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The Christian citizen’s relationship to the civil magistrate is not only important but increasingly relevant in light of the documented expansion of governmental authority into the lives of its citizens. A biblically informed relationship to the civil magistrate is indelibly related to the biblical role of the state that the civil magistrate represents to its citizens. Thankfully, the Scriptures overflow with clarity concerning the divine rationale for the state and the civil magistrate, as well as biblical principles guiding Christian citizens in their relationship to the state through the civil magistrate. Let’s draw on three key texts.
There are three foundational institutions that God has divinely designed and embedded in creation, the fall, and redemption. The foundational institution of creation is the family. The foundational institution in response to the fall is the state. The foundational institution in light of redemption is the church. These foundational institutions of the family in creation, the state in the fall, and the church in redemption are interdependent, parallel, and reciprocal but not identical or hierarchal. As a Christian, I live in all three institutions. These divinely ordained institutions are to “stay in their lane,” but we move from lane to lane as required by challenges, opportunities, relationships, and occasions in life.
Within the family and the church, we are nurtured and discipled to trust Christ alone for our salvation and to follow Christ intentionally, being directed by His Word and empowered by His Spirit while desiring to glorify God and enjoy Him in all of life. What does the Bible tell us about our relationship to the state through the civil magistrate?
the christian and the state
The biblical purpose of the state also reveals the biblical responsibilities of the civil magistrate, which then gives clarity to the biblical responsibilities of a Christian in how to honor Christ in our relationship with the state through the civil magistrate. The Bible informs us that the state is a divinely ordained institution of common grace established after the fall and divinely designed to restrain evil and destruction while affirming what is good and right. Thus, civil magistrates are identified in Scripture as ministers of God when they stay in their lane, restraining evil and promoting righteousness in an environment of peace for their citizens. Their authority to accomplish this purpose extends to life and to death. Civil magistrates have been given lethal power—the power of the sword—and thus must be held closely accountable (Rom. 13:4).
As to the state, family, and church, they are interdependent but not identical. The state is not the family or the church. Likewise, the church and the family are not the state. The state through the civil magistrate is to provide the secure environment for citizens to live life freely within their families and churches.
the christian and the civil magistrate
The biblical responsibilities of the Christian to the civil magistrate while being nurtured in the family and discipled in the church are identifiable. We are instructed to “honor and respect those in authority” (Rom. 13:1), “pay taxes” to the governing authorities (v. 7), and “pray for those in authority” (1 Tim. 2:1–2). We’re further called to obey those in authority unless the laws of the state would cause us to transgress the law of God; then we “must obey God rather than man” since man’s authority is delegated by and subservient to God’s authority (Acts 5:29; 1 Peter 2:13–14).
Appeals to those in authority precede civil disobedience in cases of unjust laws. On three occasions when the Roman Empire transgressed its own laws to Paul’s detriment, he made appeals to the authorities. Why? Though willing to suffer as a martyr, he was concerned to legally secure the freedoms of his brothers and sisters for generations to come.
It would be derelict of me not to bring attention to the rising tide of governmental authoritarianism, in some cases bordering on totalitarianism, being used to impose the idolatry of secular humanism propelled by the elite culture-shapers of society, including the encroaching power of the state. The necessity of civil disobedience now looms for many Christians—even those living in nations where governments have been influenced and shaped by the biblical principles of church, state, and family propagated in the Reformation. In cases where civil disobedience may be required, my pastoral advice is that Christians should never act independently but should first seek the objective counsel of mature Christians and direct oversight as well as wisdom from those in authority within our families and churches as we respond to those in authority over us in the state.