Political life continually confronts the contemporary Christian. Newspapers and television newscasts are filled each day with the latest acts and foibles of our government leaders, and in election years the stream of political information becomes a torrent. Bumper stickers, billboards, and lawn signs congest the quietest neighborhoods. Most believers would readily assert that Christianity cannot be identified with the political process, and yet most also believe that their faith cannot simply leave them as disinterested bystanders. Developing a proper perspective on political life has been an ongoing challenge for Christians faced with this tension. Perhaps the clearest teaching of Scripture on civil government is its claim that magistrates are ministers of God for our good, and unpacking this idea is key for an understanding of civil government and the Christian's attitude toward it.
The Apparent Evil of Civil Magistrates
No one thinking about the present topic can fail to recognize that there are a great many reasons why Christians might take a decidedly negative view of civil government and magistrates. As the early Christian church first developed its approach to civil government, much of the Old Testament that they treasured and most of their own practical experience seemed to suggest that civil magistrates are generally the enemies of God's people.
The pages of the Old Testament are littered with examples of the unrighteousness of kings. The king of Egypt, Pharaoh, initiated a brutal campaign against the Israelites in which he sought to kill all newborn boys. Later, Pharaoh repeatedly hardened his heart against God, first refusing to let the Israelites leave Egypt and then pursuing them after he did. On their way to the Promised Land, the Israelites again encountered obstinate kings, such as Og and Sihon, who would not even allow Israel to pass harmlessly through their territories, and Balak, who hired the sorcerer Balaam to curse them. Even after arriving in Canaan, God's covenant people had little rest from wicked foreign kings. Through the age of the Judges, for example, neighboring princes constantly harassed them. Later, brutal Assyrian kings Tiglath-Pileser and Shalmaneser drove the northern ten tribes of Israel into captivity and the great Nebuchadnezzar deported Judah to Babylon after leveling Jerusalem and its temple. Of course, the theocratic kings of Israel and Judah themselves were often no better.
If their Hebrew Scriptures suggested that civil magistrates generally brought harm rather than good, the early Christians' personal experience frequently confirmed such a view. Was it not, after all, a representative of the Roman Empire, Pontius Pilate, who had condemned their Messiah to death, in a sham trial in which Pilate himself admitted that there was no just cause for accusation? The book of Acts records a number of sad instances in which civil authorities lined up against the fledgling church and its leaders. King Herod put the Apostle James to death and then (unsuccessfully) pursued Peter. The Apostle Paul, who had a couple of unpleasant encounters with civil magistrates during his missionary journeys, was handed over to the Roman authorities upon his return to Jerusalem. Though his Roman citizenship at least secured him a judicial hearing, he remained in prison for several years under Felix and then Festus. Felix, Acts tells us, had been waiting for a bribe. The book of Acts ends with Paul awaiting trial before Caesar in Rome. The outcome of Paul's appeal remains unknown, but not long afterward a caesar named Nero would instigate a severe persecution against the Christians.
Added to all this was the fact that Christians made a theological confession that threw the very idea of political authority into question: they claimed that Jesus Christ was king-in fact, the King of kings and Lord of lords. In the face of such a confession, the idea that mere human beings could be kings might seem at best to be a matter of indifference and at worst the height of blasphemy. Undoubtedly, the early Christians had many good reasons to take a negative view toward civil magistrates.
However, at least one stubborn fact stood in the way of such a verdict: the teaching of Jesus and his apostles refused to dismiss civil magistrates as wicked obstructers of God and his people. Jesus himself instructed his followers to give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's (Mark 12:17). This implied, at the very least, that the civil magistrate had some claim to people's obedience. In more detail, Paul described civil authorities as ministers of God for their good. He explained that whatever authorities existed had been ordained by God and that Christians were therefore to submit to them (Rom. 13:1-7). Clearly, the many bad examples of kings notwithstanding, the early Christians needed to develop a positive-as well as skeptical-perspective on civil government.
The Development of a Christian Approach to Government
The early church indeed did just that, though not without struggle and ambiguity. One of the earliest extant Christian documents to set forth a view of civil life that acknowledged both its legitimacy and its limitations is the anonymous Epistle to Diognetus, probably written by the mid-second century. The very fact that this letter is addressed to "his excellency, Diognetus," is significant, for it suggests that the author considers high government officials worthy of honor and worthy recipients of appeal. The author of this letter claims that Christians are in many ways indistinguishable from the rest of the world in terms of external appearances. Christians do not live in their own cities, speak their own language, or follow their own customs. Instead, they obey established laws and acknowledge the constitution of their own commonwealth. Yet, in a rather paradoxical series of statements, the author explains that Christians, though belonging to civil society in many important ways, at the same time do not belong to it. They are citizens of this world, yet also foreigners, because they are also citizens of heaven. Though they work and live in civil society, the ultimate meaning of their lives far transcends it. Many subsequent Christian writers in the early centuries imitated this basic approach. For example, Justin, the famous second-century martyr, addressed his First Apology to the Roman emperor. He not only paid respect to the emperor in his address itself, but he described Christians as those who worship God alone, and yet in all other things are obedient to the emperor and pray for him.
