The debate about the size and role of government has huge implications for the lives of individuals all over the world. Important as the issue is, Christians are divided about what scripture has to say about government. What are some considerations that can help us frame this debate and work towards a conclusion? The Bible sets out four principles that can provide a foundation for the discussion.
- Government is established by God.
- Government’s role is more focused on punishing evil and praising good behavior than on providing goods and services.
- Limited government suits a fallen people.
- The Bible contains warnings about the increasing power of government.
It’s this fourth point I’d like to tackle today. From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible is full of examples and warnings of abusive government.
In Genesis and the beginning of Exodus, this is evident in Egypt where the Pharaoh initially resists Moses’ plea to “let my people go”(Exod. 9). We see in Pharaoh a hard-hearted totalitarian tyrant resistant to submit even after several plagues show God’s power. Passover is a celebration that commemorates prophetic resistance to a totalitarian dictator and God’s powerful deliverance of his people from slavery (Exod. 12). It is a defining moment in the Old Testament.
At times, people longed for a king. After Gideon’s victory, the Israelites wanted to make him king and set up a dynasty so that his sons would continue the rule. But Gideon said, “I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you; the Lord shall rule over you”(Judg. 8:23).
Later when Samuel’s sons, his successors, became corrupt and resorted to taking bribes from the people, the Israelites again cried out for a king to judge them and defend them against warring nations. They wanted a king “like all the nations”(1 Sam. 8:5). God told Samuel to listen to the people even though it meant a rejection of God’s kingship.
Bill Arnold, in his commentary on 1 and 2 Samuel, argues that the Israelites were seeking conformity and security. What they failed to see was that unchecked kings would “become militaristic, conscript Israelite men, confiscate property, and lead ultimately to enslavement.”
Samuel told the people that kings would “take” their sons for their armies, “take” their daughters for cooks and bakers, “take” the best of their fields, “take” a tenth of their seed and their vineyards, “take” their best young men, “take” a tenth of their flock. Eventually, he warned, “you yourselves will become his servants”(1 Sam. 8:10-17). Samuel predicted that the king would take so much that “you will cry out in that day because of the king whom you have chosen for yourselves” (1 Sam. 8:18).
Solomon’s Poor Judgment
The history of kings in the Old Testament reveals that most were, in fact, “takers.” Even Solomon, who started so well “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and did not follow the Lord fully”(1 Kings 11:6). He did not listen to the Deuteronomic warning to future kings:
He shall not multiply horses for himself…neither shall he multiply wives for himself, lest his heart turn away; nor shall he greatly increase silver and gold for himself (Deut. 17:16-17).
Yet Solomon did all these things, even establishing centers for idolatrous worship for his foreign wives. He also heavily taxed the people.
After Solomon’s death, his son, Rehoboam, rose to power. The elders of Israel came to Rehoboam and pleaded that he might “lighten the hard service of your father and his heavy yoke which he put on us” (1 Kings 12:4)
The king rejected the advice of his elders that he should listen to the people and took the advice of young friends who grew up with him. He responded to the elders of Israel, saying, “My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke; my father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions” (1 Kings 12:14).
This misjudgment led to the division of the kingdom and a rejection of Rehoboam’s authority. Rehoboam refused to limit his power and greatly miscalculated, losing about half his kingdom.
Although kingship is not intrinsically bad, the history of this type of government reflects the Fall and the truth of Lord Acton’s proverb: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Time after time, governments in the Old Testament exceeded their bounds, clearly reflecting the need for government to be limited.
The examples of Pharaoh, Samuel’s warning about the dangers of kingship, Solomon’s excess, and Rehoboam’s folly are just a few examples from the Old Testament demonstrating the need for government to respect limits to its power. Many more examples exist, some of which Tom Pratt highlights in his paper, “God and Government: A Biblical Perspective.”
The Ultimate Abuse of Power
Perhaps the most dramatic usurpation of power occurs in Revelation 13:1-10. In this vision, John sees a beast rising out of the sea and gaining great power and authority (Rev. 13:2). One leader, seemingly resurrected from the dead, speaks “arrogant words” (Rev. 13:5). He attacks believers and gains authority over “every tribe and people and tongue and nation” (Rev. 13:7). All except true believers worship him.
Some commentators think that the beast is Rome. It may be, but it also signifies more than Rome, perhaps pointing to the future. Robert Mounce comments,
The worship of the satanically inspired perversion of secular authority is the ultimate offense against the one true God. The temptation rejected by Jesus at the outset of his public ministry reappears at the end of history in its most persuasive form and gains the allegiance of all but the elect.
Believers need to heed these biblical warnings about the abuses of government, but we’re still left with a lot of questions. The Bible doesn’t spell out exactly what government should and shouldn’t do. In my next post, I will seek to summarize these four points and provide some practical direction.
Editor’s note: Read about the biblical definition of freedom and how it shapes our view of government in Free Indeed: Living Life in Light of the Biblical View of Freedom.
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