In the second century ad, the respected Roman scholar Celsus leveled the incredible accusation of atheism against Christians. Because believers in Jesus Christ did not worship the gods of Rome or revere Caesar as a god, Celsus charged them with adhering to treasonous, atheistic beliefs. Their radical worldview subjected them to oppression at the hands of an unsympathetic government.
Whatever persecution came their way, those early Christians endured it. There is scant record of anything resembling early Christian resistance to institutional persecution.
But in World War II, Christians were among the boldest defenders of another oppressed people group. Devout believers played a major role in organizations such as the Dutch resistance and the French underground that opposed Nazi aggression.
Most of these heroic resisters used peaceful means of protest. Some, however, engaged in acts of violence. The Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis for his part in the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.
A few years later, another Christian at odds with certain aspects of his government took a path that he called nonviolent direct action. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote: “There are two types of laws: just and unjust. . . . One has . . . a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
As long as we have had human government, there have been citizens who disagreed with the policies, decisions, and activities of those governments. Such dissent can escalate into a crisis. It is then that national leaders must make a crucial decision. Should the government use the sword to force compliance? If they do, will it be for the legitimate good of the people? Or will it be for the government’s own self-advancement?
On the other hand, citizens must decide: Should they take the risks of protest on behalf of a just cause? Or do they owe the government the discipline of due process, patience, and respect for authority? Where should the line be drawn?
We must find a balance. We must temper our need for social accountability and law enforcement with an awareness that governments—like all human institutions—will fall short of the purposes for which they were established.
Followers of Christ can take advantage of the historical perspectives and wisdom of the Bible. Two familiar statements from the New Testament comprise the scales on which our considerations of faith and state must be weighed:
• Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17).
• “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God” (Romans 13:1 nasb).
These words from Christ and the apostle Paul are the twin pillars that uphold the overarching truth of our dual citizenship.
1. We must know what belongs to God.
2. We must know what God has entrusted to the state.
We are citizens of the kingdom of God as well as the nation or state in which we live. Here is our challenge: Do we have a moral duty to comply with the authority of human government? How can we make sure that we are not giving to the state something that belongs only to God—and to God what He has entrusted to Caesar?