God and Government
Psalm 146:3 says, “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.” The Church’s track record of remembering this advice is pretty poor, however. As the state’s treatment of Christianity moved from persecution to toleration to official sanction, many Christians have attempted to make government an arm of the Church.
While much good may have been effected at times, many who claim to be Christians have used the state to oppress those with whom they disagreed. Factions and feuds often led to exile and slaughter as some in the Church attempted to control dissent and enforce moral codes that often had little to do with the words of Scripture.
Of course, Christians aren’t the only ones ready to use government to their advantage. Islam’s control of various governments has led to civil wars and state-sponsored terrorism as it attempts to bring the entire world to submit to the will of Allah. India has seen government oppression based in Hinduism. Similar problems exist elsewhere but I chose to focus on Christianity, particularly in America.
History shows that evil is often disguised as good, promoted by some Christians, and carried out by various governments. Even though America was largely founded by those who came wanting freedom to worship, these same emigrants often extended “freedom” only to those who agreed with them on every point of faith and practice. Their political authorities were often extensions of the churches. Remember that when alleged “witches” faced the accusations of supposedly “good” Christians, it was civil government that held the trials and meted out the punishments.
However, there’s an even more basic problem with putting your confidence “in princes” — or in presidents, prime ministers, potentates and grand poobahs: Emphasizing political solutions de-emphasizes the person and work of Christ. The Church too easily forgets that while it is called to be “salt” and “light” in this world (see Matthew 5:13–16), it isn’t called to legislate or impose morality on the world. Instead, we are called collectively and individually to believe in salvation through Christ Jesus, trust God, and love our neighbor as ourselves.
This by no means precludes Christians being active in government any more than it does our being teachers, doctors, or tradespeople. People of integrity, conviction, and faith are a precious commodity in all areas of human endeavor.
We are no longer “of the world,” as Jesus says in John 15:19, but are still in the world. As such, God doesn’t call us to isolate ourselves, to form exclusive colonies and communes. Instead, He continues to give us family, neighbors, even enemies who may be unchurched or anti-Church.
There is only one “city set on a hill (Matthew 5:14),” the sum total of all believers in Jesus — in other words, His Church. Built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, anchored by Christ our cornerstone, this city cannot fall. It needs neither the support nor the permission of government in order to abide, for even “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:18)”
If government commands us to sin, “we must obey God rather than men. (Acts 5:29)” Otherwise we obey those in authority, as Paul writes in Romans 13 and we pray for those in authority (1 Timothy 2:1–2), even if they are misguided or flagrantly sinful in their words and deeds. When given opportunity to do or to effect good, we seize it, not to advance the Church nor to impose morality, but simply because it is what Christians do.
When the Church avoids conflicting and messy entanglements with the state, it leaves us free to proclaim “nothing” except “Christ and him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2)” to hurting people in a fallen world. God hasn’t appointed us to change the world. Instead, sent Jesus to save sinners and entrusted His Church with the “message of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:19)” in Christ.
No government, no moral code, no ethical standard can bring God to man or man to faith. That comes through the power of the Holy Spirit in the proclamation of the Gospel by the people of Christ’s Church.
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Walter Snyder is a Lutheran pastor, hymn writer, conference speaker, author of the book What Do Lutherans Believe, and writer of numerous published devotions, prayers, and sermons.
Article first appeared in The Concordian of 1 July AD 2015.