These early writings, though composed when Christians were still a persecuted minority, established some basic parameters that guided Christians in later centuries, even after their faith had been officially adopted by the Roman authorities. The eminent fifth-century churchman, Pope Gelasius I, for example, spoke of Christ himself as recognizing two legitimate authorities, the royal and the priestly, each with its own proper sphere of activity. In his vision, emperors were to submit to priests in matters of salvation and eternal life, while priests were to submit to emperors in temporal affairs. The great theologian, Augustine, in his famous work, The City of God, addressed those reeling from the fall of Rome at the hand of barbarians. Along similar lines, he accorded legitimacy to civil government-even when governed by pagans-but exhorted his readers to set their ultimate hopes on something far greater.
However, there can be little doubt that the adoption of Christianity as the official state religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century had a profound impact on how Christians thought about civil government. As time went on, Christians became much less prone to doubt the legitimacy of civil government-as in the days of the early church-and much more prone to forget its limitations. The idea of "Christendom"-church and state dwelling harmoniously as a unified Christian society-held the minds of many Christians through the Middle Ages and produced some heated debates that could not have otherwise taken place. Among these debates were those between "imperialists" and "papalists," those who believed that ultimately the pope was to submit to the Christian emperor and those who believed that the emperor was to submit to the pope.
Throughout church history, however, there have been those who, in the light of the radical claims of Christian discipleship and Christianity's eschatological expectations, have spurned the authority of civil government altogether. One prominent group that tended toward such an approach was the so-called Anabaptists of the sixteenth century. The Anabaptists, however, provided the reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin with the occasion and opportunity for setting forth a positive approach to civil government for the young Protestant churches. Though the views of Luther and Calvin were not identical, they both approached issues of civil government from the perspective of the "two kingdoms." Against the Anabaptists who despised civil authority and preferred anarchy to order, Luther and Calvin defended the existence of law and magistrates. For Luther, the same Christian who, according to the kingdom of God's "right hand," would follow the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount and foreswear all violence and vengeance in his personal life, must also submit to civil authority according to the kingdom of God's "left hand," and might even himself serve as a government official and thus bear the sword. For Calvin, though the doctrine of Christian liberty frees believers from all man-made laws in religious matters, according to the spiritual kingdom of Christ, Christian liberty does not at all diminish the believer's obligation to obey civil magistrates in all matters that do not directly contravene God's law, according to the civil kingdom. Calvin made the remarkable claim that suffering under the worst tyrant was better than living in anarchy. For both of these reformers, and most of their followers, civil government was a blessing from God, though not of ultimate importance.
Biblical Teaching on Civil Government
Despite all of the readily available examples of the wickedness of rulers, much of the Christian tradition has affirmed that civil government is a legitimate and God-ordained institution. But is there a biblical basis for such a view? A survey of relevant teaching in both the Old and New Testaments affirms that there is much scriptural support for the idea that civil government is legitimate, though always limited.
Many people have seen the origin of civil government already in the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4. When God declared that Cain's punishment for the murder of his brother was that he would be a restless wanderer on the earth, Cain cried out that this was more than he could bear, because anyone who found him would kill him. The Lord answered that there would be vengeance upon anyone who killed Cain. It seems that Cain's great fear was that there would be no system of justice to protect him, and God's answer addressed precisely this problem. Little coincidence it is that immediately after this dialogue Cain goes forth and builds a city, for God provides justice in a sinful world through civil society. God did not promise salvation to Cain, but he did assure him that justice would not be absent. Here we find a first glimpse at the role of civil magistrates in this world.
Genesis 9 communicates a similar message. After the flood, God made a covenant with Noah, which is recorded in this chapter. God makes no mention of salvation from sin as he enters into this covenant. Rather, this covenant is made with all people and all living creatures indiscriminately, and it promises the continuation of somewhat normal life on earth. One of the provisions of this covenant is that no one is to kill another person, and that anyone who does will be subject to capital punishment. Rather than destroying life, human beings are to cultivate life. The command that God gives here, to be fruitful and increase in number, echoes the commands of the original creation mandate in Genesis 1. Despite the fall into sin, man retains the God-given tasks of working, procreating, and caring for creation, tasks which can and will happen only as there is some measure of justice in the world. Here again, Scripture gives us a glimpse of the task of what we now know as civil government.
Some time later, God made a covenant with Abraham, and here he did what he did not do in the covenant with Noah, namely, set apart a special people for himself and promise them eternal salvation. But despite the promises that Abraham and his family received, they did not turn their backs on the world in regard to temporal matters. Genesis records many stories of Abraham interacting with the kings of the lands where he wandered, and he even consorted with several of them in rectifying a particular injustice that was done to his nephew Lot (Gen. 14). Later, the righteous Joseph took a high position in the royal court of Egypt and used his position to preserve the peoples of that land when faced with a devastating famine. The covenant families of Jacob and his children gladly took refuge under the civil protection of Egypt. This story of Joseph illustrates not only that God's redeemed people may serve as civil magistrates, but also that God uses magistrates to do good for his people and for all people generally.
