One Pastor’s Perspective on Christians and Government

Note: I’m sure there will be Christians who disagree with this post. I would be grateful if this were part of a larger conversation rather than a monologue. If you have a different, and biblical, way of thinking through this issue, I’d be grateful to hear from you. Or if you want clarification on something I’ve said, I’d welcome that too.

Over the last year churches have had to deal with restrictions on gathering because of COVID. Depending on where in the world you live, your church has been unable to meet in person for long stretches of time or only if those attending adhere to certain guidelines. Where I live in Nova Scotia, Canada, we’ve been able to meet in person since last July if we socially distance. Though due to a significant rise in COVID cases in our province, we are currently on a two-week shutdown.

Am I going to insist, despite our provincial government’s policy, that our church gather in person anyway? I am not. And even if I were inclined not to follow our government’s mandate, there’s a very good chance that I’d be alone in church on Sunday. My congregation, perhaps because they are largely older, are particularly cautious.

But we are already aware that there are churches who have refused to follow any of the guidelines. The claim is that doing so would be a violation of not only their specific convictions but actual biblical teaching. Furthermore, restrictions on faith gatherings are sometimes being characterized by those who refuse to abide by them as discrimination or even persecution. 

The question is whether or not this a fair assessment of the situation. Or to put it another way: when and on what basis can people of faith legitimately engage in the refusal to abide by such government mandates? 

And before I get to what my understanding of this is according to Scripture, let me underscore the fact that I am not an expert of any sort when it comes to the issue of church and state, what the Bible says about governing authorities, and when believers and other citizens can and should responsibly engage in civil disobedience. What I am about to say is based on my current best reading of Scripture. To that end, I am open to being corrected if I am misinterpreting Scripture or misapplying it. However, anyone who seeks to correct me would need to convince me of their interpretation of Scripture and not simply assert that their position is more sound than mine. 

One passage we need to consider is written by the apostle Peter:

Submit to every human authority because of the Lord, whether to the emperor as the supreme authority or to governors as those sent out by him to punish those who do what is evil and to praise those who do what is good. For it is God’s will that you silence the ignorance of foolish people by doing good. Submit as free people, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but as God’s slaves. Honor everyone. Love the brothers and sisters. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

1 Peter 2:13-17

Perhaps the first point to make concerns the form of governmental authority which was in place at the time Peter wrote these words. That is, we’re not talking about a democratic government system to which we are accustomed. People in Peter’s day didn’t vote for their emperors or governors. Not only that, but the authority in question here is Emperor Nero, a corrupt and violent leader who, according to the ancient historian Tacitus, burned Christians alive.

This makes it all the more curious and perhaps alarming that Peter uses the word submit. The word means to “place ourselves under” or in this case to live according to the governing authorities. As one commentator notes, “there could be few rulers indeed whose claims on loyalty would be sustained by less personal merit” than Nero. Why, then, would Peter exhort his readers to submit not only to the authorities generally, but Nero specifically?

For Peter to tell believers to honor an emperor such as Nero, the standard for civil disobedience must be especially high for those who claim allegiance to Christ. Indeed, the exhortations in 1 Peter are meant to emphasize that Christians are also called to be law-abiding citizens and that their compliance with the governing authorities is one component of their witness to the gospel.

Peter is not the only New Testament writer who writes of the relationship between believers and the governing authorities. Quite possibly the pre-eminent passage on this matter is written by another apostle, a contemporary of Peter’s:

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 13:1-7

Much like Peter, Paul emphasizes the duty of Christians to be good citizens. But Paul goes further here than Peter by saying governing authorities are instituted by God. He refers to the state as “God’s servant.” Those who resist governing authorities are “opposing God’s command.” 

Whatever else we say about the relationship between Christians and governing authorities, we have to contend with what both Peter and Paul are telling us. If a Christian holds the conviction that they need to disobey a particular law or mandate of the government, they need to have an especially compelling reason to do so. 

Perhaps we can put it this way: The most fundamentally compelling reason is if Christians are being forced to choose between obeying God and obeying the governing authorities. In such cases, Christians are obliged to disregard the governing authorities. 

