Thursday, October 15, 2020

The Role of Government

I have previously written at some length on the biblical view of government HERE. With the current climate, discussions and counter-discussions, I decided to make some more comments (probably much the same).

As Christians, first and foremost we must find our view of what government is and ought to be within the lids of the Holy Bible. As Americans, we expect our government to operate within the framework of our founding document, the Constitution. As Christians who are also Americans, we may express our right to address areas in our government’s laws and actions that we believe fall short of the biblical ideal.[i]

Primarily we look to the principles taught in the New Testament to develop a biblical worldview of government. We also look into the Old Testament for universal moral principles. However, since Israel was a theocracy under specific covenant and laws given by God, we do not look to its situation as parallel to the relationship of church and state among non-covenant nations in either the Old or New Testaments or in the time in which we now live. Also instructive are the messages of Old Testament prophets to pagan rulers and non-covenant nations about their obligations. These rulers and nations should function under God’s principles function. The New Testament does not detail a specific form of government, but following its guidelines, we can develop a form of government that “punishes the evil and rewards the good.” This “ideal” government’s role is “negative” more than “positive.”[ii] The most relevant passages in the New Testament, though not the only ones, are Matthew 22:17-21, Romans 13:1-7, 1 Timothy 2:1-2, and 1 Peter 2:13-14.

Romans 13:1-7

“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. 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. For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.”

Government punishes the evildoer. It is a “minister of God to thee for good…a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” Before Romans 13, Paul admonishes, “avenge not yourselves,” (as much as possible) “live peaceably with all men,” and give place unto wrath.” This is possible under a stable government system. Ultimately, God will right all wrongs, but in the now, government is one of his tools for accomplishing this. Restraining wrong and punishing bad behavior is primarily a “negative” role for government. The passage, though some might wish otherwise, does not constrain the government to give goods to its citizens, but to praise good by creating an environment in which good rather than evil is cherished and can flourish. Commenting on “praise” in verse 3, John Murray writes:

The praise given by the magistrate is not a reward in the proper sense of the term…The praise could be expressed by saying that good behaviour secures good standing in the state, a status to be cherished and cultivated.[iii]

Government fills a “negative role” by punishing evil, and a “positive role” by promoting good.

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.”

Prayers for secular authorities recognize their legitimacy before God. Governmental authority provides the framework for people to live together peaceably. Prayers for secular authorities recognize the role of law in promoting safety and security. Safety and security – leading a quiet and peaceable life – promotes godliness and honesty by allowing us to better pursue them.

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.”

Peter here echoes and agrees with the principles in Romans 13. Government fills a “negative role” by punishing evil, and a “positive role” by promoting good. Submission to the proper role of government equals submission to God, for the “are sent by him.” Government “gives praise” to those who do well, by securing their good standing in the state. Government should primarily protect God-given rights so that citizens may “do” rather than creating “rights” by doing for its citizens.

Matthew 22:17-21

“Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Cæsar, or not? But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites? Shew me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? 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.”

Jesus identifies the role of government as legitimate, yet limited. Government has a God-given role. Its citizens, including Christians, should support its role. Its role is limited to “the things which are” the government’s.[iv] Ultimate allegiance belongs to God and not government.

Christians subject themselves to authority, recognizing it as an intrinsic good. God establishes the principle of government. Authority is better than anarchy. The state provides order and stability by protecting rights and punishing wrongs. God is the highest authority, and allegiance to him supersedes allegiance to worldly powers (Acts 5:29).

“We ought to obey God rather than men.”

[i] As well as the Constitutional ideal.
[ii] Negative rights and positive rights in political parlance are rights that oblige either no action (negative rights) or action (positive rights). In laymen’s terms, negative rights are rights to be left alone by government (i.e., to think, say, and do, what we wish as long as our behavior does not harm others. Positive rights are rights to get things from the government, such as education, health care, etc.
[iii] The Epistle to the Romans, Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997, p. 151.
[iv] As Christians, we base the theory of what government should be on the teachings of the Bible. As Americans, we further base what government should be on the framework of the Constitution.

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