Between the time of Moses and Christ, the situation of God's people changed in some important ways. In the covenant with Moses, God did something different from what he did in the Abrahamic covenant and from what he would do in the new covenant: he constituted his covenant people as a geopolitical nation, giving them a land of their very own and a system of laws to guide their civil life. When they arrived in the land of Canaan, God's covenant people were no longer to cooperate with kings of other nations but to exterminate them. There is no space here to consider exhaustively the reasons for God's administering things in this way, but surely they relate in part to the fact that the Promised Land of Canaan was to be a foreshadowing of the eternal heavenly kingdom in which God's people were no longer to mingle with pagans, but be decisively separated from them.
This is consistent with the fact that when the people of Israel stepped away from the Promised Land, their attitude toward the rulers of the lands around them was often positive and not necessarily hostile. This is evident in the friendly relations that kings David and Solomon had with foreign rulers, such as Hiram, King of Tyre and the Queen of Sheba (1 Kings 5 and 10). More telling are the instructions in the letter that Jeremiah wrote to the Israelites who had been carried into exile in Babylon. These exiles were not to resist the Babylonian government, but to live humbly under it. Jeremiah instructed them to build houses, get married, and have children. He told them to pray for the peace and prosperity of the city in which they lived. Jeremiah even explained that if that the city had peace, so would they-Babylon's civil government would be their protection! Outside of the Promised Land, these exiles found themselves again in a situation like that of Abraham and the patriarchs, before the days of Moses. They were to live at peace with their neighbors as far as possible and acknowledge the legitimacy of civil magistrates, reaping the benefits of the social order they provided. Yet, just as Abraham, they knew that they were a people set apart by God for eternal life, and thus they recognized that this life in Babylon was one day going to come to an end when God restored the fortunes of his people (Jer. 29:1-14).
With the death and resurrection of Christ, God brought to an end the old covenant with Israel and inaugurated the new covenant with the church. The situation of God's new covenant people with respect to civil government in many ways resembles that of Abraham or the exiles in Babylon. God gave his New Testament people no special land of their own, no system of civil laws, and no instructions about exterminating their enemies. He entered into covenant with a church, not a nation. The church abides in many nations, not one. It mingles freely with its neighbors, even if not Christian. As Paul explains, though the church is to dissociate from so-called "brothers"-professing Christians-who persist in immorality, this does not mean cutting off relations with immoral people "of this world" (1 Cor. 5:9-11). Similarly, believers are generally to remain in their station in life, freely buying and using the things of this world, though without becoming engrossed in them (1 Cor. 7:17, 29-31). As part of this basic attitude, Christians are to submit to civil magistrates and recognize them as a beneficial gift of God.
Echoing Jesus' own command to give to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, Paul instructs all believers to submit to the governing authorities. The reason is that God has ordained their authority, so that resisting them is resisting God himself. Though Christians are often tempted otherwise, we ought not see this as a burden, but as a blessing, for Paul explains that the magistrate is God's servant for our good. He exists to be an agent of wrath and punish the evildoer (Rom. 13:4)-in other words, to bring about that justice on earth that God promised to provide already in Genesis 4 and 9. Contemporary Christians living in the First World often complain about the cultural degeneracy and political misdeeds of their own societies. Surely it is sobering to consider that the Roman government that Paul described as a blessing from God and worthy of obedience was filled with far greater injustices than First World Christians today endure. Paul reiterates the thrust of his concerns in 1 Timothy 2:1-2. Here, in telling Christians to pray for all people, he especially exhorts them to pray for kings and those in authority. For what purpose? Paul says that we should pray for them in order that we might live peaceful and quiet lives, in all godliness and holiness. When civil magistrates do their job-even to some extent-we are enabled to pursue our work and worship in ways that would be virtually impossible otherwise.
As the Scriptures teach and as the church has acknowledged, civil magistrates are ordained by God and to be received by us as a gift from him. Of course, civil magistrates often fail in the tasks entrusted to them, and thus it is helpful to close this article by remembering that civil authority is legitimate, but always limited. Though civil authority is a good, it is not an unmitigated or ultimate good. Though it suppresses wickedness in the world to some degree, it can never provide salvation. Thus, even while Christians remain humble and obedient citizens in whatever country they have been placed, they remember that their true citizenship is in heaven. Like the exiled Israelites who looked forward to being rescued from Babylon and returned to the Promised Land after seventy years, Christians today look forward to the time when Christ returns and establishes that eternal kingdom in which righteousness and peace dwell. Until then, we gratefully receive God's provision of civil government, with whatever justice, peace, and prosperity accompanies it.
This article originally appeared in the Sept/Oct 2004 edition of Modern Reformation and is reprinted with permission. For more information about Modern Reformation, visit www.modernreformation.org or call (800) 890-7556. All rights reserved.
First published in Modern Reformation, Vol. 13, Issue 5.
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