How should Christians holding public office conduct their duties?

How should Christians holding public office conduct their duties? September 16, 2015


How ought Christian believers conduct themselves as public office-holders? To what extent should they promote biblical principles in the context of a democratic society? What grounds should they cite? Are some biblical principles too idealistic for a secular society?


Gene posted this fourfold query before Kentucky county clerk Kimberly Davis won headlines by briefly going to jail rather than authorize same-sex marriage licenses that violate her Christian belief. As religious liberty advocates argued, the simple compromise was having others in her office issue licenses.

Religious civil disobedience against laws considered unjust or immoral, with willingness to suffer resulting penalties, has long been honored in the United States, if not elsewhere. The U.S. usually accommodates conscientious objectors, such as those refusing the military draft. Some likened Davis to Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King, but civil rights demonstrators acted as private citizens. An example with public officials might be Catholics handling abortion, which their church staunchly opposes. If liberal Democrats, they often say they’re “personally opposed” but shouldn’t challenge public opinion or court edicts.

Unlike ancient Judaism, or past and present-day Islam, Christianity has always recognized various forms of separation between “church” and “state.” This stems from Jesus’ saying deemed important enough to appear in three Gospels: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” The narrow meaning was to pay taxes due to secular regimes, even despised Roman occupiers. But interpreters think Jesus’ cryptic maxim has far broader applications.  In New Testament times, of course, the tiny, powerless band of Christians didn’t ponder their duties as public officials.

The Bible opposes anarchy and advocates respect for authorities (eons before modern democracy arose) who are expected to fairly and honestly apply laws. For instance, “You shall not revile God, nor curse a ruler of your people” (Exodus 22:28). The apostle Paul paraphrases this in a confrontation with Jewish leaders: “It is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people’ ” (Acts 23:5). We also have Titus 3:1, “be submissive to rulers and authorities,” and 1 Peter 2:17, “honor the emperor.”

Paul’s main teaching was addressed to Christians in the imperial capital (Romans 13:1-5) and urges respect for civil authorities with the obvious corollary of obeying laws they administer:

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer…”

Sounds absolute. But influential Baptist conservative John Piper supported Davis because “God has given civil authorities to the world to reward the right and punish the evil. So when those authorities promote evil and punish good, those authorities may rightly be disobeyed for the sake of obeying God.” Matthew Black of Scotland’s University of St. Andrews thought Paul may have targeted some specific conflict situation so his words don’t necessarily apply to all cases.

Actually, the New Testament does recognize exceptions to total obedience. At another hearing earlier in the Book of Acts (5:29), Jewish leaders demanded a halt to preaching about Jesus, whereupon “Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than men’.”

Early church theologians developed grounds for such conscientious objection. Origen said obedience doesn’t apply with “authorities who persecute the faith.” Bishop Theodoret of Cyr commended respect only “insofar as obedience is consistent with godliness.” Likewise, today’s Catholic Catechism says citizens shouldn’t follow civil directives that are “contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons, or the teachings of the Gospel.” Presumably those exceptions include public officials.

Catholic exegete Joseph Fitzmyer said Paul’s absolutism on obedience became “a major problem” for modern theology after the horrors of Mussolini, Stalin, and Hitler. Thus today’s Christian understanding is that public officials are respected if their authority is legitimate, they perform duties justly, and aren’t totalitarians.

The Kentucky clerk refused to resign her elected office. However, a dramatic example of an official’s moral objection was the resignation of William Jennings Bryan as U.S. Secretary of State. Bryan was famously devoted to Christian beliefs as an early Presbyterian “fundamentalist” known for opposing the teaching of Darwinism at Tennessee’s 1925 “Monkey Trial.” Bryan led the Democrats’ left wing and was their presidential nominee three times. At the anguishing 1912 party convention, Bryan’s maneuvers won Woodrow Wilson the presidential nomination on ballot 46 (!) and he appointed Bryan to State.

Both men desired U.S. neutrality toward World War One in Europe. But their alliance collapsed in 1915 after a German submarine sank Britain’s Lusitania, killing 1,201 victims including 128 Americans. Bryan, a peace idealist, sent a conciliatory letter to Germany, which then justified its attack because the ship carried (a few) munitions. Wilson demanded an end to unrestricted submarine attacks against unarmed ships and Bryan resigned, deeming Wilson to be too hawkish. When Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare in early 1917 U.S. entry into the war became inevitable.



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