The Bible describes at least four types of earthly government: self, family, church, and state. Personal government (Romans 2:15) entails the human conscience and self-discipline. Refusing to break your diet over a slice of chocolate pie is an exercise in personal governance. Familial government (Ephesians 6:1-4) entails the covenant of marriage and any children begotten of that covenant. Forbidding your son the right to play until he cleans his room is an exercise in familial governance. Ecclesial government (Matthew 16:19) entails the officers and congregational will of a local church. Casting a vote to affirm a new candidate for church membership is an exercise in ecclesial governance. Civil government (Romans 13:1-7) entails the legislative leaders of a community, their enforcing arms (police and armed forces), and any democratic functions the general populace participates in (e.g. voting). A senate body passing legislation for the creation of a new highway is an exercise in civil governance.

With these multiple types of government come multiple realms of responsibility. No one type of government possesses absolute authority over all areas of life. Therefore, it is vital for us to understand a particular government’s realm of responsibility (i.e. the reason it exists). In this article, we will focus on civil government and what purposes God intends for it.

A Biblical Theology of Civil Government

There are two points about civil government which need to be expressed. Everything else falls inside these points. First,civil government is ordained by God. This ordination is not God’s eternal decree, whereby He ordains all things which come to pass. To say that civil government is ordained by God is to say that it is an institution which God wants in the world, at least until He says otherwise, If civil government is ordained by God, then anarchism and absolute libertarianism are unbiblical options. Second, civil government wields the sword of justice. Positively, civil government must protect rights, which brings peace to law-abiding citizens. Negatively, civil government must punish crimes, which brings terror to law-breaking citizens. These two things are accomplished through the enforcement of laws, which by definition requires both legislation and force.

Civil government exists by God’s design and for wielding the sword of justice. Scripture testifies to this. God expects rulers to “pronounce just decisions” and “judge people fairly” (Psalm 58:1 NET). Kings are to judge rich and poor with righteousness (72:2). The weak should be safe and the oppressor crushed under the dominion of a good king (v.4). To unfaithful civil magistrates God says, “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked” (82:2-4). The Psalmist, in the above verses, presents what God expects of civil magistrates: that they would maintain justice in their respective dominions.

In Proverbs we read, “If a king faithfully judges the poor, his throne will be established forever” (29:14). “It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, or for rulers to take strong drink, lest they drink and forget what has been decreed and pervert the rights of all the afflicted” (31:4-5). There are rights intrinsic to all people (i.e. human rights). Civil government is responsible for protecting these rights (e.g. Genesis 9:6). Civil magistrates who understand and execute this mandate will prosper their citizens. “When justice is done, it is a joy to the righteous and terror to evildoers” (21:15).

In the Prophets, we read that civil government has failed when “the land is full of bloody crimes and the city is full of violence” (Ezekiel 7:23). Civil magistrates are to “put away violence and oppression, and execute justice and righteousness” (45:9a). Ruling justly is an issue of personal morality for all civil magistrates, as Daniel told Nebuchadnezzar: “Therefore, O king, let my counsel be acceptable to you: break off your sins by practicing righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed, that there may perhaps be a lengthening of your prosperity” (Daniel 4:26).

These Old Testament principles are reiterated in the New Testament. Paul wrote:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.

Romans 13:1-7

Peter held a similar view of civil government: “By subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Peter 2:13-14). It is clear that the transition of ages, from Old to New Covenant, did not alter what civil government’s responsibilities. From Genesis to Revelation, God gives civil government authority to uphold righteousness. It is ordained by God and bestowed with the sword of justice. This sword is for carrying out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer and is not wielded in vain (Romans 13:4). The sword is for punishing those who do evil (1 Peter 2:14).

Functions Civil Government Should Not Perform

There are many duties which people assume civil government should perform, for which God has never designed civil government. These assumptions are answered by a regulative principle of Biblical exegesis. A regulative exegetical principle says that what God has spoken marks the boundaries of what must be done. His commands regulate our behavior by identifying the precise path that must be taken. So by understanding the purposes for which God has designed civil government, we can also identify the purposes for which God has not designed it. This is an important principle to possess in our Bible interpretation tool belt, because inevitably someone is going to start arguing for socialism by asserting, “The Bible never says it’s wrong.” Scripture answers this question by stating why civil government exists. Anything not included in these statements of purpose are deviations from God’s plan.

First, civil government’s divinely bestowed authority is not for the purpose of providing. Kings are admonished to rule justly over the poor (e.g. Proverbs 29:14), but they are never commanded to enrich the poor. Civil government must “maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute” (Psalm 82:3), but this does not mean providing wealth to theafflicted and the destitute. Protecting human rights does not involve charity, it involves sentry-duty. All Biblical admonitions to civil magistrates demonstrate this distinction.

This is particularly relevant for healthcare debates. Many people believe that civil government should provide medical care to citizens, because proper medical care is a human right. The problem with this argument is not that medical care is not a human right – it most certainly is a human right. The problem lies in the assumption of what constitutes the responsibility of civil government. Civil government wields the sword because it is responsible for protecting your human right to good and necessary healthcare, but protecting that right does not include providing the substance to which you have a right. Civil government clears the path to health, but it should not carry you along the path. Civil government takes care of the thugs who are on the roadway to wealth, but it should not drag you down the road. The sword is not for providing.

