(This is another chapter from a book I recently released called “Beautiful and Believable: The Reason for My Hope.” It is available here, and an ebook version is available on Kindle, Apple Books, and Kobo.)
Are Christians to rebel against reigning governments or submit to them? Are Christians to take over governments? Does the Christian vision for society lead to a theocracy, where God’s law is the law of the land? Does Christianity promote a beautiful vision for society? If God is real, and Christianity is true, then we should expect beauty and not ugliness in the vision for citizenship. What is the vision?
Are Christians to rebel?
So they called the apostles back in and commanded them never again to speak or teach in the name of Jesus.
But Peter and John replied, “Do you think God wants us to obey you rather than him? We cannot stop telling about everything we have seen and heard.”Acts 4:18-20 (NLT emphasis added)
The captain went with his Temple guards and arrested the apostles, but without violence, for they were afraid the people would stone them. Then they brought the apostles before the high council, where the high priest confronted them. “We gave you strict orders never again to teach in this man’s name!” he said. “Instead, you have filled all Jerusalem with your teaching about him, and you want to make us responsible for his death!”
But Peter and the apostles replied, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”Acts 5:26-29 (NLT emphasis added)
In the New Testament we find rebellion against the authorities in order to be obedient to God. We can think of many Christians around the world who disobey the authorities by gathering together as Christians, by telling others about Jesus, and sometimes simply by owning a Bible. May those of us who are Christians in lands of greater freedom be in prayer for the underground Church around the world. So yes, we are encouraged to rebel and break the laws when necessary.
So therefore Christians should never submit?
Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God. So anyone who rebels against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and they will be punished. For the authorities do not strike fear in people who are doing right, but in those who are doing wrong. Would you like to live without fear of the authorities? Do what is right, and they will honor you. The authorities are God’s servants, sent for your good. But if you are doing wrong, of course you should be afraid, for they have the power to punish you. They are God’s servants, sent for the very purpose of punishing those who do what is wrong. So you must submit to them, not only to avoid punishment, but also to keep a clear conscience.Pay your taxes, too, for these same reasons. For government workers need to be paid. They are serving God in what they do. Give to everyone what you owe them: Pay your taxes and government fees to those who collect them, and give respect and honor to those who are in authority.Romans 13:1-7 (NLT emphasis added)
Keep in mind that these words are taken from Paul’s letter to Rome, the seat of power in the ancient world. While the Christians in Rome recognised that saying “Jesus is Lord” meant therefore saying that Caesar is not, there was still a call to respect the authorities. There is an impulse to be good citizens of the land, to be good Romans when in Rome, or a good Canadian when in Canada.
We therefore find in the New Testament a balance between respect for the authorities as good citizens of the land, but also disobedience when necessary.
Are Christians to take over the government, to aim for a “Christian Nation,” or to establish a theocracy?
Reading through the entire New Testament we find no encouragement to take over the government or to establish a theocracy. Christianity began as a minority movement and therefore a takeover was not even entertained as a possibility. Even so, neither do we find a longing to do so at some point in the future when we have enough influence. What we find is a focus on individuals having a life-changing encounter with Christ. We find disciples making disciples. We find the recognition that Jesus already reigns without the need for a political or military coup. There is no need to take over the government, for Jesus is already Lord. There is no need to set up a theocracy, for God is already sovereign.
Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices shouting in heaven:
“The world has now become the Kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ,
and he will reign forever and ever.”Revelation 11:15 (NLT)
The place of the Christian is not to enforce laws that make the land look like God’s kingdom. The place of the Christian is to live kingdom focused lives while watching and waiting for God to bring the Divine kingdom.
We find something similar in Old Testament. While there was a call for the establishment of a theocracy, known as Israel, there was no impulse for that theocracy to take over the world. Israel was not called to take over the world, but to be salt and light to the world. Christians today are to be salt and light within the world.
We are to have influence on society, but we are to be salt and light, not a hammer and gun. We are to carry a cross, not a sword. Helping people know Jesus is the priority of the Christian, not enforcing non-Christian people to live like Christians, especially not our own vision of what a Christian looks like. Sometimes a person’s idea of “theocracy,” a term referring to God being the leader, might better be termed “me-ocracy.” We are not to be kings over the land but kingdom people in the land, leading kingdom lives, looking forward to the Kingdom to come. We are disciples making disciples.
As lives are changed, society is changed. Christianity has brought good and beautiful changes to society, yet it is to do so without a vision for totalitarian control. We can consider how Christianity has nurtured human rights.
As an interesting example, consider the nations that are the best, and those that are the worst, to live in if you are gay. According to one source, here are the ten best nations to live in if you are gay in ascending order; Argentina, Belgium, Malta, Germany, Iceland, Portugal, Sweden, The Netherlands, Spain, and Canada. My own nation of Canada takes the top spot as the best! From another source, here are the worst in descending order; Afghanistan, Sudan, Yemen, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Somaliland, Nigeria, Russia, United Arab Emirates, and Mauritania. Notice anything about these two lists? The nations that are considered best have all had Christianity working in the background for a long time, helping to shape the culture, helping to develop a societal vision of love for one’s neighbour and an appreciation of human rights. The nations that are considered worst share a history of either sharia law or communism, strict Islam or atheism. Rights and freedoms have flourished in lands that have been marinating in Christianity. This speaks positively about the relationship between Christianity and society.
To conclude, the New Testament does not promote a vision for society that is to be fought for, that is to be enforced. That would get ugly quite quickly. Unfortunately, being all too human, we Christians have made things get ugly at times.
What the New Testament promotes is a vision for how Christians engage with and interact within society, any society. We are to be individuals reaching individuals with the good news of the love of God as expressed in Jesus Christ. We are to be disciples making disciples. We are to do good, to love our neighbours. We are to lead Jesus-centred, Spirit-filled, wisdom-seeking lives. We are to be kingdom people living kingdom lives, while watching and waiting for the kingdom to come. We are to be good citizens of whatever land we live in. We are to rebel when necessary.
Overall, the Christian Scriptures promote a beautiful vision for how Christians engage with and live within society. This is consistent with what we would expect from a good and loving God.