What Does the Bible Say About the Role of Government?

I love coffee. Who doesn’t, amIright? To be honest, I’m a tad suspicious of anyone who doesn’t love coffee. I mean, how can any person, if truly human, not love the deep, rich aromas and equally pleasant flavors of lovingly roasted coffee beans, ground and brewed gently, then poured into a delightfully entertaining Dilbert mug? It’s impossible.

But have you also noticed how we tend to make simple things, like coffee, extremely complicated. In my opinion, coffee is best straight up. No cream, no sugar, just black. Sure, adding cream and sugar isn’t too complicated, but have you noticed how complicated it gets – just how many words you have to use – when you order some coffee drink at Starbucks or another specialty place? It’s crazy. For instance, right now Starbucks has a seasonal drink called a “Milk Chocolate Melted Truffle Mocha.” That’s five words to describe one drink! But then you also have to specify what size you want … and to do so at Starbucks you have to know the lingo, so you end up ordering a “Venti Milk Chocolate Melted Truffle Mocha.” What’s that you say? Oh, you’re on a diet? Okay, order a “Venti Skinny Milk Chocolate Melted Truffle Mocha.” Wait, wah? It’s late and you don’t want to stay up all night? Okay, order a “Venti Skinny Half-caf Milk Chocolate Melted Truffle Mocha.” Oh, yeah? You don’t ingest sugar of any kind, huh? Well then, order a “Venti Sugar-free Skinny Half-caf Milk Chocolate Melted Truffle Mocha.” Huh? You’re not in the mood for a hot drink right now because you’re in a heat index of 105 degrees? Okay, order an “Iced Venti Sugar-free Skinny Half-caf Milk Chocolate Melted Truffle Mocha” (can you ice something and melt it too?). What now? Oh, you’re feeling a bit spicy, are ya? Well then, order an “Iced Venti Sugar-free Skinny Half-caf Milk Chocolate Melted Truffle Mocha with a dash of cinnamon and three pumps of vanilla.” *SIGH* But somehow I’m the one who raises eyebrows by ordering a “small, black coffee.”

Relating this to the topic for this post, I think we’ve done the same thing with government. We almost expect to be able to personalize what we get out of our local, state and national governments. We want our cities to provide perfect city-planning, clean parks, efficient refuse collection, and good schools, not to mention emergency response which is seconds away. We expect our county and state governments to provide well-maintained roads and to encourage commerce so that we all have jobs. And nowadays people demand that their federal government also provide social security, medicare, educational loans and perfect economic stability … and they don’t care how it’s all achieved. All of this means that we’ve made something which was supposed to be very simple into something much more complicated and all-encompassing than it should be.

I’m not saying that all of these things aren’t legitimate realms for government (though I would argue vehemently against many of them, or at least at what level they’re provided). But I can and will show that government, as it was intended by God, only has one mandate.

Let’s start with Romans 13. In that well-known chapter, we (Christians) are told by Paul that we should “be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God” (v1). When you factor in that Peter and Jesus say basically the same thing in 1 Peter 2:13f (“submit yourselves, for the Lord’s sake, to every authority”) and Mt 22:20f (“give to Caesar what is Caesar’s …”) respectively, submitting oneself to the government must be a very important thing to do.

With that in mind, let’s ask two questions: First, how far does our respect and service to an earthly institution go? And, second, what are the expectations of the individual in return?

How far should the respect and service of the Christian to the earthly institutions go?

To answer this question in a nutshell: pretty far actually. Since the term used by Paul is “be subject to,” there’s not a lot of wiggle room for the Christian to disobey the state. The word in Greek is hypotassestho (ύποτασσέσθω) which is translated consistently throughout the New Testament as either “subject to” or “submit to” in all of its 38 occurrences, often in regard to our submission to God. The thought could be expanded to something like a person accepting their position of lower rank or as the submission of a subordinate to a superior within an organizational structure.

Since this subordination could easily (though uncomfortably) understood using the rather draconian words of subjection and submission, it begins to sound a lot like the idea of slave and master – a relationship given rather extensive scrutiny in the New Testament (and which we’ll examine in a moment). To be honest, this isn’t far off from the truth (something which the Israelites were warned by God about, as we’ll see in a moment, in 1 Sam 8). If the definition of “slavery” is, “submission to a dominating influence,” then we are certainly slaves to the state simply because the state can force us to comply – at gunpoint or through incarceration – to any number of laws or payment of taxes. The Bible accepts this as necessary because there must be an earthly organization to act as an “agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Rom 8:4). If they then righteously bear the sword, and we are to submit ourselves to them for the sake of God, how can we argue that they not aim it at us when we violate their laws? Do you see how sticky this gets when the word “submit” or “be subject to” is used? We truly do end up being “slaves” to the state.

