Christopher J. H. Wright on Christians serving in government

Returning to Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles, that first phrase demands a closer look: “Seek the salom of the city to which I have carried you” (Jer. 29:7a). Salom, as is well known, is a wonderfully broad word. It goes beyond peace as the absence of conflict or war, to all-around welfare or well-being. It speaks of wholeness of life and the kind of prospering that the Old Testament included in the blessing of God as the fruit of covenant faithfulness.

It really is remarkable that Jeremiah urges the exiles to seek such blessing for their Babylonian neighbors.

“But they are our enemies!”

“So what? Pray for them. Seek their welfare.”

It is a short step from this amazing instruction that Jeremiah gave the exiles to the equally jaw-dropping mission that Jesus lays on his disciples: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44).

It must have been such advice that created the freedom that Daniel and his friends felt to settle down in Babylon and accept jobs in its government service. And their position in such office was clearly not “just a job”. Nor are we told that it was some form of “tent-making” to help them earn a living while they held Bible studies in the office or evangelistic meetings in their homes. For all I know, they may have done that–they made no secret of their faith, as the rest of the stories show.

But what the text emphasizes is that they were first-class students, model citizens and hard-working civil servants, and they were distinguished for trustworthiness and integrity. Even the king recognized that his own interests were being served by such people. The “welfare of the city” was what they pursued, as Jeremiah said they should. And in doing so for a lifetime, opportunities to bear witness to the God they served, and to his moral demands, judgment and mercy, came along at key points–one in each of the first six chapters in fact.

Coming to the New Testament, there is one person who probably held high civic office and was also a Christian believer–and that is Erastus.

Erastus was one of Paul’s helpers in his church planting ministry (Acts 19:22), but when Paul wrote his letter to Rome from Corinth, Erastus is included in the closing greetings, where he describes himself as “the city’s director of public works” (Rom. 16:23). The phrase strongly suggests that Erastus held the post of aedile in this important Roman city, a political office in the Roman administration that carried major responsibilities, requiring considerable personal wealth and a strong civic generosity.

Serving God and serving the community in public office were by no means incompatible. In fact, such public service and benefaction were part of what Paul strongly encouraged Christians to engage in, through his repeated emphasis that they should “do good”–a single verb (agathopoein) that had exactly that technical meaning in the Roman empire: public service as a civic benefactor.

Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission, 232-234.

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