Government is established. It does not derive its authority to exist from philosophy or human reasoning, but from God. Ruling authority, or government, exists as a principle established by God, and in actual existence as ordained by God (Romans 13:1-2).[i] Government is limited. Human government is temporal, not eternal. It is restraining, but not redemptive. God is sovereign over kings, rulers, governments. He installs and deposes (Psalm 75:7; Daniel 2:21). Human government, therefore, has authority derived from God, and limited by God (John 19:10-11).
The New Testament does not provide an exhaustive treatment of the subject of government. It lays down principles.[ii] However, the principles laid down all too often are not the primary points of discussion for the addressing the concept or specifics of governing. God established government; God limited government. Working from the broad principles, we may further examine the Bible for details on its expected and intended operation. Let us consider the following New Testament passages.
1. Church and state are unique, separate, and operate in different spheres (though the different spheres will bring them in contact, concord, and conflict with one another).
Matthew 22:21 They say unto him, Cæsar’s. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Cæsar the things which are Cæsar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s. (See also Mark 12:17 and Luke 20:25.)
Answering the Pharisees’ treacherous question, Jesus laid down the principle of government operating within its sphere of authority, under God. Those operating in “Cæsar’s” realm owe certain allegiance to “Cæsar.” This “image and superscription” on Cæsar’s coin was a visual way of demonstrating the practical reality of Cæsar’s rule. “But the words that followed raised the discussion into a higher region, and asserted implicitly that that admission did not interfere with the true spiritual freedom of the people, or with their religious duties.”[iii] Followers of God should act as law-abiding citizens of the Roman Empire. Pay your tax to Caesar; the image and superscription demonstrate it is his and within his realm of authority. Give God your life, your allegiance, your love. These do not belong to government.
2. The sphere of the state protects rights and punishes wrongs.
Romans 13:3-5 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: for he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.
1 Peter 2:13-14 Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well.
Human government is ordained to protect the rights of the governed and punish those who violate the rights of the governed. In civics these are often described as “negative rights” – that is, “The negative role of government involves protecting a citizen in his or her own pursuit of something legitimate.”[iv] These biblical texts establish a “negative role” as government’s primary sphere. The focus is on punishing or executing wrath upon the evildoers, while providing an atmosphere for and praising of good behavior.[v] Those who are evil may be encouraged to respect the rights of others because they fear the “sword” or “wrath” of the governing authority. Government should be a neutral judge and guardian of its governed, providing equal access to all to these “negative” benefits. The rulers should be God’s ministers – that is, servants – of justice for all.
3. The function of the state provides order and stability.
1 Timothy 2:1-2 I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; for kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.
Government should serve the common good – not just the good of the governors, but also the good of the governed. The governed pray and intercede for the governors. Good government provides law, order, and stability in place of anarchy.[vi] Christians pray for leaders to succeed in providing these. When the government is functioning properly, the governed are able to live “a quiet and peaceable life” without fear and looking over their shoulders. In the order and peace provided, there is a place where judgment is accorded[vii] and good is encouraged and rewarded. At its best good government appreciates human dignity (that man is created in God’s image, Genesis 1:27) and acknowledges human depravity (that all men are sinners, Romans 3:23).
4. The response of the church/Christian is submitting to good citizenship.
Romans 13:5 Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.
Titus 3:1 Put them in mind to be subject to principalities and powers, to obey magistrates, to be ready to every good work,
1 Peter 2:13 Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake:
“Submit” and “be subject” are acts of volition. The Christian, in obedience to God, submits to his established authority, human government. The Christian “seeks the peace of the city” where he dwells (cf. Jeremiah 29:7) and the good of his neighbor (Romans 15:2). The submission to authority is “for conscience sake.” The submission is voluntary but not absolute. It is submission to the governing authorities in their sphere and function. Absolute submission belongs only to God. The use of “submit” and “be subject” in these verses implies that the governed may have reason to disobey the government.[viii] See Acts 5:29, where Peter admonished the Jewish authorities whose command circumvented God’s command – “Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men.” Paul wrote, “but he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God” (Romans 2:29). Government should deal with matters of conduct, not matters of the heart. We must render to God the things that are God’s. Government cannot command the allegiance of the heart.
[ii] On the other hand, the Old Testament is clear about the establishment of one particular theocracy – Israel – in which God is the giver of law and head of government. This establishment, however, is only for the covenant people of Israel and not applicable to principles to government for all times and places. Nevertheless, there are principles and lessons to glean from the Old Testament concerning government. For example, the prophet Amos condemns the transgressions of the nations of Damascus, Gaza, Tyrus, Edom, Ammon, and Moab before turning his sights on Judah and Israel (Amos chapters 1 and 2). These nations and their rulers – though pagan – were responsible before God for not fulfilling as well as abusing their ruling authority.
[v] In contrast, the idea of the “positive role” of government focuses on providing goods and services to the governed – such as healthcare or welfare.
[vi] The opposite of governance is anarchy – confusion and disorder; a state of society without government or law; political and social disorder due to the absence of governmental control.
[vii] settled; reconciled.
[viii] Sometimes the Christians supports his government; sometimes he endures it. Unfortunately, at times he must disobey it. At all times the Christian should pray for his government.