One of the great debates in Christian circles is how Christians are to respond to the State. The problem is that the New Testament, itself, seems inconsistent in its approach. There are times when the authors teach that Christians should support and obey the government fully as a servant of God. There are other times when the government is viewed with caution and believers are told to watch out. A third response is seen most clearly in the book of Revelation where the government is viewed as an enemy of God and His people and believers refuse to submit. This leads to confusion not only in free countries but in restricted ones, with resulting accusations of compromise or rebellion hurled at other believers who take a different approach.
The fact is, as Walter E. Pilgrim points out in his excellent book, Uneasy Neighbors: Church and State in the New Testament, there is no simple biblical rule of thumb that will provide an answer for all circumstances. The Christian’s response to the State depends upon one’s evaluation of the degree to which the government is fulfilling its divine mandate to serve the public good, providing justice and peace to its citizens. There are times when the Christian says “Yes” to good government, times to say “look out,” and times when “No!” must be said loud and fearlessly. All three responses are rooted in the New Testament.
Pilgrim suggested a paradigm for how Christians can respond to the State that I think is extremely helpful. The following are excerpts taken from pages 193-204 of his book. He develops these three responses (critical-constructive, critical-transformative, critically resistive) in the rest of the book but for the sake of summary, I hope that you will find this helpful and perhaps peak your interest in further study:
1. “A critical-constructive stance is appropriate when the powers that be are attempting to achieve justice.”
This stance coheres well with the ethic of subordination to the state. It affirms the divine will for governments to enhance the public good, preserve justice, and maintain peace and order. When the church perceives that the political powers are essentially on the side of justice, it will accordingly respond with loyalty and support. In fact, the church will encourage and assist the state to do its beneficial work and to do it to the best of its ability.
This is not a call to perfection or full justice on the part of the state. The New Testament tradition of loyalty and obedience to the powers that be did not require a superior or impossible standard of justice (or even Christian rulers or Christian nations!). In fact, the call to obey was present in times of acute suffering. But behind the Christian ethic of subordination lay the conviction that the emperor and his representatives are God's instruments to promote peace and justice and to prevent civil chaos and disorder. When this intention is missing or flagrantly violated or the state turns deliberately against the church and the public good, however, then the church has no option but to adopt a strategy to resist those in authority….
2. “A critical-transformative stance when authority errs, but can be realistically moved to salutary change.”
This stance finds its closest counterpart in the ethic of critical distancing from the state, present especially in the Gospels. Like the critical-constructive view, it still regards the political powers as necessary earthly institutions and as representative of the divine will. There is no call to oppose the authorities per se nor a wholesale rejection of their social and political status.
Jesus' own prophetlike ministry...can be viewed as a putting-into-practice of the critical-transformative stance toward those in power. Toward the religious establishment, the preservers of the "sacred tradition;' he called for repentance in light of the coming kingdom; he challenged the "politics of holiness" based on exclusivism and welcomed the unrighteous and sinners; he took the side of the poor and marginalized and announced God's reversal of status in the coming kingdom; his entry provoked the priestly elite to confront his message before it was too late; his cleansing of the Temple symbolized its systemic corruption and imminent destruction. Toward the political establishment, Jesus felt free to oppose his own ruler, Herod Antipas, as well as the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate.
Did Jesus expect to transform the religious and political authorities? According to the Gospels, he worked and prayed for their renewal, yet finally came to realize his voice would not be heard (Mark 14:25; Luke 19:41-44; 13:34-35). The chain of events from arrest to crucifixion demonstrates that prophetic protest may result in suffering and persecution. The passion history itself vividly illustrates the problem of trying to transform religious and political institutions. And the crucifixion stands as a potent symbol of political authority abusing its power and stubbornly refusing to change, in spite of knowing it has committed a grave injustice. Yet the Gospels picture Jesus willing to stay the course for the greater cause of the kingdom. And he does so without a call to his followers to take up the sword or overthrow those who misuse their political status, unlike the leaders of the other resistance movements in Palestine….
3. "A critically resistive stance when the powers are responsible for demonic injustice or idolatry and refuse to be responsible to change."
This position agrees most fully with the ethic of resistance toward the state found most clearly in the book of Revelation. Governments can become demonic and idolatrous, opposed to God and the church. And they can become perpetrators of systemic injustice and so fundamentally hostile to the civic welfare.
When the church understands this to be the case, it has no choice but to stand in opposition to the political powers. In these moments the church needs to take a bold stance against the idolatrous ideologies and their propaganda, refuse to compromise on essentials, and do battle against the core injustices. And if the governments refuse to change, Christians will find themselves seeking to remove them from power.
This stance obviously takes courage and wisdom and trust in God. It marks the Christian community as a perceived "enemy of the state" and therefore subject to isolation and hostility and various kinds of suffering and persecution. It requires a willingness on the part of individual Christians and the church to accept the consequences of their resistance, whatever that may be, in the confidence they act out of prior obedience to God. Does the church in fact become an enemy of the state when it opposes radically unjust and totalitarian governments? To put it another way, can such governments forfeit their role as divinely willed instruments for good?
Some interpreters think not…. But the author of Revelation never calls idolatrous Rome a "servant of God," even if rebellious. Indeed, the seer believed that Rome had forfeited its right to rule. Hence for Revelation, particular governments do function outside of the divine mandate. Yet even Rome and all such evil empires are subject to God, who will end their rule in God's good time. One can say, therefore, that while Christians are not enemies of the state per se, they may and do resist particular governments who are incorrigibly corrupt and idolatrous….
It seems to me that these three responses also provide a helpful guide in assisting to determine advocacy strategies with governments. Organizations argue whether to use a “carrot” or a “stick” with governments like China or Sudan. Should we organize public protests, boycotts, writing campaigns and the like or should we seek diplomatic solutions, constructive engagement, or investment in restrictive countries as a means of promoting greater rights. Realizing that there is more than one biblical way to deal with governments may help us to determine which means is appropriate in a given situation with a specific government. There is no one way that always works in all circumstances.