Public Square & Theology 101

Understanding Government With a Biblical View on Human Nature

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Watching the government on the brink of shutdown with no resolution to avert it is discouraging to all of us. Why can’t members of Congress come to an agreement? Why does it seem so dysfunctional?

We need to think about these circumstances with the right perspective, which comes from a biblical understanding of human nature.

James Madison once said,

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.

Madison realized that people needed governance due to their sinful human nature. The paradox was that those in government were also sinful and in need of restraint.

In my last post, I talked about what a biblical role of government might look like. Scripture indicates that there is a clear need for government, but that every government has a dangerous tendency to become a problem in and of itself. Today I’ll address why this implies the need for limited government.

Power, Corruption, and Human Nature

Hundreds of years before the birth of the United States, Thomas Aquinas came to a conclusion similar to that of Madison. In his book, On Kingship, he argued that the best government would be monarchy, provided that the king was good and righteous. However, he also acknowledged that monarchy could be the worst of all governments if it led to tyranny.

The reason this is true is because of the Fall.

Novelist, literary critic, and theologian Charles Williams described the ambivalence of life after the Fall as “This is Thou” and “This is not Thou.” He noted that there is the divinely intended use for every good thing (“This is Thou”), but also the divinely prohibited abuse of God’s good creation (“This is not Thou”). Just because something can be easily abused doesn’t mean that we should prohibit its divinely intended use. An argument against abuse is not an argument against use.

Yet, like many things, government can be easily abused. Lord Acton famously observed that, “Power corrupts, but absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The more power placed in the hands of an individual, ruling elite, or large government, the greater the danger of this kind of corruption.

This should not surprise believers. They should expect this corruption, given our present sinful condition.

A glance at the news reveals that this abuse of power prevents many countries, like Venezuela, from growing or progressing into flourishing societies. Unless government is limited in its structure with checks and balances, or by prophetic critique, as in the case of Elijah to Ahab in 1 Kings 18, or by the people in a democratic process, it will tend toward corruption. Unless government is held accountable, there is entropy that leads toward tyranny.

Checks and Balances

The founders tried to fortify the United States against tyranny by building the government on a system of checks and balances. This means that for any given law, the Senate can trump the House of Representatives or vice versa, stopping a bill that has been passed by the other body. The president can veto what the House and Senate pass. The Supreme Court can strike down a law that goes through all these channels.

In the United States, the Constitution is, in principle, the basis by which every law is to be judged. Checks and balances make it more difficult for any law—whether bad or good—to be passed. Of course, this system is not perfect, and bad laws do get passed. But it does, at least in theory, limit each branch of government.

One of the reasons that the founders put a system of checks and balances in place was because they understood our fallen nature. The Fall has resulted in sinful man’s tendency to abuse power, as articulated by Lord Acton. Winston Churchill is famous for saying,

Democracy is the worst of all governments, except for all those others that have been tried.

Government is necessary in order to uphold the rule of law. Yet the more concentrated the power entrusted to the government, the greater the danger of abuse. A limited government with a set of checks and balances is best equipped to handle both the sinful natures of those in government as well as the people that they govern.

A Calling to Government Service

Christians should not let the biblical view of human nature discourage them from entering government service. There are many believers who are seeking diligently to be salt and light in various sectors of the government, and they should be supported. Russell Gehrlein has served the U.S. Army for more than thirty years. He writes about experiencing God’s presence in his work as a government employee:

No matter what job we have, we are truly co-workers with God. We bring order out of chaos. We participate in fulfilling the creation mandate to fill, subdue, and rule the earth. As his agents in human government, we can demonstrate what it means to submit to God’s authority in his kingdom, which is not of this world but is most definitely in our midst. As we accomplish our missions and take care of people who are eternal and beloved of God, we are ministering to many. These are the thoughts that get me out of bed every morning.

We should pray for those like Russell who are currently serving or considering a career in government service that they would heed the words of the prophet Jeremiah to the exiles in Babylon:

Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper (Jer. 29:7).


Editor’s note: Read more about what a biblical view of government in Free Indeed: Living Life in Light of the Biblical View of Freedom.

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