-12).
Persecution will come. It is the expected and normal condition of the Christian life. Yes, there have been a few times throughout history where one area has been so influenced by the Gospel that persecution might not happen there. If an area is this Gospel-saturated, then the call on the faithful Christian is to go to some other portion of the world where the Gospel is needed.
In fact, Jesus directly calls us to be more committed to the Gospel than to our present location. “When they persecute you in this city, flee to another. For assuredly, I say to you, you will not have gone through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes” (Matthew 10:23).
The Attitude of the Christian Toward the Government
Christians are citizens of the kingdom of Heaven. This is our allegiance. Paul said: “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20).
He also said: “Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:19-20).
Speaking of the patriarchs, Hebrews 11 says: “13 These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. 14 For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. 15 And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.”
How should citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven respond to persecution from the kingdoms of earth? Jesus said:
12 But before all these things, they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons. You will be brought before kings and rulers for My name’s sake. 13 But it will turn out for you as an occasion for testimony. 14 Therefore settle it in your hearts not to meditate beforehand on what you will answer; 15 for I will give you a mouth and wisdom which all your adversaries will not be able to contradict or resist. 16 You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17 And you will be hated by all for My name’s sake. 18 But not a hair of your head shall be lost. 19 By your patience possess your souls. (Luke 21:12-19)
And as Paul said in I Corinthians 4:12-13, “12 And we labor, working with our own hands. Being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure; 13 being defamed, we entreat.”
Jesus does not call us to seek to stop persecution through politics or protest. Nor does He call us to use the political process (or any other) to force unbelievers to follow the Old Covenant’s civil law. Our primary objective is the advancement and expansion of the Kingdom of Heaven through conversion and discipleship. With that said, it is good to vote for wise legislators, good for those legislators to consider principles underneath the Old Covenant’s civil laws, and good for us to respectfully and humbly speak to them to advocate wise policies. These are good things, but they are not the primary focus and primary purpose for which Jesus has placed us here.
Principles of Hermeneutics
Four wise principles of hermeneutics, the study of how to rightly interpret Scripture, will help us understand current debates on the passage:
Principle 1: Obey Imperatives
When Scripture commands something, obey it.
Principle 2: Learn from narratives; obey imperatives
Learn from narratives (stories). But narratives are not imperatives. Any time a story conflicts with a command, we obey the command. Narratives never overrule imperatives. Sometimes a narrative describes someone sinning, like the polygamist marrying ten virgins. Other times a narrative describes someone acting with an authority we do not have, as when Jesus forgave sin or read thoughts. Likewise, Jesus clearly proclaimed His divinity when He judged commercialism at the Temple. He established that He was acting with an authority we do not have.
One narrative is particularly relevant to civil government issues. In Acts 5:29, when the high priest forbade Peter and the other apostles from preaching the Gospel, Peter said, “We ought to obey God rather than men.” From this we learn that when the imperative of preaching the Gospel conflicts with the imperative to obey civil government, the imperative to preach the Gospel takes precedence. Does this apply to other imperatives? Perhaps, but to say that this means that every other imperative also takes precedence over Romans 13 and I Peter 2 is extrapolation and eisegesis.
Principle 3: Learn from general theological systems; obey imperatives
We can learn much from theological systems and frameworks. But any time there is a conflict between a framework and an imperative, we always obey the imperative.
We start with passages that speak directly to an issue. Countless errors and heresies arise when someone starts from a passage focused on another issue and attempts to extract a general principle to overrule the specific imperatives.
For instance, Scripture clearly instructs men to be a church’s teachers in I Corinthians 14:34 and I Timothy 2:12, and men to be a church’s elders in I Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Some say Galatians 3:28 overrules this: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” But the point of that passage is that we are equally heirs of God’s promises. Its point is not church order. So it is an error to use it to overrule specific imperatives.
Likewise Romans 13 and I Peter 2 speak the most specifically of any New Testament passages to how Christians should obey civil government. To dismiss them m favor of less specific passages is to make the same hermeneutical error used to justify women preaching, gay marriage, or abortion.
Principle 4: Start with New Testament imperatives
When the Old Testament calls us to one standard and the New Testament calls us to a higher standard, obey the New Testament.
Christians are pilgrims and strangers on this earth. We are here here to advance the kingdom of Heaven.
How is the Kingdom of Heaven advanced? It is advanced through conversion, when sinners repent of sins and believe in Jesus, and become citizens of this Kingdom. And it is advanced when we disciple them to follow the standard Jesus calls us to, a standard far higher than the Old Covenant’s civil law.
The Civil Law is good. But the higher standard of the Gospel is better. And it is a standard only possible to the regenerate.
This is the Scriptural context of Romans 13 and I Peter 2. Unless the government directly commands us to disobey God, we obey the government.
To advance the Kingdom of Heaven. We read I Peter 2:13-17 at the start of this article. But the two verses right before that passage explain why we obey civil government:
11 Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul, 12 having your conduct honorable among the Gentiles, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation.
We obey God by obeying the civil government He has chosen to place over us. The end goal is to glorify God by our witness to Him among unbelievers.
This is why it’s so important, both as we discuss these issues and as we are obedient to Scripture in its commands in this area, that our conduct always reflects the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
The world is watching. As we discuss and as we obey, what kind of witness will we show them?