(Note: The blog post below is my response to a question regarding the topic in the title. It is written for the current context of the United States of America. I realize that some may happen upon this post who will say the title should really say, “Living under a Non-Conservative Christian Government.” Okay, I understand what you mean, but I am writing for the context in which I minister and to the perspective of conservative, evangelical Christians. Part of this post appeared as part of an earlier blog post called “Worthy to Suffer?”)
With the results of the most recent elections, many feel that the United States has embarked on a course that will irrevocably alter our country and move us in an ungodly direction. Time will tell. It remains to be seen just exactly what will be done, what policies this administration will be able to implement, and if midterm elections will offer a course correction as they have in the past. I think much of the tension and concern in our country right now results from hype and overreaction by the media on both the right and left. I don’t trust anyone who makes a profit by keeping people angry—and that describes mainstream media and conservative alternatives to media.
One word that I feel is both overused and used incorrectly by media, politicians, and even pastors is “unprecedented.” Very little of what we see today is unprecedented. Our country has had contested presidential elections before and even one that may have been decided with behind-closed-door dealings. We have had periods of low church attendance and involvement. On average, church attendance has been around 20% for the United States’ entire history, with the high points coming during the Second Great Awakening in the early 1800s and the late 1940s and 1950s.
Just the same, we must recognize that no matter who is in the White House, we live in a society that is growing less and less religious and more and more secular. Some elements are hostile to evangelical Christians, more don’t like us, and some don’t mind us but wish we would stay quiet. How do we respond to this situation as Christians and live out the Christian life in a pluralistic, unchristian society?
We are not the first Christians to face life in a pluralistic, unchristian culture. The New Testament was written by and for Christians living under the Roman Empire who faced potential persecution at any time. What the Bible says about relating to the government is very applicable to American Christians today? We live in a period similar in worldviews and philosophy to the early church period, and they turned the world upside down. If we live obediently to God and His Word, we may do the same.
Christians and Their Relationship to the Government
The first thing that the Bible clarifies is that, as Christians, we must have our priorities in the correct order. As Christians, our first citizenship is in the Kingdom of God and not the United States. Jesus commands us, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you.” (Matthew 6:33) More than our nation’s interest, we are to pursue the Kingdom’s interest. In God’s Kingdom, we are fellow citizens not only with some of our fellow Americans but with a multitude that eventually will be from every tribe, nation, people, and language. Our priority as Christians is to grow His Kingdom through sharing the gospel and praying, sending, or going to take the gospel to the ends of the earth.
Second, we must recognize the role that God gives the government. God has ordained government to provide laws and enforce them to protect its residents, Christian and non-Christian.
Let everyone submit to the governing authorities, since there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are instituted by God. So then, the one who resists the authority is opposing God’s command, and those who oppose it will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you want to be unafraid of the one in authority? Do what is good, and you will have its approval. For it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, because it does not carry the sword for no reason. For it is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong. Therefore, you must submit, not only because of wrath but also because of your conscience. And for this reason you pay taxes, since the authorities are God’s servants, continually attending to these tasks. Pay your obligations to everyone: taxes to those you owe taxes, tolls to those you owe tolls, respect to those you owe respect, and honor to those you owe honor. (Romans 13:17)
When Christians serve in the military, law enforcement, and legal professions, they help the government fulfill its God-given purpose. In the passage above, Paul describes three duties of Christians. As we read these, it is essential to remember that these commands were for Christians living in the Roman Empire, a cruel, pagan society with a pagan emperor that could and would persecute the church. These duties are:
- Submit to the authorities and the laws they make if they don’t conflict with the commands of Christ.
- Pay taxes and other obligations.
- Respect and honor those in authority.
Further, Paul told Timothy that we should pray for those in government in 1 Timothy 2:1-4:
First of all, then, I urge that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all those who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good, and it pleases God our Savior, who wants everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
And if the government persecutes us, what then?
The Bible reveals that persecution, in some form, is common to the Christian experience. Jesus warned his disciples that because they were not of the world, the world would hate them. (John 15:19: If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own. However, because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of it, the world hates you.) Paul, writing to Timothy about persecution, said that all who desire to live godly lives would suffer for it. (2 Timothy 3:12: In fact, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.) The aversion that some American Christians have to persecution is an aversion to what is typical for many of our Christian brothers and sisters worldwide. With the prosperity gospel’s influence on American evangelicalism, this aversion is a symptom of a more profound reaction to the suffering that arises from misunderstandings of how God uses suffering in our lives. (1 Peter 1:6-7: You rejoice in this, even though now for a short time, if necessary, you suffer grief in various trials so that the proven character of your faith—more valuable than gold which, though perishable, is refined by fire—may result in praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.)
