USA Letters

Thinking Biblically about Government in an Election Year

I begin by saying the obvious: We enter an election year in a time of great political and cultural division in our country.

That could have been said every four years since 1968.

But today we also can add that we enter an election year with very high levels of social mistrust, loss of confidence in most of our major political and cultural institutions, and a significant part of the electorate not sure of the honesty of the administration of our elections themselves.

And more: We enter an election year in a time in which partisan polarization has reached such a fever pitch that millions on both sides believe the difference between the parties is more a matter of good and evil, right and wrong, than simple policy preferences or party loyalty.

And one more: We enter an election year in which a small but growing minority of the population is showing signs of losing confidence in our democratic form of government as it has evolved here — including some Christian scholars and activists who are arguing for Christian authoritarian rule to stanch the cultural and moral chaos they perceive.

My hope here is to help us think biblically about government. To do that, I suggest four texts, in a kind of lectionary format — Old Testament, Psalm, New Testament, Gospel.

It is not too much to say the Bible is full of texts that are relevant to how Christians ought to think about government. Indeed, the Bible is so full of relevant texts, which do not all necessarily point in the same direction, and which were written in contexts very far from the democratic republic in which we live, that interpreting Scripture helpfully to inform Christian discipleship in political life is very challenging.

This may be one reason few pastors really attempt it. But instructional vacuums like this are dangerous. If the church doesn’t teach about a crucial area of life, that vacuum will be filled by someone else.

So let’s give it a try. I may surprise you by choosing to begin with a favorite text of Christian monarchists, dictators and authoritarians everywhere — Romans 13:1-7.

‘Let every person be subject’

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval, for it is God’s agent for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the agent of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore, one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s agents, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.

Paul is arguing that government authorities — those who rule, those who carry the sword, those who collect taxes — have been instituted by God for the good of those they rule, notably by deterring the kind of wrongdoing that threatens the peace and order of the political community. The text is best read not as saying God has appointed each particular person to their office, but that the offices themselves are instituted by God for the well-being of the community.

“The text is best read not as saying God has appointed each particular person to their office, but that the offices themselves are instituted by God for the well-being of the community.”

Paul recognizes that human communities, filled with sinful people, but also with people who have the potential to do what is good, need authority structures, including government, to deter their worst instincts and encourage their best. Christians should thus choose voluntarily to recognize the legitimacy of government authorities and therefore to be subject to them — not just because they can harm us, but on grounds of conscience.

It is notable that Paul is claiming for God all structures of political authority, including those regimes and structures that do not recognize the God whose activity Paul is describing. This would mean the self-understanding of these regimes — say, atheistic or communist or imperial-pagan-Caesarist — does not constitute the last word, not for Christians anyway.

Paul has routinely been criticized for what appears here to be the authorization of total subjection of Christians to every diktat of every kind of government. While that is one reading, it is not a good one.

By several times describing what government does, he is also setting up an implicit moral norm for what government must do and must not do. The norm is that government is to keep the order and advance the common good of the political community. Its agents are to pose no threat to the innocent and are to take from the people only what is “due” them, nothing more.

The fact that Paul was ultimately and unjustly killed by the very regime in Rome that he appears to be describing here is one of the great and tragic ironies of Christian history.

There is an anarchist strand of Christian tradition that sees government as intrinsically evil, and many voices appear unable to distinguish between proper exercises of government power and improper ones. It is possible to see worldly government as intrinsically evil simply because it coerces, threatens and sometimes kills; but this is not how Paul sees it here.

The fact that government coerces, threatens and sometimes kills may rule out at least certain forms of government service for Christians who believe this is not appropriate for followers of Christ. This, of course, has been a longstanding Anabaptist tradition.

“To prevent chaos and the rule of the criminal and the bully, we need government and other structures of authority.”

But I believe thinking biblically about government does include granting certain key premises of Paul’s argument here. Human beings are created good yet fallen. To prevent chaos and the rule of the criminal and the bully, we need government and other structures of authority. Government that does this is a gift from God. Precisely as gift from God, government exists to serve the people; the people don’t exist to serve the government.

The principle of submission to government authority does not imply no right to protest improper exercises of government power; indeed, Paul can be read as implicitly authorizing such protest by specifying the norms of how government is to function. Government can and must be held accountable for its proper functioning. If Christians look at government in this way, we have a respectful yet critical lens for engagement in public life and with government authorities.

The imago Dei is democratizing

Genesis 1:26-27

Then God said, “Let us make humans in our image, according to our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over the cattle and over all the wild animals of the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”  So God created humans] in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

What a majestic passage, so central to biblical theology and ethics. As the ultimate act on the sixth day of creation, God makes us, male and female, in the divine image.

Theologians have suggested the imago Dei might refer to unique human capacities or unique human responsibilities delegated by God to us, or simply to God’s decision to elevate human status in this unique way. It also is quite interesting that a tradition that banned making icons or images of God chose to declare human beings to be divine image-bearers.

In relation to “thinking biblically about government,” the significance of the image of God begins with recognition of the God-given worth and dignity of each human being. The imago Dei also implies, or at least lays the groundwork for, a concept of human rights. The Christian tradition has developed the idea that if the human being is made in the image of God, that means we can be said to have certain rights, both negative and positive.

Negative rights have to do with what cannot be done to a human being — like torture, murder and arbitrary arrest without trial. Positive rights have to do with what must be done for human beings — like provision of food, education, health care and so on. Government has unique responsibilities to ensure for its people both negative rights — protection from harm, including from government itself — and then positive rights. Governments can and must be lobbied and evaluated by Christians for how well they do on this front.

