Public Square & Theology 101

What Does the Bible Say about the Role of Government?

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If you’re a political junkie, this is a fascinating week to watch the debates in and around Congress. Democrats and Republicans are wrangling with each other (and within their parties) over a spending bill, which among other items, involves a controversy surrounding immigration policy. Members of Congress have different spending priorities based on their political philosophies, their districts, and, in many cases, their concerns about re-election. If Congress doesn’t have an agreement by this Friday, Jan. 19, the government will “shutdown.”

What should the government actually be spending money on? The answer to that question flows from your view of the role of government. As Christians, we can look to scripture for some guidance on this issue.

In my last post, I argued that government is an institution ordained by God. Today, we will explore what the Bible says about what government should do.

Punishing Evil, Promoting Good

According to Romans 13:4, government is supposed to punish the evildoer. It is a “minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.”

Romans 12:17-19 tells the believer to, “never…pay back evil for evil,” and “never take your own revenge.” It’s not that God is telling us to forget or ignore injustice. God will exercise vengeance now or later, and the government is one of his tools for doing this.

To borrow a term from political theory, the government is filling a “negative” role when it punishes evil. This role involves punishing bad behavior in order to protect citizens in their pursuit of something legitimate. For example, by punishing evil, the government is protecting a citizen’s own pursuit of private property, health, and life. In contrast, government plays a “positive” role when it directly provides something to its citizens—like healthcare, food stamps, or low-interest student loans.

Romans 13:3 mentions the government’s positive role: “Do what is good and you will have praise from the same [authority].”

Note that this passage does not call the government to play a positive role by creating rights, goods, or services, but to give praise to those who actively do good. This praise could be giving special recognition to those who are serving in exemplary ways or just acknowledgment, official or otherwise, for being a good citizen. John Murray writes in The Epistle to the Romans that,

The praise could be expressed by saying that good behavior secures good standing in the state, a status to be cherished and cultivated.

This passage does not prohibit government from providing goods and services, but strongly puts the emphasis on upholding the rule of law and encouraging good behavior.

Similarly, 1 Peter 2:13-14 says,

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution; whether to a king or one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right.

Note again that this summary of government’s role gives primacy to the rule of law, or punishing evil. Government is also to give praise to those who do right, rather than doing the good itself.

Giving to Caesar What Is Caesar’s

Jesus rejected the political pathway to inaugurate his coming kingdom, and so should we. He said his “kingdom is not of this world.” He also acknowledged Caesar’s place in this world, commanding his followers to “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” while still recognizing God as the ultimate authority of the universe (Matt. 22:20-22). In his sermon “Arguing about Politics,” Tim Keller comments on how this passage addresses the role of government:

This was the very first theory of limited government in the history of the world…Give Caesar the money because it’s his money—he printed it—but don’t give him the allegiance…What Jesus Christ is saying is that you may give Caesar some of what he wants, which is his money, but you cannot give Caesar ultimately what he wants, which is to completely accept his system of coercion, his system of injustice, his system of exclusion…but we can’t give him that.

When standing before Pilate, Jesus acknowledged Pilate’s authority over him, but said, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it has been given you from above” (John 19:11).

Another indicative passage is 1 Timothy 2:1-2:

I urge that prayers…be made…for kings and all who are in authority in order that they may live a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.

Note that the prayers are for the secular authorities to provide a rule of law so that there might be safety and security. In A Biblical Case for Limited Government, an IFWE research paper, scholar J.P. Moreland says this passage calls for prayers to “sustain stable social order in which people can live peacefully and quietly without fear of harm.”

The above passages are so important because they set forth the New Testament perspective toward secular government. The Old Testament had established a theocracy where Israelite kings were expected to adhere to the Old Testament law. Today, however, most people live in societies more similar to the pagan nations found in Amos 1 and 2, than to Israel. Moreland argues that the biblical laws for Israel are more applicable to the modern day church than the secular government. He points out,

The prophet chastises these [pagan] nations and rulers for violating people’s negative rights, e.g., for forced deportation of a population, torturing and killing pregnant women, stealing, forced slavery, and murder. There is no expectation in the passage that the nations and rulers were to provide positive rights for people. This is typical of the prophets and their understanding of the responsibilities of pagan rulers and nations.

While none of these New Testament passages support one form of government or another (or, as we observe this week in Congress, one spending bill over another), they do imply that government’s primary role is “negative” not “positive”—focused more on punishing evil and praising good behavior and less on providing goods and services.


Editor’s note: Read more about what the Bible says about the role of government in Free Indeed: Living Life in Light of the Biblical View of Freedom.

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