What Christian Citizens Owe Government Leaders
Four Obligations from the New Testament
This past Wednesday, Joseph R. Biden was inaugurated president of the United States of America. Despite our nation’s name, we are a divided people. Many Americans voted for Biden and support the public policies he pledged to enact. Many others didn’t and don’t. Christians of various denominational stripes can be found among both groups.
The inauguration of a new president during an era of intense division offers Christians an opportunity to reflect on what we owe our government leaders. When we agree with them, our obligation seems easy. But when we disagree — especially when we disagree hotly — our duty seems difficult. That is why, in the throes of changing politics, we must recur to God’s unchanging Word.
As we examine Scripture, we see four obligations God lays on Christian citizens regarding those we have elected — and He has established (Romans 13:1–2) — to lead.
In 1 Timothy 2:1–7, the apostle Paul encourages believers to offer “petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving” for “all people,” but especially for “kings and all those in authority.” The Roman emperor when Paul writes those words is probably Nero, a notoriously violent and corrupt man. Even so, the apostle urges believers to pray, petitioning God to meet Nero’s needs, interceding with God to forgive his sins, and thanking God when he gets things right.
The purpose of those prayers, according to Paul, is that Christians can live “peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” In the Bible, peace is not just the absence of conflict. It is the experience of human flourishing that pervades when justice prevails. Christians contribute to human flourishing by living godly, holy lives.
Christians contribute to human flourishing by living godly, holy lives.
There is a deeper purpose behind the purpose, however: “This is good,” Paul writes, “and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”
Have you heard the statement, “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the church”? This is a misquotation of the early Christian writer Tertullian. (What he actually wrote is, “The blood of Christians is seed.”) From this statement, many Christians have inferred that the Church grows best when persecuted worst.
That is not what Paul thought, however. For him, peace and quiet is the ground of evangelism, which is why he urged Christians to pray for the authorities, who were in the best position to establish the conditions of justice that led to peace.
And so, let us offer all kinds of prayers to God on behalf of our elected officials! May He grant them wisdom to know what is just and what results in peace throughout the community! And may Christians make the most of peace to share the gospel, which is the second thing Christian citizens owe elected leaders.
The gospel is good news. Notice what Paul said about the gospel in 1 Timothy 2:4: God “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” Just as God wants believers to pray for all people, especially government leaders, so God desires to save all people, including government leaders. He has invited everyone you meet to spend eternity with Him.
This happens through faith in Jesus Christ. Paul quotes Joel 2:32 in Romans 10:13: “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” To make sure everyone knows about God’s invitation, Paul reminds believers of their duty to share the gospel:
How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:14–15, referring to Isaiah 52:7).
Sometimes, we focus so narrowly on what politicians are doing, rightly or wrongly, that we forget where they are going, heaven or hell. If God desires to save all people through faith in His Son Jesus Christ, and if it is our privilege to share that good news with all, then we must also pray and work for the salvation of government leaders who do not believe, as well as for the spiritual renewal of government leaders who do.
Like Paul standing before King Agrippa, we must be willing to say, “Short time or long — I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains” (Acts 26:29).
Most of us will never meet the president of the United States or a federal senator or congressional representative. But we may know local government officials. Are we praying for them? Are we building relationships with them? Are we looking for opportunities to share the gospel with them or to strengthen their faith?
Obedience and Respect
In a republic or a democracy such as ours, the people elect their leaders. This is a very different situation politically than what Paul and other New Testament Christians faced. They lived under monarchies and had little say in who governed them.
Even so, Paul encouraged obedience: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God” (Romans 13:1). Nero is likely Caesar when Paul writes these words, which implies that for Paul, even Nero’s reign was God ordained. If Paul urges obedience to corrupt government officials we did not choose, how much more should we obey government officials we did choose!
We should not expect a religiously diverse society to reflect Christian values unless or until we have shown them by our own example “the most excellent way," which is love.
And yet, more than external obedience is required. Like Paul, Peter urged obedience to “human authority,” from the “emperor” to the “governors” below (1 Peter 2:13–17). It is possible to outwardly obey authority while inwardly disrespecting them, however. So Peter encourages Christians to live with integrity: “Show proper respect to everyone … honor the emperor.”
Obedience and respect toward human authorities are in short supply these days. And to be honest, those authorities have often earned the disobedience and disrespect people show them through incompetence, corruption and hypocrisy. Christians are not supposed to act like other citizens, however. As Peter points out, we are supposed to live “for the Lord’s sake,” and this entails both obedience to and respect for human authority. Only in this way will we live paradoxically as “free people,” not using our freedom as “a cover-up for evil.”
Accountability and Example
Christian obedience to government officials is not a limitless obligation, however. Jesus says, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Mark 12:17). This implies a distinction between what we owe government leaders and what we owe God.
And since God establishes government leaders (Romans 13:1), this further implies that our duties to God supersede our duties to government leaders. As Peter reminds the Sanhedrin, “We must obey God rather than human beings!” (Acts 5:29).
The distinction between divine and human authority and the subordination of the latter to the former are good things. They ground Christian politics in moral principle. They set limits on the reach of government. And they create room for civil society to use persuasion rather than compulsion to effect social change.
But they only work if we do our work as citizens. So, are we informed about public policy? Do we advocate for change where necessary? Do we vote in good government leaders and vote out bad ones?
Most importantly, as Christians, do we set a good example for our neighbors? Jesus says, “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). Peter says, “it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people” (1 Peter 2:15).
We should not expect a religiously diverse society to reflect Christian values unless or until we have shown them by our own example “the most excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31), which is love.In this new year, with a new presidential administration, let us renew our commitment to praying for our government officials, to sharing the gospel with them, to obeying the law and respecting the lawgivers, and to holding them accountable while giving them our good example! These are the basic duties of Christian citizenship.