One of the oddest anecdotes in the history of the United States involves how our conception of religious liberty came to be understood. The Constitution originally did not include a clause ensuring religious freedom. The First Amendment promised that congress could make no law regarding an establishment of religion. It wasn't until the twentieth century that the Supreme Court questioned the force of this statement. They decided to take a passage out of a letter by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association. In it, he promised that the First Amendment had erected a wall of separation between church and state. This phrase was not Jefferson's invention. He borrowed it from a basic tenet of the anabaptists from the radical reformation, those who believed that the reformation of Calvin and Luther had not gone far enough away from Rome. Because of their understanding of the connection between Rome and the state, they saw the state as part of the world from which they were to be separate. Thus, a deist used words he may not have understood to endorse an amendment to a denomination he may not have understood, and the Supreme Court thought this defined the First Amendment.
The evangelical church in the United States spent the latter half of the twentieth century enraged by The Supreme Court's decisions evicting the church from the public square. This increasing preoccupation with government followed a similar trend within the wider population. More than ever, people in the United States believe the solution to their problems rests in the federal government. It has become our national god.
Again, the First Commandment forces us to reckon with our own attitude toward the civil magistrate. We are not to be those who look to Washington, DC for solutions to spiritual problems. Our safety, peace, joy, and prosperity cannot depend on government but in God alone.
Again, the Fifth Commandment comes into play as God commands us to submit to the dictates of the civil magistrate. Paul writes the following to the church in Rome.
Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: for he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour. (Romans 13:1-7)Before we engage with this statement, we must remember that the Roman government at this time could not be called favorable to Christianity. Estimates at dating this letter put it around AD 57, early in the reign of Nero, the one who would begin using Christians to light his garden.
This general rule of submission revolves around the concept that God ordains the authorities over us. This does not give them, as earlier Christians maintained, divine right. It does not make them infallible in their ordinances. God may choose to give us wicked authorities. Nevertheless, those who resist authority needlessly are resisting God. Rebellion against lawful government is rebellion against God.
Paul reminds us that the purpose of government is the terrorize the wicked, those who do evil. He is responsible to punish those who do wrong. This means we ought to obey them, not only because they are God's ministers, but also because they rightly punish the wicked. Government promotes our safety by their judgment of evil doers.
It takes resources to do this work, therefor God requires us to support the work of the civil magistrate. Paul concludes with a general reminder that we are responsible to act appropriately to every one according to their position.
Paul gives us a very limited view of the civil magistrate from the Christian perspective. God ordains government to protect people. He does this especially for the church. The church supports the government in this work.
Peter also instructs us in our relationship to the government.
Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well. For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men: as free, and not using your liberty for a cloke of maliciousness, but as the servants of God. Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king. (I Peter 2:13-17)Peter instructs the church to consider ever ordinance of government to be lawful, to which we are to submit. Again, he notes their primary purpose to punish evildoers and support the obedient. He adds to this the testimony the church bears to the world. He reminds us that the church needs to lead in obedience, not in rebellion. The civil magistrate should see our obedience as positive character to attract others to Christ. Those who would condemn the church for insurrection should find no evidence for their vile calumny.
Nevertheless, Peter would be the first to admit that this submission has its limits. We are always fundamentally servants of God. Peter himself said, "We ought to obey God rather than men." (Acts 5:29) God commands us to obey government. He always remain the ultimate one to whom we submit.
In practical terms, the general rule is that we submit to the laws of the civil magistrate with the assumption that they have are lawful for us to obey. In general, we purpose not to allow our judgment lead us to contradict the judgment of our superiors. Most of us struggle with obedience to the ordinary rather than the extraordinary. We struggle with speed, not with murder.
Our relationship to government can be categorized into three parts: duty, right, and privilege. Duty are those things we must do. We have a duty to obey the laws of the country, even if we think they are irrational. We have no justification for disobedience unless the government tells us to believe anything beside scripture or to do anything opposed to scripture.
God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to his Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship. So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also." (WCF 20.2)Note the difference. Believing anything in addition to or alongside of scripture is not permissible for only the revelation of God can instruct us what to believe. However we regularly do things in addition to and alongside scripture. Here, government has authority to instruct so long as it is not opposed to scripture. God commands us to fulfill our duty toward government.
One duty we have not mentioned, the Bible places upon us. "I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; for kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty." (I Timothy 2:1-2) If we do not pray for our leaders, we truly have little justification for complaint against their person, morals, or judgments. After all, "The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will." (Proverbs 21:1)
Rights are those freedoms and abilities that the civil magistrate grants to us. Our freedom to worship comes to us as a right that government grants to its citizens. Rights are different from duties for God does not require us to exercise all our rights. We are required to worship, so that right we must exercise. The freedom of the press we may choose not to participate in, unless God calls you to be a reporter, editor, or press owner.
Privileges are those abilities government permits upon certain qualifications being met. Among these are driving on state roads and serving in government. You don't have a right to be mayor. You can be privileged to serve in that office upon election. That privilege can be revoked upon impeachment and recall.
Voting is a privilege that the United States government grants to all citizens 18 years of age and older. The Fourteenth Amendment allowed the state to revoke upon conviction of a crime. The Supreme Court has allow felonies to be accepted as crimes warranting disenfranchisement. The history of voting in the United State suggests that voting is more a privilege than a right.
Christians may choose to pursue these privileges before God. Christians may choose to vote and hold public office. "It is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the office of a magistrate, when called thereunto." (WCF 23.2) They may also serve in the police and military. "And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, And what shall we do? And he said unto them, Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages." (Luke 3:14) Scripture does not support the concept of the world that the anabaptists adopt. Government is not intrinsically evil, but the gift of God. Participation in it does not taint the believer or yoke him to the world's system. That which the Bible warns us against the world refers to the sinfulness of society, not the structures of government God ordains.
Christians will wrestle with their relationship to the civil magistrate, perhaps until Jesus returns. We ought not adopt the isolationist mindset of the anabaptist. We ought not adopt the interventionist mindset of christendom or the christian deconstructionist movement. We appreciate that God ordains government for our protection. We obey government a far as we may without doing violence to our obedience to God. We pray for our rulers and seek their good. In this way we live as Christians in an unchristian world.