Public Square & Theology 101

Can We Make A Biblical Case for Limited Government?

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A few years ago on ABC’s The View, Star Parker and Michael Moore had an instructive exchange. To justify state-regulated universal healthcare, Moore sought to marshal support from Jesus: Jesus claimed that if you care for the poorest among us, you do this to him. According to Moore, this proves that Jesus would be for universal healthcare. Star Parker’s response was stunningly accurate: Jesus never intended such action to be forced on people by the state. Such acts were to be voluntary and from a freely given heart of compassion. I subsequently published an opinion piece siding with Parker. I claimed that Jesus would not be for government-mandated universal healthcare. The piece went viral on the internet and most people weighed in against me, including most Christians. In my view, this reaction signaled the fact that there is a lot of confusion about the biblical view of the state and its role in society.

Not long ago I watched a political dialog on national television. During the discussion, a teaching of Jesus was mentioned as support for one person’s views. He was immediately chastised: “I am a born-again Christian,” said his opponent, “and I don’t want my Lord Jesus to be dragged into politics!” Regarding political issues, I once heard a preacher announce that “Jesus doesn’t take sides, he takes over.”

How Would Jesus Vote?

There is something right about these assertions. Clearly, at least in one sense, Jesus is neither a Republican nor a Democrat, and Jesus’s agenda for the world is not essentially political. But if we are not careful, we will continue to promote the Achilles’ heel of Western Christianity: a secular/sacred dichotomy in which one’s religion relates to one’s private life and secularism is the proper stance to take when dealing with public issues. Such a dichotomy was not present in biblical days, nor is it true of contemporary cultures outside the West. Those in biblical days and currently outside the West embrace more of an integrated worldview in which their religious views inform all other aspects of their lives and do not occupy a private religious compartment.

While preaching at a large church, I asked the congregation, “Do Jesus and the Bible teach things that are relevant to science and evolution, to assessing secular psychology, to economics and the role of money in life, to history, literature, art, and sports?” Heads nodded approvingly around the congregation. I then asked, “Do Jesus and the Bible teach things that are relevant to politics?” A deafening silence ensued. I went on to say that while Jesus is neither a Democrat nor Republican, there are things he taught about morality, the state, and the church which a believer should factor into his political, social, and cultural thinking and practice. And some of these teachings of Jesus could favor one political party over another. So we should ask, “What did Jesus teach, and more generally what does the Bible teach, that is relevant to a believer’s view of politics and the state?”

Understanding the Biblical Case for Limited Government

In my upcoming series of articles, I shall argue that, when properly interpreted, biblical teaching implies a minimal government with a specific function to be mentioned shortly. I will begin by describing the three-way worldview struggle in our country and explain why two of those worldviews have a vested interest in big government. I will then present a biblical methodology for getting at scriptural teaching about the state. I will apply that methodology to support the claim that Israel’s ethical policies in the Old Testament are better analogies for the church/covenant community than for the government, and in this context, I will clarify the role that “defining terms of address” plays in my discussion. I will then distinguish negative and positive rights and argue that the best texts for unpacking biblical teaching about the state are two: four key New Testament texts and the obligations placed on pagan nations by the Old Testament prophets. I will try to show that these key texts depict the state as a protector of negative rights and not a provider of positive rights. Thus the scriptures support a limited view of government and its function.

Next, I will turn to a description of the decisive feature of New Testament ethics in general, and Jesus’s ethics in particular, namely, virtue ethics with voluntary adherence to the love commands. I will show that, given this ethic, the state may be able to show mercy, but it cannot show compassion due to both the nature of the state and the nature of compassion. I will close with a brief treatment of the importance of Natural Moral Law in the state’s fulfilling of its God-given role so as to avoid a theocracy. And I will examine the charge that commitment to the Natural Moral Law makes one an intolerant bigot.

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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