The Christian and Government Series: Part 1 - Understanding the ChristianRev. Robert Fleischmann, National Director, Christian Life Resources
Editor's Note: This series is the 1st of 6 articles entitled, "The Christian and Government."
The Christian & Government: Understanding the Government - Part 2
The Christian & Government: Understanding the Relationship Between the Christian and Government - Part 3
The Christian & Government: Resolving Conflicts Between the Two - Part 4
The Christian & Government: Involvement in Government is Consistent with Faith - Part 5
The Christian & Government: The Christian as a Public Servant - Part 6
It seems that every 100 years or so the relationship between Christians and their government becomes strained. In the middle 1700s Christians wrestled with the tension between obeying the government and wanting their independence. In the middle 1800s the hot topic was slavery and regional autonomy. In the 1900s the hot button issues touched the heart of moral sensibilities, such as abortion rights, the sexual revolution or gay rights. While Christians have always had to wrestle with their relationship with their government, it just seems as though hot issues put it all to the test.
Issues that surround these tensions are often embroiled in emotion. The rhetoric runs high, actions and statements are often extreme, and objective truths become clouded. For that reason it is important that we begin this series with a necessary review of the fundamentals. The first fundamental is understanding what and who a Christian is.
Perhaps you are insulted that the question has to even be asked. The sad reality, however, is that the answer is not as apparent to everyone as you might think. Some have called themselves "Christian" because they ascribe to the moral teachings of Christ. Others consider themselves "Christian" by virtue of their membership in a church. Still others believe they are Christian but don't really know what it means. If you don't know what it means to be a Christian you are going to have trouble understanding the proper relationship that exists between a Christian and the government.
The term "Christian" is found three times in the Bible. The first is when Paul and Barnabas were preaching and teaching in Antioch. They were proclaiming "the good news about the Lord Jesus." That "good news" was simply that "Jesus was the Christ." "Christ" is another word for "Messiah" or "Anointed One." Jesus was the One promised by God to deliver people from their sins. He was not simply a bold preacher, a moral teacher or cherished martyr. He was the Messiah who had come to take away the sins of the world. Without Him there would be no salvation. Without Him there would be no hope after death. Without Him there could only be punishment for sin, namely damnation in hell.
That was the message Paul, Barnabas and the disciples were spreading throughout the region. Jesus is the Christ. He came, He lived the perfect life, and paid the price for our sins and is now in heaven where He prepares an eternal home for all believers. So when Paul and Barnabas traveled into Antioch we are told: "The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch" (Acts 11:26).
The other two references provide further insight into the understanding of what it means to be a Christian. As Paul stood before King Agrippa to talk about the "controversial" things he was saying, we are told Agrippa said to Paul, "Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?" (Acts 26:28).
Agrippa understood the magnitude of what it meant to be a Christian, even if he did not understand how one became a Christian. Paul pointed out frequently that being a Christian is not a matter of choice but is the result of being "called" by God. Nevertheless, even King Agrippa knew being a Christian was a conversion of epic proportions.
Finally, the Apostle Peter used the term "Christian" when he wrote, "However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name." As King Agrippa saw that becoming a Christian meant a big change had to take place in his life, Peter illustrates that in adversity it is worth it. In fact, Peter's reference presupposes that being a Christian may actually cause suffering to come your way. If so, praise God because you have been recognized as a Christian.
Often today people parcel out their Christianity. Some consider it to be a deeply private thing which is internally present but has little or no external manifestation. In contrast, some think being a Christian is simply doing "Christian" things. Still others will think being a Christian is simply the external affiliation with a Christian church, Christian organization or friendship with other Christians. But that is not the teaching of Scripture.
Being a follower of Christ begins with the internal conviction (we call it "faith") that because of sin we have alienated ourselves from our Creator. Left in sin our fate upon death is eternal damnation. Yet we are convinced that God sent the promised Savior (the "Messiah" or "Christ") who is His Son, Jesus. He lived the perfect life we are to live. He paid the complete price for our sins (abandoned by God and death), and He rose victorious from the grave. We are saved not because of what we did but because of what He did for us. This does result in changes.
Faith often exists even without understanding. The child boldly professes believing in Jesus as the Savior yet often understands little of what it means. Nevertheless, that mustard seed of faith saves. As time passes and a child is raised in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, that child comes to understand the devastating nature of sin and the incredible steps God took to save us from sin. When that truth begins to sink in, it has to bring about change. Something of that magnitude cannot help but change a person.
The Apostle Paul illustrates the kind of change which takes place: "You must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in the knowledge and image of its Creator...Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which bind them all together in perfect unity" (Colossians 3:8-10, 12-14). By following these directives we are fulfilling the responsibility to do all things for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).
These changes emanate from within you as a result of what God did for you through Jesus Christ. That sequence is important to keep in mind because it reflects the proper priority. God brings you to faith in Jesus as your Savior from sin (we call that "justification"). Changing our lives to conform to the will of God comes next (we call that "sanctification"). Putting away the sinful lifestyle and adopting a lifestyle of compassion may seem fine, but if it lacks the element of faith in Christ as the Savior it does not resolve the eternal problem of sin. Without faith it is not pleasing to God (Hebrews 11:6).
That is why the prominent directive for Christians that is directed toward others is not to make them more moral or change their lifestyle, but to be an instrument in changing their heart. The directive is clear: "go and make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 29:19). Paul reminds us that in this life we are to "shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life" (Philippians 2:15).
A Christian, living his faith, will always be concerned about the physical well-being of others. That is a natural result of having faith. His focus, however, never waivers from the true mission he has from God, to evangelize souls. The Christian's premier concern is to spread the message of salvation. God uses that message as He sees fit. It is His tool for the converting of hearts. Our role is to be the messengers.
When considering our relationship with the government we must frame that relationship carefully within the context of who we are.
We are lost and condemned creatures purchased and won by Christ. We were lost but now are found. Eyes that were blind now see God as the source from whom all blessings flow. Whether we are talking about the Christian's relationship with government, with neighbors or family members, it can only be viewed from the perspective of our calling to evangelize the world and to reflect our faith with acts of love, compassion and humility readily acknowledging that without Christ we are lost forever.
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Beginnings, January/February 2000
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