Yet, for the person who follows Jesus Christ and so wants to live righteously toward others, to practice genuine biblical justice, we also must conclude that how we seek to make things right with others is just as important as seeking to make things right.
It is because of this that the last topic we take up in this blog series is how to seek change in the government in just ways.
We are focusing upon the government for the following reasons: To begin, it can be at least one of the entities we must approach in our society when change is needed in the issues we have considered in this blog series. Also, though most of what we say about how to approach the government will also apply if we must approach parents, an employer, or someone else, there are a few things we must say about seeking change in the government that won’t apply elsewhere and so should be noted.
We will set forth three truths we must consider and follow if we are to seeking change in the government in just ways.
1. We Approach People With Godly Wisdom.
James addresses this in James 3:13-18:
Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
The half-brother of Jesus clarifies that justice cannot be pursued in a manner that is unjust and so we gain a full and rich picture of what righteous and just pursuit of the resolution of differences looks like. His readers are not only facing great trials but have turned in on each other in conflict and are acting in arrogance against one another. So, he warns them not merely to use their own “common sense” or “wisdom” to solve a conflict or difference. In other words, they should not pursue resolution in such a way that the end justifies the means. James explains that such ends-justifying-the-means “wisdom is “earthly, unspiritual, demonic” and characterized by “every vile practice” (15-16).
In verse 17 we discover that in contrast the true wisdom that comes from above, i.e. from God, is characterized by the following seven traits:
- “[It] is first pure:” The way the sentence is constructed this term stands by itself, most likely as an umbrella term over all the rest of the descriptions. Purity here refers to a commitment to remain faithful to the Lord and to do what he wants (2 Cor. 11:2).
- “Then peaceable:” Most likely the point is that wisdom from above actively seeks to make peace with the other person(s) and to go about resolving differences in peaceful ways, if at all possible (Mt. 5:9; Rom. 12:18; Heb. 12:14).
- “Gentle:” The sense of this term seems to be that we treat the other person(s) as we would want to be treated, the opposite of being harsh and unfair (1 Tim. 3:3; Titus 3:2; 1 Pt. 2:18).
- “Open to reason:” The point seems to be that we will be open to what the other person(s) says and will not have our mind closed to them from the beginning. We listen as we would want them to listen to us.
- “Full of mercy and good fruits:” We reach out to others in their plight as we would want to be treated. This produces fruits in keeping with genuine faith, that please God and thus flow out of the change Jesus Christ is accomplishing in us.
- “Impartial:” Literally, this is “without being judgmental.” At the very least this is not jumping to conclusions. Additionally, even as we hear others out, we are believing the best about them—at least as far as we can (1 Cor. 13:7).
- “And sincere:” Literally, this is “without hypocrisy.” This is the opposite of approaching the other person(s) about their shortcomings, but not addressing the shortcomings in our own life. To do something “without hypocrisy” would include asking first if there is a way we have contributed to the problem before focusing upon their part in it (Mt. 7:3-5).
Very clearly, this is a loving, mercy-giving, godly way of dealing with differences, conflict, injustices that matches our new nature in Christ and how he wants us to live (James 2:1; 3:10-12). In other words, it is in step with the truths that emerge from the gospel in us (Gal. 2:14). It should apply to how we would approach anyone when we perceive injustices have taken place, including individuals in the government.
Now, what is the outcome or result of such ways of handling conflict and differences? We find out in verse 18, which is where we discover the connection to justice: “And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” So, all the characteristics of the truly wise person who is in conflict (v. 17) ultimately bring about outcomes, that is, actions, words, and effects in the relationship, that are in keeping with the character of God and what is pleasing to him (they are righteous). As such, in connection to other people, they would also be just.
Such outcomes are sown in peace by those who make/pursue peace (cf. Mt. 5:9; Heb. 12:14). In other words, their goal is not merely to win the argument or situation or have their issue come out on top. Rather it is to create genuine wholeness of relationship between the two sides.
This wise approach remembers that not only is ill and sinful treatment of each other wrong because God says it is and because it is inconsistent with the entailments of the gospel, it is also wrong because others are created in the image of God (James 3:9-10) and so we should treat them with dignity as the divine image-bearers and God-glorifiers they are.
When we grasp what James says here, we realize we must not approach anyone after we have “checked our Christian character at the door” so we can now “let them have it.” Christ calls us to love God with all we have and so to love the other person(s) as self, all to the glory of his grace in us (Mt. 22:37-40; Rom. 15:7). That we pursue justice in this manner is even more important than our seeking to right the previous injustices!
This first truth naturally leads to the second.
