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.

Some Things to Read on How Christians Approach Culture & Politics

We live in confusing times. Navigating the cultural landscape as people of faith is not always easy. What kind of posture do we adopt?

I thought this article on “The Question That Dictates How Christians Approach Culture and Politics” by David French was insightful and worth reading. He asks, “Does the primary threat to the church come from within or without?”

Daniel Darling has an article that builds on David French’s here.

As Christians, we owe it to ourselves, our families and friends, and our larger communities to increase our thoughtfulness and capacity for having nuanced conversations on important cultural issues. Many of the voices out there—on the left and the right—are loud and divisive. I think Jesus calls us to an alternative posture.

Where are the Dividing Lines?

Let’s take a brief inventory:

Trinitarian versus Arian.

Calvinism versus Arminianism.

Infant baptism versus believer’s baptism.

Cessationism versus continuationism.

Young earth creationism versus old earth creationism.

Complementarianism versus egalitarianism.

Church organs versus guitar and drums.

Carpet versus tile.

Ok. So those last couple of examples might have been a little facetious. Churches never fight over music or buildings.

Right. Ok.

But my real question is: At what point do differences between Christians become something worth dividing over?

I could add to the above list more current hot-button cultural talking points such as Critical Race Theory, LBGTQ issues, COVID restrictions, masks, and vaccines, Liberal or Conservative, and Democrat or Republican.

I don’t think I have ever seen politics and culture have as profound an effect on Christians and churches as much as I have over the last few years or so–and maybe especially over the last year. I know it’s always been a reality, but with COVID-19 it feels like everything has gone up several notches. Whether the last year has simply exacerbated pre-existing differences or has given rise to new ones, I don’t know. But it’s incredibly frustrating and discouraging as a follower of Jesus and as a pastor.

What differences are fundamental and which are secondary? How do we define what we might call a “gospel” issue? Because not every conflict or issue listed above ought to carry the same theological weight. So, how do we weigh these matters?

Part of what I am wondering is how much difference of opinion can exist within one congregation, in one body of believers? If in one congregation you have significantly different political perspectives, can people of such deep but differing convictions still serve together for the sake of the kingdom? What about theological differences regarding the age of the earth and how to read and interpret Genesis 1 and 2? What if two people in a group of believers reach different conclusions? Can they still serve in the church alongside one another, pray together, and worship together?

At what point do differences become intractable? And is this always necessarily a matter of conviction or is it sometimes relational rather than theological? That is, might it be that the issue is more about my inability to accept that someone else doesn’t share my view which I hold so strongly?

In other words, can I accept someone else as a brother or sister in Christ even if they don’t believe everything exactly as I do? And where do I draw the line? Or better put: how do I determine where to draw the line?

Are Christians destined to gather only in groups where there is agreement on virtually every issue, both theological and cultural? Are we only comfortable having fellowship with Christians who never challenge our assumptions and ideas?

Look, I’m not saying that a Christian can never have a good reason to leave a church or even switch denominations or traditions. I am a trinitarian who thinks Arianism was heresy. I am a continuationist with respect to spiritual gifts. What I am asking is how we make that determination. What is our standard? And before you say our standard is the Bible, remember that people reach very different conclusions based on their interpretations of Scripture. Not that I disagree with saying the Bible is our ultimate guide to faith and practice, just that it’s a little messier than simply making that assertion.

Maybe I can put it this way. What was Jesus praying for in John 17? In case you don’t know what I mean, John 17 contains what is often called Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer. He prays for his disciples and for those who will believe because of their ministry. After he prays for his disciples, he goes on to pray this way:

I pray not only for these, but also for those who believe in me through their word. May they all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us, so that the world may believe you sent me. I have given them the glory you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me, so that they may be made completely one, that the world may know you have sent me and have loved them as you have loved me.

John 17:20-23

What kind of oneness is Jesus praying about for his disciples and future followers?

Better yet: Has Jesus’ prayer been answered? What would that look like?

I think of what I read elsewhere in the Bible too.

Therefore I, the prisoner in the Lord, urge you to walk worthy of the calling you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope at your calling—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

Ephesians 4:1-6

What sort of unity is Paul talking about? And is it the sort of unity that can exist between believers who do differ from one another on some matters? Can unity even exist if there aren’t differences? Without differences, isn’t unity simply uniformity?

