Last time, we considered the fact that Scripture describes Christians as exiles who are not of the world and must not love or be conformed to the world. Instead, we should consider ourselves distinct from the unbelieving peoples and cultures around us.
Yet this is not the complete picture of the Christian situation. The presence of sin in the world does not entirely destroy the image of God in unbelieving people, and the promises God made to Noah that he would continue to preserve order through the institutions he established are still in effect. Even though Satan is the “god of this world,” God is still on the throne of his Universal Kingdom, and he is still preserving his creation through human governments and other God-ordained human institutions. Thus even unbelievers, when they act consistent with that order, can do what God has blessed them to do—they can preserve order and justice in the world, they devise successful political systems, they can produce worthy art, and they can teach things that are true.
And so, in these kinds of activities, God’s people can stand alongside unbelieving people, participating in and contributing to society as citizens of the Universal common kingdom of God. A perfect illustration of this is what the prophet Jeremiah says to Israel in Babylonian exile, a situation for Israel analogous to the church’s situation in this age:
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29:4-7)
Israel in exile experienced a stark antithesis between their religion and the religion of their captors—they sat down and wept as their captors mocked them when they gathered by waters of Babylon to worship, and yet they were able to share commonality with their captors as well. Some of the accounts of Israel in exile demonstrate this; for example, Daniel would not eat meat associated with pagan worship, refused to stop praying to Yahweh, and would not pray to the king, and yet he willingly allowed himself to be educated in the literature and language of Babylon and even served in political leadership, as did others of the people of Israel. Despite the absolute religious antithesis as members of God’s redeemed people, there was much commonality between the everyday lives of the Hebrews and the everyday lives of the Babylonians with respect to the common kingdom—building houses, planting gardens, family, governing, literature, and education.
The same is true for the church. Jesus was clear: Render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s. Why? Because the welfare of the city is also our welfare. A healthy government that protects the innocent and punishes injustice is part of God’s universal reign, even if that government is pagan. In the context of teaching Christians how to live as sojourners and exiles, Peter specifically says that Christians should submit to earthly authorities and even honor them (1 Pet 2:13–18). Why? Because the welfare of the city is also our welfare. Government was instituted by God himself, and inasmuch as governing officials rule with equity and justice, they are doing exactly what God intends for them to do. Like Jeremiah, Paul commands that “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions” (1 Tim 2:1–2). Why? So that “we may lead a peaceful and quite life, godly and dignified in every way,” exactly why God established human government in Genesis 9.