The Christian’s Approach to Civil Government

There is no doubt that the current “Safer at Home” order has challenged us all in ways we could not anticipate. None of us prepared for this moment—not parents, teachers, governors, legislators, judges, health officials, medical personnel, and even pastors. I never thought there’d be a day when I’d stay home on Sundays and preach to my people through the internet. I never expected that medical professionals would demand that I not visit the sick, the homebound, and the dying. I’m not able to fulfill my vocation in the way I’m used to or even as Jesus gave it. 

I’m not alone. Everything has changed and all are affected. We’re going on six weeks of churches gone dark, schools shuttered, bars and restaurants closed, and more. We’re growing restless. We desperately need a haircut. As our patience wanes, our willingness to continue under the government’s “Safer at Home” orders is stretched thin. We’re beginning to doubt all authorities, whether medical, governmental, educational. There have been and will continue to be lawsuits, protests, and rebellion. What are we to do? How can we respond to this situation is a wise, responsible, and faithful way?

First we ask, what do the Holy Scriptures say? Christians believe that Jesus’ Word is the only rule and standard for faith and life. As Christians, we believe that all earthly authorities are God’s servants, whether they know it or not (Romans 13:1-7). We are to remind people to be subject to rulers and authorities, obedient, and ready to do whatever is good (Titus 3:1). These authorities are given to punish those who do wrong and commend those who do right (1 Peter 2:13-14). Jesus himself submits to Pontius Pilate, as one whose authority is “given from above.” Luther reminds us that the Fourth Commandment to honor parents includes all powers that derive from the family. He does not destroy the state or the family. Instead, He requires us to honor both and love one another in these realms. 

And while Jesus instructs His followers to “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” He also says, “render to God what is God’s.” The First Commandment teaches us that we are given to fear, love, and trust in God above all things and all people. St. Peter and the other apostles were forbidden from peaching in the name of Jesus but continued anyway. When they were put on trial in Jerusalem, Peter famously confessed, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Only when the government has prohibited them from preaching and teaching Jesus forgiveness of sins, can the apostles or us disobey these earthly authorities in good conscience.

Christians believe that they live under two kingdoms, God’s eternal kingdom and the temporary earthly kingdom. Civil government belongs to the outward, temporal kingdom. The one holy Christian Church is the kingdom of Christ Jesus. We live and serve in and under both kingdoms, but in different ways. The Christian serves God inwardly and the neighbor outwardly. A Christian can be both faithful toward God and dutiful servant of the state, as a ruler, citizen, soldier, or judge. And where Scripture is silent, we use our God-given reason and senses to make wise and responsible decisions.

An additional wrinkle to our current context is that our form of government, a constitutional democracy, is relatively new and untested in the history of the world. It uniquely gives citizens the right to assemble. It also protects the free exercise of our Christian faith. No government within the history of the Scriptures and very few in the history of Christianity have provided such freedoms. As with any privilege, it must be used both faithfully and responsibly. We consider what God would have us do. And we apply our God-given reason and senses to act not only for our good but for the good of our neighbors, community, and nation. 

As we all struggle to fulfill our vocations as ruler, citizen, employer, worker, husband or wife, parent, we consider our place in life, act in accord with our faith, and act wisely and judiciously. It is a dichotomy or a balance, living both as citizens of this world and citizens of Jesus’ kingdom. It’s not easy and there aren’t always clear answers. I know this most acutely, as I struggle to serve as a preacher of the Word of God, while our state and local government has placed restrictions on our assembly and receiving of the gift of the Lord’s Supper. How can I do what I’ve been given to do as a pastor and honor the civil authorities God has given me? None of us were prepared for this well. We can only act according to our faith and our reason, asking forgiveness where we go wrong, and praying for God to give us patience, wisdom, and ultimately relief from this “momentary affliction” (2 Cor 4:17).