What if the government starts to persecute Christians? What if we lose our freedoms? How should we respond? We’ve already seen that physical violence is not the answer. There is a time and place to for Christians to engage in civil disobedience, but it is probably not what many think. It’s not about armed revolutions against the government, but rather, a spiritual refusal to take part in that which is contrary to the will of God.
The apostles, Peter and John, made this quite clear to the Sanhedrin saying, “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). They were respectful toward the authorities, even though they made it clear they would not obey any law or edict contrary to God’s will.
God expects Christ followers to refuse to comply with any statute standing against His own expressed will, regardless of what consequences could result by so doing.
Keep in mind that the early church was physically beaten, and many of them were even tortured to death because of this decision! Hebrews 11 tells us that people enduring physical attacks for the sake of their obedience to God is not new! “There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. 36 Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— 38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground” (Hebrews 11:35b-38).
Exactly this attitude is seen in Daniel’s friends, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah (better known by their pagan nicknames: Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego), who resist a powerful King’s idolatrous edict and are thrown into a fiery furnace as a result! The story, recorded in Daniel 3, begins with the pagan king's prideful edict that all must worship a golden statue he has made. Being worshippers of the true God, Daniel’s friends are caught between the rock of obedience to God, and a hard place of obeying the laws of the nation in which they reside, which also includes the penalty of being burned alive for failure to comply! They choose to face the fire.
Their response begins in Daniel 3:16. “16 Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. 17 If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. 18 But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up” (Daniel 3:16-18).
Daniel’s friends expressed a confidence that God was able to take care of them, and indeed would care for them whether or not he choose to spare them from the agony of being burned alive. They believed that while God was certainly able to save them miraculously, that they did not know His mind to say whether He would or not! What a statement of faith! They both believed in the complete and ultimate power of God, but also they trusted so strongly in His infinite wisdom that they would not charge Him with wrongdoing should He not use His power to spare their lives!
**Side Note: This contrasts so strongly with the attitude of many today, which could be summarized as “I cannot believe (refuse to believe) in a God who would not do exactly what I think is best in any conceivable scenario regarding human suffering or death.” This is the assumption that all those who charge God with wrongdoing for allowing people to die from tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanoes, cancer, or shark attacks make.**
Peter, John, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah all bravely refused to obey the sinful commands of their God-established authority figures, instead trusting God by obeying His stated will no matter what consequences would come as a result.
Their responses show exactly how Christians should respond whenever we face a conflict where we must choose between obeying God or our government. We must obey God rather than men.
Don’t despair! All is not hopeless! If you have been reading this series so far, perhaps you found yourself wondering, “Does God want us to just sit back and do nothing while He rules the universe?”
And maybe some of you astute readers also had this thought in your mind: “that is all well and good, Brian, but you still have not sufficient answered my question about our Christian responsibility in a participative government. How should we interact with such a government, accepting the fact that God can use rulers who rebel against Him just as well as those who seek Him? What should Christians do in a land where our voice is heard and counted (or at least should be) in directing the future course of our government and nation?” What if you live in a place where the governing authorities are “of the people, by the people and for the people”?
To what degree should we involve ourselves in it, and how does this idea affect our perceptions of the nation in which we live?
I do believe these are really good and important questions that we must answer to follow Christ right here and now in history, but to answer them we must have our focus in the right place, and that is why I had to preface them with the previous two posts.
Our primary responsibility is to God and His Kingdom. He and His Kingdom must always be first, ceaselessly first, as Jim McGuiggan would say. Jesus calls His followers to “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” on one occasion, whereas the overarching message of the gospel and the whole of scripture calls us to pledge our allegiances to God!
This means that while we do care, and deeply, about the course of our nation, we do not build our hope and trust on such a sandy foundation, for “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3:20)!
