In my previous post I make some assertions concerning the Christian’s responsibilities toward God and toward human government. I feel I need to say more about these two relationships which frequently conflict.
Old Testament on Human Government
At least as early as the Noahic Covenant (Genesis 9:5, 6) man has been given the authority to take the life of another man. Whether we should call this the institution of human government has been debated, although it is the first place we read of God authorizing the use of force in governing. Chapter 10 tells of the division of mankind into nations after the flood and the establishment of at least one kingdom.
It is in the book of Daniel that we find some of the clearest teachings on the establishment of the nations. “His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and His dominion is from generation to generation” (4:3b). “The Most High is Ruler over the kingdom of mankind and bestows it on whom He wishes, and sets over it the lowliest of men” (4:17b, 25b). This book is the story of Hebrew believers living in a Gentile kingdom. It emphasizes over and over that God is sovereign and that all human government has been set up by Him. Even though elsewhere in the book the nations of the world are seen as ravenous beasts, they are still under the sovereign control of God.
There are, of course, many more passages of Scripture which teach this, though I hope these will suffice.
Earlier God had made a covenant with Abraham and promised that He would make him “a great nation,” which, of course, would be Israel (Genesis 12:1-3). Later God established a kingdom in Israel under the rule of David and his descendants (2 Samuel 7:5-17), “ … I will raise up your seed after you … and I will establish his kingdom … I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (2 Samuel 7:12, 13).
The “nations” and “peoples” of the earth are, however, in opposition to this established kingdom. “Why are the nations in an uproar and the peoples devising a vain thing? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers take counsel together against the LORD and against His Anointed” (Psalm 2:1, 2).
So we see something of a paradox in the Old Testament. God has established a particular nation/kingdom as His own, and He had also established every other nation of the world, even those which were in opposition to His nation.
The New Testament has a similar situation except that the follower of Christ does not have an earthly kingdom. He is expecting a future kingdom to be established at the return of Christ. He is both a citizen of that future kingdom and he is presently a member of the body of Christ, the church.
Jesus recognized the tension between the worldly kingdom and the heavenly in His well-known “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God that things that are God’s” (Mark 15:17; Matthew 22:21). Of course, we should be careful to interpret that saying in its context. He had been posed a question designed to trap Him. Is it lawful to pay tribute to Caesar or not?” A “yes” or “no” answer would have gotten Him into trouble, so He asked to see a denarius, the tribute coin. The denarius had Caesar’s image and so it was due him. But man is the image of God, so what is due to God is man himself.
Paul in Romans 13, recognized the fact that God established human government. He tells us that the governing authorities are established by God,” that these governing authorities are “the ordinances of God,” “God’s servants,” “God’s religious servants.”
Both Paul and Peter tell us that governing authorities have responsibilities.
They are to minister “for good” (Romans 13:4); they are to be “an avenger for wrath upon the one who practices evil” (Romans 13:4); they are to promote tranquility (1 Timothy 2:2), which I would assume means a maintaining of order; they are to punish evildoers and commend those who do good (1 Peter 2:14). To sum up: they are to promote and execute justice.
Paul tells us that we also have a responsibility toward government: to submit; to pay to them what is their due: taxes, tribute, fear, honor (Romans 13). Elsewhere he tells us that we have a responsibility to pray for “kings and all in positions of authority” (1 Timothy 2:1, 2). “To submit to rulers, authorities, to be obedient …” (Titus 3:1). Peter says much the same (1 Peter 2:13-17).
But we should be wary of any simplistic legalism which equates the two spheres and makes blind obedience to government equal to obedience to God. The New Testament has much more to say on the subject than the above passages: in fact the picture of human government is pretty negative.
Jesus twice paints a seemingly negative picture of the “leadership style” of the world’s rulers. The first time is when James and John are jostling for front seats in the future kingdom and the other ten disciples become indignant. Jesus calls them to Himself and says, “You know that the rulers of the nations lord it over them and their great ones exercise authority over them. It will not be so among you …” (Matthew 20:25, 26; Mark 10:42, 43).
The second time is at the last supper when the disciples were having a dispute over which one was the greatest. Again Jesus uses similar words, “The kings of the nations lord it over them and those who exercise authority are called benefactors. But not so with you … “ (Luke 22:25, 26).
It would seem that Jesus saw the political leaders of His day as serving as negative examples of leadership for His disciples. We should note, however, that while He does not speak favorably of these leaders, neither does He condemn their actions. I believe He is simply stating the difference in leadership “style” within the two spheres. Interestingly, Peter many years later uses the same term (katakurieuō) when he tells church elders, “ … shepherd the flock of God … not as lording it over … “ them (1 Peter 5:2, 3). Apparently he got the message.
When Jesus was on trial before Pilate, He acknowledged two kingdoms. “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would be fighting so that I might not be handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here” (John 18:36). Later in the trial when Pilate threatened that he had authority to either release or crucify Him, Jesus reminded him, “You would not have authority over me unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11).
Paul, writing to the Corinthians believer who were fixated on wisdom, tells them that there are two types of wisdom: “the wisdom of God” and “the wisdom of men,” or “the wisdom of the rulers of this age” (1 Corinthians 2:5-7). “ … we speak God’s wisdom … which none of the rulers of this age understood, for if they had understood, they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory” (2:7, 8).
This goes along with the statement in the prayer of the early disciples after persecution had begun. They quoted the second Psalm (see above) as being somehow fulfilled in the crucifixion of Christ. “For truly in this city, there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate along with the nations and the peoples of Israel” (Acts 4:27).
So where am I going with this? If I may summarize:
God, in both Testaments is seen as having established two different and sometimes conflicting entities: human government (the kingdom of man) and the kingdom of God. The believer will always find himself in tension between the two, as he in a sense is a citizen of both kingdoms. Our first allegiance, of course, must always be to the kingdom of God.
The established human government – in our case, the USA – has responsibilities, both towards its citizens and also toward God. It has its laws and has a God-given right and responsibility to enforce them, by physical force, if necessary. They are to hold people accountable for obeying their laws.
But this is not the responsibility of the church or the believers. Our responsibility is to love our neighbors as ourselves. Where we are convinced that the laws of the land are just, we are responsible to obey them.
But where we feel the laws are contrary to the law of God, we are responsible to disobey. For example, there are thousands, even millions of Christians in Muslim and communist dominated lands who regularly break the law by gathering for worship or reading the Bible.