So then, what does the Bible tell slaves about their relationship with their masters? That can be answered with several verses. For instance:

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Ephesians 6:5

Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Colossians 3:22

All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered. 1 Timothy 6:1

Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God, our Savior, attractive. Titus 2:9f

We need to note a few key points here. First, the Roman world was replete with slavery. It was what made their entire economy and state function. Peoples who were conquered by Rome were slowly – sometimes over centuries – integrated into the empire, but generally begun as slaves either captured in war or sold into bondage as a payment for defying the might of Rome to begin with. Therefore slavery was something that simply had to be addressed by Paul and the other writers in the New Testament.

Second, though the four verses above are all from the instructions of Paul, the word for slave (Doulos [δούλος] is also translated as “servant” or “bond-servant”) and is used well over one hundred times in the New Testament. It’s used in all four of the Gospels, the history of the early church (Acts) the epistles of Paul, James and Peter, not to mention the Revelation of John. In other words, the fact that slaves and servants were, and are, and will be is a given in scripture. Now, I’m certain that you can – and should – make a wonderful case for the freedom of Christ being the impetus for the freedom of the individual from human bondage (slavery is a horrible and disgusting institution), the simple fact is that we are all slaves somewhere on the spectrum of servitude. If not to a taskmaster with a whip, we are certainly under the yoke of the lender or the supervisor/boss/employer, or, at the very least, the governmental authorities. And to consider this relationship anything less than master-servant is rather naïve.

But, thirdly, from the perspective of the government as master, it is also held responsible for the decisions, actions and judgments that it makes which affect their servants (the citizen). As Paul said (implicitly) in the book of Philemon, when he was writing to a slave owner on behalf of a runaway slave, the master is expected to show grace and mercy to his servants based on what he owes the Lord. If the Lord has established the government therefore, the government at the very least owes the Lord just action toward its servant citizens. Which brings us to the second question I posed …

What are the expectations of the individual from their government in return for their subjection?

This question can be answered by first realizing why God establishes governments in the first place (i.e. what is government’s purpose?). Fortunately for us, Paul answers that question as he continues from the verse we looked at earlier in Romans 13. He says that governing authorities have been established by God to “bear the sword” and bring punishment to wrongdoers (internally and externally). With this statement, we also see that Paul is inferring that the government will, if following God’s intention, impose and enforce impartial, objective and just laws. Said another way: government’s purpose is to uphold justice … nothing more, nothing less. Nowhere in scripture does it say that government’s purpose is to provide anything more than justice. Only justice. It’s not mandated to provide food … nor water … nor healthcare … nor education … nor protection from getting one’s feelings hurt.

Since we’ve slipped down that rabbit hole somewhat … let’s be clear about one very important thing: the Bible is explicit that the care of the needy is to be conducted by the family of that needy person. In the Bible, it’s not the nation’s government which takes care of them, nor the local government, nor the rich person in town, nor even primarily the church … it is the needy person’s family that is charged with that responsibility (see 1 Tim 5:8). Secondarily the responsibility falls to the church (1 Tim 5 also talks about caring for “widows indeed,” but note all of the requirements for a widow to become a “widow indeed” and to qualify for care from the church). But there is never a tertiary responsibility that is prescribed. We never see Jesus or Paul or Peter or anybody else say something to the effect of, “If a helpless person’s family and church cannot take care of him, then the authorities should force the local rich man to share what he has.” If this non-specific answer to the question of who takes over caring for the helpless seems harsh to you, then do something about it yourself. THAT’S Biblical! If you see someone who is helpless and destitute, then take care of their needs yourself. Don’t sluff off that spiritual responsibility onto a worldly institution. But realize that a spiritual problem cannot be solved by a physical response.

Still, even within the church of God, a lot of people make the assumption, probably colored by their experience in our current Western Culture, that the commandments to care for the poor in places like Exodus 22 and 23, Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15 were given to the nation of Israel as a political entity. But that is an assumption which is patently absurd in the context of the greater set of instructions in the Pentateuch. It is to the individual that God directs His commands to take care of the poor and needy, just as it is to the individual that He directs His commands to not lie, covet or steal.

