“We are told to bend over backwards to honor the king or be obedient to the civil magistrates. That doesn’t mean a slavish obedience to the civil magistrates. There are occasions on which Christians not only may but must disobey the civil magistrates.”
The New Testament gives us some broad principles on how we are supposed to respond to government. For example, Romans 13 elaborates on the origin and institution of government as something that God ordains.
The great theologian Augustine said that government is a necessary evil, that it is necessary because of evil. And most theologians in the history of the church have said that human evil is the reason even corrupt government is better than no government at all. The function of government is to restrain evil and to maintain, uphold, and protect the sanctity of life and of property. Given this function, the Christian understands that government is ordained of God, and so Christians, first of all, are called to respect whatever it is that God institutes and ordains.
For God’s sake we are called to be model citizens. We are told to bend over backwards to honor the king or be obedient to the civil magistrates. That doesn’t mean a slavish obedience to the civil magistrates. There are occasions on which Christians not only may but must disobey the civil magistrates. Anytime a civil government requires a Christian to do what God forbids or forbids them to do what God commands, then the person must disobey. But our basic posture toward government, according to the New Testament, is to be submissive and obedient citizens of the state. We are also given the duty of praying for earthly governments that they may fulfill the tasks God has given to them.
We have another responsibility, and this is the one that sometimes brings us into controversial areas. I personally believe in a separation of spheres of authority between the church and state. I think it is a marvelous structure in the United States of America that does not allow for the state to rule the church or the church to rule the state. Historically that meant that the church was answerable to God and the state was answerable to God. Separation of church and state assumed a division of labor; the church has its job, and the state has its job. The church is not to maintain a standing army, and the state is not to do evangelism or to administer the sacraments. Nevertheless, they are both regarded as being under God.
Unfortunately, in today’s culture separation of church and state means separation of state and God, as if the state and the government were answerable to no one but themselves—as if the government didn’t have to respond to God. But God monitors governments; God raises them up and brings them down. Every human government is accountable to God and is accountable to maintain its affairs with justice and with righteousness. When the government is no longer acting justly and no longer protecting life—sanctioning abortions, for example—then it is the task of the church to be the prophetic voice, to call the state to task and tell the state to repent and do what God commands it to do.
This article first appeared on Ligonier.org, and is used with permission.