2. We Approach People With Love.
The way James outlines resolving differences in James 3:13-18 is a detailed description of what he had termed earlier, “the royal law,” which is loving neighbor as self (James 2:8). King Jesus calls those who are part of his kingdom to love others.
In fact, we can say that loving others fulfills what God’s moral will is for us in regard to other people. Paul puts it this way in Romans 13:8: “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
In the case of seeking to rectify injustice with others, including the government, the only way that we will go about this in love, especially if we have been unjustly treated, is to realize that our ultimate happiness and well-being are not dependent upon how the government treats us. Rather, it is dependent upon the reality that God has saved us in Christ, is for us, and so no one can oppose us successfully or in the ultimate sense, and no one or nothing can separate us from God’s love and care for us (Rom. 8:31-39). In fact, even the injustices that happen to us comprise the “all things” God is orchestrating for our good (Rom. 8:28) and are part of the opportunities God gives us to glorify him (Rom. 15:7).
Learning to trust in God and to be content in him no matter what conditions we are in (Phil. 4:10-13) stands behind the ability God gives us to love others when they have harmed us and when things for us are hard and naturally we would be more prone to protect and defend, rather than reach outward in love, forgiveness, and for the sake of Christ (e.g. Phil. 1:12-26).
3. We Approach People With Respect.
In our first two truths we have really been saying that if we must approach people within the government about injustices done, we do it in a manner that fits with the reality we have responded to the gospel of Jesus Christ and that fits with the change that comes from this (Phil. 1:27).
The third and final trait of such a person that we will discuss in this post emerges from this change. It is this, that we also approach the person with the kind of respect we ought to give that person. There are several specifics we can give here as to how to approach the government and government officials respectfully.
A. Our Default Approach To The Government Is To Submit To And Obey Them.
Paul explains in Romans 13:1-7 that part of the behavior that emerges from one who has been changed by Jesus Christ is this very approach to government. He writes:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
Paul does not say that God has placed his moral stamp-of-approval on every government or government official. He does say that he has ordained government as something that typically is a good thing in society, since it protects citizens, can encourage positive behavior, and can discourage harmful behavior—all in ways that enable citizens more readily to flourish. As a result, we should submit to the governing authorities over us. Our default approach to government should be to submit, obey, and respect. It should not be to oppose, disobey, and disrespect. Elsewhere Paul explains that part of the way we should do this is by praying for government authorities over us, that they would come to know Christ, and that they would lead in ways that would foster well-being and gospel advancement (1 Tim. 2:1-4).
B. We Should Seek Change In The Government In Ways That Preserve Submission, Obedience, And Respect.
When we are transformed into new people by the Spirit of Christ in us, we should desire the well-being of others and God’s glory more than our own comfort or even more than the defense of our rights (e.g. Phil. 2:1-15). This also means that whenever we are compelled to seek change we should do our best to please God in our relations to the government and government officials. As such, we should seek to preserve submission, obedience, and respect. We must remember that our identity in Christ includes that we are the embassy, the outpost of the kingdom in this world—representing him and calling others to worship our King (1 Pt. 2:4-17).
For Christians who live in countries in which we have the privilege of voting for our leaders, for referendums, and the like, we must realize that a big part of the way we seek change is both by advocating for just approaches with our leaders and through the ballot box. As we have seen throughout this series, how we approach the issues we have covered has tremendous impact upon people for good or evil, as well as impact upon whether or not we glorify God.
Part of our love for others and part of the good works we engage in as a result of knowing Christ includes this involvement in the public arena (Eph. 2:10; James 2:14-16; 1 John 3:16-18).
Christians, then, as much as is possible, should pursue justice in the public arena of the government as God-glorifying, people-loving, government-obeying people.
C. Civil Disobedience Is Only A Last Resort.
Finally, we must remember that disobeying the government is not a first move. Rather it is a last resort.
The clearest kind of circumstance in which we must disobey is the one in which the government commands us to do something that would involve disobeying God, such as telling the church they may not evangelize others or telling physicians they must abort babies. We see this in Acts 5:29, where we find the apostles’ response to Jewish officials who commanded them to stop evangelizing: “But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than men.’”
The most complex situations in which we must discern whether or not civil disobedience is warranted are those in which a direct command to disobey God has not been given by the government, but instead the government has either forfeited their right to be a legitimate government entity since they have turned upside down how God has ordained they function and/or since they have turned upside down how they ought to treat an entire cross-section of people under their jurisdiction.
As we consider these kinds of situations we do well to look again at Romans 13:1-7 and something that many readers often miss in this passage. In verses 3-4 we read what God’s design for government is and why he has ordained it and views it as a good thing:
…rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer.
