What does the Bible say about the attitude of believers to wider society?


Church and State: What does the Bible say about the attitude of believers to wider society?

The Bible deals with this question through the theme of the city. In the Book of Genesis, cities are viewed with mistrust. Cain, the man of violence, is the first person to build a city (see Genesis 4:17). Babel and Sodom are places
where human beings seek false autonomy, turning their backs on the Source of their existence. Believers, on the contrary, walk in the steps of Abraham (see Genesis 12:1-4) and live as pilgrims who are on the road towards other horizons, with faith alone as their compass.

Later on another city appears: Jerusalem, the City-of-Peace, founded not on human self-aggrandizement but on God’s promise. Its existence shows that faith does not call us to flee from this-worldly realities, but leads to a new way of living together in justice and solidarity.
There is nothing automatic about this, however. Even Jerusalem can be unfaithful to its vocation if those who live there do not follow the ways of the Lord. By practicing injustice, “daughter Zion” becomes a prostitute (see Isaiah 1:21-23). And yet believers keep longing for a righteous king to come, someone sent by God to purify his city and make it a beacon and a pole of attraction for the whole world (see Isaiah 2:2-4).

The disciples of Jesus identified this righteous king with the figure of their Master. But Jesus, who died as someone rejected and cast outside the city (see Hebrews 13:12-14), founded no human kingdom. His followers therefore remain “sojourners and foreigners” (1 Peter 2:11) in the midst of a society that is indifferent, and even hostile, to their endeavors. They do not remain on the defensive, however. While refusing to be deluded by any of the self-justifications of the powers-that-be, they attempt to contribute to the good of the society in which God has placed them.

The last book of the Bible views all human history as a tale of two cities. Babylon, impressive in its might and glory, will nonetheless disappear in the twinkling of an eye (see Revelation 17–18). Then comes New Jerusalem, founded on the patriarchs and the apostles (see Revelation 21–22). If the city of God is not yet manifest in all its splendor, it is not a mere hope for the future either. By living the values of the Gospel here and now, by forming communities where men and women from every background live together as brothers and sisters, the disciples of Christ offer a concrete alternative to a world forgetful of its origin and its goal. Far from remaining content with an attitude of refusal, they become salt and light to those both near and far.

How can Saint Paul say that “whoever rebels against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted” (Romans 13:2)?

For some people, this controversial passage from the Letter to the Romans exalts obedience to the State and forbids resistance. For others, precisely for this reason it is not in harmony with the message of the Christ who proclaimed the total liberation of human beings.

Did Saint Paul distance himself from Jesus in this regard? Far from being a systematic theologian, Paul was above all a pastor and a missionary. His letters are inevitably marked by their context. Paul was writing to the Romans at a critical time, when Nero had just succeeded his assassinated father as ruler. Listening to wise counselors at first, the young emperor was putting into practice a policy of reforms. In addition, a few years earlier his father Claudius had exiled all the Jews from Rome on account of riots for which he held them responsible. Christians of Jewish background had just returned to the capital. Paul feels strongly that the followers of Christ need to do all they can to show that they are well-disposed; they must avoid rekindling the suspicions people had concerning them, all the more so because some of their practices and positions were obviously counter-cultural.

In fact, Paul’s advice to his hearers does not go far beyond the rest of the New Testament. They should pay taxes, do good rather than evil, and recognize that all authority comes from God. If this last recommendation can be used to justify despotic policies, understood correctly it acts rather to limit abuses of power. The king has to realize that he is not the final instance and thus cannot govern in an arbitrary manner.

This is exactly the meaning of the words that Jesus says to Pontius Pilate when the Roman governor tries to impress him by his power: “You would have no authority over me at all were it not given you from above” (John 19:11).

The Bible is thus not dualistic. God is not only the Lord of a small enclave of the elect, but the Creator and the Master of all, even if his authority is often expressed in apparent weakness and is far from being recognized by all. Concerned with the whole of society, Christians have the right, and even the duty, to raise their voices when the requirements of justice are violated. They should not attempt, however, to impose their views by methods contrary to the Gospel. And they do not aim primarily at human success but rather to give good witness, knowing that they are called to follow the same road as that of Christ himself: “May none of you have to suffer as murderers or thieves or wrongdoers or even as troublemakers; but if you suffer because you are Christians, do not be ashamed; give glory to God that you bear that name!” (1 Peter 4:14-15).

Last updated: 29 November 2006