Government and God’s Will

by Matthew Hansen

In this election year, how can we “seek first [God’s] kingdom and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33) without neglecting to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city” (Jeremiah 29:7)?

How do we engage government without lusting after power that may cause us to promote our own will or territory at the expense of others? How do we pursue positions of leadership without putting our desire for self-advancement, self-promotion and self-protection before the leading of the Holy Spirit?

Church-State History
In pondering these questions, let’s consider the church’s complicated relationship with government:

  • 33–312 A.D. The church experiences marginalization and persecution as an alternative society within the greater Roman Empire.
  • 312 A.D. The church gains partnership and power with the government when Roman Emperor Constantine becomes a Christian.
  • 1095–1272 The church becomes more of a military empire than the church of the Gospels. Instead of being persecuted, the church persecutes during the Crusades.
  • 1534 The Church of England is ruled by the king of England.
  • 1776 The United States of America declares itself an independent nation of 13 states recognizing the Creator but having no government-sponsored church.
  • 1828 Andrew Jackson becomes the first “common man” elected to the presidency. The era of Jacksonian democracy leads to the United States becoming the most powerful nation as its leaders weave Christian morals and freedom together with power and greed. Some church and government leaders begin returning favors for the sake of self-promotion and self-protection.

History tells us our European predecessors’ mix of government and Christianity didn’t go well for the host countries or the church. Although the United States does not have a marriage of church and state that produces an official church, the U.S. church-state relationship could be compared to a civil union.

Biblical Issues
In today’s political environment, Christians face issues that may seem like hot topics. As Christians, it is our responsibility to be like the Bereans,  who did not take Paul at face value but did their research to see if what he said was true (Acts 17:11). How much more diligent should we be in using Scripture to question what we know from the media? It’s important to compare your thoughts on an issue to the views of Scripture, church history and even the perspective of people who think differently than you.

As we examine these issues, we may discover our value systems are in alignment with the kingdom of God, but consideration of some issues may reveal we have competing allegiances (Matthew 6:24).

Does our voting record show we believe every unborn child is a human being made in the image of God (Psalm 139:14–16; Jeremiah 1:5)? Does it indicate we are empathetic to those who are poor or seek refuge (Matthew 7:12)? Although many of us are avid pro-lifers for those between conception and birth, do we stay pro-life for those trying to escape cycles of poverty, exploitation, violence and unethical governments? Do we see immigrants as “illegal” before we see them as people (Genesis 12:1, Exodus 22:21 and 23:9)?

Do we vote for candidates promoting stewardship of resources or individualistic interests (Leviticus 19:9–10; Deuteronomy 15:4–5 and 24:19–22; Proverbs 14:31, 22:7 and 28:15; Isaiah 58:7–9; Amos 5:11; Acts 2:44–45 and 4:34–35)? Do we vote for candidates who favor responsible finances or debt (Psalm 37:21, Romans 13:7–8)?

How does Scripture line up with our views of war and violence (Isaiah 2:4, Matthew 5:39–44 and 26:52, Romans 12:19–21)?

Kingdom values may leave us at odds with all political parties. If a Christian’s goal is allegiance to a particular political party, he or she may have the impossible task of attempting to serve two different masters.

Although I cannot tell you for whom to vote, I can tell you not to reduce your involvement in these issues to a political vote alone.

Rest, Pray, Live
As we move closer to Nov. 6, we can rest in God.

I wish I could say, “If you simply vote for such-and-such candidate, all will be well with the world.” There are two problems with that: history and sinful nature.

No matter for whom you vote, make sure you have done your homework. Even if your preferred candidate is elected, he or she may break promises or make decisions that do not line up with kingdom values. The good news is man cannot thwart the plans of God. At the end of the day, God’s will moves forward. You can rest in the reality that all of history is in God’s hands (Daniel 2:21, Psalm 75:7, Job 42:2).

Pray for our leaders. One of the elements separating Christians from the rest of the world is the way we react to those in authority over us.

Matthew Hansen is co-founder of Restore Communities (restorecommunities.org), teaching pastor at Austin New Church (austinnewchurch.com) and director of justice for the River Conference (theriverconference.org).