We can thus, with this view, approach the desires and goals of our participatory government as always subservient to the advancement of the Kingdom which we serve, Christ’s! And Christ’s Kingdom does not depend on the strength or wealth of any nation in which Christians reside on earth, it exists without borders, beyond the reach and power of despots. Should God choose to judge this nation, so be it. This does not mean the promise of Christ has failed! This by no means insinuates that the purposes of God in furthering His kingdom are in jeopardy! Whether by building up or by tearing down an earthly nation, God is working to reach into the farthest corners of the world and into the darkest parts of human hearts to save as many souls as possible.
So then, if our voices cry out for anything in a land where we live as strangers and aliens, let them cry out first and foremost, “the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15)! This is not a political cry, and it cannot be made into laws of a land, but rather is a new covenant law that must be written upon human hearts (Hebrews 8:10f).
If, and only if, we are focused first on this kingdom, we will be appropriately focused to have our voice heard in our participative government on earth to the end of furthering God’s purposes.
In Jeremiah 29:7, we see God’s telling Israel—that is being carried off into captivity by Babylon— that they should be concerned about the welfare of the country in which they life. “Pray for” it, God says, because if the wickedness of this nation spirals out of control, the godly people inside of it, along with the wicked will also be swept up in its resulting judgment. God instructed His people to be concerned for the good welfare of the country in which they lived even though they were strangers and not citizens in it.
So, then, what if we have opportunity to prohibit sin in the place in which we live by voting, shouldn’t we take advantage of that? But, the question is: how exactly do we do that?
If Christians are the majority group of a participative government, then they could easily implement laws according to God’s expressed will in an effort to have the strongest and best possible society. Notice what I didn’t just say there. It does not make a society “godly” just because the nation enforces laws based on Christian morality over all people who live in it. Such laws could have a good influence of prohibiting sin, because these values are best for people, but at the same time these laws could NEVER reach down into the heart of those being governed to change their desires to sin, only the gospel of Christ can do that.
As Christians in this scenario, we must always remember that these laws are not “evidence that God rules a nation” but rather they are simply: a blessing of a restraining influence against sin for a people. Since we know God’s ways are best for any society of function, we would certainly expect that any place which—whether knowingly of unknowingly—was ruled according to at least some godly principles, would flourish in proportion to their adherence to them.
So, it is good and right then for a Chrisitan to desire others to follow God’s standard for living because we know they will bless the nation and give opportunities for spreading Christ’s Kingdom in times of peace and prosperity. Go ahead and cast your vote for your nation to enact Godly principles as you are given ability to do so.
But what about when the followers of Christ are no longer a majority in a nation with participatory government? Obviously, in such situations the laws will inevitably be changed to match those of the majority! Why would we expect anything else? As the new majority dismantles what the old majority had established, what should we expect? The obvious: any laws which were once based on a Christian worldview will evaporate, and possibly quite quickly.
What impact does this have on a now minority of Christians who live in this place of participatory government? Where we once expected favorable situations for Christians (because the majority shared similar beliefs) we should now expect unfavorable situations for Christians. Where Christian values once guided and preserved the society at large through the laws enacted by a participatory government, we should expect these values to be rejected in favor of the new majority's desires. As a result, we should expect such a society to rush toward moral decadence and an eventual implosion resulting in God’s judgement.
None of this should be surprising in the slightest, since these laws never were God’s plan to stop the sinfulness of mankind anyway! God’s plan to fight against and mitigate the destructive power of sin against individuals and society is the power of the CROSS of Jesus Christ! (1 John 3:8)
With our allegiance given to Christ’s Kingdom, we’ll stand firm through the storm. “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrew 12:28-29).
What responsibilities do we as Christians have toward our government? The New Testament is clear that Jesus instructed His followers to “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Matt 22:21) and also Romans 13:1 calls believers to obey those with governing authority.
Seems simple doesn't it?
But what about situations when those who exercise governing authority are ungodly?
What about those who not only live a sinful, morally bankrupt life, but also incentivize others to live the same? What about those who murder the innocent for greed or power, who abuse and oppress the helpless? What about rulers who actively seek to stamp out Christianity through various means of persecution? What about those who destroy nations and leave people in suffering and misery?
What responsibility do Christians have toward such rulers?