Taking this thought a bit farther, there is not a single instruction in all of the Law which was given to an Israelite government. Do you want to know why? Because God, and God alone, was their government. Sure, He appointed Moses, and then Joshua, to lead the Israelites … but there wasn’t some bureaucratic retinue of scribes, lawyers, managers, and regulators following Moses and Joshua around. In fact, all we really see, leadership-wise, throughout their time was Miriam and Aaron helping Moses and … really no-one, apart from the elders of each tribe (more of a familial thing, than governmental), helping Joshua. And then you get into the period of the Judges where each tribe kind of did their own thing – with varying levels of effectiveness. It isn’t until Samuel’s time that the people started looking at the nations around them and thought, “We ought to have a king like everybody else!” To which God responded in 1 Samuel 8:10-18 (I’m obviously paraphrasing here), “Have it your way … but realize that this king you want so badly will take your sons and daughters to work for him. And he’ll take your best land for himself, and all of your best produce and flocks as well. Lastly, you yourselves will become his slaves. In fact, when you finally realize that you’ve made a mistake in crying out for a king, you’ll just have to live with it because I will not answer you in your frustration.” God was almost saying that this government thingy that Israel saw everybody else having … yeah, it ain’t what it’s cracked up to be.

With that in mind, it’s pretty clear that the instructions which God gave to his people, from the time of Adam all the way to the time when the Israelites “rejected [God]” and chose an earthly king, was for individual followers of Him. He may have spoken/acted through Moses or Joshua or Gideon, but there was an implicit “you” in the instructions – a finger pointed in the chest of every man, woman and child within Israel. Therefore, when God said in Leviticus 19:9f for landowners to leave some of the gleanings of their fields for the “poor and the foreigner,” he was saying it to individual people in His nation … not to Moses or some Land Czar that Moses appointed. Or when God told His people in Leviticus 25:35-38 to take care of their fellow Israelites when they are “unable to support themselves,” He wasn’t saying it to the Deputy Undersecretary of the Interior in Moses’ law-giver administration, he was saying it to individual people in His nation.

Instead of the government being tasked with taking care of the poor, it is instead told to provide righteous judgment. Look at Solomon’s appeal in Psalm 72. He prays that the Israelite King (politically-speaking) will “judge [the poor] with righteousness” (v.2). In Proverbs 31, King Lemuel’s words are, “It is not for kings to drink … and forget what has been decreed, and deprive all the oppressed of their rights. Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy” (vv. 4f, 8f). Also, we are told in a prophecy about the coming Messiah (regarding His Kingship aspect – the “branch of Jesse”) in Isaiah 11 that He will judge the needy with righteousness (v.4). In other words, righteous judgment is what should be given by those in power to the poor and destitute, not handouts.

As an aside, it’s a little telling that the only things which God seems to say directly to the political entity of Israel are rather wrathful. One after another, the prophets were sent to Israel, using words like “detestable,” “worthless,” “unjust,” and “adulterous” – along with a good many other unflattering words, all of which were deserved by the nation of Israel. Indeed, the words of God to the collective nation seemed very rarely to bring anything but judgment. Sure, most of these woes and judgments from the mouths of prophets came at times when the leadership of Israel persisted in unrighteousness, but the same words could just as easily have been pronounced everyday on individuals within the nation.

Accordingly … what should a Christian expect from his government in return for the Christian’s respect and submission? Justice. That is all that the government has been established by God to provide. Justice. Anything more is a usurpation of roles. Justice. In fact, it’s even debatable whether the person/group authorized with a particular mandate (such as caring for the needy) can rightly cede that responsibility to another. I would argue that the act of ceding one’s responsibility to another would itself necessarily undermine God’s will, and would therefore be wrong. Meaning, it’s not right for the government to usurp a responsibility held by the individual, the family OR the church, nor is it right for the individual, family or church to cede it’s responsibility to anyone else.

What does the Bible say about the role of government, then? It says that it has a clear and limited mandate: to act justly. So then, what is “justice?” Is it just to treat some people one way, and other people another way? Is it just to have laws which apply to some and not to others? Is it just for some to pay fines while others do not for the same act? Is it just to give some people special dispensation without extending it to all? Is it just to tax some people at a higher rate than other people? Is it just to take from one person in order to give to another person? In fact, is it even just to exceed the limited mandate of “bearing the sword?”

“Okay, Doug,” you reply with a wry smile on your face, “so how much of this is applicable to the way things actually are?” Good question. I’m glad that you asked (though, I suppose that since I’m writing this, you didn’t really have a choice).

