July 22 Issue- Honouring Governing Authorities & Political-Cultural Engagement

by Ronald JJ Wong

“Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution” (1 Peter 2:13 ESV).

It is the Lord’s will that we subject ourselves to human authority in different spheres of God’s created order -- government and citizen, husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and servants, and church leaders and congregation.

At creation, God, having all authority, delegated to humanity His authority over the world. Every human institution reflects this created order, including governing political authorities.

How then should Christians honour governing political authorities and engage in politics and the wider culture?

What should we render to Caesar?

In Matthew 22:21, we glean that while we should respect human political authorities, we should give our souls and ultimate allegiance only to God.

a) Role of human political authorities

• Political authorities are appointed by God (Romans 13:1);
• political authorities are intended by God to establish peace, promote good, and prevent evil. (Romans 13:3-4, 6; 1 Peter 2:13-14); and
• right and wrong, good and evil, are determined by God, not political authorities, not society, not individuals. But political authorities will make mistakes and they will do wrong and some will be corrupt;

Hence, Christians have a role to play in helping political authorities discern what is good and right.

b) To disobey political authorities for a morally just cause is to exercise conscientious objection (Romans 13:5).

Christians should submit to political authorities and the laws they enact unless they:
• command Christians to commit acts which are contrary to God's justice and righteousness; or
• prohibit Christians from acting such that the direct outcomes are unjust and unrighteous.

We see this in 1 Peter 2:13-14. It contains a qualification -- the political authorities and the law must be to prevent evil and promote good.

The Bible is full of instances where biblical heroes are celebrated for disobeying human political authority or law because of a higher law. For example, they:
• refused to worship false gods (Daniel 3; 6);
• refused to be prohibited from preaching Jesus (Acts 5);
• refused to commit expressed sin like murder/genocide (Exodus 1); and
• refused to participate in the exercise of political power for evil or terror. Obadiah hid 100 prophets of God from Jezebel (1 Kings 18).
• Queen Esther disobeyed a law that prohibited from speaking to the King without the King summoning the person. She took a risk to persuade the King to cancel his order to kill all the Jews in the land.

c) Respecting political authorities is a matter of witness (1 Peter 2:13-17).

In Matthew 17:24-27, we learn that as people of the kingdom of God, we are in truth, free. We are not slaves or subjects of any authority other than God.

Yet, we choose to respect and honour political authorities “for the Lord’s sake” (1 Peter 2:13). Not for man’s sake and not for fear of man. But because God has willed that we respect political authorities and do good (1 Peter 2:15-16).

Peter exhorts us to “do good” in relation to the political authorities and our political nation. This means we are to be good citizens. The phrase here “do good” is referring to fulfilling one’s civic duties i.e., duties of a citizen.

Bible scholar Bruce W. Winter suggests that this good citizenship exhibited by Christians, known as benefactions, at that time would have included diverting grain to places of need; selling grain at below market value when it is in shortage; building public buildings; refurbishing community places; contribute to building public infrastructure such as roads, theatre, public utilities; and helping the city in the time of upheaval.

1 Peter 2:17 then sums up the passage: “Honour everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the emperor.”
Honour means give weight to; give respect to. Honour the authorities and honour everyone.
Love your fellow Christians, for Jesus says when we love one another as Jesus loves us, the world will know that we are His disciples.
Only God is to be feared. The emperor/political authorities are not to be feared. The brotherhood is not to be feared.

Political & cultural engagement today

However, the social political contexts in Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 are very different from our context today in Singapore. At that time, people had almost no political rights. In Singapore, we do. So, should Christians engage in politics and broadly, the wider culture?