Although we absolutely should disobey our authorities if they require us to disobey the Scriptures, we should still do our best to respect them (Hebrews 13:17, I Timothy 2:1–2, 1 Peter 2:13–14).

It’s easy to cast a vote and walk away. It’s much more difficult to deeply live out our votes in our daily lives. If we vote against abortion, for example, we may need to adopt a child or walk with a young mother through her pregnancy and use our resources to take care of her.

Loving Our Nation
I love this great nation. Because I love it, I will be honest about its history, prejudice and violence as well as its successes, advancements and opportunities. While trying to expose our nation’s problems, we should not be silent about the good that runs through its history.

I love the kingdom of God even more than I love this country, and my allegiance is to it above all. My heart’s desire is that the church would be a set-apart society that lives out love, mercy, grace, justice and truth in the midst of the “empire” and for the sake of it.

Because we love this country so much, we owe it to the United States to live out the values of the kingdom of God distinctly. As you go to the polls this November, I pray grace and peace on you and on this nation.

6 Responses to Government and God’s Will

  1. Donna Lee Schillinger May 14, 2012 at 12:33 PM #

    Wonderful article. We are also exploring the interface of faith and politics all year in a column called Election Year in both Single! Young Christian Woman and Genuine Motivation: Young Christian Man online magazines – publications of On My Own Now Ministries.
    Now if someone could just sort out this gay marriage thing for me! Christians need an effective, Biblical response to the “it’s a civil rights issue.” We have the moral imperative, no doubt, but we are dismissing the civil rights issue, which has some validity to it. What’s the solution? Let’s think this through, Body of Christ!

  2. F. James Caswell May 26, 2012 at 4:48 PM #

    I find this essay to be troubling on several points. It reminds me various essays from the 1960s and 1970s in which humanist ideas began infiltrating the mainline denominations’ doctrines: such things as the ‘social gospel’ wherein good works became to be viewed as more important than faith in Christ; the substitution of emotion and feel good platitudes for rigorous thought and doctrinal consistency; and the outright distortion of history and Scripture to support the social goals deemed important during those times.

    The first questionable item in Mr. Hansen’s essay is found in his short overview of the role of the church in western history. Now granted that this overview is not a detailed dissertation of the history. However, his two sentences dealing with the church in the Middle Ages demonstrates a lack of knowledge about this time period such that the statement itself is totally misleading. First the papacy had no military forces of its own throughout this 200 year period which covers the period of the Crusades. All military forces were under the command of various secular leaders and did not answer to the religious authorities. Second, the bald assertion made by the author; “Instead of being persecuted, the church persecutes during the Crusades.” is not supported by the history of this period. It is true that Pope Urban II worked very hard to provide a religious rational for the military action. However he did not control it. Further, the various atrocities both sides engaged in during the crusades were more the result of the type of warfare engaged in than a command of the church. Finally, the comment ignores that fact of Islamic aggression that occurred from the founding of Islam through 846 in Palestine, North Africa, and Spain. This aggression (or expansion) also occurred in Asia Minor (Turkey) with the coming of the Seljuk Turks, who had embraced Islam, from Asia. This Turkish horde (for lack of a better term) applied constant military pressure on the Christian kingdom of Byzantium throughout the period of the Crusades and eventually established the Ottoman Empire which encompassed most of the Balkans, all of Turkey, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Arabia, and Egypt. It was this Turkish aggression against the Byzantine Empire that provided the formal pretext for the 1st Crusade when the Byzantine Emperor asked the Pope for military aid from Western Christendom. The Turkish expansion into Europe was only halted in 1688 at the Battle of Vienna. Most historical thought holds the Crusades to be an aggressive move by the Christian Kingdoms of Europe in response to the Islamic expansion. This response was initiated during a period of Islamic consolidation which makes it appear to be unprovoked aggression. In truth, the response of Rome and the West was very much a defensive response to Islamic aggression.

    This comment which focuses on the simple distortion of Western history embodied in 2 sentences is long enough. I will continue my comments in subsequent posts.