Also, the Bible shows that there is nothing wrong with avoiding persecution if one can do so. When Saul, the future Paul, began his persecution, the early church scattered. (Acts 1) Later, Paul would appeal to his rights as a Roman citizen to avoid a whipping. (Acts 22:23-29) The problem with becoming a martyr is that you can only do it once. If possible, to avoid without compromising the faith, the Bible reveals there is no shame in doing so. If we can escape persecution by moving out of its way or using our legal rights, we can, and most likely, should.
We also see in Scripture that the witness of Christians under persecution can advance the gospel. Paul and Silas’s jailer in Philippi and his entire family put their faith in Christ after Paul and Silas did not escape despite the opportunity. (Acts 16:25-34) The number of Christians in Iran is a modern example of how the church can thrive and grow despite persecution. The Bible speaks clearly on how believers should respond to their persecutors. The prophet Jeremiah told the exiled Judeans to seek the city’s welfare where they lived and to pray for it. (Jeremiah 29:7: Pursue the well-being of the city I have deported you to. Pray to the Lord on its behalf, for when it thrives, you will thrive.) Jesus commanded his followers to love their enemies and to pray for those who persecute them. (Matthew 5:44: But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.)
Also, biblically, Christian persecution, to be labeled as actual Christian persecution, must be for following and obeying Christ. Peter wrote that suffering for the name of Christ is a blessing. Such sufferers should continue to do good and trust God. (1 Peter 4:12-19) Many consider the attacks that they suffer for their political positions to be Christian persecution. However, for persecution to be Christian persecution, it must be for our faith in Christ. This point is difficult because many American believers strongly connect our political views with our faith. Nik Ripken explained that our political beliefs on sexuality issues and abortion are shared by others in the world, including Muslims. He wrote:
One must stand firm in regard to social issues in an ever-increasing non-biblical environment. Yet we cannot be defined by social stances that are in harmony with some of the most conservative Islamic countries on the planet. Believers in persecution can avoid being persecuted if they simply leave two things alone. If they will leave Jesus alone and witness alone they can avoid persecution. But they refuse. They insist on picking up Jesus as their Lord and Savior and they refuse to keep Him to themselves. Let’s be honest; in much of the world if one simply accepts Jesus as their “Lord and Savior,” keeping Him privately to yourself, then you can die at an old age in your sleep. If one refuses to pick up and witness, then they can live in relative safety as a Christian in places as hostile as Saudi Arabia and North Korea.
Christian persecution only happens to those worthy of it. After being brought before the Sanhedrin twice, imprisoned, beaten, and tried for preaching the gospel and their ministry, the disciples went out from the presence of their captures rejoicing. (Acts 5:41-42) They rejoiced because they were worthy to suffer for the name of Jesus. American evangelicals should be less concerned with if persecution is coming or not and more concerned with living for Jesus in a way that makes them worthy of it. The goal of discipleship is to make disciples worthy of sharing in the sufferings of Jesus and who willingly and joyfully would do so.
So, to summarize, we should expect persecution, make sure it comes as a result of living out the gospel, and seek to win the persecutors to Christ by praying for them and blessing them.
Some Final Thoughts
Living out the above is only possible if we are truly committed to seeking the Kingdom first. God reigns not only over his Kingdom but all the kingdoms of the earth. He is in charge of all that is happening, and all serve His purpose. We can rest in Him and trust Him no matter who is in control of the government. We pray and leave matters in His hands.
People who lived and believed those things in the early church turned their world upside down. They were not passive. They boldly lived for Christ. They boldy proclaimed the Gospel. They boldy loved their neighbors. Many boldly gave their lives. In the end, they turned the Roman Empire upside down.
Some may ask, is violent attack on one’s government ever permitted by Scripture? The New Testament does not open the possibility of such action. The New Testament gives no examples of it but instead warns against breaking laws and acting in anger. Besides the above Scriptures on how Christians should relate to the government that I cited above, James 1:20 states that the “anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” The best Old Testament example of living under the threat of government is David, who though he had been anointed king, did not overthrow Saul but waited on God to lift him to the throne.
Second, our country is remarkably resilient, and I still believe that America has a future. I don’t know for how long. Every nation and power in history has risen and fallen in God’s timing. We have survived wars, domestic terror, Islamist terror, bad presidents, economic crashes, civil war, periods of social upheaval and unrest, and more. Our founding fathers created a system of government that has worked well. We still have a system of checks and balances, elections, and citizen participation in government that I still believe to be the best in the world. I don’t believe in nameless people churning out conspiracy theories. Honestly, if they believed their theories, I would think that would put their names and credentials to those theories so that the rest of us could decide for ourselves about their credibility, and thus the soundness of their theories.
So, for now, I will believe in America’s resilience until America gives me a reason to stop believing. And I will always believe in God because He is always faithful.