Essential citizenship

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10 characteristics defining a responsible Christian citizen

God has a role for Christians in the political realm and we ought to give serious consideration to carrying out that role faithfully. Such an understanding has not been supported by all Christians in the past nor is it supported by all Christians now. For example, in AD 215 the early Christian theologian Tertullian wrote, “Nothing is more foreign to us Christians than politics.”

At a time when ordinary citizens had virtually no rights and very little opportunity to influence decision makers, such a view may have seemed appropriate. It strikes me, however, as being inadequate and biblically unwarranted. I suggest that it is doubly unwarranted if we are privileged to live in democratic, free societies.

What, then, in specific terms, does God require of Christian citizens in a world permeated by politics? As I see it, there are at least 10 specific requirements.

1. We are to affirm the legitimacy of the state and its government and to submit to it. 1 Peter 2:13-15 instructs us to show honor and respect. We are to do this “for the Lord’s sake” to counteract “the ignorant talk of foolish men” who may assert that Christians are anti-government and inclined toward anarchy. Christians, at times, may have good reason to oppose certain government policies and actions, may work for the removal of some politicians and may even support the replacement of one political system or ideology with another. However, we may never reject the necessity and propriety of the institution of government. Faithful Christians do not support or endorse anarchy.

2. We are to be law-abiding citizens. Christian citizens should be known as honest, trustworthy, dependable and law-abiding people. Even when we strive to change laws and policies, we obey the law as much as we can. There are, of course, exceptions. When political authorities overstep their bounds, when they try to hinder us from being obedient to God, which is our overriding commitment, then we must disobey our rulers (Acts 4:13-21; 5:23-29). When this happens, we peacefully accept the consequences, as Martin Luther King Jr. and countless others have done.

3. We are to be informed. In Matthew 16:3 Jesus rebukes the Pharisees because they could not “read the signs of the times.” Clearly Jesus thought that being informed about what is happening in our society is important. In political matters, as in other dimensions of life, we ought to make an effort to “read the signs of the times.” God wants us to be interested in all his agencies on earth.

We all encounter Christians who believe that they have no obligation to find out what is going on in their community or the world. Such an attitude puzzles me. How can we come to grips with Jesus’ instruction to be good to our neighbors if we remain ignorant about them and if we do not care what is being done to or by them?

4. We ought to be the government’s most perceptive and useful critics. This guideline requires considerable explanation. Precisely because we hold to Christ’s higher ethic, we have a basis—a measuring rod if you will—for assessing and addressing all sub-Christian performance, including our own. 

Even as we obey a law we do not like or disobey a law that would require us to act in a God-displeasing manner, we urge our rulers to improve their policies. The issue at hand may involve racism, prejudice in immigration regulations, corruption among elected lawmakers, the abuse of foreign aid, militarism, desecration of the environment, judicial injustice and much more.

As we seek to be responsible Christian critics, we should realize that governments will likely not be favorably impressed if we ignore the pressing needs of others and only protest issues which benefit us specifically. If we advance only our own interests, our credibility will likely be very low. All other groups look after their own interests. If we Christians do nothing more, how are we different?

In keeping with the biblical imperative that calls everyone to live by godly principles of justice, righteousness, truth, humanitarianism, the promotion of human dignity and the pursuit of peace, we courageously remind all peoples and all governments that God’s standards have not changed. We remind others of this truth even while we strive to model adherence to God’s standards. If we address evil, we are following Jesus’ example.

An especially difficult problem arises when a country is tempted to think of itself as God’s favorite, even as a new Israel. While God may decide to use one country to punish another country for its evil ways, as he did in Old Testament times, it is inappropriate for any government or country to describe itself as God’s agent. Such a decision is strictly God’s prerogative. In our day, so-called Christian-Americanism has been a temptation for some American Christians. In earlier times, similar cultic claims gained support in Russia, Great Britain, Spain and Germany.

Further, a similar problem exists when the government of any country claims God as a modern-day mascot or patron. In making such claims, rulers ignore the fact that God does not describe himself this way. God clearly and unequivocally describes himself as the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords who will judge all people and all authorities. He is not the national chaplain of any one country or government.

Similarly, Christian critics must speak up when the government of any country claims that its policies, including its foreign policies, are uniquely righteous and that it is the power of light combating the powers of darkness. Christians must remind that particular government that all national governments are less than altruistic, that they all exist to advance their own political perspective, public policies and historical record.

Some years ago in a published article I strongly criticized the Canadian government for apparently planning to function as a “merchant of death.” I used that label because the government was considering how best to help a tobacco marketing board promote the sale of Canadian tobacco in various African countries and other parts of the developing world.

I said that the government would be “peddling poison.” My article was reported and quoted in major newspapers. Canada’s largest newspaper, The Toronto Star, included the following statement in its news story: “Redekop said it would be ‘un-Christian’ and smack of racism for the government to promote tobacco consumption overseas because Canadians would be exploiting an almost nonwhite Third World.”

I don’t know how insignificant my nationally reported opposition was, but I know that soon after the newspapers reported my stance and a growing number of Canadians and Christians objected, the Canadian government decided not to go ahead with such a plan. The fact that at the time I was moderator of the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches and vice-president of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada gave additional weight to my objections. If God puts us in positions of potential influence for good, we have a responsibility to use such opportunities to do what is good.

We do not all have equally significant opportunities to express Christian views to rulers. We are not all able to gain media attention, but we can support those who do have such opportunities. We can all pray for them as well as for more righteousness in the political realm. Most of us can also write letters, sign petitions or phone authorities and express our comments. E-mail presents a new and easy means to respond quickly. 

One closing point concerning our role as perceptive critics: If we want to be truly effective and taken seriously by government authorities, we should affirm them when we can so that we can with credibility criticize when we must.

