How the Christian Relates to the Government

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Here’s a short piece I wrote for our church for Sunday, long before we had any idea who would win the election…

I’m writing this on a cold Tuesday evening but by the time you read it we will have elected a new government for Australia. How is the Christian meant to relate to the government, whoever it is that ends up in charge on Sunday morning?

The simple answer is “with respect, recognising that every authority is put in place by God”. It doesn’t matter if we like the Prime Minister or not, we still have the same duty to know our place and act accordingly.

Interestingly, the New Testament works from a base assumption that we won’t be happy with whoever is in charge! All three Biblical texts that address this question directly take that same basic viewpoint. First we have the trick question posed to Jesus in Matt. 22:17 (Mark 12:14, Luke 20.22), “Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”. The Jews of Jesus’ day hated their Roman overlords and so they hated paying the tax (and they held a special contempt for those Jews who collected tax for the Romans). So the question tries to trap Jesus between loyalty to his own people and loyalty to the Romans who would deal harshly with anyone challenging their authority (see also Luke 23:2). Jesus’ answer is even more clever,

Matt. 22:21    …he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

According to Jesus it’s right to pay your taxes; give Caesar what you owe him. It’s not a compromise against God because God’s rule is even greater! It’s God’s coins whether they’re in my wallet or in Caesar’s!

The Apostles teach exactly the same thing. First Paul,

Rom. 13:1-3    Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 

Whoever is Prime Minister this morning, that’s what God already decided! You might not like the choice that the people around you have made but remember that when Paul wrote to the Romans it was probably the Emperor Nero who was on the throne – a murderous persecuting tyrant. Yet Paul still says his authority is given by God. But it is given for a purpose; to punish evil and reward good (Rom 13:4). We might want to protest against a government when it does the opposite but even then there is a right way to go about it, recognising that for whatever reason God has put them in place.

And we pray that they might do their jobs well so we can get on with our lives,

1Tim. 2:1-2  I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— 2 for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. 

The Apostle Peter puts it a little more succinctly,

1Pet. 2:13-14   Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, 14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.

It’s clear from 1Peter that the government might be persecuting them. Nevertheless, we are called to submit just as Christ himself did and in this way we show others around us what Jesus himself is like (1Peter 2:21 ff.).

So what should I do on the Sunday morning following the election? If I want to obey Christ and model him to others around me then it’s a simple answer:

Pay your taxes, whatever you owe. Respect the government, whatever they’re like. Pray for our rulers, whoever they are.

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  1. Geoff Fletcher

    Thankyou David. Your thoughts please on the differing contexts & conduct of Daniel and (pre-King) David when they were each under ungodly authority? I wonder also what could have been said to those who lived (& likely died) under the authority of Pol Pot? And what do we make of the complex sometimes conflicted behaviours of the Protestant & Catholic churches in Nazi Germany, or of one who did not submit, like Bonhoeffer? All rather difficult.

    And to conflate respecting government with another issue – I wonder if religious marriage celebrants who have lost faith in the law of the land concerning same-sex marriage (& unlawful discrimination) should rescind their agency to effect legal marriages?

    1. David Ould

      hi Geoff,
      Lots of good questions – not sure I have answers to match.
      Daniel and David have different contexts, particularly given that David was the Lord’s anointed and knew that one day he would take the throne. It is interesting to note that he sees no need to take Saul’s life and actively stops those who would do so on his behalf.
      In a similar way, Daniel was respectful of his pagan rulers, even when quietly doing what he knew was right (especially with respect to freedom of conscience in his religious observance).
      I think there’s some common threads there, even in very different contexts.
      I suspect not many of us fully know what the Christians in Cambodia or Nazi Germany went through or what they were thinking. I’ve certainly not done enough research to give a fully-orbed answer. One thing I do think is an important principle is the difference in Romans 12&13 between our personal response (forgiveness) and the responsibility of the state (to bear the sword of God’s wrath). That’s why I’m an advocate of interventionist foreign policy against evil rulers. Worth noting that this is part of the passage that I originally cite in the OP.

      1. Geoff Fletcher

        Thanks David. More good food for thought re tools for interpretation and application – which I will chew on! Have a good day.

  2. Bruce Wearne

    Goodstuff David … well done. Let’s keep trying to get this “strange” Biblically-directed view “out there”, especially to young Christians wondering “what the heck?” and older Christians alarmed by a world falling apart – can I be presumptuous to add to your salient sermon by referring to our corporate Gospel-directed responsibilities? Llet’s pray that God will help us see in an ongoing way that our citizenship is the avenue He makes possible for us, so in repentantly following Jesus together, whatever our ‘backgrounds’, we will not neglect to lock arms (Hebrews 10:25) and put our considerable energy into loving our civic neighbours with public justice and equity – all of them, whatever their identity, including, especially, those fleeing to these shores for asylum, who may be deeply traumatised by the dumbfounding election result, however they may come since this is integral to living the Gospel “way”? Keep up the good work.

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