There are six theological views of the church’s political engagement with culture.

a) Church against culture/Separatist view

The church should not participate in state government and politics. The church is an alternative political community that becomes a witness to, and critiques culture. This is the Anabaptist tradition. An example is Amish communities in the United States (US).

b) Church in culture/Culture Triumphalism

Christian values are to be expressed through imposing culture preferences in legislative, judicial and ecclesiastical processes to transform society. Theologian T. M. Moore described this as “culture triumphalism”.

c) Culture in church

Culture has no inherent conflict with Christian values and may thus be embraced by the church. An example is liberal Protestantism in the US.

d) Church above culture/Synthetic

The church is to love God and love neighbours in justice. The church has a role to apply faith to reason to interpret natural law. This allows for cooperation with other religions. The church acting as church should not endorse debatable policy options, but individuals must do so to fulfil their responsibilities as citizens. The aim of the church’s social doctrine is simply to help purify reason and to contribute, here and now, to the acknowledgment and attainment of what is just.

e) Church & culture in paradox

This follows from Martin Luther’s “two kingdoms” doctrine, which distinguishes law from gospel. Law is government; gospel is church. Law is not to be made into gospel (for government and human institutions cannot save) and gospel is not to be made into law (e.g., biblical teaching on non-violence cannot be basis for national defence policy). The church should focus on preaching the gospel and discipling individuals to do good.

f) Church the transformer of culture

State governance and politics can and should be reformed according to God’s order for social, communal, and political life. This is subject to the norms and standards relevant for each sphere or sector of human culture as established by God. The goal is not soteriological, nor is it undertaken as some kind of pre-evangelistic prelude to cultivate openness to the gospel. Social and political reform is pursued as an end in itself in service to God. Such reform is not a pursuit of salvation, but rather an outcome of regeneration (Charles Taylor). Thinkers who hold this view include John Calvin and Abraham Kuyper. However, Kuyper believed that governance is not the only way to shalom and should not be idolised.

Within this tradition, some believe in principled pluralism. While Christians should be allowed to appeal to Scripture and not just general natural law in public discussion, there can be cooperation with other religions.

Political engagement to what end?

In thinking about the different views of the church’s political engagement with the world, the question must be -- to what end?

Do we believe that it is both required of, and in fact plausible for, the church to enforce Christian values in all of culture and society?

Or is the aim to simply attempt to transform culture and society in accordance with Christian values, while acknowledging that it is a realistically unattainable outcome? Given that, the attempt is simply about having integrity, that is being faithful to one’s values by living out those values and promoting those values while recognising that not everyone else will share those values.

Or is the aim to simply speak and manifest truth in love? Given that, the pursuit of justice and righteousness is secondary to simply manifesting them.

Or should the aim be to simply live in a separate social reality and let the living out of Christian values stand as a prophetic critique of a world with very different values?

Or is the aim to fight to preserve a freedom to have a Christian way of life as much as possible?

This question of purpose will shape the answer to another important question: should Christians or the Church co-opt non-biblical ideologies, methods, or posture in the course of political engagement?

The church’s political & cultural witness

I believe that the political engagement of the church is in the main by being a suffering prophetic witness in a pluralist and increasingly hostile world (Revelation 11).

The church’s political witness in a pluralist society should be principally living out gospel relationships within the church, declaring to the world a gospel-centred political community life as a prophetic critique of the world, while honouring governmental authorities and other people in society (1 Peter 2:9-17; Deuteronomy 4:5-8; Exodus 19:4-6).

Nonetheless, Christians are called to love our neighbours (Luke 10:27); seek justice and advocate for the voiceless and oppressed (Micah 6:8; Proverbs 31:8-9); be salt and light by being and doing good (Matthew 5:13-16); and to seek the shalom of the city (Jeremiah 29:7).

As Christian philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff wrote: “In shalom, each person enjoys justice, enjoys his or her rights. There is no shalom without justice. But shalom goes beyond justice. Shalom is the human being dwelling at peace in all his or her relationships: with God, with self, with fellow, with nature”.

In these pursuits, it must be a Christ-mannered manifestation of justice and righteousness in holy living and declaring truth in love: “always being prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience” (1 Peter 2:15-16). The pursuit of shalom must itself be just and through right relationships.