Paul’s words also point to the underlying relational aspect to unity. Such unity requires humility, gentleness, patience, love, forgiveness. This unity requires effort to maintain. It is grounded in the very unity of the trinitarian Godhead of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Given the current tenor of cultural conversation on divisive issues, and the inability of many to have such conservations in a civil and winsome way, ought not the church, by the power of the Spirit, be able to provide a better example about how to deal with differences? Rather than join the arguing, are we not able–together!–to bring more light than heat thanks to the gospel of our Lord Jesus?

Perhaps more of us who say we are followers of Jesus ought to turn the above passages from John and Ephesians into prayers of our own. Maybe then we will more clearly see what unites us rather than what divides us.

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 Part 3: Living By a Different Narrative

“But I say to you who listen: Love your enemies, do what is good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”

Luke 6:27–28

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud; instead, associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own estimation. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Give careful thought to do what is honorable in everyone’s eyes. If possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Friends, do not avenge yourselves; instead, leave room for God’s wrath, because it is written, “Vengeance belongs to me; I will repay,” says the Lord.  But “If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him something to drink. For in so doing you will be heaping fiery coals on his head.” Do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good.

Romans 12:14–21

If only our political leaders or, perhaps more importantly, those who demonize or canonize them, would take the above words from Scripture seriously. Knowing a perverted form of Christianity (in the form of “Christian nationalism”) had a role in last week’s attack on Capitol Hill is no less than sickening. And if the sight of “Jesus Saves” banners alongside “Trump” banners carried by people storming the Capitol building–which led to five deaths!–doesn’t lead to serious self-examination, I can’t imagine what would.

Political leaders, obviously, are also culpable. Whatever anyone makes of the alleged voter fraud in the 2020 US presidential election, it’s clear to me at least that since election day President Trump as conducted himself in an entirely egotistical, narcissistic way. No humility. No grace. No dignity. The last few months alone taint any semblance–however small–of his accomplishments while in office. He’s done himself no favours, and to that end has done a disservice to his country.

It doesn’t end there, though. Now having impeached President Trump for the second time, the Democratic Party shows itself to be no less prone to pride, division, and to be more interested in power than the interests of the nation. Really? With less than a week to go in his presidency? And now the possibility of a senate trial after Trump has left office? What an auspicious way for Biden’s first term to begin. So much for healing the division.

So much of what really motivates politicians is behind the curtain. Media interviews, tweets, soundbites, carefully crafted statements–none of this gets to the truth in an honest and truthful way. Yet the curtain is, to my reckoning, transparent, if not by design than certainly through the rhetoric we hear from the left and the right.

What happens to a nation, to a community, when those who hold polar opposite views are unable to see one another as genuine human beings? What happens when rhetoric completely overtakes dialogue? What happens when all each side of the political divide seems capable of is attacking their opponents and self-righteously defending themselves?

Let’s face it, the emperor has no clothes.

But those of us who are concerned about the welfare of our neighbourhoods, communities, and our countries don’t have to subscribe to the narrative of political opportunism, vitriol, and sensationalism. Especially those of us in the church of Jesus. In fact, if we take our Savior seriously, we absolutely cannot. Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. There are no caveats here. No exceptions. No footnotes or small print.

The words of both Paul and Jesus invite us into a different, more life-giving narrative. Think of the apostle’s words from the passage above from Romans: Do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good. Those supposed followers of Jesus who stormed the Capitol or who sought revenge by impeaching a president whose term is basically over reveals hearts that have indeed been conquered by evil. One of the worst kinds of evil is that which is thoroughly convinced of its righteousness. It’s the kind of evil that seeks potentially good ends but by whatever means available.

Eugene H. Peterson, in his book The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways That Jesus Is the Way, says this: “The North American church at present is conspicuous for replacing the Jesus way with the American way.” In this book he talks about how means and ends need to be congruent when we talk about following Jesus. He says it better: “To follow Jesus implies that we enter into a way of life that is given character and shape and direction by the one who calls us.”

Living by a different narrative, one shaped by life in the kingdom and following Jesus, means unsubscribing to the idea that politics–the ways of conducting ourselves as a community and seeking the common good–necessarily involves hating our enemies and doing whatever we can to defeat them. More than that, if succeeding in politics and having our way–even if we think it’s the best way–means we have to plunge our souls into this abyss, we’re actually better off losing the political fight. Jesus, after all, did say something about losing our lives in order to save them. In his kingdom victory may well look like defeat, but perhaps recognizing this is the start of not only saving our souls but loving our enemies.