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Do the Roles of the Government and Believers Differ?

Do the Roles of the Government and Believers Differ?
By Jonathan C. Brentner

Does the Bible assign identical responsibilities to New Testament saints and governments?

Some evangelicals today would answer yes to that question. In addition, many politicians, despite their limited knowledge of Scripture and rejection of what it teaches, frequently quote Bible verses in a manner that assumes God has identical expectations of governments as He does of individual Christians.

On the other hand, Franklin Graham once had this to say on the subject, “But we have to realize that the President’s job is not the same as the job of the church.” Like many others, Graham sees key differences between the biblical expectations for believers versus that of our government.

The question for us who regard Scripture as inerrant is this: Who is correct? Does the Lord assign differing responsibilities to governments and individual followers of Jesus?

Because so much confusion exists on this matter, let’s examine what the Bible says about the roles of each.

The Biblical Role of Government

God’s Word tells us that the primary role of government is to punish those who break the law and in so doing protect its citizens (Rom. 13:1-7). God thus entrusts human government with the responsibility of keeping its people safe from those who break the law. Government leaders do so by enforcing laws so that those guilty of breaking its law receive just punishment while those who obey its statutes enjoy its protection (13:4).

Paul adds this in 1 Timothy 2:1-2, “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.” Isn’t it interesting that the intended result of our prayers for those in “high positions” is that of “a peaceful and quiet life?” When those in authority over us fulfill their God-given roles they enhance our safety and security.

The apostle Peter urges believers to be submissive to those in authority as those who are “sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Pet. 2:13-14). This again represents the fundamental responsibility of government, which in the end seeks the wellbeing of its citizens.

Contrary to what many think today, national borders do not represent the evil invention of wayward humanity; both sovereign nations and its borders originate in God’s sovereign purposes for humanity (see Acts 17:26). The Lord is the one who instituted human governments as well as their borders and He holds those in authority responsible for keeping their citizens safe within those borders. This is the essence of the biblical role of governments.

It’s clear what happens when individuals presume to take on the role of government. For example, what if someone took it upon themselves to punish a criminal for his behavior? He or she would end up in jail.

On the other hand, many mistakenly assume that the government must take on the role of the New Testament saint.

The Biblical Responsibility of New Testament Believers

As followers of Christ, we have a much different role than that of the government. Jesus summarized our responsibility in John 13:34-35, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Jesus did not give this command to human government; He gave it to His followers. These verses represent a key aspect of our calling; we care for needs of one another. The Lord’s instructions here do not apply to governments or those in authority over us while acting in their official roles.

The primary responsibility of a state patrolman who stops us for speeding, for example, is not to ascertain our needs, pray over us, and provide loving encouragement for whatever we are going through at the time. No, the Lord has called him to enforce the laws of the state he represents, which most likely will result in a speeding ticket for us.

On the other extreme, some evangelical leaders cite the parable of the Good Samaritan as proof that the American government should welcome illegal migrants into our country and take care of all their needs. This represents a huge distortion of Scripture and furthermore, the drain of government resources to help those who are in our country illegally limits what it can do in its true God-given role of ensuring the wellbeing and safety those who belong.

This parable of the Good Samaritan speaks exclusively to our calling as New Testament saints to minister to the needy we encounter in our daily lives. The Lord addresses the responsibility of His followers here, not that of the government.

It’s so vitally important to keep these callings separate. Nowhere does the Bible command human governments to love people or to care for the needy, but it does assign that task to the church.

In America, our tax dollars help support the needy, weak, and unemployed. I am not at all saying it’s wrong for a government to do such things; it’s obviously a very good thing to help those who truly need our help. Please do not take my words as demeaning any government that seeks to help those who genuinely need its assistance.

Our Response

What should our response be in light of these differing roles?

1. We honor authority (Rom. 13:5-6).

This is far from easy in a country with such emotionally charged politics as we have today in the United States. However, it helps to remember that at the time Paul wrote these words, Nero was the emperor Rome. We know from history that Nero killed a great number of believers in horrific ways and he also ordered the beheading of the apostle.

2. We obey the laws of our government (Rom. 13:7).

As members of God’s kingdom, we are to obey the laws of our country unless doing so violates a clear command of Scripture. We obey the Lord when we pay our taxes and follow the various codes and laws set by those over us.

3. We pray “for kings and all who are in high places” (1 Tim. 2:2).

The emperors and magistrates of Paul’s day were more often than godless, ruthless, and evil men, yet the apostle asked his readers to pray for them. I have not always been faithful in praying for our President in the past. However, it’s clear that the Lord desires for us to pray for our leaders regardless of whether we disdain them or like them and whether or not we voted for them.

4. We vote.

In the United States and in many other places in the world we have wonderful opportunity to vote for those we want to be in roles of authority. I strongly believe this is a sacred duty for believers that we should not neglect.

5. We support those in need.

In Paul’s day, widows represented the neediest group of people. Did the apostle blame the Roman government for this? No, he placed their care upon the church and established guidelines for it to follow in carrying out this responsibility (1 Tim. 5:3-16).

Today, we have many avenues available to us to contribute to needs of others. Through Samaritan’s Purse, for example, we can financially support those in faraway places. Most churches have benevolence funds as well. Or, we can just give to those in need around us.

Yes, Scripture clearly assigns differing responsibilities to the individual saints versus those of government including those who act on its behalf.

However, I am not saying that governments and their leaders lack accountability to God for their decisions or the actions they take. For example, He will someday hold the Democrat senators responsible for their votes on February 25, 2020 against legislation that would have protected the lives of babies in the womb after twenty weeks as well as children who survive abortions.

The brutal murder of precious children in the womb as well as after birth represents one of the greatest evils of our time, one that God will someday harshly severely judge. It’s one reason why I believe tribulation is so close and thus the rapture that happens before it.

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