In the UK, when we have a General Election, that is where people vote for their political representatives. After al the votes are counted there will be a government elected! This of course, is not unique to the UK! All people all over the world live under some from of leadership or government. That government may be democratically elected, a monarchy or even an oppressive dictatorship.
Whatever kind of government we find ourselves with, we have one! If there was not a government in place, as hard as it is to imagine, total chaos would reign and people would just do whatever pleases them, regardless of consequences and regardless of other people. Therefore, regardless of whatever government we live under, what does the Bible say should be our reaction and attitude to the government.
By government, I mean all levels of government and authority - from local authority to federal government.
But first of all, lets look at what the Bible has to say about the function of human government, before going on to look at our responsibility to Government and our community.
The Function of Human Government
Paul writing in Romans 13 "Everyone must submit himself 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, he who 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 he will commend you. For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent 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 because of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honour, then honour."
Here Paul indicates that there are at least three functions of a human government: protection, punishment and promotion.
- Protection: From the moment Adam sinned, it was plainly obvious that human civilizations would need some form of restraint and law, in order to protect their citizens - form themselves and others. We see this clearly in Acts 21, where the Roman soldiers step in to save Paul from being killed by other people in Jerusalem.
- Punishment: Paul stipulates that duly appointed government officials and servants are to be considered as servants of God (even if they don't believe in God!)
- Promotion: Human government, as thought by Paul, was to promote the broad-spectrum welfare of all the community and not just select groups, where its laws are in effect.
Christian Response to Human Government
Paul in 1 Timothy 2:1-3 writes: "I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone- for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Saviour,"
The Apostle Peter goes further when writing in 1 Peter 2v13-17 "Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, 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 men. Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honour the king."
From these passages of Scripture we see that it is clearly impossible to be simultaneously a solid Christian and a poor citizen. As Christians we have responsibilities to our government.
- Firstly we have a responsibility to recognize and acknowledge that God ordains the Government. We see that from Paul's writing in Romans 13 and Paul was writing when the Emperor Nero was in power and systematically persecuting and torturing Christians! We also see this thinking in the passage from 1 Peter. There is no authority except as given by God. Even to the most sadistic, dictatorial or atheist governments - they have power only because God has allowed them. So we are to obey our government! But it is not to be slavish obedience regardless of what laws are decreed! No! The exception to this is where obedience to the Government would require the Christian to actively or passively disobey God. For we read in Acts 4v18-20 that the believer is to live in obedience to God rather than man.
- Secondly, as much as we probably hate to, we are commanded to pay taxes to the government! For by doing so, the government can set about ensuring, for example, that the weaker and more vulnerable sections of the community are cared for and protected!
- Thirdly, and quite possibly, most importantly, Christians are to pray for their leaders, governments and those in authority! Both Peter and Paul command and recommend it! To pray for them is to love them and it is also a way for God to shine into the lives of people. One of the things we are to pray for, is that the government governs righteously, honourably, honestly and with integrity. The Christian, as a citizen, is free to be law-abiding, conscious that they are under submission to Almighty God. It also means giving respect to all members of society from the lowest to the highest! As Christians, we are to submit ourselves to our Government and be living lives worthy of the Gospel of Christ. This may indeed win some for God, win the recognition of their government as well as influencing Government policy and law. Whatever government you find yourself under, pray for your leaders even if you thoroughly disagree with some or all of their actions. They are in power, only because our God has allowed them. They will answer to Him one day for what they have done with the power given to them by God alone. God is in control, and He is on the ultimate throne and is the definitive power!
But just as we have responsibility to our Government, we also have a responsibility for those in our community - both local and global. We are also to work for social justice and be involved in social action - that's part of our loving of other people. The oppression and persecution of people is to be anathema to us as Christians, just as it is to our God! Where a minority is maltreated and discriminated we should be at the forefront of demanding justice for all! We are to be promoting civil rights and using all aspects of the law to do so. We are to be working to ensure the poorest members of our community, both local and global, are cared for and the oppressed freed! In your country, this could mean peaceful demonstrations and interacting with your political representatives!
Look at some of the great reformers or social activists of the past: Wilberforce helping to abolish slavery; or Martin Luther King Jr. at the forefront of ending segregation and racism. May each one of us, on both a local and international scale, play some small part in ending prejudice, suffering, racism, poverty, bigotry, abuse, oppression and other injustices.
As John Stott once said: "The reason for our acceptance of social responsibility... is simple uncomplicated compassion. Love has no need to justify itself. It merely expresses itself in service wherever it sees need."
As Jesus of Nazareth once said: "Love God and love other people."
Some questions to help your thinking!
- In what way can I influence and encourage my government to promote justice, free the oppressed and take care of the poor?
- How can I help my government authorities to protect, punish and promote?
- When was the last time I actively prayed for those in authority over me, whether Christian or secular? Thank you.
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