The Clear-Thinking Christian is back! After two years off to complete my Master’s Degree at Biola University, I’m “back on the blog” and ready to answer more challenges and questions…this time, with credentials (as if that mattered…).
Having just come through another election season and with another already generating momentum, the Christian’s role in government is a frequent question. As with most topics, views vary — some suggest that Christians are commanded to participate in civil government, others move in quite the opposite direction, claiming that government is evil and Christians should not participate. As with most blogs, this one has its genesis in a challenge I recently received, this one from another Christian and classmate, ER.
ER and I were discussing the unique case of Kent Hovind, a Christian creationist known as “Dr. Dino” who has been quite popular among the young-earth creationist crowd over the past several decades. A little background here: As one of the primary founders of Creation Science Evangelism (now known as Creation Today) and the driving force behind Dinosaur Adventureland and the Creation Museum, Kent Hovind generated quite a following in the Christian community. Regardless of how you feel about his theology (not the point of the post, though my views on the topic are likely clear from my blogs), the relevant matter is that Kent Hovind has spent the last 8 years in federal prison for multiple charges involving his tax dealings with Dinosaur Adventureland and the Creation Museum (all the details are available from Forbes Magazine here). In short, he and his wife were not filing 1040s, and were keeping large amounts of cash for most transactions, which masked them from the IRS, and he treated his theme parks as tax-exempt organizations, though they had not received that designation from the IRS. That’s the background…so what’s the point?
My friend ER said he was not a fan of Kent Hovind “until the tax thing…then I developed a great amount of respect for him.” ER’s respect for Hovind was based on his ability to evade — personally and professionally — paying taxes. When I challenged ER on this point, he further articulated that he believed the state to be “the great Satan” and that we are Biblically commanded to resist the state, which he followed with assurance to me that Jesus would support everything Hovind was doing. Resisting an inherently evil entity (the state) is not only advocated by Christ, but also Biblically commanded. He referenced 1 Samuel 8:4 – 18 as support for this view.
That’s the situation…now it’s time for some clear thinking. As with all things, we will seek first to be Biblical. What does the Bible say about participation in, and submission to, civil government? It is far from silent on this topic, providing abundant guidance on on how and in what circumstances Christians should engage with government, setting clear bounds for both obedience and dissent. Following Scripture, several points seem clear:
1. Civil Government was not part of God’s original design. After the fall, mankind succumbed to the temptations of sin and the devil, and while he maintains his special place in creation, the presence of sin no longer allows him to live with complete and unrestricted freedom. The resulting “society of fallen beings” develops very quickly after the fall, with violent crime (murder) present by the fourth chapter of Genesis, followed closely by urban development, industry, philosophy, and art evident by the end of that chapter. This society of sinners further degenerates into crime, guilt, corruption, and condemnation, mandating the establishment of some sort of civil order, detailed in chapters six through nine. This civil government cannot provide social perfection and therefore rules with force rather than love, but nevertheless it provides a structure of law, obedience, prosecution, and punishment that creates a flawed but adequate social order in which mankind can fulfill his Biblical mandate. This was not God’s original plan. The world is wholly the creation of a transcendent, self-existent God, and was created perfectly good. The entire world, including man and all his social connections, belongs to the divine Creator, but in following Satan’s temptation mankind fell and took the world with him into a state of brokenness. This condition of sin and evil is a perversion of the original good, and has polluted the whole natural order. However, the Christian can rest assured that no matter how powerful the state becomes, it owns nothing it governs — all of creation, including mankind and his institutions, were redeemed by Christ. This is the “beginning condition” of the world, in which we then move to establish civil government.
