Why do you have such a pessimistic view of government?
Question: I’m a Christian and serve as a servant in government and I find your book The Myth of a Christian Nation, as well as some of your sermons on Christians and politics, highly offensive. I find that while governments sometimes harm people, they also do a lot of good. The American government in particular helps a lot of people around the world, and I’m proud to be part of it. I just don’t get why you are so pessimistic about government.
Answer: Sorry for the offense. I don’t question the integrity and sincerity of your service in government. If that is where you feel God has called you, I bless you. How you reconcile this with biblical teaching is between you and God (Rom. 14), and I don’t give it another moment’s thought. I don’t doubt that you do a lot of good in government. Nor do I question the fact that the U.S. government, as well as most other governments, do some good in the world.
At the same time, my understanding of the Kingdom leads me to conclude that, for all the good that government may do, it is not the Kingdom of God. Indeed, in many respects all forms of government are antithetical to the Kingdom of God. Moreover, as history testifies, all the good that governments achieve tends to be temporary. This doesn’t mean I’m pessimistic about governments. It just means I don’t expect much of them. I certainly don’t expect them to advance the Kingdom in any way.
The hope of the world doesn’t lie in someone finally coming up with the “right” form of government. In fact, nothing has caused more bloodshed in the world than people claiming to have the “right” government (or at least a “better” government). The hope of the world lies exclusively in Jesus Christ and the willingness of his people to partner with him in bringing about God’s will “on earth as it is in heaven” by imitating him.
Here’s a brief biblical overview of passages that lead me to my conclusion. I invite you to prayerfully study them. (See the essay “God, Government and Christian Anarchy” for a more in-depth treatment).
I Samuel 8:1-22. This passage reveals that people long for earthly rulers because they reject God. It was never God’s goal to have humans rule other people. Governments are God’s concession to human sin. They are now a practical necessity in the world, and God uses them to further his purposes (Rom. 13:1-6). But this doesn’t mean that God approves of them. In the Old Testament God would often use a wicked nation (e.g. Assyria) to punish Israel, only to turn around and punish the nation he used for being wicked (e.g. Isa 10). That’s God’s attitude towards governments. They are under the influence of Satan (Lk 4:5-7) and are inherently corrupt, but God nevertheless uses them.
The Kingdom of God, on the other hand, is based on people trusting God as their sole ruler. Kingdom people are therefore to place no more trust or confidence in governments than Jesus did – which is none. If a government’s laws happen to be consistent with the rule of God, we obey them. If they’re not, we follow the example of Jesus and disobey them (cf. Ac. 5:39). But either way, it’s clear that our behavior isn’t dictated by what government says, but by what God says.
Isaiah 40:15-17. The sovereign Lord “rules the nations.” He orchestrates them as he finds them, in all their wickedness, to accomplish his objectives. But in the end they are like “a drop from a bucket,” “a speck of dust on the scales,” “nothing” and “meaningless.” Since our job as Kingdom people is to align our perspective on the world with God’s, we should regard them the same way. Whatever unfolds in politics, governments and nations, our hearts can remain in “perfect peace” because our eyes are fixed on the Lord who rules history and regards all of this as meaningless (Isa 26:3).
Matthew 6:24-34. Kingdom people are to seek the Kingdom and trust God for everything else. To the extent that our trust is in God, we do not worry. The governments and nations of the world do nothing but worry, for, as we’ve seen, they’re predicated on a mistrust of God.
Matthew 20:25-27. The desire to rule others characterizes pagans. But it is not to be so among Kingdom people, Jesus says. Indeed, in the Kingdom, everything is to be reversed. Greatness is defined not by power over others, but by power under others — that is, self-sacrificial service. This sets the Kingdom of God radically at odds with all the kingdoms of the world. For the kingdoms of the world are all about certain people exercising power over others.
Matthew 22:15-22. Jesus came into the world in politically turbulent times. Consequently, people were always trying to get Jesus to weigh in on the political issues of the day, but Jesus never took the bait. He always found a way to transform their political questions into Kingdom questions. Jesus didn’t come to resolve our political disputes or give us the “right” form of government. His Kingdom is of a very different sort. We who are Jesus’ followers need to take great care to preserve this distinction.
