By Peter Amsterdam
February 19, 2019
While Scripture teaches that civil government is God-ordained and that Christians should be subject to the government,1 it also stresses that government has the responsibility to ensure and safeguard human rights and freedom of choice. Having free will is an essential component of being human, and is part of being made in the image and likeness of God.
Throughout Scripture, we find that God consistently protects human choice. He may disapprove of individuals’ choices, and may ultimately punish them for using their free will to rebel against Him or to hurt and oppress others, but He doesn’t take away their freedom to make their own personal choices. Governments which protect basic human rights and allow people to have the liberty to make personal choices (that do not infringe on the rights of others) reflect this aspect of God, while those which deny their citizens basic human rights strip away a part of their humanity.
Of course, governments do to some extent infringe on citizens’ liberty by passing laws which prohibit individuals from harming others. Laws against theft, murder, and kidnapping, for example, all could be said to impinge on the free will of those who want to do such evil things; however, such laws are appropriate and necessary for the protection of the life and welfare of others. The purposes of governmental punishment are deterrence, as people know they will be punished if they break the law; protection, as the threat of punishment keeps people from committing a crime that hurts others; retribution, making criminals pay for what they have done wrong; and reformation, as punishment can ideally help reform the one who committed the crime so that they no longer continue to do so. Punishing those who break the law is legitimate because it protects the innocent, deters crime, and brings a form of retribution to the wrongdoer.
Throughout Old Testament Scripture, the government of the Hebrew people of God was a “theocracy” in that the whole nation was considered “the people of God.” As such, the laws that governed the people included laws which today would be considered secular matters, such as theft, manslaughter, and murder, as well as laws which addressed religious matters, such as the proper way to worship and to offer animal sacrifices to God.
By Jesus’ lifetime, the nation of Israel was under the secular authority of Rome and was responsible to obey the Roman laws. While Jesus endorsed the concept of government, including paying taxes, He also differentiated between the spheres of influence of the government and of the “people of God.” Jesus was asked:
“Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”2
In making this differentiation between the things that belong to the government and those which belong to God, Jesus acknowledged a fundamental change from the Old Testament concept of the government and religious authorities being essentially one and the same. The state and religion were no longer one—they were two different entities.
According to this statement, the church and state have different purviews, and each should respect the realm of authority of the other. The church should not have control over the decisions and actions of the state, and the state should not interfere in the freedom of worship of its citizens. In the New Testament, there is no evidence that the leaders of the local churches had any civil governmental responsibilities. Rather, the governmental officials were distinct from the elders of the church. We read of Jesus refusing to mediate a financial dispute between brothers, as this fell within the realm of the governmental legal system.
Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?”3
The implication of Jesus’ teachings was that the church was not appointed to govern the state. This would imply that the political power exercised by the church in the Middle ages, for example, when various popes attempted to assert power over the civil governments of kings and emperors, was not right as it wasn’t within the purview of the church. This doesn’t mean that Christians are prohibited from trying to influence government policies so that they reflect the principles of Christianity, nor that it is inappropriate for them to work for or even lead a government; rather it means that it is not within the church’s purview to attempt to control the civil government, as such matters are the things that are Caesar’s.
By the same token, the civil government should not govern the things that are God’s. This implies that governments should allow freedom of religion, so that each person can follow whatever religion they choose. When Jesus appointed the twelve disciples, He didn’t consult with or get permission of the Roman governmental authorities.4 Neither did the early church look to the civil government when choosing overseers.
Brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty.5
The apostle Paul instructed both Titus and Timothy to appoint elders within the church and gave the criteria for those who were eligible.6 There was no involvement from the civil government in the appointment of church leadership. This reflected the teaching of Jesus, that church government and civil government are two different systems that have authority in two different realms. As such, the civil government should not rule the church, but rather let it govern itself.
