Christians are to be in the world, but not of the world, balancing their primary allegiance to God with their secondary allegiance to their national government.
Religions today are very conflicted regarding their role vis-à-vis national governments. Some espouse extreme positions. For some, their religion is the state government. Others encourage their members to isolate themselves as distantly as possible from any relationship with the state.
Most, though, fall somewhere in the middle, integrating to some degree their religion with their politics. But with upheaval inherent in governments around the world, this often leads to sad stories of churches split apart and members alienated by politics. What’s wrong with that picture?
Jesus and His apostles operated from a very different perspective. They lived in the ultra challenging position of being under two governments—the domination of pagan Rome and the ecclesiastical rule that Rome allowed the Jewish rulers, who claimed to represent God’s government.
So which government did Jesus support? Only one—the Kingdom of God. In fact, He turned the focus of His followers away from all human governments and set their hearts on that coming Kingdom.
A Christian’s citizenship
Jesus’ definitive statement about governments came when He was dragged before Pilate. The Roman governor, confused about the charges against Jesus, asked if He claimed to be the king of the Jews. Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here” (John 18:36).
Paul grasped this and strongly urged the Church to comprehend the principle that “our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20). He did not say our citizenship “will be” in heaven. No, it’s now! Christians are to consider themselves now first as citizens of God’s government and, secondarily, of whichever human government they’re under.
Identifying as “citizens of heaven” is one of the keys to true Christian unity. Identifying as “citizens of heaven” is one of the keys to true Christian unity. Otherwise, we descend into the “contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions”—works of the flesh described in Galatians 5:19-21—that mark human politics.
But how are we to live in this world as we await the return of Christ and His Kingdom?
Have you ever heard that Christians should be “in the world but not of the world”? The expression is based on John 17. Praying for His followers, Jesus said, “I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world” (verses 15-16).
So how are citizens of heaven supposed to live in the world but not be of the world? True followers of Christ should carefully consider three biblical principles:
God is the One who “removes kings and raises up kings”—and we are not always privy to His will and purpose!
King Nebuchadnezzar was not a nice man—surely one Christians should “get out the vote” to depose, right? Yet God not only allowed him to come to power, but to brutally conquer His people and destroy His temple! Among the Jews the Babylonians carried into captivity was Daniel, who over time was prominently positioned by God in Nebuchadnezzar’s court. Daniel eventually interpreted two dreams for the king, and both episodes contain vital lessons for today:
“Blessed be the name of God forever and ever, for wisdom and might are His. And He changes the times and the seasons; He removes kings and raises up kings” (Daniel 2:20-21).
- “This decision is . . . in order that the living may know that the Most High rules in the kingdom of men, gives it to whomever He will, and sets over it the lowest of men” (Daniel 4:17).
We, the living, need to remember these eternal principles! Did the Israelites ever consider that God had anything to do with the wicked Pharaoh being in office? Yet Paul, quoting Exodus 9:16, wrote, “For the Scripture says to the Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth’” (Romans 9:17).
Did God’s prophet Samuel perceive from the outset that Jesse’s youngest boy, out tending sheep, would be Israel’s king? No. But God was working out something no one else saw!
Do we consider that we may not know God’s thinking? Who among us knows for certain God’s choice for leadership and the reasons He may have?
Don’t these examples warn us that citizens of heaven who get embroiled in politics on earth run the risk of working against God or resisting His will?
Christians are to respect those in authority and submit to government rules as long as they do not conflict with their obeying God.
Peter’s words—“Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king” (1 Peter 2:17)—might have been tough to hear for some Christians, given the persecution they were experiencing. They might still be hard to swallow for some today! Why would God say that, especially when some leaders are so dishonorable?
Peter explained: “Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men” (verses 13-15).
Paul also elaborated on our relationship to human government, and his basic premise was this: “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves” (Romans 13:1-2).
In verse 7 he used taxes as an example (paid, in this case, to a pagan empire hostile to Christianity), echoing Jesus’ instruction to pay “to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Luke 20:25).
Paul lived his own words to “render . . . honor to whom honor” (Romans 13:7). Paul was standing before the Jewish council that wanted to kill him, and when Ananias ordered someone to “strike him on the mouth,” Paul retorted, “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall!” But when others accused him of reviling the high priest, Paul quickly apologized, saying, “I did not know, brethren, that he was the high priest; for it is written [citing Exodus 22:28], ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people’” (Acts 23:1-5).
It is God’s way and God’s will for His people to be respectful of rulers and obedient to the laws of the land.
Citizens of heaven walk in these footsteps—respecting and submitting to the powers that be insofar as doing so does not conflict with obeying God.On the other hand, situations occasionally arise that force Christians to choose between obeying God and obeying man. Daniel’s companions Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego, facing death in Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace, stood strong in faith, declaring, “Let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods” (Daniel 3:18).
When imprisoned and threatened for preaching the gospel, “Peter and the other apostles answered and said: ‘We ought to obey God rather than men’” (Acts 5:29).
Citizens of heaven walk in these footsteps—respecting and submitting to the powers that be insofar as doing so does not conflict with obeying God.
Christians should pray for their leaders.
“Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence” (1 Timothy 2:1-2). This scripture is unequivocal, regardless of whose government we’re under (see “Praying for Leaders”).
Part of the gospel involves showing the world the source of its troubles—sin!—and preaching repentance. Daniel even dared to call out Nebuchadnezzar this way: “Therefore, O king, let my advice be acceptable to you; break off your sins by being righteous, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the poor. Perhaps there may be a lengthening of your prosperity” (Daniel 4:27).
He respectfully honored the king but boldly proclaimed the truth. No doubt Daniel prayed often, not only for wisdom, but also for his godless leader to do the right thing.
Ambassadors for Christ
Jesus and His apostles in the early Church never tried to control the course of human affairs through political involvement. In fact, they distanced themselves from it, recognizing that man’s governments can never bring peace to the world. Their hearts and energies shifted to the government Christ proclaimed and represented, the coming Kingdom of God.
But until Christ returns, He wants His people to, “if it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men” (Romans 12:18). By following these three principles, we can properly live under the unrighteous governments of man as “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:20) and as righteous citizens of heaven.