The purpose however, is not to achieve certain outcomes at all costs. Our task is ultimately to be witnesses for Christ (Acts 1:8) and make disciples of all nations by teaching and baptism (Matthew 28). Our vocation is to be ambassadors for Christ, peacemakers (Matthew 5:9), and ministers of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:11-21). Not as warriors of cultural battles.

While Christ’s kingdom is ultimate, worldly kingdoms are penultimate. The inevitable fact is that the world will increase in lawlessness (Matthew 24:12). It is not defeatist or resignation to say that the church must simply endure in faithfulness. Rather, it is the very persistent exhortation of Christ to the church to endure in faith (Matthew 24:13; Revelation 2:10, 26; 3:11; 14:2).

This calls for bold faith and integrity in holy living. It calls for deep-rooted discipleship of our congregations. It requires faithful parenting of our young. It cries for radical love within the household of God. It demands faithfulness to the gospel and gospel- living in a hostile culture.

As Christ was called to the cross outside the city, the church is called to be a suffering prophet at the margins.

This view of the church’s political engagement is a form of virtue ethics—to be faithful to biblical virtues by:
a) living them out in individual lives and in the body life of the church;
b) promoting them in society; and
c) declaring them as moral truth as part of our faith with gentleness, respect and in good conscience.

Living out the ethics of Christ’s kingdom as in a) becomes a prophetic critique of, and witness to the world.

The aim of cultural transformation as in b) then, is promotion and not imposition. It is subject to the extent that the means and ends are finally about manifesting the signs of God’s kingdom. It is not about achieving an outcome where an earthly kingdom becomes the kingdom of God for it is Christ’s work that will bring about the new heavens and new earth, not the church’s work.

The enactment of ideal policies and cultural boundaries is secondary to having integrity in promoting those outcomes. Integrity and faithfulness require that Christians should not adopt instrumentalism in pursuing policy or legislative goals. Ends do not justify unjust means. The pursuit of shalom-peace should not be by waging war. We must be able to remain in good conscience before Christ and before our neighbour in the process of cultural engagement.

In this regard, the two kingdoms view is a possible way by which Christians can discern which matters should be law (and thus, of political concern) and which should be gospel (and thus, of moral persuasion, acknowledging every individual’s freedom of conscience as an aspect of their imago dei). Further, Jesus’ Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12) is a standard of fairness, which guides the discernment of positions taken in a pluralist society. We must place ourselves in the shoes of others to assess how reasonable and fair it would be to subject them to rules and obligations being advanced, which are based on values they do not agree with. We must invert the analysis and consider how we would think about the reasonableness and fairness of such positions. What may be fair in the form of one particular rule or policy may not be fair in another form. There are no easy answers.

The declaration of moral truth as in c) in the context of societal value pluralism requires that Christians engage with reason accessible to others, who do not share the same values, speaking to the universal common grace of conscience and reason, while yet holding to certain distinctive faith premises as divine mystery.

Ultimately, this is embodied in the mission of peacemaking. That is, the pursuit of shalom as manifesting the signs of God’s kingdom on earth. After all, the fundamental human condition of sin is the brokenness of our relationship with God, and thus with self, with others and with creation. The mission of God in Christ is the act of reconciliation and peacemaking (Colossians 1:20; Ephesians 1:10). So also, it is our mission.

Yet, it will remain that peacemakers will be hated. A world addicted to violence cannot stand attempts at peace. Yet, this is the will of God even in suffering, that by doing good, we may silence the ignorance of fools (1 Peter 2:15). In such circumstances, the church is therefore to be a suffering prophetic witness.

Nonetheless, I believe sincere God-fearing Christians can reasonably disagree on the various theological views on political engagement set out above. I believe these are not essential matters of Christian doctrine. In reasonable disagreement, let there be grace.

How does civil engagement translate to practical action?

