When greeting people in the foyer after a sermon, it’s not unusual for a preacher to wonder, “Just what did they hear today?” when someone says, “I liked it when you said…” and they proceed to tell the preacher something he said that he is quite sure he did not say.
That curious wondering might have been part of Paul’s response to the Jewish leaders in Thessalonica. After they heard him preach they said of him and his traveling companions, “These men who have upset the world have come here also; and Jason has welcomed them, and they all act contrary to the decrees of Caesar…” (Acts 17:6–7).
In other words, “They are Christians and because they are Christians they are bad citizens and will live contrary to the laws of the land. Now it is true, as these Jews in Thessalonica asserted, that Christians believe in another (greater) King, Jesus (v. 7b). And when the laws of a human king conflict with the commands of the divine King, Jesus, the Christian is joyfully duty-bound to obey his Savior and joyfully accept the consequences of his civil disobedience (see Dan. 3, especially vv. 16-18). But does that make him a bad citizen?
Remember what other New Testament passages teach about the relationship of the believer to the civil authorities:
- The believer is to pray for his civil authorities.
“First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior” (1 Tim. 2:1–3)
- The believer is to submit to his civil authorities.
“Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.” (Rom. 13:1)
“Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men.” (1 Pet. 2:13–15)
- The believer is to honor his civil authorities.
“Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king.” (1 Pet. 2:17)
- The believer who dishonors and disobeys his civil authorities dishonors and disobeys God who put them in authority over him.
“Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.” (Rom. 13:2)
- The believer believes that civil authorities are established by God and are servants of God.
“for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.…For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing.” (Rom 13:4, 6)
- The believer is to give his civil authorities everything they are due (including taxes).
“Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.” (Rom. 13:7)
- The believer is to be thankful for his civil authorities.
“In everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thess. 5:18)
So does the good — faithful and obedient — Christian make a bad citizen? On the contrary, he makes the best kind of citizen, one who does all he can to uphold the laws of the land (even in an empire as perverse and ungodly as the Roman empire) and honor those who are in authority over him. He does not violate the commands of God, but at the same time, he looks to obey the civil law as much as he can and as fully as he can.