What is the Christian’s responsibility to the State? Before answering this question, we need to come up with a definition of The State. The State can be defined as, “a political institution that maintains a monopoly of the legitimate use of force within a certain territory.” As a political institution, the State seeks to govern the people within its jurisdiction. The forms of government will vary, but the point is that the State, as a political institution, governs within its specified territory. The means through which the State governs is through its monopoly of the legitimate use of force – its power to enact laws and enforce them, to tax and to spend the tax revenues as it sees fit, to keep and maintain the civil order within its jurisdiction, to wage war against aggressor states, etc. Everything the State does is through its monopoly of force. Finally, this operation of the legitimate use of force occurs within a certain territory (which we’ve been calling its jurisdiction). The territory could be national borders between nation-states, or state borders within a federal republic of states. Whatever the case may be, the authority of the State is only applicable within its jurisdiction.
With that out of the way, we can now move on to discussing what the Christian’s responsibility is to the State. There are three fairly explicit passages that deal with the Christian’s responsibility to the State:
- Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21)
- Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. (Romans 13:1)
- Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. (1 Peter 2:13-14)
The general message from all three of these passages is that the Christian is to submit to the State and to render unto the State whatever belongs to the State. But note that our submission to the State is done on the basis of our prior submission to God first and foremost. In other words, we submit to the State not because the State is virtuous, but because God is sovereign and we owe Him our allegiance. God has ordained the State, so our submission to the State is, in a sense, a submission to God. The only exception to this rule is when the State requires the Christian to act in a way that is contrary to the will of God as revealed in the bible (cf. Acts 5:29).
I want to dig deeper into something that was mentioned earlier. According to Paul’s statement in Romans 13:1, the State has been instituted by God. In short: God ordains the State. This is something that is echoed in the OT book of Daniel when the prophet (who was interpreting the dream of King Nebuchadnezzar) says that God “removes kings and sets up kings” (Daniel 2:21). If God ordains the state, does that mean: 1) That the State is good? 2) That the State executes God’s will? Let’s look at these questions one at a time.
If God ordains the State, does that mean the State is good? In a word: No. God ordains all that comes to pass, but that does not mean God condones all that comes to pass. What it does mean is that the purpose of God ordaining it is good. Case in point, the OT patriarch Joseph states in Genesis 50:20 (referring to his predicament at the hands of his brothers) that though they meant it for evil, God meant it for good. In other words, God through his eternal decree ordained that Joseph’s brothers would sell Joseph into slavery. Though God ordained that evil act, he ordained it for a good purpose. The same can be said of the State. God through his eternal decree ordains the existence of the State and he does so for a good and holy purpose, even though, the State may perform horrible, evil acts.
If God ordains the State, does that mean the State executes God’s will? Yes and no. The State, like everything else in creation, carries out God’s sovereign will. Everything that has been created furthers God’s purpose and will for creation. Yet the State can fulfill God’s sovereign will while at the same time violating his revealed will every step of the way. We need to distinguish between God’s sovereign and his revealed will. His sovereign will, as noted above, is his purpose in creation. His revealed will reflects his moral character as formulated in the Ten Commandments. His revealed will is the standard by which God obligates his creatures to him. Human beings, as his creatures created in his image, are obligated to follow the revealed will of God and we will be judged for our failure to do so. Again, going back to Joseph’s brothers in Genesis 50 – what they did was evil, a violation of God’s revealed will, yet it perfectly fulfilled his sovereign will.
So even though God ordains the State, it neither means the State is good, nor does it mean the State executes the will of God in its moral (or revealed) sense. In fact, if you look at most of the States throughout human history, you would be hard pressed to find any that were good or that executed the moral will of God. They were all ordained by God to execute his sovereign will, but precious few of them could be called “good.”
Despite that, Christians are called to submit to the State. What does that mean? Do Christians have to be fans of the State? Do we have to love the State? What does submission look like for the Christian? The witness of the NT seems to suggest that Christians are to be model citizens of the State. We pay our taxes, we respect the governing authorities, we submit to their authority in all cases except, as mentioned above, when to do so will violate the commands of God. Christians are not called to be radicals or revolutionaries when it comes to the State. We are not called to rebel against the status quo. Look at the life of Jesus. He did not seek to over throw the Roman Empire (a fact that didn’t sit well with the Jewish revolutionaries). The Christian’s duty is to Christ, first and foremost. Christians are “strangers in a strange land” (to borrow a phrase from Robert Heinlein) and our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20).
Next: Christianity and the State – Politics and Activism