What Does the Bible Have to Say About Government?

By Steve Dobo

You probably have already noticed that nowhere does the Bible tell us whether we should vote for Democrats or Republicans.  I do think that certain principles of one party tend to line up more with Biblical principles than the other.  However, it is my belief that the best candidate for president, congress, senate, governor, mayor, etc., would be none other than Jesus.  He alone is the Person we should strive to emulate. But given that we live in a fallen world, no one comes close.  This being the case does that mean we should have no opinion on politics at all?  I think not.  What I hope to show in the next section is that our ultimate allegiance should be to God alone (Jesus).  In the government of our soul, He is the only worthy candidate to rule over the hearts of men.  So, you ask: what does the Bible have to say?

First of all, God seems to have always advocated for leadership among His people.  This was first shown with Moses being the lawgiver and spiritual leader of Israel.  It was followed with Joshua leading them into the Promised Land.  Then under the Judges, there were times of spiritual renewal in Israel as well as times of great moral failure.

Our next form of government in the Bible takes the form of a king.  Israel wanted to be like other nations and have a king to rule over them (1 Samuel 8).  But on the contrary, God was to be their king.  It is clear that Israel would have been better off governed by God than by kings.  As we see in I and II Kings, and as I recently learned in class, no king is ultimately able to govern and rule as a righteous king in the same way God can.

As the Monarchy started to decline, we see the emergence of the prophet come next in our survey of governance in the Bible.  The prophet proclaims the Word of God and promises either deliverance for obedience to the law, or judgment for disobedience to it.  At times this applies to governing rulers, and at other times, this applies directly to the nation of Israel in general.  I think the advent of the prophet also shows us that the office of king was ultimately inadequate in governing God’s people.  Many times they, not the kings, were the ones that God used to bring his people back to spiritual wholeness.  Finally, there is silence for roughly 400 years.  This brings us to the New Testament where Jesus, the Messiah appears.

When Jesus comes on the scene, he is not silent about government and politics, but does not offer any clear guidance on voting.  There is the famous story where he is asked whether or not they should pay taxes to Caesar.  Jesus does not pick political sides in His answer.  He seems to let the hearer seek to understand “What are the things that are to be given to Caesar?” and “What are the things that are to be given to God?”  I believe he may of been advocating that we should give to Caesar (government) what they ask of us, i.e. taxes or respect, or honor (Rom. 13:7).  However, our respect to him cannot and should not go above our love for God.  More on this in a moment.

There is another instance of Jesus being asked a question pertaining to government.  He is asked to pay a temple tax in Matthew 17:24-27.  Tax collectors come to Peter and ask him whether or not Jesus pays the temple tax.  Peter replies that he does indeed pay it.  Jesus asks him about it later and asks a rhetorical question as to whether a king asks tribute of his children or others.  Peter says “From others” (v. 26).  But Jesus concedes and asks Peter to cast his rod in the sea to catch a fish that will be able to pay both his tax and Peters’.  This passage is puzzling to say the least, but I think Jesus admits that he and Peter should not have to pay the tax because they are part of God’s family, which would mean they are exempt from paying as the verse stated.  With Jesus being the eternal Son of the true King, God, He does not need to pay the tax, but he still does.  This leads me to believe that even though Jesus recognizes certain injustices that happen within a governmental structure, it is better for the Christian to remain compliant rather than be disobedient.  Although, there is a passage in Acts that seems to suggest just the opposite.

You might remember in Acts 4 there is a story about Peter and John.  The Sadducees and the religious leaders ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus anymore after they had healed a paralyzed man.  Peter and John reply, “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard” and later they said “We must obey God rather than men!” after being told not to speak in the name of Jesus (Acts 4:19-20, 5:29, NRSV, NIV).  This is a crucial passage in understanding our relationship to government as Christians.  Ultimately, Peter and John had to obey God, rather than men.  We too must follow in their footsteps and exercise civil disobedience when we are asked to obey men in a way that is contrary to our Christian beliefs and moral values.  But wait, this is not the last thing that is said about how we are to respond to government or voting.  Probably one of the most famous passages regarding our response to government is in Romans 13:1-7.

In Romans 13, there is a different voice regarding our response.  It seems to advocate submission and obedience to government.  Paul describes the governing authorities as having been put there by God in order to be his “servant” (v. 4).  They bear wrath for those who do wrong, and protect those who do right.  It is difficult to understand this within the context of Romans, however, Paul seems to advocate for followers of Christ to obey rulers and authorities whenever possible.  This is argued in v.6-7 which says “This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing.  Give everyone what you owe him: if you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor” (Rom. 13: 6-7, NIV).  This passage does not, however, address matters of voting, as the concept of voting did not come about until the period of the enlightenment in the 18th century and the advent of democracy in government.  Paul is saying these things in the context of having dictators and some governors under those dictators.  Choice of leadership probably would have been a laughable concept in those days.  You respected and did what the king asked.  If not, you were punished.  Perhaps Paul is saying these things because there were extremist political groups at the time such as the zealots who wanted to overthrow Rome with force in order to free Israel from their captivity.  All in all, this passage offers no direct statement for what type of person we should vote for in an election.  Let us turn now to some other books.

The Pastoral Epistles can be of some help in looking for electoral candidates.  For example, these books (1 and 2 Timothy, Titus) list qualifications for leaders in the church.  I think we can also use these lists to help evaluate who we should have running our country.  If these qualifications are good enough for God’s standards, why should they not be applied to secular politics and how we vote as Christians?

Let’s look at one example in 1 Timothy 3.  This list goes as follows: “Now the overseer must be above reproach (one of our most virtuous people), the husband of but one wife (someone with commitment who is not an adulterer), temperate (balanced, not extreme either way, able to keep from being easily angered), self-controlled (able to show restraint and discipline), respectable (has a good reputation, people speak highly of them), hospitable (knows how to give to others, generous), able to teach (shows humility and not pride), not given to drunkenness (someone who does not live excessively), not violent but gentle (knows how to resolve things in a diplomatic way), not quarrelsome (able to respectfully disagree), not a lover of money (not greedy; realizes money is not the end all, be all).  He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect” (being faithful in the small things, i.e. running one’s family well, will enable a person to be faithful in larger things, i.e. running a country well) (1 Tim. 3:2-4, NIV parentheses mine).

I hope the above examples prove my point.  Even though these qualifications concern leaders in the church, they are still great guidelines for any person seeking a position of leadership.  Now, let’s turn our attention to the book of Revelation.

Though Revelation is generally viewed as an eschatological book that deals with last/future things, there are some references to government.  We must first remember that the original audience happened to be under persecution from the emperor Domitian.  The book of Revelation is apocalyptic literature, which means it was written during a time of suffering to encourage the recipients that in the end God wins, so endure faithfully whatever may come.  The writer, John, is constantly trying to remind his hearers that God will prevail in the end, so be steadfast in enduring persecution because your name will be written in the book of life (Rev. 2:7, 2:11, 3:5).  This is the general message, but what does it have to do with politics?

I think the main point politically, of Revelation, is that our ultimate allegiance, as I stated earlier, should be to the Lord Jesus.  At that time, “Lord” was a general term of respect for Caesar.  When one said this, it meant that you believed him to be God or a god.  So, when the writer of Revelation calls Jesus “Lord,” he’s saying that He is the only “Caesar” worthy of complete surrender, even if that means giving up one’s life.  This is helpful for matters of civil disobedience, but we have still not found much help for how to vote in a Presidential election, or any election for that matter.  I hope to clear up some of the fog in my last blog post where I offer some suggestions.

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