Even though most likely at the time Paul wrote this letter to the Romans the emperor, Nero, had not yet shown his true and full evil colors throughout the empire (which eventually would include killing Christians), Paul had already experienced government leaders who had turned upside-down what God says here—punishing those who do good and rewarding those who do evil. Paul knew that government leaders do not always do what is outlined in these verses. He knew that sometimes this is turned upside-down. What is more, by the time Peter admonished his readers in 1 Peter 2:13-17 with similar words, Nero had shown himself to be the cruel despot that history records. He was the exact opposite of what the text says government leaders ought to do.
This reality has raised a question in the minds of many Christians throughout history. May civil disobedience take place in a way that is morally-acceptable to God even when it can be argued that the government is not directly commanding disobedience to God, yet has forfeited its right to be called a legitimate government? Certainly some have answered, “Yes,” and I believe for good reasons.
This was part of the argument of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his “Letter From A Birmingham Jail.” In response to someone who had challenged Dr. King’s peaceful civil disobedience, part of his argument was that there can come times when such actions are warranted simply because the government has moved so far from its God-given role—turning upside-down what it is supposed to do.
This was also part of the argument behind the decision of the American colonies to disobey and oppose the tyrannical British government that had also thrown off and turned upside-down its God-given role. In other words, it had ceased functioning as a legitimate government. And, in the same way government leaders must defend citizens against evil-doers within and without, so in such circumstances they must defend citizens against higher tyrannical authorities in the government.
Both Dr. King and also the American colonists stand in a strong tradition that includes at least the Reformers and their Puritan descendants who, based on the reality I just highlighted from Romans 13:4-5, wrestled with this very question and concluded that civil disobedience may rightfully take place when a government so fully abdicates and turns upside-down its God-ordained role.
At least the Reformers, Puritans, and the Christians among the American colonies argue that if such civil disobedience must take place, these principles should be followed so that it can be in line with other biblical teaching:
- As much as possible, it should be peaceful.
- As much as possible, it should avoid a vigilante mindset by pursuing the help of those who are in authority and who oppose the tyrannical authorities.
- It is only as a last resort of the last resort that one would take up arms to defend themselves, others, and thus overthrow the government.
Conclusion To The Series
In this entire blog series we have sought to provide guidance from God’s will and wisdom in Scripture for how to pursue justice together, and to do so in some issues of our day that can be difficult.
My prayer throughout has been not only that the Holy Spirit will move in us to submit ourselves to the Word of God in these matters—the core of which is the gospel—but also that we will live for the great cause of God’s glory and the benefit of others, rather than merely a great comfort and so we would move toward great need, as we pursue justice together!
May it be so!
Joyfully Pursuing Justice With You,
 James implies that this “from above wisdom” is truly spiritual-i.e. it is from or by the Holy Spirit, as opposed to the wisdom from below that is unspiritual (v. 15).
 An approach to conflict, difference, possible injustice, by the Christian seeking to be in step with the gospel (full of mercy and good fruits) is one that has love for the other person whom we think to be wrong, for in many cases if they are wrong in the ways we think, they might be in sin and so need help and restoration (cf. 2 Tim. 2:24-26). How much more so this is true when the other person is a believer who may not understand fully or grasp how they have committed an offense and/or sin!
 Lit. this is “fruit of righteousness.” Since it goes on to speak of it being sown, the focus here, as the ESV discerns, is on the result of the sowing, i.e. the fruit harvested. We might say, “the harvested fruit that comes from righteous practice” is sown. As such, we see a connection from v. 18 to v. 17 which spoke of “good fruits.” The good fruits emerge from, they come from, and are characterized by righteousness.
 Philippians 1:27 goes on to say that one of the ways in which we live out the effects of the gospel is by “striving together as team-members, side by side, for the faith that emerges from the gospel” (my own amplified translation). Here Paul emphasizes the importance of gospel community (helping each other live out gospel truths), especially in hard situations. If we must pursue justice in previously unjust situations with anyone, even the government, we should be praying for and standing by each other, helping one another do it in wise, loving, and respectful ways. If we do not do this, we run the risk of being blinded to and hardened by our own sinful hearts and going about it in ways that dishonor God, rather than honoring him (cf. also Heb. 3:12-14; 10:24-25).
 Peter agrees with Paul in a much shorter statement in 1 Peter 2:13-17. Peter calls readers to this same kind of behavior as a result of having been saved and empowered by God to live on mission to his glory (2:4-12). He writes:
Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.