July 13 – The Role of Government

July 13 – The Role of Government

Romans 13:1

“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)

The strongest evidence for human government being an institution ordained of God is found in the New Testament rather than in the Old. To be sure, Israel was established as a human government, and the prophets certainly hold all human governments accountable to God’s law, but it takes some strong imagination to make Genesis 9:1-6, for example, evidence of God’s establishing human government in the abstract or in some particular form, as some have attempted. But human government as a divine ordinance is clearly affirmed in Scripture:

“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.” What are the purposes of government?

Restraining Evil. According to the most extensive passage on government (Rom. 13), the purpose of human government is to restrain evil, especially in protecting the citizens. Human sin created the acute need for coercive civil government.

Most people have preferred human government to none, but since rulers have seldom been content with the minimum authority necessary to protect the rights of the citizenry, government has tended to expand to increasingly control the lives of citizens. For this reason some have held that no government was preferable. Those who oppose the idea of human government on ideological grounds are concerned with liberty. But desirable as total liberty may seem to be, in a society made up of sin-prone, selfish people, coercion seems the only way to keep some people from harming others.

Promoting Human Welfare. A minimal amount of government could conceivably achieve protection, but when the purpose of “promoting the welfare” is introduced, the potential for expanding government seems limitless. For this reason some hold that the only legitimate role of government is to protect citizens from injustice, especially since this is the only role ascribed to government in the classic passages, Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2. But the only government superintended directly by God — ancient Israel — certainly established law for the promotion of the welfare of the citizens.

Furthermore, the biblical principle of neighbor-love would seem to demand such activity, especially in the twentieth century with states too large and complex for private charity to adequately meet human need. Nevertheless, the primary purpose remains the role of guaranteeing justice, protecting people from malicious harm. Most contemporaries value freedom of personal choice so highly that any governmental restrictions beyond the minimal needed for protection of human rights is resisted in situations where resistance is a viable option. When government expands, either to control evil or to promote human welfare, it does so at the expense of human freedom.

Providing Freedom. The Bible has much to say about freedom, but not about political freedom. It speaks of freedom from sin (Rom. 6:14-23); from the power of darkness (Col. 1:13); from bondage to Satan (John 12:30-33); from the Mosaic law (Rom. 7:6; Gal. 2:4; 4:5, 21; 5:1); and from bondage to death (Rom. 8:21-23). There is a glorious freedom in Christ (John 8:32, 36); for where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom (1 Cor. 3:17). Biblical freedom is spiritual, not a general, absolute, abstract, philosophical concept, but freedom from something very specific: freedom from sin.

No one is free in any ultimate sense, then. He may be free, for the time being, from the authority of God’s law, but this means he is a slave of sin. On the other hand, if Christ has set him free from the penalty and authority of sin, this is only because he has chosen to put himself completely under the authority of Christ. Every person’s freedom to do what he pleases is drastically limited by his finitude, his sin, and the circumstances of life that are beyond his control. So freedom is relative. When we speak of freedom or liberty, we should always define it, qualify it: What sort of freedom? Freedom from what?

Spiritual freedom, for example, is not license to do what I please, but ability to do what I ought. In the political realm, also, liberty is not an absolute, God-ordained right. Freedom cannot be absolute, for my freedom to do as I please will sooner or later run into your freedom to do as you please. No two people could possibly have absolute freedom simultaneously unless they perfectly willed the other’s good, and that, in a fallen world, is not a possibility. If by “freedom of choice” we mean that people should be allowed to use their free will to make either an ethical or an unethical decision, without suffering for choosing unethically, we are engaged in an absurdity that, if carried to its logical conclusion, would put an end to public law.[49]

Nevertheless, we advocate personal freedom of choice to the extent possible in a just society. Though the Bible is not strong in emphasizing it, when God himself intervenes in human affairs, it is to set the captives free from Egyptian bondage and, indeed, through the Messiah to break the bonds of all injustice and set the captives free (Isa. 61:1; Luke 4:18).

If the case for political freedom is not strong in explicit biblical teaching, it certainly can be strongly advocated on the basis of the principles of Scripture. For example, the Bible teaches clearly that a person’s first responsibility is to God; yet in feudalistic or totalitarian society one’s freedom is often restricted to such an extent that he cannot follow his conscience in fulfilling that responsibility. Furthermore, God created each individual on purpose, and a measure of freedom is necessary to fulfill that purpose. Political freedom enables a citizen to discharge his primary responsibility in life, which is to God, not the state.

Perhaps the strongest reason for advocating maximum political freedom is the nature of man. Man is a sinner, and this includes all human authorities. In such a sin-filled society a check is needed so that human authorities do not misuse that authority for personal or partisan benefit or begin to arrogate to themselves godlike prerogatives of unbounded authority. Therefore, governmental authority must have limits. [50]

What does this mean for us? We advocate personal freedom of choice to the extent possible in a just society. Ponder who gets to decide. Who decides about life? Work? Safety? Provision? Conscience? Purpose? Well-being? Do my desires override another’s? Freedom cannot be absolute, for my freedom to do as I please will sooner or later run into your freedom to do as you please. May we be wise! May we participate in government to the extent possible. May we yield to the governing authorities…..

[49] Harold O. J. Brown, “The Passivity of American Christians,” Christianity Today, 16 January 1976, 8.

[50] IBE (2014), 55-57.

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