The answer might surprise us: “All of you must obey the government rulers. Everyone who rules was given the power to rule by God. And all those who rule now were given that power by God. So anyone who is against the government is really against something God has commanded” (Romans 13:1-2a ERV). God calls Christ followers to respect and submit to those who hold authority because whether for blessing or punishment, they have been instituted as they are by God.
It bothers me tremendously when people who call themselves Christians only accept Jesus words in Matt 22:21 and Paul’s words in Romans 13 when the authority in question behaves in a manner that they find acceptable!
Where did Jesus or Paul, or anywhere in the scriptures say that the sinful failings of a ruler exempted Christ followers from their obligation to submit to their authority? Does the Word suggest anywhere that under such circumstances their authority is forfeit? No, but many, many Christian philosophers down through the ages have based their entire approach to this matter on that single assumption: That the sinful failings of a leader forfeits their God-given authority.
If it was true that the sins of a leader forfeited their authority, then God could never use any human leader. Perhaps though, many mean to say it is not their sins generally, but specifically only leaders who actively and intentionally rebel against the purposes of God. But what does the Bible show us about these kinds of leaders? Does the Bible indicate they lose their authority for this reason?
One of the most neglected facts in this matter is simply this: the authorities about which Paul speaks in Romans 13, and also about which Jesus speaks in Matt 22:21 were hostile to Christians specifically and to YHWH generally. If you truly think any world ruler today has forfeited their authority because of their wickedness, surely we do not understand the historical backdrop in which the New Testament was written. Go read Seutonius' “The 12 Caesars” to get a realistic picture of what a truly evil ruler looks like, and then consider it was to THESE same Caesars that Christ called His people to submit in the New Testament!
This should not surprise anyone, but sadly it might. The New Testament instructions about submission to authorities were given to Christians when their own authorities were hostile against them.
Internally, we may feel swelling within us certain objections to this idea. We may find ourselves crying out, “but why God?! Why should we submit ourselves to ungodly leaders who drag your people off to kill them? How can we sit by and watch atrocities being committed by authorities? How can these wicked men have been put in these places of power by a God of goodness and justice?”
God has already given some answers to these questions in His word when we consider the leaders God uses in the Bible to accomplish His purposes. God is doing greater things than you or I can imagine, and as He works His eternal plan to save as many people for eternal life as possible, His plans include both building up and tearing down nations.
In Isaiah 45:1 God calls Cyrus by name to come and destroy nations for the sake of His eternal purposes, and verse 7 is quite telling. “I made the light and the darkness. I bring peace, and I cause trouble. I, the Lord, do all these things” (Isaiah 45:7 ERV). Whether peace or destruction comes on a nation God is working , “for the good of those who love Him” (Romans 8:28) Daniel 2:21 testifies that it is God who “gives power to kings, and he takes their power away.”
In a shocking revelation to Habakkuk, God tells the prophet that He will bring the wicked Babylonians to destroy His own nation of Israel! Make no mistake, God tells Habakkuk, I will work through these ungodly leaders to bring about the ultimate good for those who love Me, by destroying the corrupted Israel so that a faithful remnant will be preserved (see again Romans 8:28).
The labor of the prophet Jeremiah was to get the leaders of Israel to accept the difficult truth: yes, God can and will use a wicked nation to destroy His own (Israel) so that His own eternal purposes of ultimate good for as many lost souls as possible would stand. Jeremiah was hated and persecuted for this because most people don’t like to hear “God builds nations up and tears them down.”
Romans 9:17 shows us that God placed a wicked, hard-hearted Pharaoh in his position of authority knowing that He was wicked, but still in order to bring about the ultimate good for those who love Him (i.e. Romans 8:28).
When God appoints an authority, only He knows if it is time for this authority to build up and bless a people, or to bring them into judgement of their wickedness.
Which ever God has in mind a Christian’s responsibility toward the leader remains constant: respect the fact that God placed them there to accomplish His eternal purposes! Those purposes might include the judgement of a nation, and if so, our response should be as Job, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord!”