First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good and pleases our God and Savior, who desires all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. - I Timothy 2:1-4
As I write this we are in a “between time”. Martin Luther King Jr. Day was yesterday and the inauguration of our 46th president takes place tomorrow. Forty five times before we have had a peaceful (relatively) transfer of power, but as the riots and storming of the capitol building almost two weeks ago showed, that is not a given for this transition. 15,000 national guard troops have been called up to defend our nation’s capitol and our newly elected leader as he takes office. This is more than the number of troops we have in Iraq, Afghanistan, South Korea, Germany, and Saudi Arabia combined!
Whether or not you voted for #46 and no matter how you feel about his positions on various issues, does the Bible give us direction as to how to treat our leaders. In the words of our Minnesota brethren, “Ya, sure, youbetcha”. Most of what Luther cites in the Small Catechism comes from Paul’s letters to the Romans and others. We should remember that Paul wrote the majority of his letters to the churches while incarcerated by the powers that be. As he writes the words above to Timothy, he is in a house, under armed guards, in the city of Rome, awaiting his hearing with the Emperor of Rome, Nero. Nero was no friend to Christianity, especially towards the end of his reign, yet Paul tells us to pray for our civic leaders, obey them, counsel them, and seek their well being. A far cry from storming the capitol building.
Republican and Democrat are, of course, not the only fault lines in our society today. We seem to be more divided and divisive than ever. Anthropologists call this “tribalism” where we identify with our small, often counter-cultural, group more than we identify with the larger collective. We seem to have forgotten that Republicans and Democrats are both still Americans. Liberals and Conservatives share the same nation and same heritage. Whites, Blacks, Latinos, Asians all share the freedoms this country affords. Men and Women (and all the “genders” being promoted in between) are fellow citizens of this fair land. So how do we break from our tribes to foster a greater sense of unity?
That’s really Paul’s point to the Philippians: “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” This is not a new tribe that separates us from being good citizens, it is a new identity that reminds us that our citizenship in the USofA is temporary, but that of heaven is permanent. No “green card” needed for heavenly access, just faith. And that faith, the hope of our Savior’s return, influences how we treat the authorities that God has placed over us. Even Nero was doing God’s bidding and working according to His plan, even if the Emperor could never even imagine it being so. Without Paul’s imprisonment, we wouldn’t have the imprisonment letters. Without the persecutions, we would not have the witness and the example of the martyrs. Without the struggles there would not have been the explosive growth seen in the first three centuries. Without missionaries holding fast to their citizenship in heaven, the “barbarian” kings of Europe would never have been evangelized and Europe would have remained pagan.
So what does it mean to be a Christian citizen? Well the first thing would be to obey those whom God has placed in authority over you (Rom. 13:1-2). We don’t have to agree with the laws, nor do we need to like them, but it is our duty both as to defend sedition and rebellion (or violent protest), but we must be clear about when civil disobedience is allowable. We can, and in fact are duty bound to, break the law when that law commands us to violate God’s law or forbids us to do what God has commanded. Then, and only then, may we violate the laws of men and only for the specific law that is contrary to God’s command. A law or practice that allows for violation of God’s Word, but does not command it, is not cause to violate the laws of the state. For example, there is a huge difference between a government allowing for abortion (USA) and one that mandates abortion (China). And at no time are other violations of either the laws of God or of men allowable. We can protest, that is the law of the land, but we cannot assault (5th Commandment), vandalize (7th Commandment), spread misinformation on Facebook or elsewhere (8th Commandment), or curse (2nd Commandment). Nowhere in Scripture is armed rebellion against duly ordained governments endorsed, not even with the persecutions under Rome.
So can Christians protest against injustice and a government which is harming its people? Certainly! One might also argue that we have an obligation to our neighbor to see that justice (not vengeance - that belongs to God alone) is done. But how we do that is important. Martin Luther King Jr is considered a hero not just for the protests, but that they were non-violent (at least on the part of the protesters). To “peacefully assemble to seek redress of grievances” is one of the rights granted by the Constitution. We are blessed to have this right and should use it when we see laws, policies, institutions, government activities, etc which dishonor the value of any human being made in the image of God. Silence in the face of injustice is also NOT a Christian option.
Another way of being a Christian citizen is to use the process built into the laws of the land to change those laws or provisions which we find abhorrent. We have every right to “pester” our representatives and make sure they know how we feel on specific issues. If our representatives will not act to address the issue, we can call for a referendum vote. Gather enough signatures on a petition to ____ and it, by law, must be put on the ballot for the next voting cycle. This may not be easy; New Jersey requires 10,000 confirmed signatures for a ballot referendum and federal laws require 1,000,000 verified signatures. But just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean it can’t be done.
While on the subject of election cycles, vote! This is the primary way to live out one’s calling as an American Christian. Don’t like what our leaders are doing or have done, vote them out of office and vote in someone who is aligned with your values. Again, not always easy as many times our elections are a decision on the lesser of two evils, but still an evil. If that seems helpless, you could always run for office yourself. There’s no Scriptural mandate saying one cannot be both a Christian and a mayor or senator or even president.
One thing we can all do is to pray for our leaders - all of ‘em, even the ones we don’t like or didn’t vote for. Paul tells the Romans to pray for the very emperor who will take his head off in a few months. Republican or Democrat (even Libertarians and Independents) can all pray not just for the man or woman in authority, but especially for the office they hold. In a country such as ours, in days such as we find ourselves in, these leaders will need all the wisdom, grace, strength, and forgiveness heaven has to give. From the local School Board rep to #46, these leaders need to be lifted up in prayer. So I’ll end this blog with a prayer for our leaders.
Lord, keep this nation under Your care. Bless the leaders of our land that we may be a people at peace among ourselves, and a blessing to the other nations of the earth. Grant that we may choose trustworthy leaders, contribute to wise decisions for the general welfare, uphold justice for all people, and serve You faithfully in our day; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord. Amen.
Pastor Brian Handrich graduated from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis in 1997. He first served a dual parish in northeast Nebraska before coming to Flemington, New Jersey in 2002.