Government & Church: Difference, Role & Problems

We are a nation (and for that matter a church) divided, distracted and disoriented with misplaced priorities, passions and pursuits. And there is intense and heated (and politicized) debate and drama on the left and right regarding difficult issues. A deal regarding the “fiscal cliff” was just made (after heated debate and much political drama) but many questions and decisions still need to be made and more debate will be had.

My goal in this blog is not to solve those debates (not that I could anyway!) or even get into the discussions. Some issues are black and white (when you take an honest look at what Scripture says), but others are complex and delicate. We need the wisdom of God that is only found in the Word of God and comes out of praying to God. The Bible speaks clearly to many issues and gives clear principles in practical matters (see the book of Proverbs for example). And listen to what James 1:5-8 assures us of:

“If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.”

We must pray in faith, trusting God will give us wisdom; but to pray, we must humble ourselves, acknowledging we need God. This actually gets to the very heart and root of the issue. We are a prideful people who are trusting in our own human wisdom and value our own opinions more than the wisdom of God found in the Word of God and given by the Spirit of God. We lack a true and healthy fear of God, which is the beginning of real wisdom ( Proverbs 1:7). We lack a clear vision of the holiness of God and sinfulness of man. Therefore, we are not crying out for forgiveness in brokenness and repentance. And so we do not know the freedom of our guilt being atoned for and the joy of a cleansed conscience, heart and life (Isaiah 6, Psalm 51). How we need God! How we need to be awakened to beholding His glory! How we need to humble ourselves and subject ourselves to the conviction of the Holy Spirit and discipline of a loving, heavenly Father! How we need God’s grace!

In this post, however, I want to speak simply and basically into and about the role of government and the church according to Scripture. There is no denying that there are serious problems in both the church and government today. To speak to all those problems would require more than one or two posts!

The first thing that needs to be stated clearly is that the government is not the church and the church is not the government.

That doesn’t mean those involved in government cannot be involved in the life of the church and that those in the church cannot be involved in the affairs of the state. There are saved people in government and therefore those in government who are a part of the true church. And Christians ought to be the light and salt of the world, having a godly and good influence and impact on every aspect of society, including government.

But the church and government are two separate, different, and distinct “entities” created or ordained by God. To confuse that creates worse problems than already exist (in both the church and government).

The church does not rule the government and the government does not rule the church. But ideally, (be it not for sin!) the church and government would coexist and work side by side, not be enemies or opposed to each other.

So what is the role of the government and the role of the church in the world?

Well, let’s start with what Scripture says about government and what our relationship in regard to government ought to be:

Romans 13:1-7: “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. 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.”

From this portion of God’s Word we learn many things.

First of all, our attitudes and relationships ought to be characterized by submission to those in positions of authority because they have been put there by God. To rebel against those in government and disobey the law is rebellion against God and disobedience to Him. You cannot separate your relationship with God with your relationship and attitude towards government. To not pay taxes for example is to be living in sin, which affects your fellowship with God.

We also learn we are to be respectful and honor those in positions of authority. Attitudes, not just actions are important, for God is looking at our hearts (1 Samuel 16:7).

We also learn the government has been created by God to punish those who do wrong and reward (commend, honor) those who do right. Government is to uphold the law (righteousness and justice) and we are to obey the law (unless the law violates the greater law or Word of God; then we obey God not man. See Acts 5:29 although that is the exception not the norm).

1 Timothy 2:1-6 also tells us (the church) that we are to be faithful to pray for those in positions of authority:

“I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men…”

If you are a follower of Jesus, do these realities characterize your relationship and attitude towards those in government? If you are a follower of Jesus are you praying more passionately for souls to be saved or the “ship of state” to be turned around and go in the direction you desire and deem best? Are you praying for souls to be saved because they are facing and dangling over the eternal fire of hell because their sin has separated them from God or so that the “country is saved” and your comfortable (and often complacent) way of life is maintained? Are we citizens of heaven first or citizens of America first? Are we strangers passing through (as Scripture describes us again and again) or desiring to settle down and breeze through life into heaven? What is our priority?

And unfortunately, in my experience, I witness an awful lot of hatred, mean-spiritedness, lack of grace, rebellion, and just downright wrong attitudes towards those in government (unless of course “we agree” with them). But these Scriptures do not tell us to be a certain way towards “Republicans” and another way towards “Democrats.” It does not tell us to be a certain way towards those with whom we agree and a different way towards those with whom we disagree. In fact, in the days these Scriptures were written, the church was often persecuted by those in authority! And go read the book of Daniel to see how Daniel, though never compromising His relationship with God and obedience to God, was respectful, used tack (without false flattery), and honored those in authority (though pagan and having taken captive Daniel and his people!) Even when it meant disobeying those in authority or laws that contradicted the law of God, Daniel remained humble and respectful.

So why the attitudes and animosity? I am more and more convinced it is because we fear what man may do more than we trust what God can do or has promised to do! I am convinced it’s because we are more concerned with maintaining our own comfortable way of life than we are for being a witness for Christ, regardless of the consequences or cost! I am convinced it’s because we don’t really trust in a Sovereign God and haven’t really surrendered our lives to Him but are trying to “save our own lives and way of life.”

Anyway, those in government are to govern. The church is to be a witness in this world for Jesus Christ (Acts 1:8) and pray for those in government (whoever they are!).

The government is to protect the public using the “sword” to punish those who do wrong, but the church is to put away their natural swords (Matthew 26:52) and rather take up and wield the “Sword of the Spirit” for as Ephesians 6:11-12 says:

“…we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”

And as 2 Corinthians 10:3-5 says: “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”

(Side note: that is not to say all saved people cannot serve in the military, as there are many examples of true believers and converts to Christ who were Roman soldiers and weren’t told they had to leave upon repenting of their sin and placing their faith in Christ…Luke 3:14).

The government is to keep order in society; the church is to be a light in society (Matthew 5:14-16).

The government is to protect the people; the church is to pray for souls and preach the Gospel which is “the power of God unto salvation for all who believe” (Romans 1:16).

The government addresses the behavior of its citizens; the church calls people to trust in Jesus and have their hearts transformed. Government cannot change peoples’ hearts; only God can, and He uses the church, which is the pillar of truth (1 Timothy 3:15) and proclaimer of the good news of the Gospel!

May we (the church/the people of God) never forget the role assigned to us. May we not preach politics but preach the Gospel of peace…proclaiming the truth of God’s Word in purity and power but also with grace and humility. May we not get distracted by politics but pray for those in government.

In the midst of a nation divided, we need a church who knows her place and one that shows the world the character and beauty and grace of Christ.

Ephesians 4:1-6: “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit— just as you were called to one hope when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”

John 17:20-23: “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

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