Christians, the Church, and the Nation-State
Near the beginning of the New Testament a ruler oppresses his people (Matthew 2:16-18); near its end, God violently judged the oppressive beast, false prophet, and “whore Babylon,” most likely images of Rome (Revelation 17:1-19:21). The relationship among Christians, the church, and the nation-state can be complicated and fraught with many difficulties.
Nation-states exist according to the will of God; all authority comes from God, and thus any nation-state which maintains power on the earth has in some way received it from God (Romans 13:1). God empowers authorities over a nation-state to uphold justice and punish wickedness (Romans 13:3-4). When nation-states uphold what is right and good and establish justice, God is honored. And yet nation-states invariably go well beyond their mandate, and enslave themselves to the powers and principalities; thus Satan rules over the kingdoms of the world, and is the one who empowered the beast of the Roman power invested in the Emperor (Matthew 4:8-10, Revelation 13:1-10). John saw Roman power and Rome itself in terms of Babylon and the beasts of Daniel (Revelation 13:1-10, 17:1-18); individual nation-states may come and go, but they all seem to fit a consistent pattern as worldly powers arrogating to themselves claims to greatness they do not deserve and pressuring all people to display the greatest loyalty to the nation-state and its prerogatives. Thus nation-states can only at best skeptically tolerate Christians whose loyalties are to Jesus and His Kingdom over all other things (cf. Philippians 3:20-21); at worst, nation-states will actively persecute Christians for not giving them the glory (e.g. Revelation 13:7). Between these extremes lies an even more pernicious danger: the nation-state might seek to co-opt aspects of the Christian faith and heritage to consider itself a part of “Christendom,” looking to have its agenda and purposes baptized and justified in the name of Jesus.
The Lord Jesus did not leave any confusion in regards to how He expected His people to conduct themselves toward their nation-states: both Paul and Peter exhorted Christians to obey earthly authorities, to honor the emperor, to pay taxes, and to not use their freedoms in Christ to cover wickedness (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:11-18). Both Paul and Peter wrote these exhortations while Nero was Emperor; thus, the Christian’s obedience to the civil authorities is not based in the dignity or godliness of the authorities’ conduct. Neither Paul nor Peter instructed Christians to observe Rome’s Twelve Tables, even if Rome did not: they commanded Christians to respect, honor, and obey rulers, governors, and magistrates. Thus Christians have no ground to presume they are to prove obedient only to documents and not authorities. Documents like the Constitution must be interpreted; at no point is the Christian given authority to judge the authorities of the nation-state for whether they have lived up to their own claims, let alone the purposes of God; God will judge the authorities for all of that (Romans 14:10-12). Throughout the New Testament Christians are called upon to maintain a posture of obedience and submission to civil authorities. Christians thus do well to observe the laws of the land and pay their taxes. Churches do well to observe all the appropriate laws which govern non-profit organizations, filing appropriate paperwork and maintaining integrity in how they conduct whatever business the work of the church demands relative to federal, state, and local governments. Perhaps Christians or local churches may not like, appreciate, or feel the most comfortable with the laws or the application of those laws by civil authorities; they have the authority to make appeals according to the standards of the state when appropriate, but their obedience is never to be based on their level of comfort; they must seek to obey and comply as much as possible and whenever possible. Christianity must never be seen as a pretext for inciting rebellion against any nation-state; Jesus is never honored by a posture of disobedience and rebellion.
At the same time, Peter rightly told the Sanhedrin that he and his fellow Christians would have to obey God rather than man whenever man would impose rules which would go against the will of God (Acts 5:29). No Christian will ever be justified in disobeying God in order to fulfill a request or a demand from any civil magistrate or agent of a nation-state. And yet no Christian or local church should reflexively declare they must obey God rather than man, and certainly should not provoke and thumb their nose up at the authorities. Christians and local churches do well to study deeply and pray about the matter, and ascertain whether there might yet be a way to continue to both obey the Lord Jesus in all things and comply with whatever rules the nation-state attempts to impose. If it proves impossible to honor the dictates of the nation-state and do what God has willed, then Christians and local churches must obey God rather than man, yet also submit to whatever punishment is imposed by the magistrates of the nation-state, just as the early Christians did (1 Peter 2:13). Christians should take no pleasure or joy in having to choose between obeying God over the dictates of their nation-state; they should always seek to uphold what is honorable in the sight of all men, and should pray and hope they will never be forced to make such a decision.
The posture of Christians and churches toward the nation-state does not need to always be negative. Christians should affirm and encourage civil authorities in their work of upholding justice, punishing wrongdoing, and relieving the oppressed (Isaiah 1:17, Romans 13:3-4). Christians should pray for all people, especially those in authority, so they might be able to live quietly in godliness and for all to come to a knowledge of the truth and be saved (1 Timothy 2:1-4). Christians and local churches can take advantage of the freedoms, blessings, and benefits provided as citizens of a nation-state to accomplish God’s purposes in Christ, proclaiming the Gospel locally and abroad, just as Paul did (cf. Acts 22:22-30, 25:10-12). Like Paul, Christians might get an opportunity to speak a word of life in Christ to rulers or authorities!
Nation-states exist for their own advantage and aggrandizement; they have a purpose in God’s economy, and God empowers them, but they will never be the means by which God rescues the world. What governments do well Christians ought to commend; where government transgresses God’s purposes, Christians can point out, but always in a posture of obedience and submission to civil authority. We must be on guard against how the nation-state may attempt to induce us to abandon aspects of our faith to uphold their principles; we also must also be on guard lest we prove too cynical and critical of the nation-state. Sadly, there have been times when nation-states have affirmed aspects of God’s righteousness in Christ which were denied by those professing Jesus in churches, to the eternal shame of the latter. No matter what Christians must not trust in princes; the support of a prince always comes at a cost. We must trust in the Lord Jesus: obeying civil authority whenever possible, suffering the consequences when we cannot, and in all things maintaining our hope not in the future success of the nation-state but in the glorification of believers in Jesus on the day of resurrection!
Ethan R. Longhenry