- Scriptural framework
In relation to the civil magistrates whom God has appointed, the Lord's pilgrim people live in the space between our Christ's declaration that His kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36) and His command that we are to give to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's (Matt. 22:21). There is a divinely appointed and righteous tension at this point. We are of the kingdom of Christ, and that situates us finally and ultimately in and of Christ in the heavenlies. While we are here, that allegiance must be reflected in our giving to God's appointed authorities what is their rightful due as well as rendering to the Lord that which belongs to Him alone.
It is precisely because Jesus Christ's kingdom is not of this world that we obtain perspective on the world and its authorities. It is because we serve the eternal King, being citizens of heaven, that we are the best citizens on earth, measured by divine standards. I remember the story of a pastor called before a communist dictator in Eastern Europe before the collapse of the Iron Curtain. The autocrat upbraided the man of God for being subversive and rebellious. "Not at all," answered the pastor humbly. "We Christians respect our leaders. We are faithful citizens, and we pray for you every day." What if we were brought before men like Claudius Caesar or Nero Caesar, men like Stalin, Hitler, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, Ceausescu, and others who may yet be raised up in our nations, perhaps superintending and even directing what we are persuaded is a moral decline and advancing wickedness? Would we be able to say with a clear conscience, "Sir, I am one of your best citizens. I hear what you say even when I cannot heed it, and I pray to my God for you every day"?
As citizens of heaven we recognize that we are sojourners here and that our convictions, character, and conduct should reflect our true homeland and bring honor to our true King. Part of our duty as we make our way through the world is to regard and respect rulers and authorities as God's appointed temporal vicegerents in the civil sphere to promote righteousness and to prevent wickedness. At their best, they provide a peaceful environment in which the church can go about its gospel business in peace, simply being what God has called us to be. At their worst, the civil authorities make themselves the agitators and architects of all that is most vicious and violent about opposition to the church, employing all the machinery of government in an attempt to crush the people of God.
If the influence of the authorities is benign, we should be genuinely thankful and express that thanks to God, but we should not make the mistake of yoking our hopes for Christ's heavenly kingdom to the vehicles of political, social, or economic power or renewal. Our confidence does not lie in the politics and parties and pressure groups of any culture. If the rulers over us are malign, we should not orchestrate campaigns of civil resistance or rebellion nor despair of the kingdom of God because that does not rise or fall depending on the state of any nation or nations. In one sense, the progress of God's kingdom has nothing to do with the civil authorities. Christ is our king, and His kingdom is not of this world.
Even if we face explicit opposition, even if a government should forbid what God commands or command what God forbids, even if we reach the point of confessing that "we ought to obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29), the Christian's noncompliance should reflect his supreme commitment to the God who governs all and who will one day subdue all. As such, his demeanor, behavior, and speech should all communicate an acknowledgment of the subordinate authority, even as he obeys the higher one.
The Christian's spirit is to be one of cheerful, willing, comprehensive submission as required of him by God. We are to offer legitimate support and reverence wherever we are able to the rulers appointed over us by our sovereign Lord, and to pray for them and for ourselves, that the gospel may readily advance as the church pursues the mission entrusted to her by her Redeemer.