Romans 12 and 13 show how church and state are different in the way they treat wrongdoers. In Romans 12 Paul exhorts Christians to “Bless those who persecute you…Do not repay anyone evil for evil…Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written, ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.” But while the church leaves vengeance to God, God uses the state for vengeance. In Romans 13 Paul says that the governing authority “is God’s servant, an agent of wrath [NASB “avenger”]to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities” (Rom. 13:4-5).
It’s biblical for Christians to serve in government positions. Cornelius, the first Gentile convert, was a centurion who commanded a regiment of 100 soldiers. (Acts 10). Erastus was Corinth’s “director of public works” (Rom. 16:23). Paul said that praying for “kings and all those in authority…pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 1:3-4). We want to see governing authorities become Christians, and Christians become governing authorities as God guides them. (See The church’s role in politics, pt. 1)
But Christians in authority must understand that their role, paradoxically, limits their Christian activity. Normally, if a man confesses to a Christian that he is a drug-dealer, the Christian is honor-bound to seek to convert him. But if the same drug dealer confessed to a governing authority, that authority would be honor-bound to seek to convict him (in the legal sense). The Christian must bring him to the Lord. The authority must bring him to the law. But if that authority is also a Christian, what does he do? In such a conflict of interest, he must realize that “he is God’s servant…to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:4). If he does not, he will be open to the charge of harboring the very criminals whom he has a solemn public duty to convict. So taking that position means he must forgo some Christian ministry, including the joy of setting men free from their addictions.
Christians should advise criminals to confess their crimes to the authorities, even when they become new men in Christ. Otherwise, innocent people may be convicted of their crimes. But Christians in ministry must maintain their confidential relationships with those who confess. The state has historically granted this. Their confidentiality would be undermined if Christians in ministry were also the very governing authorities duty-bound to bring men to the law.
A friend of mine once faced another conflict of interest. A Christian political leader arranged a state grant to his ministry, at the same time that my friend wanted to appoint that leader to a ministry position. To go ahead with that appointment would have been a clear conflict of interest. Unfortunately, the more a Christian gets involved in politics, the less direct help he can offer as a politician to the ministries he belongs to. He must avoid any appearance of favoritism. Likewise, the more a Christian gets involved in ministry, the less he can get involved in a political party without alienating rival political party members from his ministry.
Church and state are only two of the seven spheres of public life in which Christians can exercise influence (see 7 Mountain Strategy). In any of these seven spheres, Christians would do well to heed Colossians 4:5-6: “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always with grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” If we learn to work within the boundaries of every sphere we move in, our opportunities will be great.
BPN articles on church and state: The church’s role in politics, pt. 1
Related sources for church and state: Separation of church and state
Tags for church and state: Christians in politics, conflict of interest, church and state separation, church and state constitution, church and state issues, church and state in scripture, church and state overlap, confidentiality in ministry
Church and state roles are different but complementary