Second, civil government’s divinely bestowed authority is not for the purpose of converting. Civil and ecclesial governments hold distinct responsibilities, which means they have different realms of authority. A king wields the sword of justice, which means he does not have the authority to collect monthly congregational tithes. A pastor wields the shepherd’s staff (stewardship over Christ’s sheep), which means he does not have the authority to sentence a man to death for committing murder. In sum, the civil magistrates should not be using the sword of justice to enforce a practice of faith in Christ. The Crusades are an example of this error.

Third, civil government’s divinely bestowed authority is not for the purpose of pillaging. By God’s will, civil government is to hold and exercise power, but this power is for the purpose of promoting righteousness. Before law-abiding citizens, civil government should be meek and lowly. Sometimes it is difficult to discern between permissible acts and pillaging. Taxes, for example, are necessary in principle yet oppressive in excess. Where is the line between righteous taxation and theft? I do not have an answer – except to clarify that there is a line, where ever it is.

Fourth, civil government’s divinely bestowed authority is not for the purpose of secularizing. “Separation of Church and State” is good, if we are talking about a separation of governmental responsibilities (between civil and ecclesial; see point 2). However, this does not mean God’s law and wisdom have no place in civil government. To the contrary, Scripture is humanity’s standard revelation of morality, and it should be consulted by all civil magistrates. Therefore, civil government does not wield the sword of justice in order to act as if Jesus is not Lord of all the earth. Some people believe there are only two options: use the sword to convert or to secularize. We believe there is at least a third, middle option: civil magistrates should use the sword to protect freedom of religion, while confessing the Lordship of Christ.

Christian Duty to Civil Government

Because civil government is ordained by God, Christians have certain duties to perform in relation to it. First, Christians are to submit to civil government. If civil magistrates demand taxes, we are to pay them: “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). If civil magistrates find us guilty of crimes, we are to subject ourselves to the appropriate punishments, as Paul was willing to die before Festus: “If then I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death” (Acts 25:11). One of the defining marks of a Christian is that he knows how to “be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution” (1 Peter 2:13). “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1).

“What if the government is oppressive?” The Roman government proved to be intolerant of Christianity, harshly persecuting the church for many decades during and after the New Testament was written. To that kind of government especially, God says, “Be subject” (Romans 13:1; 1 Peter 2:13). Oppression does not vindicate lawlessness. If one has an opportunity to leave an oppressive government for a more righteous administration, then he should take this opportunity. Otherwise, submission should be observed.

“What if the government demands I stop following Christ?” If any authority – whether king or senate, apostle or angel – demands that you sin against God, you must refuse. All forms of government are stewards over their respective responsibilities. Christ alone has all authority in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:18). Civil magistrates have authority only “from God” (Romans 13:1). Therefore, if civil government demands that you sin, your response should be that of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego: “Be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up” (Daniel 3:18).

Second, Christians are to pray for civil magistrates. Paul wrote to Timothy, “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Timothy 2:1-2). First of all, we are commanded to make all manner of prayers, including thanksgivings. We are to thank God for our civil magistrates. Second of all, such prayers are to be made for all people. In context, this means all kinds of people: rich and poor, rulers and beggars. Paul especially has in mind kings and all who are in high positions.

Third of all, such prayers are sanctifying, for when we do so for all people, we appropriate peaceful and quietliving for ourselves. Godliness and dignity, in every way, become characteristics of our life. This implies that refusing to pray for all people, especially civil magistrates, embitters our soul to sin in ways we may not comprehend. Therefore, part of a Christian’s duty to civil government is to pray for civil leaders. Such a life of prayer “is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior” (v.3).

Third, Christians are to depend on God for final justice. Confessing that God has ordained civil government does not mean we are blind to its limitations. While civil government is responsible for promoting justice, it can never administer perfect justice. Solomon recognized this: “Moreover, I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, even there was wickedness, and in the place of righteousness, even there was wickedness” (Ecclesiastes 3:16). There will never be a perfect administration of justice on earth apart from direct rule by Jesus Christ. Civil magistrates must rule in righteousness, but ultimate judgment belongs to God. “I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter and for every work” (v.17). “Many seek the face of a ruler, but it is from the Lord that a man gets justice” (Proverbs 29:26).

Knowing that God will one day exercise perfect, immediate judgment upon evil gives us liberty to trust earthly governments. Even in a wholesome exercise of civil government, criminals sometimes get away. This is particularly evident in the principle of “Innocent until Proven Guilty,” which states that an accusation must be verified by multiple witnesses/corroborated testimony (Deuteronomy 19:15-21). If we assume a man is innocent until we have proof that he is guilty, then what happens when sufficient evidence is never available for true offenders? They go free. To the unbeliever, this is atrocious, because true justice is never served. To the believer, this is not a problem, because what escapes the courts of man is seen by the eyes of God. From the court of Heaven, no criminal escapes.

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