Christian Citizenship and Politics after Sandy Hook

In my previous post, “If Our Politicians Do Nothing After Sandy Hook It’s Malfeasance,”  I wrote about the two-fold responsibility of government to punish evil and praise good, based on 1 Peter 2:13-14:

“Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.” (1 Peter 2:13–14, ESV)

In the aforementioned post I noted the public praise of many acts of civic good in the midst of and in the wake of the Sandy Hook Massacre; I also, as a pastor, encouraged public debate and action to better protect U.S. citizens. I wish, in this follow-up post, to speak about Christian citizenship in the midst of the ongoing public safety debate, focusing particularly on St. Peter’s teaching to “be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution…”

Understand: “Be subject to the governing authorities” does not mean “whatever the government does is right.” It does not mean “abandon your principles for the sake of peace.” Indeed, governments can be wrong, often terribly wrong. How should Christian citizens proceed in such circumstances? This is precisely the context of First Peter, yet there are other examples. When told by governing authorities in two different circumstances not to speak about Christ the same Peter responded with words that have given courage to many engaged in peaceful “civil disobedience” down through the centuries:

“Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19–20, ESV)

   “But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29, ESV)

Neither should Christians forget the “subjection” of Jesus Himself to existing (Roman) governing authorities:

“So Pilate said to [Jesus], “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above…” (John 19:10–11, ESV)

In both Acts 4 and Acts 5 Peter was simply following the teaching and example of Christ and, in a sense, foreshadowing what he would later write in First Peter, effectively saying: “We must do what God has called us to do, and if you, as the God-given authority, deem that is punishable, then we must accept that punishment. But know this: you are accountable to God for how you govern.”

Christians have a God-given responsibility to bear witness to the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ, to be merciful, as–in Christ–our heavenly Father is merciful, and to love our neighbors. Part of that loving of neighbor is participating in civic life; thus, “to be subject to the governing authorities.” By this, again, we know that governance is a God-given vocation, with God-given responsibilities: punish evil; praise good. Of course, we understand–whether in John 19 or First Peter or Acts 4 or 5, or in countless historical examples–that governments can be wrong, often terribly wrong. When following Christ puts us in conflict with the governing authorities, as Peter says, “We must obey God rather than men.” Yet even in conflict with the governing authorities, we are subject to them.

Thus, let Christians remind our local, state and federal governments of their responsibility to punish evil and reward good. In the wake of the Sandy Hook Massacre, let us participate in the debate over how best to protect citizens, yet let us do so following St. Paul’s admonition to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). In these gray and latter days so often filled with evil let us remember with hope the promise of the Lord through St. Paul in Philippians 3:

“But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” (Philippians 3:20–21, ESV)

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