5. We should be thankful. We are instructed to be thankful for the institution of government. God has established it for the benefit of all people (1 Tim. 2:1-3). We should thank God for the rulers of the day. After all, they are the ones who make the whole system work. In situations where the rulers are brutal and evil, it may be possible to be thankful that the situation is not worse than it is. There may also be specific policies for which we can be thankful.

6. We should faithfully pay our taxes. Some Christians argue that Christians, especially those of us who belong to one of the historic peace churches, should withhold that percentage of the taxes that is presumably being used for wrongful causes, particularly to pay for the country’s military establishment. Some very godly people hold to such a view. I respect them. They are contributing to a very important debate.

While I largely agree with these people’s motivation and goal, I cannot agree with their methods. Should one try to calculate what part of one’s taxes goes to pay the interest costs and the principal on debts caused partly by earlier wars? Should one include calculations about pensions for veterans and their spouses? As a symbol, tax withholding makes a statement. As a realistic calculation, it strikes me as being problematic.

Secondly, can one seriously argue that a government should have no military capacity when such resources are needed to maintain law and order and to deal with situations of natural catastrophe? By definition, a government must have the capacity to enforce its laws. It must have the ability to protect its citizens. That is surely what Paul means when he says that the government “does not bear the sword for nothing” (Rom. 13:4). Quite frankly, to argue that a national government should not have any military capacity, which is the backup for the police forces, comes very close to arguing for anarchy.

Finally, I find no biblical support for such a stance. Jesus seems to go out of his way to model the propriety of paying taxes. Granted, the temple tax was both a religious and a political payment (Matt. 17:24-26). But Jesus also addressed the payment of regular political taxes. The Herodians asked him one day, “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Jesus’ unequivocal response was, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Matt. 22:17,21).

The exhortation is clear, and it is particularly telling in that Jesus lived in a colonial setting under an oppressive dictatorship that opposed him and his teaching. In Romans 13:6-7, Paul, despite the brutal treatment many political authorities meted out to him, also strongly endorses the payment of taxes. He makes a significant comment when he writes, “This is also why you pay taxes” (Rom. 13:6). Payment of taxes is assumed. The issue is not up for debate.

7. We should support good policies. Governments should expect us to support morally sound policies. God also expects this of us. After all, God opposes all that is evil and identifies with all that is good. We should do likewise. A personally written letter, a phone call or some other communication can have great effect. Since most citizens are much more inclined to communicate criticism than support, our Christian expressions of support for what is true and right and good will be most welcome and will have effect.

Some years ago I was part of a Mennonite Central Committee Canada delegation that requested time to visit with the Canadian Minister of Indian Affairs in Ottawa. When we arrived for our appointment it became clear that the minister had only about 15 minutes or so to meet with us.

He asked what we wanted. We responded that we wanted him and his government to move ahead with their stated intentions of pursuing more enlightened policies toward native people, that we had some specific suggestions and that we would do what we could to help. He was amazed. He asked if we were asking for any favors or special policies for ourselves. We said no. He then indicated that he had a lot more time for us, and we spent much of the evening with him.

8. We should pray for our political rulers. Many biblical passages, including 1 Timothy 2:1-2, urge us to pray for rulers. In Psalm 122:6 the people are urged to pray for the peace of Jerusalem. Ezra 6:10 instructs hearers to “pray for the well-being of the king and his sons.” Lest we think that such exhortations apply only in settings where we live under wise rulers, Jesus states, “Pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44) and “Pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:28).

9. We ought to be willing to become involved in the political process. The democratic right to vote in an election includes the right not to vote, but I do believe that it pleases God when we use this very significant opportunity to influence the selection of rulers and the shaping of policies. In supporting the existence of a political system that God has established, a further issue is whether we are also willing to become involved more substantively. I firmly believe that if we are willing to do so, the opportunities will arise for at least some of us.

Let us not be too quick to excuse ourselves. As someone once said, “It is much easier to worship Jesus than to obey him.” Maybe we need to remind ourselves that faith equals faithfulness and the path to holiness passes through the world of action.

10. As Christian citizens we ought to remind our rulers that they are accountable to God. Our rulers need to know that as individuals and as governments they are ultimately accountable to a sovereign God. They need to hear that some day they will answer to him for how they lived their personal lives as well as for how they used the position and authority he delegated to them. There is a Prime Minister of prime ministers, a King of kings, and a President of presidents who will someday call them to account.

Jesus made the point of God’s sovereignty very clear to Pilate when he said, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above” (John 19:11). Pilate apparently did not dispute the point and, judging by his subsequent action, seems to have agreed with Jesus.

Paul left us a powerful example of witnessing to rulers about their personal relationship to almighty God. Although a prisoner, Paul courageously presented the gospel to King Agrippa. His testimony must have been effective because King Agrippa responded by implying that he was almost persuaded to become a Christian (Acts 26:25-32).

The apostle Paul was faithful in presenting Christian truth and Christian claims to the political authorities of his day. He participated in the political realm as he had opportunity. This is also what God requires of us, nothing more and nothing less. Of course, not everyone needs to be equally involved. We have varying abilities and callings. But we should all be knowledgeable and grateful and be willing to do what we can, motivated by our love for God and others, for a fallen world.

Let us be faithful in ways that our situations permit and involved to the extent that opportunities arise. Such a commitment and such actions are part of faithful Christian discipleship and obedient Christian servanthood.

A Mennonite Brethren church leader and educator, John H. Redekop is the author of three books and scores of articles on public policy. For many years he was a panelist on the Canadian TV show Cross Currents. He was the president of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and was a professor of political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and at Trinity Western University. This article is an excerpt from Politics Under God by John H. Redekop. Copyright 2007 by Herald Press, Scottdale, Pa., 15683. Used by permission.

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