In Acts 4:19-20, Peter and John were told under threat not to tell people about Jesus anymore. While these were religious and not governing authorities, how Peter and John responded is instructive and important. This is what they say: “Whether it’s right in the sight of God for us to listen to you rather than to God, you decide; for we are unable to stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.”

Let’s stop and think about this for a moment. The authorities were asking Peter and John to stop telling others about Jesus. Peter, John, and other followers of Jesus were compelled to share this good news with anyone who would listen. Not only that, they were expressly commissioned by Jesus prior to his glorious ascension to do precisely that. So even if the governing authorities of the time had made such an act illegal, the disciples of Jesus would have been compelled and even obligated to proclaim Jesus anyway. 

In any case, Christians, I think, can engage in civil disobedience or be non-compliant with a mandate or law that would either (1) contradict what we are clearly taught in Scripture and/or (2) prevent us from sharing the good news of Jesus with others. So, for instance, a governing authority cannot force a believer who is a medical doctor to perform abortions. Abortion, being murder, violates the clear teaching of Scripture. The government also cannot reasonably expect Christians to obey a law that would prevent them from telling others about Jesus. Jesus commands us to tell other people about him.

For our part, those of us who are followers of Jesus have to be willing to accept the consequences of our decisions. What was true of the early disciples, like Peter and John, and is also true, say, of Christians in China today, also has to be so with us. If obeying God and following Jesus means being arrested, so be it. Let’s not forget that the apostle Paul wrote a number of his letters while imprisoned. John had his vision recorded in the Book of Revelation on Patmos, an island to which he had been exiled.

Now, as far as I can reasonably tell, none of the current COVID restrictions prevent me from obeying what Scripture clearly teaches or from telling others about Jesus. In other words, I can very easily live out my life as a follower of Jesus even while abiding by the current guidelines put in place.

Now, whether the guidelines are reasonable in themselves, or absolutely necessary, is beside the point. Rather, if a Christian or a church chooses to ignore them, they need to look outside Scripture for their reasons.

But what might someone say in response to this? For instance, what Scriptural support might one give for violating the restrictions on gathering in person? 

Here is an example to which some may point. In Hebrew 10:23–25 we read this: Let us hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, since he who promised is faithful. And let us consider one another in order to provoke love and good works, not neglecting to gather together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day approaching.

The author of Hebrews recognizes that believers need spiritual support and encouragement to persevere in their faith. Living as a follower of Jesus requires community. Those who neglect Christian community are at risk of being much more spiritually vulnerable. And so the author exhorts readers to continue meeting in order to encourage one another.

However, let us be clear on this. Nowhere does this passage describe in detail how such meeting together should take place. Prominent pastors who have ignored gathering restrictions on the basis of this passage (but surely not only this passage?) seem to be interpeting it through the lens of how people in their particular cultural setting expect the church to gather. 

However, the writer of Hebrews wasn’t speaking about Christians gathering by the hundreds, much less thousands, in a modern church facility. Indeed, the early church met in one another’s homes. Pastors and others who conclude that they can gather their people in such large numbers in violation of government authority in our current situation cannot do so based on what we read in Hebrews. Put simply, we can apply this passage in Hebrews without having to gather together in large numbers in our modern church buildings.

Of course, I’m sure it’s possible someone can make a case as to why churches ought to be able to meet in large numbers despite COVID. My main point here is that it’s very difficult to do so on the basis of Scripture, from a specifically Christian perspective. 

At least as far as I can see, taking into account what the New Testament says of our relationship to government as instituted by God, alongside the apostolic example, means that, generally speaking, Christians can in good conscience abide by the COVID guidelines without the fear that they are disobeying God and his word. I think the burden of proof lies with those who posit otherwise.

What I want to say, too, is that I think those of us who are Christians need to be able to distinguish between obeying God even if it means disobeying a given law and fighting for religious freedom so that laws which put us in that position do not exist. We may or may not be able to change an existing law or how the governing authorities act towards people and communities of faith, but we should not conflate obeying God with the exercise of political power for the purpose of protecting religious freedom. 