    • Peter Shackelford May 29, 2012 at 6:50 AM #

      F. James Caswell,
      Thank you for your solid scholarly critique of this article. I agree about your point on the crusades. They were a political reaction to the Islamic clamp that was tightening around europe, coming from the south west in spain and from the east. The common pop mythology is that the crusades were purely motivated by religion and constituted an un warranted attack. Another aspect was that europe was divided into countless fiefdoms that were waring with each other. It was a critical time in history for europe as many kingdoms were focusing their energies on local issues when the Ottoman empire was at it’s door. For the their survival, european nations needed the unification for a cause. As you have stated, that is not to say atrocities were not committed by both sides or that we agree with the religious fervor that that resulted in the deaths of many Muslims, Eastern Christians and Western Christians.

      A question we must ask our selves is, how would/should we respond in a Godly manner if we were put in a similar situation. Is there a possibility of following in the steps of Saint Francis. Is there a place for peace makers? Do we align ourselves exclusively with our earthly citizenship and the political agendas of that nation? Is there a higher law that calls us to object to parts of the political structure we live in? It makes me think of the “Letter to Diognetus” which is also quoted in some of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s writings.

      “They live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land. They marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring. They share their board with each other, but not their marriage bed. It is true that they are “in the flesh,” but they do not live “according to the flesh.” They busy themselves on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws, but in their own lives they go far beyond what the laws require. They love all men, and by all men are persecuted.”

  3. F. James Caswell May 28, 2012 at 12:55 PM #

    I will continue now by addressing the 1st paragraph in which Mr. Hansen challenges us to vote for candidates who would support policy initiatives regarding abortion, poverty, legal immigration, and illegal immigration. This paragraph links abortion, a moral and legal issue in the United States, to poverty, basically a social and economic condition, legal immigration, not at all relevant to his discussion, and illegal immigration, a legal issue. This linkage is then supported by scripture that concern our personal treatment of those with whom we have contacts (Matthew 7:12) and scripture that deals with proper treatment of non-Israelite residents in the promised land (Exodus 22:21).

    Obviously, since the abortion problem is partly a legal problem, voting for various candidates who support your position on the issue is appropriate. Given enough votes for candidates representing one side or the other in this issue will provide the basis for a legislative (legal) resolution. This process also allows for a reversal or other limited change to previous policies. This is totally within the historical and political traditions of the United States.

    Mr. Hansen implies that scripture requires us to be empathic to the poor. By placing this in an essay about the believer’s duty to apply scriptural standards to the choice of candidates, the natural implication is that the believer has a duty to vote for candidates who will address the problems of poverty. At no time does Mr. Hansen explain in what manner scripture places any responsibility on government to deal with any individual’s economic circumstances. It appears that Mr. Hansen is perfectly OK with the idea that the coercive power of the state (taxation) be employed to redistribute wealth in order to achieve social policy goals in accordance with his understanding of Scripture. This position, if it is Mr. Hansen’s position, ignores the fact that Scripture places the burden of caring for the poverty stricken directly on the individual ( Lev. 19:10; Lev. 23:22; Lev. 25:25; Deut. 15:11; Matt. 19:21; ) and not on any government. Therefore, why does this essay assume that poverty is a problem that government is to resolve when Scripture indicates the problem is better addressed by individuals helping each other, and by extension, the Church using its resources to directly address this problem in the localities where the Church is found?

    Finally, Mr. Hansen asks us to evaluate whether or not we view foreign individuals as persons or as a group; ‘illegal immigrants’. Based on the scriptures cited; Genesis 12:1, Exodus 22:21, Exodus 23:9; Mr. Hansen does not appear to see any difference between a person who enters the United States according the the laws of the United States, and a person who breaks those laws to enter the United States. The verses cited prohibit violence towards, and oppression of, aliens resident in the promised land. Obviously this is not the same thing as saying that those individuals who have broken the laws of the United States are not subject to the penalty imposed by those laws. After all Christ instructed his followers to obey the laws in force in their area (Matt. 12:14 and Luke 20.25). Paul clearly instructed believers to be obedient to secular authority in Romans 13:1-11. Obviously, this obedience does not extend to law that is clearly contrary to God’s command. However it has not been shown that the immigration law is contrary to God’s command. Nor has it been shown that the immigration statutes oppress or impose violence on illegal immigrants. This paragraph is a rather round about way of pointing out that Mr. Hansen only presents one side of this argument where a more balanced presentation is warranted.

    Well, I’ve taken up enough space for today. I will post my final comments within 2 day.