The intersection of the church and politics is a tricky area. Even before we get to the current social justice debates in the church, we recognize age-old problems such as:
- How, if at all, are churches supposed to reference government in sermons?
- Can churches be entrenched in ministries targeted to politicians/government?
- What does God say about government, and our responsibilities towards it?
We can start with that last question. There are both verses to use to show that government is necessary, and verses that show how having no government works against God’s will. For the former, we’ll go to Romans 13, which talks about submission to authorities. It starts by saying that every person is to be subject to the government (Romans 13:1). This is because God put those authorities there in the first place.
There’s a very predictable and relevant question at this point: what about rulers that are decidedly non-Christian in word or deed, and force us to violate our conscience by doing things that go against our Christian faith? Did God appoint them? The short answer: yes! God did appoint them. Paul wrote Romans (the book where the previously referenced verse comes from) at a time when Roman persecution of Christians was high. A core theme of the Bible is that God is very much in control of this world, nothing takes Him by surprise, and bad things can be used for good. This does not necessarily mean, however, that governmental authority must be obeyed in every circumstance. The book of Daniel provides a balance to this. Daniel, along with his people, were taken captive by Babylon. Earlier, God commanded his people that even though Babylon was not their city, they were to contribute to its well-being. Daniel was chosen to serve King Nebuchadnezzar, and God gave Daniel the ability to interpret the king’s dreams, and otherwise serve him. Eventually Daniel became favored because of his service, which the book makes clear God enabled.
Eventually, though, the king does something that Daniel’s fellow Jewish exiles, Meshach, Shadrach, and Abednego cannot follow. The king makes a gold statue of himself, and everyone must bow before it and worship it daily, or be thrown into a fiery furnace (Daniel 3). The three know that they cannot follow along, because they worship God alone. The king follows through on his threats, and the three are thrown into the furnace, but instead of being burned alive, they are protected by the flames by God’s intervention. Because of this, the king lets them go and recognizes that no other god is like the God of Israel. There is a New Testament parallel to this: In Matthew 5:10-12, Jesus says that those who suffer for the sake of righteousness will be blessed and inherit the kingdom of heaven. Likewise, our first loyalty is always to God, and then to the government who gets their power from God.
But it is possible to take Matthew 5:10-12 in the wrong direction and unwisely interpret it to mean that you should seek out as much government-administered suffering that you can in order to be blessed. I also mentioned a verse (or a book in this case) that shows that having no government is a bad thing, which also addresses this faulty interpretation. The book of Judges ends with a very interesting note: there was no king, and everyone did what they individually thought was right (Judges 21:25). In other words, this was anarchy. If you’ve read the Bible up to that point, or even just the book of Judges, you would be aware of just how often God’s chosen people manages to turn their backs on Him, even with God working miracles for them. That’s our pride at work. Our pride causes us to disobey our parents, our rulers, and God Himself. All of us have someone we serve, and someone we have to obey, in at least some area of our life. And then we have God Himself who is set over all of them. The Bible makes clear that, as we are fallen creatures, anarchy is not the answer. Sooner or later, it tends to evoke God’s judgment (the tower of Babel in Genesis, the golden calf in Exodus, etc.).
Government, rightly enacted, is to enforce and promote God’s own goodness and justice to the extent that humanity in its fallen condition is able to. The Bible isn’t as much concerned about the type of government (monarchy, democracy, etc.) as long as it recognizes basic human dignity that God has granted. Government, however – no matter its form – can be corrupted, as the history books tell us time and time again. Christians realize that our first and foremost commitment is to God, and to that end, we should earnestly pray and hope that government aligns with what it is meant to be.