Firstly, we must all admit that there are LOTS of things in this life to which you can point and say, “That’s not ideal,” but to which you still might subscribe as a step in the right direction. For instance, the fact that abortion is legal is a horribly disgusting blight on the integrity of our nation. I pray for the day when it is made illegal and looked upon by the citizens of this nation as the repugnant slaughter of innocents that it is. But, that being said, I realize that it will take time to bring this nation to that level of sensibility on that subject. Therefore I might, for now, simply advocate for no federal funds being used to prop up entities whose primary purpose is abortion or abortion-related “services” – viewing each step away from the unadulterated celebration of mass infanticide as a good thing. Obviously, all major change must be incremental. In the same way, since it took decades for the United States to get to this current level of massive governmental overreach, it will take decades to about face and walk it to the place where God intended it to be. All of which means, that I will keep advocating for decreasing the scope of government with the end goal being God’s limited mandate … even though I know we’ll never get there.

Secondly, regardless of the possibility of reaching a perfect end-state, someone who is dedicated to a set of ideals will never waver in them without undermining the source of those ideals. In other words, I’m dedicated to God … so I must be dedicated to what He wants. If He wants the lives of the innocent to be celebrated and respected as pure and sanctified, who am I to argue for another ideal? If He wants His people to work hard and to care for their families, who am I to either shirk that responsibility myself or encourage another to shirk their responsibility, OR to advocate for another person or group to take that responsibility from me or anyone else? If He wants government to be limited to the establishment and application of justice, who am I to argue for my own interpretation of what justice is? As soon as I make any of those arguments, I begin undermining the very foundational idea of God’s sovereignty.

Finally, while we live in the intervening years between the creation and God’s final reinstatement of what He intended before we brought sin into this world, we are to follow the example of Daniel in our relationship with our government. When it comes down to it, the only differences between Babylon in Daniel’s day and the United States today are only in matter of degree, not type. It’s not as if the American government is what one would call “righteous” nowadays (if it ever was). Babylon was, and the U.S. is, intensely secular, if not entirely pagan. Babylon was, and the U.S. is, hostile to some of God’s decrees. Babylon was, and the U.S. is, not even acting according to their foundational purpose as established by God (i.e. to uphold justice). Therefore, if Daniel, living in Babylon, faithfully executed his duties to the court of that unrighteous king, then we must also offer our necessary service to the government and authorities which have been placed over us; established, as they are, by God. However, just as Daniel did not consider the decrees of an earthly king to usurp the decrees of God – nor the worship of Him, we are not to break or undermine the laws of God when our nation’s leadership takes us into the realm of the unrighteous. There is a place for civil disobedience, but it seems to be limited to the place where our submission to the authorities will either cause us to sin, cause us to endorse sin or causes us to make others sin.

So … what does the Bible say about the role of government? To be honest, it says very little – specifically at least. But there are Biblical principles which certainly must be taken into account; and, what the Bible DOES say regarding government is very clear and confining. Specifically it states the government’s role is to bear the sword of judgment and to bear it justly (read: equally and without partiality). Beyond that, government is overreaching. Regardless of what a lot of Christians BELIEVE the Bible to say about the subject, the care of the widow, orphan and the incapable falls first on his/her family, then on the church. Nowhere is government mandated with the job. Shame on us as Christians, first, that the argument should have ever HAD to be made regarding who would care for them because we shirked that responsibility; and shame on us as Christians, second, that we ever argued that it was SOMEONE ELSE’S responsibility. The command is clear that we care for others, but nowhere in that command is it pushed onto those who don’t even recognize God’s authority in their lives. In fact, it’s kind of sick of us Christians to make the case that other peoples’ money and possessions should be forcibly taken by our unrighteous government to be given to people for whom we ought to be caring!

Now we could continue talking about this subject for much longer; as a matter of fact, this post is already much longer than I intended it to be. We could talk about specifics, like: should the government pay for roads or parks or schools or libraries, or even fire departments and emergency services. After all, none of those quite fit the mandate of “maintaining justice.” But I’ll leave it where I did in the last paragraph. “That government is best which governs least” after all … maybe because God designed it that way? Or maybe because God understands human nature better than we do; realizing that we tend to tread on others with what power we are given?

This one thing I know though, God is the true sovereign, and all kings and dominions and persons under heaven must one day bow to Him and answer for the actions and inactions they have taken. I, for one, do not want to cede MY mandate then to a godless and immoral entity like the United States government.

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