Public Square

Is Government, at Its Root, Good or Bad?

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“No one really knows what 2018 will bring, but it seems that it definitely will not bring a smaller federal budget” (Leon Wolf, The Blaze)

The United States of America was born out of a debate about the size and scope of government and it’s no surprise that the debate continues to this day in Congress. Neither side can agree on the size and scope of government, yet there is agreement that the U.S. national debt, now more than 20 trillion dollars, must be reduced. Unfortunately, there seems to be little hope that debt reduction will be accomplished in the near future.

The American colonies separated from England over the issue of the role of government. They then ratified the United States Constitution only after lengthy deliberation about the purpose and scope of their new federal government. The first political parties built their platforms around these issues as well.

This debate continues to define American politics and impacts the lives of individuals in many other countries as well. Clearly, it’s a controversial, multi-faceted issue.

Our perspective on government has massive implications. Laws, regulations, and taxes can impact the way we work, our freedom to trade, our ability to become entrepreneurs, and our ownership of private property. They impact our ability to build a flourishing society.

It’s not an easy issue, but it’s certainly important.

What does the Bible say?

Some argue that the Bible teaches limited government. Others maintain that the Bible teaches Marxism or socialism, or at least is consistent with big government of some sort. The Bible doesn’t give us an easy, one-verse answer about government, but it does provide us with some guidelines.

What are some considerations that can help us frame this debate and work toward a conclusion? There are four key principles that provide context for this discussion:

  • Government is established by God
  • Government’s role is more negative than positive
  • Limited government suits a fallen people
  • The Bible warns us about large governments

Today, I want to address the principle that government is established by God. This means that though government can grow beyond its proper role to become abusive, it is not intrinsically bad.

Romans 13:1-7 is the most well-known and authoritative passage on the topic of government. In fact, theologian E. F. Harrison calls it “the most notable passage in the New Testament on Christian civic responsibility.”

Romans 13:1 says:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.

This is a strong endorsement of the intrinsic goodness of government, in its proper role. This endorsement is reinforced in verse 4, where government is twice called a “minister of God.” Again, in verse 6, rulers are called “servants of God.” Theologian John Murray writes in his commentary The Epistle to the Romans,

This designation removes every supposition to the effect that magistracy is per se evil and serves good only in the sense that as a lesser evil it restrains and counteracts greater evils.

Just because government is established by God does not mean that all government actions are right. Note that the term used in verses 1 and 5 is “subjection,” not “obey.” Harrison comments:

What he requires is submission, a term that calls for placing one’s self under someone else. Here and in verse 5 he seems to avoid using the stronger word “obey,” and the reason is that the believer may find it impossible to comply with every demand of government. A circumstance may arise in which he must choose between obeying God and obeying men (Acts 5:29). But even then he must be submissive to the extent that if his Christian convictions do not permit his compliance, he will accept the consequences of his refusal.

If the government forbids what God commands or commands what God forbids, then God’s commandments take precedence over human authority.

For example, Daniel’s friends—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—chose to disobey King Nebuchadnezzar and face being burned alive rather than worship idols. Years later, when King Darius forbade his subjects from praying to anyone but himself, Daniel openly disobeyed.

At the same time, these men were among these kings’ most trusted and loyal advisers. They served successive kings honestly and faithfully despite their numerous mistakes. They were not blindly obedient but were willing to respectfully challenge authority when appropriate. They did not hold grudges or plot against their leaders, even when they were personally wronged.

Such should be our attitude toward government. We are not to blindly obey it, especially if it demands that we do something contrary to God’s law. Yet it is an institution ordained by God, and we should make every effort to abide by its laws, show respect to our leaders, and participate in the political process when appropriate.

When we, as citizens and taxpayers, see dysfunction in Congress, we can be tempted to throw in the towel on its authority altogether. It’s important to remember that government was established by God and yet exists in a fallen world. We need to make every effort to advocate for the role and scope of government that is most consistent with the guidelines we see in scripture. I will make the case in future posts that the government’s role should be a limited one.

Editor’s Note: Read more about the biblical principles that inform the size and scope of government in Free Indeed: Living Life in Light of the Biblical View of Freedom.

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