2. Civil Government is a result of the fall, but is established by God. God’s attributes of creativity and sovereignty extend into providence – that is, the very same One who created the Earth and all it contains also preserves it and governs it. This means that God established all governments present on the Earth, and their continuation or dissolution is simply a matter of God’s providence. The first appearance of civil government is in a covenant between God and the survivors of the flood, detailed in Genesis 8 and 9. This covenant with Noah had four provisions. First, civil government is for the protection and improvement of human life (Genesis 9:7-11), reinforcing God’s desire to see humans prosper and succeed. Second, the ultimate source of all government is the sovereign Lord Himself, it is not the result of a social contract or natural culmination of human effort (Genesis 9:13, 16, 17). Third and fourth, government has a moral basis, founded on man’s creation in God’s image. Indeed the very concept of justice is a religious concept, rooted in the perfectly good nature of God, extending to every civil right and all authority on earth. This divine establishment of all government is mandated by the fact that man is sinful, capable of incredible evil, and can only be curbed by the restrictive power of the Holy Spirit upon man’s heart and of the government upon society. The fact that all government is fundamentally religious also means that justice – up to and including the death penalty – is actually divine vengeance, God’s vindication as governor of the universe. This Noahic Covenant is echoed in Jeremiah, Isaiah, Psalms, and Daniel, with many of the books of prophecy and poetry reinforcing the concept that it is God who directs the rise and fall of nations, and that He establishes the criteria for kings and rulers and judges (see Daniel 1:2, 4:17, 5:21, 6:26, 7:27, and essentially all of chapter 2; in Isaiah, see especially 44:28 and 45:13; also Jeremiah 22:13 – 17).
3. The Example of Jesus Christ is One of Submission and Obedience. While the majority of Biblical proscriptions for civil government are found in the Old Testament, the New Testament gives us guidance as well, not least in the conduct of Jesus and the disciples when dealing with civil government. From His youngest years, Jesus obeyed both His parents and the local authorities. Although at times He clearly thought the administration (both religious and civil) was corrupt and unjust, He obeyed nonetheless. Jesus taught, and taught His disciples to teach, to “Submit yourself to every ordinance of man” (1 Peter 2:13 – 14, 17), to even do the bidding of the Pharisees whom He despised and consistently refuted (Matthew 23:2 – 4, 13 – 29). He obeyed the laws of the civil authorities as well, whether Herod Antipas or Pontius Pilate, though He never gave them more than they requested. He never encouraged disobedience, or rebellion against a pagan, idolatrous, and unjust civil government (contrary to the charges brought against Him and for which He was crucified). Even His famous “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:20 – 22) stands as a timeless synonym for obedience to both civil government and the sovereign God of the universe.
Jesus not only set the example for obedience to civil government in His actions, he taught clearly on the topic as well. In Matthew 17, Jesus is pressed about paying the legally-required temple tax. This could have been a difficult issue, since the tax supported both the Jewish religious authorities and the construction of a temple for pagan worship. Jesus wisely sidesteps the central issues, and details that the tax must be paid if for no other reason than to avoid offending the governing authorities. The second passage, briefly mentioned above, is Jesus’ command to “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” Various Jewish sects, with varying levels of attachment to the Roman authorities and degrees of compliance with Jewish law, were uniting against Jesus, trying to trick Him into blasphemy or into trouble with the Roman authorities. When challenged by what could be a true dilemma, Jesus’ artful answer not only resolves the implied conflict but also addresses the fundamental issue underlying the question. Jesus saw no explicit contradiction between politics and religion, nor did He think submission to one excludes the other. This answer, in the spirit of love and fairness, is perhaps the greatest Biblical text on the entire topic of civil government.
Paul also teaches on the topic of obedience to civil government, in fact giving more insight than we receive from Christ during His ministry. Five key passages are relevant here – the first in 1 Corinthians 2, where Paul indicates that pagan rulers of human government are all part of God’s providential plan, though they are unaware of it. Following closely is 1 Corinthians 6, which discourages a litigious spirit in Christians under the assumption that the civil rulers have less knowledge, and less divine authority, than the apostles. By far the most significant of the five passages is Romans 13, clearly instructing Christians to submit to the power of ruling authorities, all of which are put in place by God. Simply put, resistance to constituted government is resistance to God’s ordinance. Paul’s final two admonitions, in 1 Peter 2 and Ephesians 6, round out his consistent admonition to honor God by submitting to governing authorities.
So, what does this all mean? With great respect to my Christian brother ER, his view is squarely at odds with the teachings of the Old and New Testament, the living example of Christ, and the teachings of both Christ and the Apostles. Hovind’s tax practices were both illegal and unBiblical. No doubt, there are limits, and these are evident from time to time in Scripture as well — if man gives a command that violates God’s command, there may be Biblical liberty to resist or disobey (perhaps that will be the subject of a future post). There will always be exceptions (I’m sure someone will bring up Hitler) — but the nearly unanimous testimony of Scripture, from Genesis through Revelation, is one of obedience to civil government as a divinely-instituted mechanism for God to conduct His affairs among men.
. Robert Culver, Civil Government: A Biblical View, (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2000), 18. His entire book is worth reading on this topic, and is the foundation of much of this post.