Luke 4:6-8. Regarding the kingdoms of the world, Satan tells Jesus, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to” (vs. 6). Jesus didn’t dispute the devil’s incredible claim to ownership of these kingdoms. Nor did he dispute his ability to make good on his offer. Indeed, everything else the New Testament says about the devil confirms his claim. For example, Jesus several times refers to Satan as the “prince” or “ruler” (archon) of the world (Jn 12:31; 14:30; 16:11). Paul says he’s “the god of this age” and “the ruler of the kingdom of the air” (2 Cor 4:4; Eph 2:2). John claims, “The whole world is under the control of the evil one” (1 Jn 5:19). In Revelation, all governments are depicted as the beast and Babylon as the governmental wing of Satan’s empire that deceives the world and oppresses all people, but that is now falling under the judgment of God (Rev. 13; 14:8; 17:5; 18.).
How much trust should Kingdom people have in that? The answer is: As much as Jesus did – which, obviously, was none. Jesus never so much as commented on the political leaders of his day, though they often behaved barbarically.
Luke 12:13-15. A man wanted Jesus to settle a legal/political dispute. Jesus in essence responded, “Who ever said I was a lawyer or a politician?” The passage once again reveals that Jesus simply has nothing to say about the goings-on of government and politics. Since the job of Kingdom people is to imitate him in all things, we should have the same attitude.
John 18:36. Jesus’ kingdom is “not of this world.” This is why Jesus spent no time or energy trying to tweak the government of his day — though it was corrupt, immoral and barbarically violent. The proof that Jesus’ Kingdom is not of this world is that his followers would not fight the way citizens of the kingdoms of the world fight. We who follow Jesus today also need to manifest the uniqueness (“holiness”) of Jesus’ Kingdom by refusing to fight the way the world fights, whether this be with swords or words. Everything we do is to be done in love (I Cor. 16:14).
Romans 12:17-13:6. People often cite Romans 13:1-6 to argue that God is involved in governments and Christians thus have a duty to support them — even serving in the military, if necessary. Two things need to be said about this.
First, Paul says God “establishes” governments. The Greek here can simply imply that God uses governments as he finds them. In this case, Paul says, he uses them to punish wrong doers. But this doesn’t mean God approves of them. Throughout the Bible, God uses governments he clearly doesn’t approve of (e.g. Assyria in Isa. 10).
Second, Romans 13:1-6 must be read in conjunction with the verses that immediately precede it (Rom. 12:17-21). In these passages Paul tells Kingdom people they are to love and serve their enemies and never exact vengeance on them. Rather, we are to leave all judgment to God. Then, beginning in Romans 13, Paul tells us one of the ways God exacts vengeance on people: he uses governments. So God uses governments, as he finds them, to do the very thing he has just forbidden Kingdom people to do. The passage thus shows not that Christians have a responsibility to participate in government, but that we have an obligation not to participate when it does things we as Kingdom people are forbidden to do (like using violence against wrongdoers).
Ephesians 6:12. If it has “flesh and blood,” it’s not someone we’re to be fighting against. Indeed, if it has “flesh and blood,” it’s someone we’re to be fighting for. They may intend us and our nation harm. We may hate their lifestyle, politics and religion. But if they are human, we are commanded to love them, serve them, do good to them, pray for them, and fight for them (Lk 6:27-35). And a primary way we fight for them is by resisting the principalities and powers that seek to oppress both them and us — including fueling the universal fallen human tendency to identify other people as the enemy! Our counter-cultural Jesus-looking lifestyle, including our willingness to love and serve enemies, is our warfare on behalf of enemies.
The governments of the world are all predicated on opposing human enemies, which means Kingdom people should have no interest in serving them.
2 Timothy 2:3-4. Paul has in mind here a soldier stationed in a foreign land. This soldier’s assignment is to suffer, if need be, to carry out the agendas of his homeland. And his assignment is not to become involved “in civilian affairs” but to rather be focused on pleasing his “commanding officer.” We are, quite literally, soldiers stationed in a foreign land. Indeed, we are stationed in “enemy occupied territory,” for the world we are in is governed by “the god of this age” (2 Cor 4:4) and “the principality and power of the air” (Eph 2:2). Our task is to “please our commanding officer” by imitating his example and thereby furthering the work of his Kingdom. To do this, it is imperative we don’t become preoccupied with “civilian affairs.”
The politics of the world are “civilian affairs,” and it’s crucial Kingdom soldiers not get distracted by getting entangled in them.