It’s not that we shouldn’t work to ensure that citizens, whether Christian or otherwise, have the freedom to worship and live according to their beliefs and conscience. We certainly ought to do so. However, in an increasingly post-Christian culture we need to be prepared to follow Christ whatever law our government puts in place. While having religious freedom is always ideal, it’s never a guarantee. Plenty of Christians around the world know this all too well.

These are strange, challenging, and often confusing times. Christians in good faith are reaching different conclusions about how to follow Christ and the dictates of their consciences. Each of us is responsible for applying the teaching of Scripture to our everyday lives—including in our relationship to governing authorities. May we all exercise due diligence in this process, because though we are all called by God to live as responsible citizens, we are all also accountable to him for the manner in which we do so.

Let Us Pray

There are a number of churches that currently find themselves at odds with governing authorities because they believe COVID restrictions on gathering stand in violation of their conscience and God’s command. Currently, there are churches bringing lawsuits, authorities issuing fines, and, in one case, a pastor remains under arrest for violating government guidelines.

Whatever your view of these matters as a citizen of Canada and/or a person of faith is, the issue certainly has its complications and nuances. It is not my purpose here to dive into the conversation about religious freedom and government authority. One thing, however, is clear. Even when we disagree with governing authorities, we are always commanded to pray for them. Paul writes these words:

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.

1 Timothy 2:1-4

Let’s face it, this is not an easy time to be in government. So while it’s common these days even for Christians not only to criticize but to mock political leaders, perhaps it would be wise, humble, and generous to step back and to reflect on the challenges they face and the pressures they are under.

None of this is to say that people of faith never have reason to disagree or even to engage in civil disobedience as a matter of conscience; however, let us do so in a way that shows genuine love and concern for those responsible for making incredibly difficult decisions.

Here is an appropriate prayer upon which we can draw for this purpose.

“Almighty God, our heavenly Father, send down on those who hold public office, especially those working to stop the spread of the Coronavirus, the spirit of wisdom, charity, and justice; that with steadfast purpose they may faithfully serve in their offices to promote the well being of all people; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Book of Common Prayer (2019)

Of course, the other issue at play are the Christians and churches at odds with one another. Not all hold the same convictions about how to handle our current situation. Again, I think a similar principle ought to hold. Disagreement doesn’t require we be disagreeable. There is certainly no excuse for one church or group of believers to question the sincere faith of another because they don’t see eye to eye on how to respond to COVID restrictions. Indeed, I think we can all say that this last year has been an immensely challenging one. None of us has all the answers and most of us are trying to do what we think is right and good based on how we have weighed the evidence.

Perhaps what we need is more grace and humility–what a wonderful leaven that would be in our communities! To that end, perhaps as Christians and churches we ought to persist in prayer for one another more consistently, keeping in mind that doing so is one of the ways God the Father by his Spirit molds our hearts into the likeness of our Lord Jesus. To that end, again, here is a prayer that perhaps you can use as a model:

O God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior, the Prince of Peace: Give us grace to take to heart the grave dangers we are in through our many divisions. Deliver your church from all emnity and prejudice, and everything that hinders us from godly union. As there is one Body, and one Spirit, one hope of our calling, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, so make us to be of one heart and of one mind, united in the one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and love, that with one voice we may give you praise; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God in everlasting glory. Amen.

Book of Common Prayer (2019)

What an answer to prayer it would be if the tone of the rhetoric offered by Christian leaders and organizations did not simply mimic the tone of the rhetoric of our surrounding culture but instead offered an alternative narrative and vision more fully in keeping with the character of the Lord we say we confess and serve.

With that in mind, let us pray.

Religion and Politics? Am I Crazy?

Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer each person.

Colossians 4:6

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.

1 Timothy 2:1-4

Religion and politics—two subjects that we shouldn’t discuss in polite company. Allegedly.

And why? Presumably because all such discussion leads to heated, even divisive arguments.

And why does that happen? Again, presumably because each of us can have very strong opinions which we feel passionate about and are invested in—intellectually and emotionally.

To probe a little bit deeper still, this is, I think, because religion and politics concern some of the fundamental questions about who we are as human beings and what it means to be a community.

