How to be a Good Citizen
How to be a Good Citizen
Politicians: how do we treat them? Governments and local councils: how do we view them? Taxes: do we really need to pay them?
What about evil regimes? If you live under a Hitler or Stalin, a Saddam Hussein or Colonel Gaddafi, are you supposed to obey them?
‘Be a good citizen,’ writes the apostle Paul. ‘All governments are under God. Insofar as there is peace and order, it’s God's order. So live responsibly as a citizen. If you’re irresponsible to the state, then you’re irresponsible with God, and God will hold you responsible. Duly constituted authorities are only a threat if you’re trying to get by with something. Decent citizens should have nothing to fear’ (Romans 13:1–3, MSG).
This would have been a radical idea to Paul’s original readers. In the ancient world most people saw religion and government as intertwined. The early church was still adjusting to the idea that the Messiah was not going to rule over his people in an earthly government. Those around them would have worshipped Rome and the Emperor as god. Yet here Paul tells them that they should submit to Roman authority, while still being free to follow Jesus as their King.
There is good government and there is bad government. There is a good side to human government; there can also be an evil side. Paul’s teaching in Romans 13 needs to be balanced by Revelation 13. Revelation 13 was written at the time of the persecution of Christians under the Emperor Domitian. The state is seen as the ally of the Devil (pictured as a red dragon) who has given his authority to the persecuting state (pictured as a monster emerging out of the sea). At worst, government can even be an agent of evil. In both of today’s Old Testament passages we see examples of what happens when authority starts to go wrong.
Both Romans 13 and Revelation 13 are true. As Oscar Cullmann remarks, according to whether ‘the state remains within its limits or transgresses them, the Christian will describe it as the servant of God or as the instrument of the Devil.’
1. Pray for those in authorityPsalm 89:38-45
Israel was a theocracy. Church and state were inextricably intertwined. The ‘anointed’ leader of God’s people (v.38) was also the one who wore the ‘crown’ (v.39) and sat on the ‘throne’ (v.44).
The kings in the Old Testament were regarded as anointed by God. Yet many of them sinned and were unfaithful to the Lord. The psalmist writes, ‘But you have rejected, you have spurned, you have been very angry with your anointed one. You have renounced the covenant with your servant and have defiled his crown in the dust’ (vv.38–39).
The psalmist is probably describing here the events of the exile in 587 BC. The king referred to in verse 45 is probably Jehoiakim, who was aged 27 at the time of the fall of Jerusalem, ‘You have cut short the days of his youth; you have covered him with a mantle of shame’ (v.45).
Lord, we pray for our government and all the other leaders of our nation. May they never be covered with shame. May they govern well and wisely.
2. Enjoy freedom under authorityRomans 13:1-14
We live in the period between the first and second comings of Jesus. When Jesus returns he will rule and reign forever. There will be no need for human government. In the meantime, however, we do need human government. The authority of governments is properly seen, in St Peter’s phrase, as a ‘human authority’ (1 Peter 2:13).
This does not mean that humans devised it in independence or isolation from God. Rather, it is an institution implicit in human social existence as God made it.
Yet, since it is God who sets the terms, St Paul writes that everyone must submit themselves to the governing authorities (Romans 13:1–2).
If this applies to secular authority – how much more must it apply to the authority of the church? Different churches have different structures of authority. In our experience, submitting to the authority of the leaders of our church has brought great freedom.
In this passage we see what good government looks like: ‘Do you want to be on good terms with the government? Be a responsible citizen and you’ll get on just fine, the government working to your advantage. But if you’re breaking the rules right and left, watch out. The police aren’t there just to be admired in their uniforms. God also has an interest in keeping order, and he uses them to do it. That’s why you must live responsibly – not just to avoid punishment but also because it’s the right way to live’’ (vv.3–5, MSG).
This is the basic New Testament principle. We should obey every authority – the government, local authorities and the institutions we find ourselves in.
First, we do so because they are part of the authority that is instituted by God. Second, we do so because of the consequences of not obeying them (v.5). Third, ‘because of conscience’ (v.5). If we are not obeying the authorities we cannot live with a clear conscience.
We see here a clear distinction between personal morality and the enforcement of law by government. We have seen that, in the field of personal morality, Paul’s teaching is very similar to that of Jesus: it is one of non-retaliation and ‘turning the other cheek’ (12:14–21). However, he moves from there to discuss ‘governing authorities’ (13:1–6). He speaks of rulers as God’s servants to bring punishment on the wrongdoer (v.4).
The state is concerned with the protection of others. To stand by and allow murder and violence would be unloving and unchristian. By analogy, if it is right for the authorities to use force to protect citizens against internal threats, arguably it is equally right to protect them against external ones by force, if necessary. In practice, of course, it is often extremely difficult to work out when such force is justified.
What is less controversial is that we should pay what we owe (vv.6–8). This means paying every penny of tax that we owe and all of our bills as soon as they arrive. It is not wrong to have a planned and manageable debt – mortgage, student loan or credit card. However, we are to avoid being in unplanned or unmanageable debt like the plague. If we find ourselves in debt it is important not to ignore it and to get help as soon as possible, for example from one of the many Christian debt advice services.
All the commands (in the second half of the Ten Commandments) are fulfilled and summed up in ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’: ‘When you love others, you complete what the law has been after all along. The law code – don’t sleep with another person’s spouse, don’t take someone’s life, don’t take what isn’t yours, don’t always be wanting what you don’t have, and any other “don’t” you can think of – finally adds up to this: Love other people as well as you do yourself. You can’t go wrong when you love others. When you add up everything in the law code, the sum total is love’ (vv.9–10, MSG).
The way to fulfil the law is by loving our neighbour as ourselves. If we do this we will not steal because of the unhappiness of the person from whom we steal, we will not kill or even have the wrong kind of anger because of the hurt it will bring to others. We will not commit adultery because of the damage it does to marriage and relationships. If we love we will not break any of the commandments.
The law is summed up and fulfilled by love. Love is not an excuse for breaking the commandments but a way of keeping them. The commands were given out of love for us and are fulfilled by love. Paul does not write if you love you need not obey the commands. Rather, he says if you love you will fulfil the commands.
Lord, help me today to love my neighbour as myself. Help me to ‘put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light’ (v.12). I want to clothe myself with the Lord Jesus Christ and not ‘think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature’ (v.14).
3. Be aware of the limits of authority1 Chronicles 7:1-9:1a
As we look around the world today we see good and bad leadership and government. The people of Israel had their share of bad government.
As the chronicler concludes his lists and genealogies, he writes, ‘This is the complete family tree for all Israel, recorded in the Royal Annals of the Kings of Israel and Judah at the time they were exiled to Babylon because of their unbelieving and disobedient lives’ (9:1, MSG). In his list he mentions Saul, ‘Kish the father of Saul, and Saul the father of Jonathan’ (8:33), whom he will later highlight as an example of someone who started out as a good governor but ended up as a bad one (1 Chronicles 10:13–14).
Saul became an example of the kind of government that is spoken about in Revelation 13. Nevertheless, David sought as far as he possibly could to remain loyal and subject to his authority.
Lord, help us to have the right attitude to all those who you put in authority over us (whether in the church or in the state). Help us to submit with good grace even when we disagree. Help us also to have the wisdom to know when the limits have been reached.
Keep us from doing anything that is contrary to your law and may we be good and upright citizens of the state. But at the same time, may we be those who clothe ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ and love our neighbours as ourselves.
‘Be up and awake to what God is doing!’ (Romans 13:12, MSG)