“Government absolutely must not set about attacking the worth and dignity of any person or group of persons.”

Further, the concept of the imago Dei helps us see government does not provide or declare the worth and dignity of human beings, but simply recognizes what God has provided and declared. It also means government absolutely must not set about attacking the worth and dignity of any person or group of persons.

Finally, the imago Dei applies to everyone. It therefore provides the basis for Christians to demand of government that all people and groups be treated with dignity and as persons of worth, and that the rights of all should be equal.

The concept of the imago Dei is implicitly democratizing and egalitarian. That makes it one of the most important contributions of the Bible, not just when thinking about government but for concepts like democracy and equality.

Justice for the oppressed

Psalm 72:1-7

Give the king your justice, O God  and your righteousness to a king’s son. May he judge your people with righteousness and your poor with justice. May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness. May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor. May he live while the sun endures and as long as the moon, throughout all generations. May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth. In his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound, until the moon is no more.

There is an entire category of royal psalms. Sometimes they are, shall we say, obsequious. That is what happens when you have a royal dynasty believed to be installed by God and you commission musicians to praise the king.

I love this particular psalm, though, because it precedes and perhaps even conditions its various conventional prayers — for the king’s long life, spreading dominion, submissive enemies and eternal fame — with requests for the king to be just and to rule with righteousness. Here we meet the grand Hebrew concepts of tsedeqah and mishpat, those essentially, deeply Jewish understandings of justice that emphasize the well-being of the entire community with special attention to actions taken on behalf of the poor and others on the margins of society.

The psalmist prays for a ruler who is especially attentive to bring justice to the poor, to defend the cause of the poor, to deliver them, to crush those who would oppress them. Later in verses 12 and 13, this theme returns: “For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy and saves the lives of the needy. From oppression and violence, he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight.”

“A good government fights for the life of the poor and others who are most vulnerable.”

We know from Old Testament law how much attention was given to protecting categories of vulnerable people — widow, orphan, alien, stranger and, yes, the poor — from being overpowered, exploited, rendered landless and homeless and destitute. As God’s covenant people, Israel agreed to live out this covenant. But centuries later we see the king being asked to enforce it with passion and compassion, which must mean for that nation, as for so many others including our own, those with political, social, economic and physical power were harming the poor. The poor needed a deliverer. The king was to be that deliverer.

This powerful prayer or demand for a just king still speaks to us today. A just government attends to the needs of the poor and all who are deeply vulnerable and protects them from those people and forces that would crush them into the dust.

Integrated into Romans 13 and Genesis 1, this means because every human is made in the image of God and every life matters, and because the evils people and structures do are often visited upon especially vulnerable groups of people, a key role of government is to deploy its power for their protection and flourishing. A good government fights for the life of the poor and others who are most vulnerable. This is one key criterion by which Christians must think about government.

What we render

Matthew 22:15-22

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one, for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this and whose title?” They answered, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed, and they left him and went away.

Mathew’s Gospel adds another essential voice — that of Jesus himself. He is in the temple in the last week of his life, holding the crowds spellbound while enemies all around look for grounds to arrest him.

In this story the rare combination of Pharisees and Herodians try to trap Jesus with a political loyalty question. Is it in accord with Jewish law and therefore God’s will for Jews to pay taxes to the Roman Emperor? If Jesus says yes, he could be viewed as a traitor to his people. If he says no, he could be viewed as an insurrectionist, with Roman soldiers nearby to arrest him. His answer: Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.

This answer is open to wildly different readings.

It has been read dualistically, as if Jesus is saying Caesar (the state) gets its proper share of our money in taxes and the blood of our children in war and the loyalty of our hearts in nationalism, while God gets … our souls.

It has been read quite the opposite way. For a thoroughgoing radical prophetic Jewish Messiah like Jesus, surely Caesar deserves nothing and God gets everything. He is not endorsing a tax revolt but he also is not arguing against it.

It also should be noted that by asking for a Roman denarius and finding it in the hands of his Jewish interlocutors, Jesus already is exposing their complicity and involvement with Roman rule — which includes handling money that contains the image of a human ruler who has idolatrously declared himself to be a god.

“The state, the government, its officials and leaders may well ask us to ‘render’ things that go beyond what our loyalty to God will allow us to offer.”

This teaching of Jesus at least tells us this: The state, the government, its officials and leaders may well ask us to “render” things that go beyond what our loyalty to God will allow us to offer. This becomes very clear in other texts, including the famous line in Acts 5:29 where the apostles declare, “We must obey God rather than men,” meaning any human authority.

Precisely because there are God-given limits to government’s proper role, or to the loyalty owed to any leader, party or state, there are times when Christians have to draw a line, have to say NO — sometimes at great risk and cost. The fact that this has been such a frequent pattern of history is a reminder that government can easily become a rebellious rather than obedient power, turning away from its limited God-given role toward a tyrannous idolatry. At such times, Christians are called to see clearly and respond with brave defiance.


Christians have significant guidance in Scripture for thinking about government and our relation to it. That guidance does not depend on living in any particular political system. The Bible on its own does not give us what we need to develop a case for democracy over monarchy or oligarchic rule. It does not tell us who to vote for. It does not give us pre-packaged answers to specific policy questions.

But it gives us much. These four texts give us a vision of where human government comes from, why we need it, what it is supposed to do and not do, how it is to treat human beings made in God’s image, and where its limits are reached and breached. It gives Christians a charter for caring about government, obeying it, engaging it, protesting it, resisting it. All of this is an aspect of Christian discipleship in any country in any era.

This article first appeared on Baptist News Global.

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