Theology 101

A New Testament Case for Limited Government

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In our previous article we discussed the Old Testament prophecies about rulers and nations and their obligations. Today we will review the New Testament passages on the state in general, of which there are four: Matthew 22:21, Romans 13:1-7, 1 Timothy 2:1-2, and 1 Peter 2:13-14.

Matthew 22:21

Jesus held that the church and state had separate callings and spheres of authority. This is a widely held interpretation of Jesus’s assertion “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s (Matt. 22:21). 

Placed in its context, Jesus is not saying that the state is outside God’s providential authority. Rather, he is contrasting duties to the state and duties to serve God within the covenant community. Given this widely held interpretation of Jesus’s assertion, it follows that a believer could do things as a citizen and representative of the state (for example, be a soldier) that he could not do as a representative of the church (the church cannot field an army, but believers can serve the state in this way). Conversely, some argue that the church should do certain things that it is not the state’s job to do. Solely for the purposes of illustration, some argue that showing compassion is the church’s job and not the state’s. I will say more about the state and compassion below.

Romans 13:1-7

Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore, he who resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil. Wherefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor (Rom. 13:1-7).

There are two features of this text on which I wish to focus. First, in his excellent commentary on Romans, Douglas Moo makes the important point that Paul tells us to “submit” to the government; Paul doesn’t say to “obey” it. Moo goes on to say that Paul’s usage of “submit” in various texts implies an attitude or approach to the relevant authority without entailing that one must always obey that authority.

If, for example, the government were to command believers to worship a false god, we would not obey that command even though our general posture would be one of submitting to government. I find this distinction between “submit” and “obey” convincing; however, even on a graded absolutist view (all moral absolutes are true but some are more weighty than others and can override less weighty absolutes in conflict situations; cf. Matt. 23:23), if we are to obey the commands of government as the very ordinances of God, there could be occasions when government’s commands are overridden by weightier ones. In that case, one would be justified in disobeying government.

A second feature of the Romans 13 text is that it seems to depict the state as the protector of individuals from harm due to negative-rights violations (and as the praiser of those who do not engage in such lawbreaking behavior) rather than as the provider of positive rights. In the preceding context (Rom. 12:17-21), the issue in focus is someone who has had evil done against him, i.e., has had his negative rights violated. The passage makes clear that in such a case, the individual is not to take revenge and repay evil with evil. This would most naturally raise a question of criminal justice, viz., will the person have to pay for what he/she did to me in this age? 

Romans 13:1-7 answers that question in the affirmative by stating that such justice is precisely the purpose of the state. Moreover, in the verses that follow Romans 13:1-7 (verses 8-10), the focus is on showing compassion and love to one another, a topic mentioned in Romans 12:20 in the context of providing things (food and drink) for one who has harmed you. Now while compassion, love, and providing for others are mentioned just before and after Romans 13:1-7, it is significant that these topics fall from sight when the nature and function of the state is in view. A good explanation for this is that the state is not to be in the business of showing compassion (for more on this, see below) or providing positive rights for others. That is an individual moral responsibility. No, the state is the protector of negative rights.

1 Timothy 2:1-2

First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, in order that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity (1 Tim. 2:1-2).

In this text, we are adjured to pray for kings and those in governing authority, and it is not a stretch to think that we are to pray for them to be successful in fulfilling their proper function. What is that function? They are to sustain a stable social order in which people can live peacefully and quietly without fear of harm. It would seem that this text is most naturally interpreted to presuppose that kings and others in authority are to protect citizens from negative-rights violations so they can live in a stable, tranquil social order. There is no mention here of the state’s job involving the provision of positive rights.

1 Peter 2:13-14

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution: whether to a king as the one in authority; or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right (1 Pet. 2:13-14).

In this text, the apostle Peter seems to be in lockstep with Paul. We are to submit to the government (not necessarily always obeying it), and the purpose of government is to punish those who do harm and violate people’s negative rights, and to honor those who do not disobey the law but, rather, do good. Once again, we see a limited government in view. 

In my next article, we will discuss the core of Jesus’ ethical teaching, particularly the commands about love.

Editor’s Note: This series is adapted from the IFWE research paper, A Biblical Case for Limited Government by Dr. J.P. Moreland. Read the full paper here.

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