“For our citizenship is in heaven,” so Paul wrote to the Philippians (3:20). The ancient city of Philippi was a Roman colony, and her citizens were automatically citizens of Rome with all the perks and privileges that carried—among which were certain tax exemptions. Some of them may have never been to Rome itself but could appreciate and understand the pride of having citizenship despite having never been there. For Christians, this is our reality: we have not yet been to heaven, but that’s where our citizenship is and with it, all the blessings that accompany being members of the Kingdom of God. Why is it, then, that we place such a high value on earthly politics when our heavenly citizenship should be the premier marker of our identity? No one truly knows, but several passages may help us determine how we, as Christians, should relate to the earthly government.
We read that the world lies under the sway of the wicked one (1 John 5:19); we read that Satan is the god of this world (2 Cor. 4:4). Because of this truth, injustices, hatred, bigotry, and evil will always be present, and this shouldn’t shock us. Nevertheless, as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, we must and can undoubtedly lend to justice, truth, and equity on earth as demonstrative of our heavenly citizenship. Some Christians believe the principal means by which this is achieved is through earthly government, but I would, respectfully, disagree. Satan offered the kingdoms of the world to Christ if He would only fall down and worship him, but Jesus refused (Matt. 4:8–10). Had Jesus wanted to affect change through earthly government, He had His chance in this scene. Perhaps one might retort that the price wasn’t worth paying. Fair enough. In John’s account of the gospel, after Jesus fed several thousand people, they wanted to make Him king by force, but Christ didn’t want that. He retreated to be by Himself, avoiding the crowd’s aim of making Him King by force (John 6:15).
It wasn’t God’s will that change and good would come directly through the government, and our Savior Himself didn’t rely upon government to achieve His ends. How was it achieved, instead? The will of God was completed by the employment of government: the arrest in the garden, the sham of a trial during the dark of the night, and ultimately, by the Roman procurator, Pilate, who then ordered an innocent Man to be executed. The very apparatus that Christians place their hopes in every election season is the one shown to itself be imperfect and full of corruptions, such that even our God was subject to and under which He suffered. Tell me again why such a premier is placed on fallible, earthly authorities when our citizenship is in heaven?
What’s most astounding is when a Christian finds no home in either of the major parties because of their belief. They are often accused of pulling for the other side in whom they also disdain. The Republicans and Democrats are akin to the Pharisees and Herodians, trying to catch the follower of Jesus. In that particular episode, the Pharisees were Jewish nationalists who disdained the Roman occupation of Judea while the Herodians were Jews friendly to the Romans. They had a common enemy: Jesus. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, as the saying goes, so they bound together to try to entrap Christ to either accuse Him of lacking Jewish patriotism or opposing the Emperor. The stage is set. They ask Him about paying taxes. His reply, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and the God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17). God isn’t anti-government. However, as our citizenship is in heaven, we should relate to the government by giving it what’s due so long as it doesn’t contradict the will of the Father (cf. Acts 4:19; 5:29).
When we sincerely follow Jesus, we’ll often find ourselves at odds with the government and the parties that vie for control. Nevertheless, we can participate in government in good conscience and that to the glory of the Lord. Joseph was second in command to Pharaoh; Daniel was a high-ranking official in the Babylonian King’s court; Nehemiah was the cupbearer of the Persian King. These each served God and the master who was over them, and they did so with integrity and dignity. Cornelius was a Roman centurion who became a follower of Jesus, and he was never commanded to resign his post to follow Christ, so it’s entirely possible to be in an environment and realm, to serve God, and faithfully discharge one’s duty.
When Christianity began to go awry, in my opinion, was when it started mixing with the government. The Magna Carta of our faith is the Sermon on the Mount, and there are tensions with acts of government and Christian living, but they each exist for their own purposes. Even Constantine himself delayed baptism until on his death bed because he may have well understood the difficulty of being a Christian and an Emperor. The mistake is made when we try to intermingle them in a way they aren’t meant to be mixed. Ravi Zacharias once said, “Anytime religion is politicized, it’s in danger of extinction.” Why is that? Because it can only ever been enacted with the fear of punishment if one doesn’t adhere to it. In colonial America, citizens had to pay taxes to support that state church, and one could even face fines or imprisonment if they didn’t attend church. How is that Christianity? That’s a compulsion, and God doesn’t force anyone to love Him, but He gives them the option. I love how the nineteenth-century novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky, put it:
If anything protects society even in our time, and even reforms the criminal himself and transforms him into a different person, again it is Christ’s law alone, which manifests itself in the acknowledgment of one’s own conscience. Only if he acknowledges his guilt before society itself—that is, of the Church—will he acknowledge his guilt before society itself—that is, before the Church …. And what would become of the criminal, oh, Lord, if Christian society, too, punished him with excommunication each time immediately after the law of the state has punished him? Surely there could be no greater despair…. But the Church, like a mother, tender and loving, withholds from active punishment, for even without her punishment, the wrongdoer is already too painfully punished by the state court, and at least someone should pity him.
The state exists for the purposes of justice (Rom. 13:2–4), but the church for mercy and reconciliation to God (2 Cor. 5:18–19). When Christians place all of their hopes in government, they forget that it is in the Lord that we’re to rejoice always (Phil. 4:4), not in the state. It’s the peace of God that will guard our hearts and minds (Phil. 4:7), not the legislation of Congress.
Is this to say that we should have NO dealings with the government at all? No, but it is to say that we must guard our mind and heart and make sure our faith is foremost in the God of creation and salvation, and not the government ran by fallible, imperfect humans who are as prone to mistakes as we all are. The Lord told Israel to seek the peace of the city in which they were to live as captives and to pray for it because, in its peace, they would have peace (Jer. 29:7). Prayer is the primary act a Christian can undertake for their home. In the worship of the church, we’re actually commanded to pray for the welfare of authority figures (1 Tim. 2:1–4; cf. 3:15), but because we often ignore this command, prayers for governing leaders are seen as partisan endorsements rather than holy supplication. Withholding vitriolic rhetoric is a second way we may participate in a godly manner (Acts 23:5). If we pray for our leaders as we should, we should naturally withhold the spewing of hateful jargon. A third way we may participate is to render to Caesar’s what’s his by being the absolute best citizens because our citizenship is in heaven. Among the ways we can do this is by obeying laws, paying our taxes, and casting votes to participate in the experiment that is America. We may also serve in capacities and even work for the government in capacities as if we were working for God Himself. Government is His ordinance and servant (Rom. 13:2, 4), so serving in such roles is to effectually serve God Himself in a manner of speaking. We must also recall that the author of Romans 13 was himself executed for not submitting to their authority out of his faithfulness to Jesus, so while he calls for submission to governmental authorities, there is a line in the sand that a Christian can’t and mustn’t cross. Even Christ Himself was subject to the governing authorities, resulting in His death. Self-sacrificial love is how God achieves His purpose in Christ, not through the political system of the day.
The overconsumption of news can be replaced with an immersion of Scripture, devotions, or sermons that help build the Christian up. The mindless social media debates should be replaced with pleasant conversations about the glory of the Lord. The animosity one feels towards an opposing view should be replaced by the kindness and love of one’s neighbor. Glorying in the bloodshed of rioters or police officers because one views them as inherently evil should be replaced with awe at the shed blood of Jesus Christ. He, for the salvation of the world, willingly sacrificed Himself to protect us from the wrath of God to which we’ve set ourselves. Be different. Be authentically Christian.