The early Christians were not in a position to change government. Yet they had a theology of institutions that was derived largely from their Old Testament Scriptures. In broad outline, their theology of nations and governments involved the following convictions and narrative of God's unfolding plan:
- God is in ultimate control of world history (cf. Daniel, Revelation; Psalm 33.10; Isaiah 40.15-17);
- God has made the nations (Psalm 86.9) and rules over them (Psalm 2; 47; 66.7; 67.4; 72.11; 94.10; 113.4); He is King (Psalm 10.16);
- God permits political authorities to rise and fall (Daniel 2), and He disciplines the sinful nations (Psalm 94.10; Ezekiel 28.1-10; 29.12-16; Habakkuk 3.11);
- God intended Israel to be an exemplary nation, positively and negatively (Genesis 12.3; Jeremiah 4.1-2; Ezekiel 5.5-17; 6.8-14; 22.15-16; 28.25; 37.28) from which other nations might learn righteousness (Isaiah 2.2-4; Micah 4.2); in the return from exile, the nations would learn of God’s power to save sinful Israel, and He would thereby keep His name from being profaned among the nations (Psalm 106.41, 47; Ezekiel 20.9, 14, 22; 20.41; 36.20-38); God also intended the king of Israel to be an exemplary king (Psalm 72), and the Messiah will rule over the nations (Revelation 12.5; 19.15); the nations are God’s audience for the revelation of His righteousness, holiness, and glory (Psalm 98.2-3; 126.2; Isaiah 52.10; 62.2; Ezekiel 38.23; 39.7, 28);
- God uses government authority to accomplish his purposes, including meting out justice (Psalm 106.40-41; Jeremiah 50.8-12; 51.20-44);
- In the end, God will withdraw His hand, and lawlessness will prevail before Jesus returns as Son of Man (Daniel 7.13) to establish justice on the earth (2 Thessalonians 2.1-12);
- Christians, as God's minority people in the world, should pray for all people, including those in authority, so that conditions might be favourable enough for them to live quiet and godly lives in this world and because God wants all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2.1-7);
- Human institutions, such as government (cf. 1 Samuel 8.4-22), economics (cf. Revelation 18), social distinctions (cf. Galatians 3.25-29; 1 Corinthians 12.13; Colossians 3.11), are temporal, changeable, and of relative worth; they will be changed when God brings about His kingdom rule (Psalm 82.8), which includes bringing justice to the nations (Isaiah 42.1);
- Christians are to avoid vengeance, letting God work justice through the law of government (Rom. 12.17-13.8); rather, their focus is a mission to the nations of proclaiming the gospel of the Kingdom to them (Matthew 24.14; 28.18-20); they should even show love to and pray for their enemies (Matthew 5.44);
- Ultimately, God will punish the nations (Psalm 59.5, 8; Psalm 110.5-6; Isaiah 34.1-15; Matthew 25.31-46; Isaiah 30.27-28; Jeremiah 30.11; Joel 3.1-21; Zephaniah 3.8; Haggai 2.22; Zechariah 14.1-3); they will acknowledge Him as Lord (Psalm 45; 82.8; 86.9), fear Him (Psalm 102.15), and worship Him (Psalm 22.27-28; 46.10; 86.9; Isaiah 45.22-23; Zephaniah 2.11; Malachi 1.11; Philippians 2.10; Revelation 15.3-4);
- God’s plan is to include the nations in His redemption of sinful Israel (Isaiah 42.6; 49.6, 22; 60.3; 66.18-20; Jeremiah 16.19-21; Zechariah 2.11; 8.22-23; Mark 11.17; Romans 1.5; 16.26; 1 Timothy 3.16; Revelation 22.2).
Christians have not always followed this Biblical understanding of government and the nations. We have not always realized that the Church is not a nation with a land to defend and governmental authority, as Israel, but a community with a mission to proclaim the life-transforming message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world. Thus, we have, all too often, acted as though our purpose has required us to use force instead of to be witnesses--even through martyrdom--of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. (In this proclamation and witness lies the West's conviction of freedom of speech versus coercion.) We have at times--as the history of the West attests--thought of ourselves as a majority with power in and over society rather than a minority called to live by the example of the crucified Jesus Christ, even if this means persecution. We have not always stood against the powerful currents of culture, even redefining ourselves as priests of the culture by establishing state Churches in Europe and Great Britain that have all ultimately succumbed to the culture. (As Israel repeatedly did in setting up altars to idols until God punished them by exiling them among the nations, we have recently even seen the post-Christian, mainline denominations in the West prepare liturgies to affirm a culture turned against God's commandments.) We have not always made God's redemptive mission in the world our mission, all too often trying to establish ourselves in comfortable circumstances with state sanctioned authority and approval. We have often lived as though Jesus were not coming again, whether taking justice into our own hands or imagining our justice is God's justice. We, the Church, have too often failed to take up the mantle of the Old Testament prophets, who spoke to the government rulers and their own cultures with God's Words of warning and forgiveness. We have forgotten that God is still in control, no matter how wasted human institutions become. We have sought to pray prayers to make God comply to our politics instead of praying that we might have the peace we need from the rulers of this age to live Godly lives under Christ's Lordship in this sinful world. We have written off our enemies instead of praying for them with the same heart God has to save the world. Some of us have rejected Israel as though God no longer cares for His covenant people, while others of us have placed Israel as a nation on a pedestal of honour instead of calling it to return to God's rule and salvation in Christ Jesus. We have at times lost hope in the unfolding story of the world instead of maintaining our faith in God, who is Lord of the nations. We have too often prayed for our own comforts in our own exile in this world rather than for Christ's return to establish God's justice in the world ('Maranatha'), and some of us have even foolishly believed that God wants Christians to be fully satisfied in this world's life (the Prosperity 'Gospel') as though there is no age to come, no mission to accomplish through suffering and persecution, and no imitation of Christ for disciples.
Thankfully, this does not describe all of us! Yet now, in our post-Christian era in the West, we need a careful reflection on what constitutes a Biblical understanding of government even as we need a proper understanding of what the Church is and should be. Moreover, in lands where the Church is growing, such as in many parts of Africa, an understanding of the Church in its relation to the State needs a Biblical foundation.