What is the Christian’s Relationship to Civil Government?
The Christian is a citizen of a heavenly country and is only an “alien and stranger” on earth (Philippians 3:20; 1 Peter 2:11). This truth will affect much that the Christian does as he relates to the civil authorities. It will bear upon issues relating to military service, holding office, voting, jury duty, and many related matters. The following principles have some bearing upon the Christian’s relationship to civil government.
(1) The Christian is a citizen of a heavenly country.
“Our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20).
” My kingdom is not of this world . . . My kingdom is not from this realm” (John 18:36).
(2) The Christian is simply an alien and stranger on earth.
“Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul” (1 Peter 2:11).
See also Hebrews 11:10, 13-16; 13:14.
(3) The Christian has certain responsibilities toward the civil authorities of the government under which he lives. For example, he must pray for them.
“First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity” (1 Timothy 2:1-2; see also Acts 4:23-31).
(4) The Christian must pay his taxes.
- “. . . you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor” (Romans 13:6-7).
- ” Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21; cf. vv. 15-22).
(5) The Christian must obey civil rulers (unless obedience to them would involve disloyalty to God). This would include traffic laws, driver’s license, hunting license, paying taxes, and all other legitimate requirements.
- “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves” (Romans 13:1-2).
- ” Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake” (Romans 13:5).
- ” Remind them to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good deed” (Titus 3:1).
- ” Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evil-doers and the praise of those who do right” (1 Peter 2:13-14).
(6) The Christian is to honor and respect governmental authorities.
- “Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king” (1 Peter 2:17).”
- Render to all what is due them . . . honor to whom honor” (Romans 13:7).
(7) God works through civil authorities even though they are not believers and do not know of God’s activity.
- “Jesus answered [Pilate], ‘You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above; for this reason he who delivered Me to you has the greater sin’” (John 19:11).
- ” . . . For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God” (Romans 13:1b-2a).
(8) God uses the civil authorities to maintain law and order in society. He uses them to punish evildoers and carry out His vengeance on them.
- “For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. Therefore, it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience sake” (Romans 13:3-5).
- ” Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man” (Genesis 9:6).
- Paul said: “If, then, I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything worthy of death, I do not refuse to die; but if none of those things is true of which these men accuse me, no one can hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar” (Acts 25:11).
(9) The civil authorities should commend the Christian who does what is right.
- “For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good” (Romans 13:3-4a).
(10) The Christian is not to render absolute submission to civil authorities. His unqualified submission is only due to God who has absolute authority. When there is a conflict between what the government requires and what God requires, the Christian must submit to God.
- “Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth’” (Matthew 28:18).
- ” Jesus answered [Pilate], ‘You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above. . .’” (John 19:11).
- ” Peter and the apostles answered and said, ‘We must obey God rather than men’” (Acts 5:29).
- ” Peter and John answered and said to them, ‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard’” (Acts 4:19-20).
(11) Whereas the civil authorities bear the sword, bring wrath upon the evildoer, and punish those who are convicted of crimes, the Christian operates according to the principle of love toward all men, including his enemies.
- “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse” (Romans 13:14).
- ” Never pay back evil for evil to anyone” (Romans 13:17a).
- ” Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 13:19).
- ” But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing, you will heap burning coals on his head” (Romans 13:20).
- ” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 13:21).
- ” Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28).
- ” You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also” (Matthew 5:38-40).
(12) In the pursuit of its objectives, the civil government may wage war against national enemies, but the Christian will exercise active love and goodwill toward his enemies.
- “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28).
- ” Though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses” (2 Cor. 10:3-4).
- ” If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).
- ” See that no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all people” (1 Thess. 5:15).
- ” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21; cf. vv. 14-21).
(13) The Christian may bring the evil deeds of criminals to the attention of civil authorities.
- Paul reported to the Roman commander the plot of more than forty Jews against his life (Acts 22:12-35).
(14) The civil authorities are to maintain law and order in society. The people of God are to love all people and proclaim the saving message of the gospel to all people. Is there any scripture that would give the civil authorities the mandate to preach the gospel to all? Conversely, is there any scripture that would give the Christian the right to help maintain law and order in society?
- “He [Jesus] said to them [His followers], ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation’” (Mark 16:15).
- ” Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, ‘. . . . Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations. . .’” (Matthew 28:18-19).
(15) The Christian is to “judge” his fellow-saints within the body of Christ. He is not called on to judge those who are outside the body of Christ.
- “What have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside God judges” (1 Corinthians 5:12-13a). ” Does any one of you, when he has a case against his neighbor, dare to go to law before the unrighteous and not before the saints?” (1 Corinthians 6:1).
- ” I say this to your shame. Is it so, that there is not among you one wise man who will be able to decide between his brethren, but brother goes to law with brother, and that before unbelievers?” (1 Corinthians 6:5).
- ” Someone in the crowd said to Him [Jesus], ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ But He said to him, ‘Man, who appointed Me a judge or arbiter over you?’” (Luke 12:13-14).
(16) Although basically the Christian is a citizen of the kingdom of God rather than the kingdoms of this world (John 18:36; Luke 4:5-6; 2 Corinthians 10:3-4), it is right to exercise the privileges of earthly citizenship of the country in which we reside.
- “Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, ‘Is it lawful for you to scourge a man who is a Roman and uncondemned?’” (Acts 22:25).
- ” Paul said to them, ‘They have beaten us in public without trial, men who are Romans, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they sending us away secretly? No indeed! But let them come themselves and bring us out.” (Acts 16:37).
A Biblical View of Government
The foregoing points are worthy of careful consideration as we think through the issue of one’s relationship to civil government. Since the Christian is part of a heavenly kingdom ruled by God’s laws, he should refrain from involvement in the administration of earthly affairs that pertain to human governments. While acknowledging that God does work through civil authorities to punish evildoers (although most would acknowledge that there is severe lack in this regard), the Christian operates according to the principles of the kingdom in the realm of Christ’s body. In view of the foregoing considerations, let us refrain from all compromises of involvement in the civil government and administration of justice.