The Bible sees government as an institution established by God (Genesis 9:6; Romans 13). The government’s primary goal is to promote justice for its citizens – protecting the innocent from the aggressor and the lawless. Without security, every other function of government (such as protecting life, liberty, property, reputation) is meaningless.
As Christians we must recognise government as an institution whose rulers have a sacred responsibility to serve for the good of the people. Paul wrote: ‘Everyone must submit to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established’ (Romans 13:1) and ‘For government is God’s servant working for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid. The government does not bear the sword for no reason. It is God’s servant, an avenger to execute God’s anger on anyone who does what is wrong’ (v4).
Ideally the state is to practise godly justice and commands us to obey its rules and laws. Peter instructs: ‘Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men, whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right’ (1 Peter 2:13–14).
As long as government is serving the purpose for which God created it, we must show our allegiance to God by submitting to human government.
Limited government responsibilities
However, the government has only limited responsibilities. Indeed, we should expect the state to accomplish limited, God-ordained tasks. Its two primary roles are to protect the innocent and punish the guilty (Romans 13:3–4).
Government should adhere to the principle ‘Let all things be done decently and in order’ (See, for example, Exodus 18:19f) because order reflects God’s character.
We know that power tends to corrupt, so a government that disperses power is better than one that gathers power into the hands of a few.
A constitutional form of government is more likely to conform to biblical principles and respond to its citizens than are less democratic forms.
The quote (left) by academic scholar Noah Webster (1758 – 1843) is still very relevant as are the 500 year-old words of John Wycliffe: ‘This Bible is for the government of the people, for the people and by the people.’ In other words, he was emphasising that the word of God should be the controlling principle and not people themselves.
One significant aspect of Australia’s constitutional framework that conforms to biblical ideals is the division of power into three branches – executive, legislative, and judicial – along with its system of checks and balances.
Although we are created in God’s image and likeness, we nevertheless have a fallen, sinful nature. Western founding fathers understood these opposing aspects of our nature; they tailored a government suited to our rightful place in God’s creative order.
But founding fathers also grappled with the problem of protecting ordinary citizens from the sinful inclinations of those in authority. The result of their efforts is our system of checks and balances among the branches of government.
By broadly distributing power and responsibility, a constitutional system of government minimises the possibility of abuse of power because of our fallen nature.
The purpose of government according to biblical justice
According to the biblical worldview, human government was instituted by God to protect our unalienable rights from our own selfish tendencies (Genesis 9:6; Romans 13:1–7).
Human nature is capable of both vice and virtue. We know our tendency to infringe on our neighbour’s rights in an effort to improve our own life. Therefore, we know government and political systems must exist to protect our rights and to keep our evil tendencies at bay. Justice is rendering to each his/her due according to a right standard.
Christians see justice as the principal reason for the state’s existence. The right standard for justice is God’s moral law, which is based on the very character of God. This eternal and fixed standard insists that the innocent must always be protected from evil – rapists, murderers, child molesters, thieves, liars, drug runners, sex traffickers, dishonest tax collectors, adulterers and the like.
The state, therefore, has limited responsibility and it should allow other God-ordained institutions (the family, church and such) the freedom to perform their roles as well.
Sovereignty apart from God
Trusting too much on the state or state authorities, rather than God, inevitably results in government oppression and abuse of power.
William Penn (founder of Pennsylvania) stated: ‘If we are not governed by God, then we will be ruled by tyrants’ (Francis A. Schaeffer, A Christian Manifesto 1982, p34).
‘Excise belief in God and you are left with only two principals: the individual and the state. In this situation, however, there is no mediating structure to generate moral values and, therefore, no counterbalance to the inevitable ambitions of the State’ – Charles Colson (Kingdoms in Conflict 1987, p226).
The utopian belief in humanity’s collective perfectibility, as well as the perfectibility of our environment through evolutionary processes, believes that such perfectibility will be brought about through the auspices of the state.
This belief in our perfectibility, which Colson calls ‘the most subtle and dangerous delusion of our times,’ is evident today in the widespread denial of self-restraint or individual responsibility.
Today, some utopian socialists advocate global government to serve as the ultimate political and economic authority to advance humanity’s evolution. If they prevail in their movement toward ‘a new world order’ and a complete abandonment of God’s moral law, we may well experience the coming of the anti-Christ (Revelation 13).
