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Doctrine Illuminated: Civil Government

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[11 minute  read]

In these Doctrine Illuminated articles, the core beliefs of Addison Street Community Church are fleshed out in more detail. Begin by examining the section of the Doctrinal Confession, found at the top, and then discover an explanation of each of its lines below.

Section 14. Civil Government. 
“We believe that God ordains civil government for the interests and good order of human society. Leaders are to be prayed for and obeyed, except in things opposed to the will of our Lord Jesus Christ, the ruler of the kings of the earth.”

In our country, we are currently witnessing the divisive power of politics. This is the most our country has been divided in recent memory, almost entirely based on differing political beliefs. The chasm between Republicans and Democrats, liberal and conservative almost seems insurmountable. Our churches are far from exempt from this societal phenomenon, as many feel the weight to give in to the pressures from either side. It’s as important as ever that we as Christians grasp what we confess about the role and purpose of civil government and can articulate it clearly.

“We believe that God ordains civil government.”

God is the one that puts the authorities that exist in place. Even in a country with a democratic election, the very office of leader, whatever their name or exact function, is one that has been established by God. He created the order that exists for these leaders to govern their people. In a similar way that God ordained prophets and priests in the Old Testament, he also ordained kings. Even though we are far from the theocracy (a government united under the recognized authority of God) of ancient Israel, he still ordains leaders today even under the New Covenant. Romans 13:1 says, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” Romans 13 is the go-to passage for civil government and the church. What’s important to note is that even though Rome was notoriously sinful and against God, Paul still instructs the Christians in Rome to respect the government officials. When one respects the government that God has put into place, ultimately it is God who they are respecting. Whether your candidate gets elected or not, whether the authority over you is even Christian or not, they are deserving of the respect that comes with their God-appointed office.

“[God ordains government] for the interests and good order of human society.”

It is in the best interest of a country that they have the organization and structure that comes with leadership and governance. That way they can protect themselves from threats both within and without. Having a government is in the best interest of any society, especially to have a government with the people’s best interests in mind. 1 Peter 2:13-14 says, “Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.” Governments do not exist without instructions for how they are to behave. Any government that is harming their own people is being disobedient to God and are justifiably deserving of removal. However, those that do their job effectively will reward good behavior and punish bad behavior. This is them doing their God-given duty as the government. As the church, we are to seek to do everything we can—within the will of God—to avoid the wrath of our government and to seek to do good in their eyes. If the government sees us as being a benefit for the community, they will be more likely to support the church and allow her to do her own God-given duty.

“Leaders are to be prayed for and obeyed.”

The leaders of our land should have our support, whether we agree with their views or not. Ultimately, the views that our leaders have will likely affect our lives much less than we think they will. More important than getting the tax breaks we may want or funding for a specific organization, we should pray that the government maintains order in society. The church should be model citizens to this end, not needlessly inciting upheaval, but living peaceably and praying for our leadership. 1 Timothy 2:1-2 says, “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.” The church is not at odds with the government, for the church’s primary function on this earth is not political—in an earthly sense. Our primary function is to minister to people with the gospel of King Jesus and we can most effectively do this when the government is being the government. It’s the government’s job to wield the sword and the church’s job to wield the Word. Whenever we conflate these two jobs, we run the risk of forgetting our primary purpose. Let us be good stewards of the Gospel Word as we pray for those in leadership.

“[But the government is not to be obeyed] in things opposed to the will of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The great exception to the rule of quiet obedience is when the government acts in a way that actively opposes the gospel or does harm to its citizens. Both are instances where civil disobedience is not just optional, but necessary. Our maxim is that the church ought to be model citizens of supporting the government. But when those instances arise when she is called to civil disobedience, it should be evident to the surrounding world. Romans 13:5 (NIV) says, “Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.” This translation captures the meaning of this passage. This idea of a matter of conscience means that the Christian does not blindly submit to the government but does so conscientiously. However, when the government acts wrongly, their disobedience is a matter of conscience as well. A great and often-cited example is in the actions of German Christians in Nazi Germany. The government was opposing God in their utterly evil actions against the Jews, and those that harbored them in their homes were disobeying the government but obeying God. They chose to disobey as a matter of conscience. For the church today, sometimes obeying God means disobeying the government. However, we need to be discerning in the times that we choose to go against the government and be sure that we are in line with God’s will revealed in Scripture as we do.

“[Jesus is] the ruler of the kings of the earth.”

Jesus is the highest King in all the land. As Christians, we confess that he is the King of kings and will reign on the highest throne for all eternity. While the rulers of this earth may sit on their thrones now, all their thrones are ultimately in subordination to the highest throne on which Christ sits. Revelation 4-5 documents this in glorious detail. However, as much as it’s true that Christ is the King who sits on the throne, he has not yet fully enacted his reign on the earth. John 18:36 quotes Jesus saying, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” Jesus does not mince words, he is a King, but his Kingdom is not seen in this world. As Christians, we should have this attitude as we live in this already-not-yet stage. Christ has already proven that he is the King, but his Kingdom has not yet been fully established. So, we are to live in eager anticipation for the second coming of Christ when he will finally reign as King, a perfect King, under which we will be pleased to live as citizens of heaven. He is the King of kings, Lord of lords, and yes—even the President of presidents.

Navigating this current cultural time and place as a Christian can be tricky business. Perhaps the most difficult task is to apply Romans 13:5 and obedience as a matter of conscience. Yet, we do not navigate this task alone, but in the company of other brothers and sisters in Christ empowered by the indwelling Holy Spirit. We should be swift to obey our government and not cause them any more strife than their position already allows. Yet, when the time calls for it, we should also be ready to hold our ground on the things we hold unwavering convictions about. In those moments when the world looks on, we should be ready to preach the gospel, even if it costs us our much—even our very own lives. Let us wield the Gospel Word with skill and diligence no matter what the world throws our way.