Relation to Government

Christians, as temporary citizens of earthly kingdoms and permanent citizens of the Kingdom of God, have often struggled to relate rightly to government. The passage most often referenced regarding earthly government is Romans 13, less often Revelation 13. My purpose in this post is not to add to the discussion of Romans 13 (which applies in my view to a Christian's "normal" relationship to government) but to stimulate consideration of the limits of that relationship.

There are times, most Christians acknowledge, that human government oversteps its bounds and Christians are duty bound to resist. The most frequently cited recent western example is Nazi Germany during World War II. Non-western examples since then can be cited also. The line between our legitimate duty to government and our duty to resist illegitimate government can be difficult to discern as demonstrated by the majority of the Lutheran state-church in Germany which chose compliance with it's Nazi government while Christians who resisted were persecuted.

Centralized Power

Is the line between legitimate government and illegitimate government demands defined by absolute centralized power alone? While it may be tempting to think so, I don't think it is that simple. Most governments in fact seek centralized power, as was certainly the case when the Romans occupied Israel and Paul penned his Letter to the Romans affirming the government of Rome.

What was it then that caused Christians to accept persecution just a few years after Paul's exhortation to Christians in Romans 13? It was the demand that Christians express worship, through offering a pinch of incense, to the emperor. This was understood not as legitimate submission to government but as evidence of an allegiance to government which crossed the line into idolatry.

Idolatrous Allegiance

This understanding of a government which demands a submission which cannot be given is developed in much of Revelation and in chapter 13 in particular. In this chapter government is depicted as a dragon. Not only a dragon but a deadly dragon and a dragon to be fought. A dragon which seeks to "mark" its subjects.

But what is this mark and how do we recognize it?

I appreciate the insight of a pastor/scholar friend, Ed Gerber:

One note regarding interpreting Revelation’s multi-coloured imagery: a generalist approach is wisest and most fruitful. Many symbols are clearly archetypal and cyclical, meaning that they are meta-meaningful and situationally reoccurring. What is the mark of the beast? A thousand specific people or activities in specific cultures have been named as THE mark of THE beast—and if there need be just one mark they are all wrong. But if the mark of the beast (as I believe) is IDOLATROUS ALLEGIANCE TO A DRAGON-animated (i.e., corrupt, God-usurping) STATE, then we’ve seen the mark many times throughout history and are seeing it in undeniable ways today whether it is THE end or simply one of many ends of cultures due to idolatry.

I find this helpful as it focuses not on debate regarding an external - a chip, a tattoo, bar-code or the like - but an internal attitude: both the illegitimate demand on the part of government on its subjects and an illegitimate idolatrous allegiance to that government on the part of its subjects.

Ed Gerber puts this conflict squarely in the context of the Gospel of the Kingdom of God in Christ Jesus:

The key is to see Rev 12-14 as one piece outlining the political scene since the advent of Christ. John portrays the advent of Jesus Christ in a moment of simultaneity: the child is born of the woman snatched up to heaven where he takes the throne; the gospels are summarized with breathlessness. As a consequence of the reign of Jesus, and the throwing down of the dragon, which is Satan, the offspring of the lamb are promised to be persecuted. How will this persecution take shape? That is the answer of chapter 13: the dragon animates a false state as well as a false religion which props up the state. It constitutes a false trinity. Look at all the language. Elsewhere in Revelation it is language used of the Triune God. What we are dealing with, then, is a false Trinity which the world gives its allegiance to, and necessarily evolves into all manner of callousness and brokenness. The job of the church is to remain true to the Word, which is, fundamentally, that Jesus Christ alone is King and deserves our allegiance. Hence, Revelation 13 must condition are reading of Romans 13. Always and ever.

Christians will, and must, continue to wrestle with the question of when an allegiance to government becomes idolatrous. Is it, for instance, acceptance of a military draft into an unjust war? Is is acceptance of a mandated medical procedure? Is it surrender of personal agency to an all-controlling Central Bank Digital Currency?

It's not my intention to suggest which government demands are idolatrous. Rather it is my intention to offer followers of Christ a Biblical filter through which to view and evaluate both government demands and our own hearts which belong to Christ whatever the cost.