How to Think about Government in a Post-Christian America
The New Testament is not about politics, but was written in a political context. Three Roman emperors are mentioned in the New Testament. Octavian, known as Caesar Augustus, is mentioned early in the story of Jesus’s birth (Luke 1:26). In Luke 3, we learn that John the Baptist began his ministry under the reign of Tiberius. Later, Claudius is noted for his anti-Semitism, driving out all Jews from Rome (Acts 18:1). This would have included, of course, Jewish believers in the Messiah Jesus.
Pontius Pilate, Sergius Paulus, Antonius Felix, and Porcius Festus were Roman governors also noted in Luke and Acts. Then, of course, there was the notorious Herod family, no less than six of whose members are mentioned in the New Testament.
Although Paul had the joy of leading Sergius Paulus to Christ when the latter was proconsul in Cyprus, the rest of these men were not the kind one would want over for burgers and a game night. As many scholars have noted, Roman rule was brutal and uncompromising. Describing the Roman conquest of Britain, the second century historian Tacitus wrote, “They create desolation and called it peace.”
It was in this context that Paul and Peter, both of whom would be murdered by Rome for their faith in Christ, explained to the early believers how to respond to civil government. Following are principles taught in Romans 13:1-7 and I Peter 2:13-17 that apply to us in today’s post-Christian America.
First, both apostles call on Christians to “be subject to the governing authorities” and to “every human institution.” Why? Because these authorities have been “instituted by God” and obedience to the laws they create is a matter of Christian testimony.
Following the law “for the Lord’s sake” prevents anyone from credibly accusing His disciples of lawlessness. As Peter writes, “For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.” This did not stop the persecution of the early Christians, but at least that persecution was not based on their rebellion to Rome’s authority.
There is also an extra benefit to following the law: we do so “for the sake of conscience.” God has written “the work of the law … in our hearts” (Romans 2:15). When we obey His will, this inner sense of right and wrong affirms within us that He is pleased.
Second, government’s primary function is to “punish wrong.” The force of the state is “a terror” to those who engage in “bad conduct,” its leaders having been “sent by [God] to punish those who do evil.” The “sword” referred to here was a “machaira,” a vicious weapon used in gladiatorial combat and capital punishment. Acts 12:2 tells us it is the weapon used to execute the apostle James.
Third, obedience to the law is not always easy or pleasant, but it is mandatory. We are to “pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed.” This applies to us as much as to our faithful forebears. By extension, it means we need to obey traffic laws, recycle, use crosswalks, and 100 other things we might find inconvenient or disagreeable. This is the standard to which God calls us.
Fourth, we are to show “respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.” Strikingly, Peter commands that we “honor the emperor.” In Greek, these words are especially vivid. “Respect” literally means “fear” — we recognize that a government that has the God-given authority to punish lawbreakers merits a healthy fear. “Honor” connotes the idea of respect, a sense of deference if not to the officeholder than his or her position.
There is one great qualifier to all of these things. When commanded to stop preaching the gospel, “Peter and the other apostles said, ‘We must obey God rather than men’ (Acts 5:29).” Just as Daniel would not bow to the golden image of King Nebuchadnezzar, so must followers of the eternal King submit ultimately to no one but Him.
In an era when our president celebrates tragic distortions of human sexuality on the White House lawn, and the governor of the nation’s largest state signs laws affirming abortion as an “essential service,” it’s hard to honor and respect those in authority. Yet we are commanded to make “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (I Timothy 2:1-3). Praying that God would not only protect those in authority but turn their hearts to Him and to promoting public policies that comport with His will is a privilege and duty we too often neglect.
Unlike the believers in the Roman era, we are citizens who can defend and advance those things that sustain and enhance life, liberty, and family. Not to use this precious right, gained for us at such great cost, is to squander something God has entrusted to us.
Rob Schwarzwalder is Senior Lecturer in Regent University's Honors College.