The apostle Peter exhorts us in 1 Peter 2:17 to “honour everyone”. To honour is to respect and give weight to. Practically, it must mean humble and patient listening and communicating.

I believe the church should honour everyone by respectfully engaging with government authorities, with other religious groups, and with civil society groups, on various cultural issues. We should have civil dialogues and constructive proposals on social-cultural-political issues. Value conflicts and culture differences should not be based on who shouts louder in the marketplace, which then indirectly means who has more resources to appear louder. Justice and righteousness cannot be based on who has more resources or power.

In their book Uncommon Ground, theologian Tim Keller and legal scholar John Inazu referring to Ephesians 4:2 similarly suggest humility, tolerance and patience as Christian virtues for civic engagement with people who have different beliefs and views. Toleration over protest, humility over defensiveness, and persuasion over coercion.

I suggest that we need to humbly and patiently listen carefully to what different voices from our society say. Why are they saying something different? Where are they coming from? What are their concerns and fundamental beliefs?

To exercise tolerance is not to adopt what they believe or say, but to engage on the issues respectfully. And not to protest or demean. We honour fellow citizens in civic engagement by humbly, patiently and respectfully listening and engaging. This is a form of principled pluralism.

In a pluralist society with multiple stakeholders having a myriad of interests, we need to move away from entrenched positions to principled pluralism. We need to carefully listen, respect legitimate interests, and honour fellow citizens and communities.

Our society and shared socio-political spaces need not be a zero-sum game. What would seeking shalom for our city in a fallen world, that is in a far less than ideal condition, looks like? What would a rebalanced equilibrium and mutuality of interests look like? What would justice and fairness for both majority and marginalised minority stakeholders look like in the near term and far when societal values shift? What safeguards should there be for minority groups, recognising that certain stakeholders in society as well as the church are and will be respectively minorities in the effluxion of time?

Furthermore, being faithful to our biblical mandate to love our neighbours and seek the shalom of the city means that we must just as vigorously advocate for certain other groups and stakeholders in society as for anyone else, even when we disagree with them.

Spaces for peacemaking

In pursuing cultural engagement for the sake of righteousness, we desire a harvest of righteousness. And we need godly wisdom.

James 3:17-18 describes exactly this. The Bible author describes godly wisdom that is “pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere”. If we desire a “harvest of righteousness”, it “is sown in peace by those who make peace”. (James 3:17-18).

Although the context in James 3 is mainly about conflict within the church, I believe this is equally applicable to civic engagement. How then do we sow in peace and make peace?

Peacemaking requires godly wisdom. We need the virtues of humility, patience, active listening, gentleness, sincerity, and mercy. As a lawyer, dispute resolver, and trained mediator, I believe that peacemaking processes and safe spaces must be intentionally designed, facilitated, and pursued for peacemaking to happen. Christians should learn how to create such peacemaking spaces both within the church and outside in the wider society.

Perhaps before we can make peace without, we should begin within (Romans 14). We need to create intentional peacemaking spaces within the wider body of Christians and Christian organisations in Singapore. There should be a long-term ongoing dialogical process within the wider Singapore church on cultural engagement. Such a process of dialogue, conferring and discernment should be multi-generational and intentionally designed to be a safe space for sincerely-held beliefs to be voiced out. In this way, the church is simultaneously learning, practising, modelling, and witnessing peacemaking.


We must be ready to sink deeper roots into Christ and endure in living out our faith firmly amidst an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous culture. The church is called to be a suffering prophetic witness in a pluralist and increasingly hostile world. And the essential ethos of this noble vocation is faithfulness.

Faithfulness entails faith and integrity in holy living as those set apart. For “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvellous light” (1 Peter 2:9).

As a royal priesthood called to be reconcilers between God and the world, we must pursue peace, make peace, and sow in peace, that there will be a harvest of righteousness. This must begin with practising peacemaking within the church. May we make peacemakers of us all who then make peace in the world.

May the church be found faithful.

(This talk was given at Spiren on 28 May 2022)