For example, when I think about politics and political parties, there are questions that come to mind. What is the role of government? How should power be divided between the federal government, provincial or state government, or local government? Why is that important? Where’s the balance between individual freedom and community responsibility? Different political parties can have profoundly distinct answers to these questions.

And all this without even broaching the subject of the relationship between religion and politics!

I raise these questions primarily because of what I’ve been watching unfold amongst our neighbours to the south. But not only because of that. Over the last few years I’ve also paid a little more attention to Canadian politics. We’ve got our own shenanigans, certainly. Very little of it has given me confidence in our political institutions.

But what really concerns me is the seemingly unbridgeable divide between political opponents. Yes, politics has always been a dirty game in many respects. Many people have long been cynical about the prospects for political unity. There’s always been mudslinging. Political attack ads are nothing new.

However, what I think is new is the extent of the division and partisanship, the degree to which the political culture has reached an almost thoroughly distrustful and angry tone. There is virtually no overlap between people on the left and right, no willingness to have honest, more nuanced conversation about fundamental issues. Can you imagine, for example, Justin Trudeau and Erin O’Toole going for coffee? To be honest, much of what has been going on lately in politics–in our country and south of the border–has felt like self-parody.

A significant part of the problem is the media, because in the fight for ratings and profit in a highly competitive industry political pundits, newscasters, and reporters have all become—admittedly or not—thoroughly biased in their approach. Networks and news organizations play to particular audiences, skewing certain stories deliberately, focusing on or even ignoring specific stories altogether. It feels disingenuous and all it seems to do is feed the fires of discontent and disunity. News no longer only covers politics; news is political.

Ok. So say I’m right about all this. What’s to be done? Surely our political systems are too large, too unwieldy, and too deeply entrenched for any real change to occur.

Maybe that’s where religion comes in.

But won’t that further division and deepen the antagonism? After all, that’s subject number two that we should avoid discussing.

Here’s where I address my own so-called tribe specifically: Christians, followers of Jesus, those who claim to believe the Bible, rely on its promises, and adhere and live by its teachings and principles.

Now, I get there is no one Christian tribe. We are sub-divided beyond reason in some respects. Hopefully, though, I’ll be saying something most followers of Jesus can affirm.

Here’s what I think: we need to cultivate and therefore model what it means to have meaningful, winsome, respectful conversation with people who profoundly disagree with us.

In other words, to talk without yelling, getting angry, and listening only to know how we can refute someone else’s point of view.

It means learning to see even people with whom we have deep disagreements as individuals made in the imago Dei, worthy of dignity and respect, as people we can’t reduce to labels and group affiliations.

It means wanting to win a person more than the argument. Who cares if you’re right if you’re being a jerk about it? What did the apostle Paul say about love in 1 Corinthians 13 again?

It means being able to understand those who differ from us on their terms rather than resorting to simplified caricatures or, worse, misrepresentations of their positions and ideas. To this end, we do have to have a willingness to have our ideas corrected or at least amended.

And it also means walking away from a conversation rather than allowing yourself to be caught in a toxic social media comments section or an escalating argument that’s generating more heat than light.

It also means, unfortunately, that there are going to be times when such conversation is impossible with some people. We may have to resign ourselves to the reality that there will be people who refuse to be civil in their tone and humble in their posture. No matter our best efforts, some conversations will not go or end the way we want.

Certainly it means that however important politics is, Christian eschatology doesn’t begin and end with another election cycle or political debate. Jesus is the Alpha and Omega, not Trump, Trudeau, or anyone else.

All of this means wanting to exhibit the qualities—indeed, the fruit—of the Spirit in our lives, our attitudes, our words, our conversations, our relationships, and our public engagement of important issues.

Is there more to be said on this? I have no doubt. But no less.

Honestly, don’t we want to be people who, through abiding in Christ, know the difference between God and Caesar? Each has their place, to be sure, but one is temporal and one is eternal. Best not to get the two mixed up and find ourselves investing too dogmatically and vehemently in the one that cannot bring us ultimate peace.

In the meantime, if we do it right, with civility and humility, I think religion and politics are precisely the things we should be talking about.