Sadly, throughout history this hasn’t always been the case. There were times in the past when Christians wrongly thought that government should compel people to believe a certain way. This led to religious wars between Catholics and Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries. It also led Reformed and Lutheran Protestant state churches to persecute and kill thousands of Anabaptists because of differences in theology. Such efforts to force or oblige others to believe a certain way was both wrong and in opposition to the teachings of Christ. Thankfully, today, the majority of Christians worldwide do not believe that the civil government should compel its citizens to adhere to a specific faith.
Jesus gave an example of not forcing others to believe in Him. While traveling to Jerusalem with His disciples:
He sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them.7
Jesus repudiated the concept of compelling others to believe in Him.
Jesus’ example shows that a Christian’s attitude should be one of respect for people’s free will. Through His teachings, He appealed to people to make the choice to follow Him.
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”8
After His resurrection, we see that the apostles focused on teaching and reasoning with others and petitioned them to make a personal, freewill choice to believe in and follow Jesus.
The apostle Paul, when speaking to the local leaders of the Jews in Rome, didn’t try to force them to believe but rather reasoned with them, teaching about the kingdom of God, and appealing to them to make a voluntary choice to believe in Jesus.
When they had appointed a day for him, they came to him at his lodging in greater numbers. From morning till evening he expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets. And some were convinced by what he said, but others disbelieved.9
In the book of Revelation, we also read of the invitation to make a personal decision of faith:
The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.10
According to Scripture, individuals have the freedom to choose their religious beliefs.
While the church isn’t meant to be responsible for civil government, that doesn’t mean that believers shouldn’t influence the government and its policies. Both the Old and New Testaments give examples of believers who positively influenced the civil government, and these activities are presented in a positive way. In the Old Testament we read of Joseph, one of the sons of Jacob, who became a top official in the Egyptian government under pharaoh, and whose influence helped the Israelites survive the seven-year famine.11 The Jewish prophet Daniel became a top official in the court of Nebuchadnezzar.
The king gave Daniel high honors and many great gifts, and made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon.12
In that position, he was able to influence governmental policy, as well as to influence the king by advising him in the ways of God.
O king, let my counsel be acceptable to you: break off your sins by practicing righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed, that there may perhaps be a lengthening of your prosperity.13
The prophet Jeremiah counseled the Jewish people who were taken into captivity and relocated to Babylon to be a positive influence in the city.
“Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”14
Other Old Testament believers held positions in government, and thus were able to have some influence on it. Nehemiah, who was cupbearer to King Artaxerxes I of Persia, was in a position that gave him access to the king.15 In the book of Esther, we read that Mordecai the Jew was second in rank to King Ahasuerus.
Mordecai was great in the king’s house, and his fame spread throughout all the provinces, for the man Mordecai grew more and more powerful.16
Queen Esther also was a positive influence on King Ahasuerus.17
In the New Testament, we read of John the Baptist speaking out against the moral failings of Herod Antipas, a ruler who was appointed by the Roman emperor.
Herod had seized John and bound him and put him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because John had been saying to him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.”18
But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison.19
We also read that the apostle Paul spoke to Marcus Antonius Felix, the Roman governor of Judea, and that he reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment.20 It seems likely that Paul, when speaking to this government official, touched on moral issues and the personal standards of right and wrong.
While the early Christians weren’t part of the civil government, they did their best to influence it positively. As Christians, we too should do our part to positively influence both the civil government and society as a whole through the way we live, our Christian witness, example, and love and compassion for others.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
2 Matthew 22:17–22.
3 Luke 12:13–14.
4 Matthew 10:1–4.
5 Acts 6:3.
6 1 Timothy 3:1–13, Titus 1:3–9.
7 Luke 9:51–55.
8 Matthew 11:28–30.
9 Acts 28:23–24.
10 Revelation 22:17.
11 Genesis 41:37–45; 42:6; 45:8–9, 26.
12 Daniel 2:48.
13 Daniel 4:27.
14 Jeremiah 29:4–7.
15 Nehemiah 1:11.
16 Esther 9:4.
17 Esther 5:1–8; 7:1–6; 8:3–13; 9:12–15, 29–32.
18 Matthew 14:3–4.
19 Luke 3:19–20.
20 Acts 24:25.