People today are inclined to look on government aid as a ‘right’, regarding themselves as entitled to every public assistance. This prevents them from considering their self-worth and making attempts to preserve their self-respect.
Perhaps nobody has better explained how too much government may eventually undermine the spirit of self-restraint and responsibility than Wilhelm von Humboldt (The Limits of State Action, 1792), the German liberal philosopher and founder of the Humboldt University of Berlin. He explained that…
‘The evil results of a too excessive solicitude on the part of the State, are still more strikingly shown in the suppression of all active energy, and the necessary deterioration of the moral character. … The man who is often led, easily becomes disposed willingly to sacrifice what remains of his capacity for spontaneous action. He fancies himself released from an anxiety which he sees transferred to other hands, and seems to himself to do enough when he looks to their leadership and follows it … He now conceives himself not only completely free from any duty which the State has not expressly imposed upon him, but exonerated at the same time from every personal effort to improve his own condition; and, even fears such an effort, as if it were likely to open out new opportunities, of which the State might take advantage…Further,…as each individual abandons himself to the solicitous aid of the State, so, and still more, he abandons to it the fate of his fellow-citizens. This weakens sympathy and renders mutual assistance inactive…’
Government assistance cannot eliminate the more pressing moral and spiritual needs that lie at the heart of every dysfunctional behaviour.
Indeed, sometimes what the recipient of assistance actually needs is a strong message of work and sobriety. Ultimately, of course, the malfunctions and defects in the welfare state are the result of an inadequate understanding of the tasks proper to the state.
The matter of obedience
Finally, there is also the important question of obedience to civil authority.
The biblical view of politics says that God instituted government to promote his justice. We also understand from the Bible our God-given obligation to respect, obey, and participate in governments that serve his will (Romans 13:1–2).
However, our duty to obey authority does not require that we blindly follow leaders who stray from their responsibility to God. .
Indeed, the Bible clearly instructs us to obey God even when his commands conflict with the state. For example, when the apostles Peter and John were commanded by the Sanhedrin to stop teaching about Jesus, they replied, ‘Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey man rather than God’ (Acts 4:19).
We are required to obey God even when our reform efforts through political channels fail. If the system of government remains unjust, we may be required to engage in civil disobedience in order to remain obedient to God.
As Francis Schaeffer (A Christian Manifesto p 93) says: ‘The bottom line is that at a certain point there is not only the right, but the duty, to disobey the State.’
Our disobedience to the state may even result in death, but in such instance it is better to die than to live. Daniel understood this truth and chose death over worshipping a king (Daniel 6:1–10).
God always honours commitment
When government rules within the boundaries of its role in God’s natural order, we submit to the state’s authority willingly because we understand that God has placed it in authority over us for the protection of our God-given inalienable rights to life, liberty and property.
However, when the state abuses its authority or claims to be the ultimate sovereign and final arbitrators over our life, liberty and property, then we must acknowledge God’s transcendent law rather than that of the state.
Our loyalty is primarily to God, who may call us to political involvement in an effort to create good and just government.
The involvement of righteous people can significantly influence government for the better. As Christians, we should welcome opportunities to participate in government with the goal of influencing the state to conform to God’s will for it as a social institution (Proverbs 11:11).
Colson says, ‘Christians are to do their duty as best they can. But even when they feel that they are making no difference, that they are failing to bring Christian values to the public arena, success is not the criteria. Faithfulness is.’
Our ongoing struggle to create and maintain just government may or may not be effective. We must, however, remain obedient to God in all circumstances.
Dr Augusto Zimmermann, author of Western Legal Theory: History, Concepts and Perspectives (2013) and Constituting a Christian Commonwealth: The Christian Foundations of Australia’s
Constitutionalism (News Weekly, Melbourne, February 1, 2014, pp.15-16), is Professor of Law (Adjunct) at the University of Notre Dame Australia (Sydney) and Senior Lecturer at Murdoch University School of Law (Western Australia). He is also a Commissioner with the Law Reform Commission of WA, a Vice-President of the Australian Society of Legal Philosophy (ASLP), President of the WA Legal Theory Association (WALTA) and editor of the Western Australian Jurist law journal. He attends Freeway Church, Kwinana, WA. Links: A.Zimmermann@murdoch.edu.au / http://www.nd.edu.au/sydney/schools/law/staff/augusto-zimmermann