By Rod Roberts
On January 9, 2007, the newly elected speaker of the Iowa House gaveled the 82nd General Assembly into session. True to the traditions of the Iowa House, the speaker invited a special guest pastor to bring the invocation that morning.
To the surprise of many, the guest invited to pray for the General Assembly was a Des Moines-area Muslim imam. The gesture was, in part, recognition of the election of Iowa’s first Muslim state legislator, who was from Des Moines. In fact, the state Capitol in Des Moines is located in this legislator’s district.
The imam brought the invocation, praying first in Arabic, and then translated the prayer into English for everyone to understand. The prayer was a traditional Muslim prayer.
To say the least, the imam and his prayer overshadowed all the other news coming out of Iowa’s Statehouse that day. A number of House members were upset, particularly those who either had a strong evangelical faith background, or as was the case of one member, who had two sons in the military with one soon to be deployed to Iraq.
On January 12 of this year, the same speaker of the Iowa House gaveled the 83rd General Assembly into session. Unlike two years ago, the speaker chose to be more inclusive and invited three individuals to share an opening prayer, including a Reformed Jewish rabbi, an African-American Baptist preacher, and my Muslim colleague who was re-elected to his second term as a state representative.
There was much less controversy over this invocation. However, just a few days before the start of this year’s legislative session, all 100 members of the Iowa House and all 50 members of the Iowa Senate received a letter from an official “atheist” association stating an opinion that the state of Iowa should no longer compensate guest pastors their $10 honorarium and mileage reimbursement. This practice, the association argued, is an inappropriate use of tax dollars in lean, economic times.
A CONTINUING DEBATE
I share this information only to illustrate from my personal experience how the issue of religion’s proper role in government continues to be debated throughout the United States. Undoubtedly you have your own local or state controversies over the infusion of religion in the public square.
“What is the proper role, if any, of religion in government?” This important debate will continue to energize some people and frustrate many others. It is a question I personally will wrestle with as I serve as a state legislator.
As important as that question is, a second question is equally important to me: “What is the proper role of religion or personal faith in the lives of those who serve in government?”
As a legislator with a vocational background as a Christian minister, I find this question extremely important. All state legislators would acknowledge that their personal commitment to public service originates in personal beliefs that flow out of their worldview. Many of these beliefs stem from a religious or faith perspective. They help shape a legislator’s views of government’s purpose and one’s personal conduct as a government official.
SHAPED BY SCRIPTURE
That is the case with me. My personal beliefs concerning government and public service are shaped by Scripture.
Perhaps no passage in the New Testament has shaped my thinking more than the apostle Paul’s words in Romans 13:1-7, which begins, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.”
Paul lays out a coherent, spiritually mature theology about the origin and importance of civil government, particularly in verses 1-4.
To begin with, civil government is an institution designed by God as a result of mankind’s fallen, sinful nature. It is distinct and separate from the church, but God’s design is that civil government administer justice. Paul does not spend time describing an “official” system of government that God has ordained (i.e., monarchy, democracy, or a system based on socialism or communism), but he does teach that the concept of civil government has its origin with God himself.
This theology then shapes the Christian’s attitude or thinking toward civil government. As Paul says, “It is necessary to submit to the authorities” (v. 5). In a democratic society such as ours we have the wonderful freedom to debate the scope and authority of government, but overall the Christian is to have a healthy respect for what God has ordained.
As I stated earlier, I believe Paul’s teaching establishes the universal principle that government exists to administer justice. In a fallen world God has ordained that government exists to “bring punishment on the wrongdoer” or lawbreaker (v. 4) and protect those who obey the law and live peaceably. The apostle Peter affirms this thinking in 1 Peter 2:13-17:
Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king.
This theology about government (vv. 1-4) and corresponding attitude (v. 5) then affects my actions or behavior toward civil government (see vv. 6 and 7).
A MEANINGFUL CONNECTION
Paul develops a very poignant correlation between the Christian’s understanding of civil government and the mission of the church in 1 Timothy 2:1-4:
I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth.
The apostle states that the Christian should actively engage in asking for God’s blessing upon those who serve in civil government. A stable and peaceable government, where those who govern are conscientious about their service, makes it possible for the church to effectively carry out its mission of sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the world. This truth has certainly been demonstrated in the history of the United States.
Other students of the Scriptures may have slightly different views of these highlighted passages in the New Testament, but as a person of Christian faith, I share them as a way to help explain my approach to public service. These verses have been a positive motivation in my life as I have sought to serve both the Lord and the people of Iowa as a lawmaker.
Rod Roberts serves as executive director with Christian Evangelistic Mission of Iowa and as an Iowa state legislator.