In his letter to the Romans in the New Testament, Paul tells his readers to obey those in political power because they are servants of God. In a similar vein, Peter says in his first letter that believers should submit to the Emperor and the Governors because they were appointed by the Lord. There is an echo of the words of Jesus at his trial before Pilate that the Governor’s authority over Jesus was given to him by God.
These are remarkable statements, given that at the time believers faced discrimination and sometimes cruel persecution at the hands of the Roman authorities. The followers of Jesus rejected the idolatry and violence that was central to the culture of Rome, but they were nevertheless urged to honour its rulers. Understandably, they did not want to be seen as rebels. They trod a narrow and dangerous path, as there were definite limits to their obedience when the authorities’ demands contradicted their Christian convictions.
In principle, the same guidance applies to us, but our circumstances are complicated by the fact that we live in a democracy. Followers of Jesus are duty bound to obey the law and respect political authorities, unless to do so means failing in their commitment to him. In practice, however, it is not always easy to decide when this line has been crossed. Sincere Christians have often disagreed about it. Ever since New Testament times, when believers struggled with difficult decisions relating to idolatry, marriage and slavery, dilemmas have confronted those who have sought to be both loyal citizens and faithful followers of Jesus.
When Jesus was confronted with the thorny issue of whether to pay Roman taxes, he said that the Emperor should be paid what belongs to the Emperor, and God should be paid what belongs to God. This was an astute way of avoiding the trap set by his opponents, and also an indirect but clear endorsement that such taxes should be paid. Paul also urged his readers to do the same. Deciding just what belongs to the Emperor and what belongs to God, however, remains for each generation of believers, and each individual Christian, to resolve for themselves.
The New Testament was written when Christians, along with everyone else, had no say whatever in who would govern them. Democracy, of the kind we are familiar with, would have been inconceivable. Honouring those who govern us, when we have shared in the process of choosing them, raises a new set of issues for us to think about.
As well as the responsibility to submit and obey, honouring a democratically chosen Government inescapably also involves honouring the means by which it is elected. Christians, like everyone else, are no longer passive subjects of an imposed system of political control. We are active participants in that system. As such, we should exercise that responsibility thoughtfully and prayerfully, not only by voting, which is but one part of the democratic process, but also by our prayers, by making our views known and, for some, by active political involvement.
Honouring the government and loving our neighbour means we have a responsibility to value and uphold the processes and institutions that make true democracy possible. Government by the people, which is literally what democracy means, is fragile. It depends, among other things, on a properly informed and engaged electorate, the fair administration of justice, proper law-making procedures in Parliament and a Civil Service free of corruption. If we are to take the Bible’s teaching seriously, we have to recognize the importance of these things too.
The acceptance of democratic government has taken many centuries to achieve. It reflects the principle that every person has equal value, which in turn reflects the teaching of the New Testament. In the face of widespread mistrust and cynicism, it is especially important that we play our part in ensuring it survives and prospers. Major reforms may well be necessary to make democracy work effectively in a rapidly changing world, but the alternatives are worse.
The “emperor” we honour is not the autocratic rule of one man or a clique of the privileged, but the rule of law overseen by our representatives in Parliament. If the Christians of the Roman Empire were instructed to honour the system of Government under which they lived, how much more should we?