Theology 101

How Jesus’s Teachings on Ethics Support A Limited View of Government

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In our previous article, we discussed four New Testament passages that discussed the state and government. In today’s article, we will look at how Jesus’s ethics and teachings lead to the same conclusion about a limited view of government.

Jesus Models Virtue and Love

Until now I have argued that armed with the distinction between negative and positive rights if we apply a certain methodology—employing Old Testament prophets when speaking to secular rulers and states, and key New Testament texts—we will arrive at a limited view of government. But there is a second area of reflection that, I believe, leads to the same conclusion—the study of the nature of Jesus’s ethics. 

It is widely agreed that two features are at the core of Jesus’s ethical teaching—virtue ethics and the love commands. Along with utilitarianism, relativism, and deontological ethics, virtue theory is a major depiction of the ethical life. I am among a growing number of thinkers who believe that Jesus was primarily a virtue ethicist. 

According to virtue ethics, the primary questions of ethical theory are not “What are the correct moral rules to follow? What is the right thing to do in my current circumstances?” No, the primary questions are “What is a life of character and virtue? How do I learn to live such a life?” 

Virtue theory starts with a vision of a good, virtuous, flourishing life—for the Christian, a vision of life in the Kingdom, filled with the Holy Spirit under the lordship of Jesus—and goes on to paint a picture of the sort of character intrinsic to such a life, along with a strategy for how to develop such character. At the core of virtue ethics is the mature, character-filled person who voluntarily and habitually lives his life in a righteous way because that way expresses whom he has freely chosen to become by nature. For Jesus, learning to live well in, from, and on behalf of God’s Kingdom is paramount.

Besides virtue ethics as a general approach to ethics, the love commands of Matthew 22:37-39 and the agape-filled character expressive of those commands are at the heart of Jesus’s ethical vision. Since love cannot be coerced but must be given freely, the good person is the one who voluntarily chooses to embody Jesus’s love commands and to live according to their nature.

Jesus Was Not Utilitarian or Conforming 

There are at least two important things that follow from Jesus’s ethical vision. For one thing, forced, heartless conformity to external standards (think of the Pharisees) counts for very little in God’s ethical economy (cf. Matthew 5:27-32). For another, Jesus was no ethical utilitarian. 

According to utilitarianism, an act or moral rule is correct if and only if doing that act or following that rule maximizes utility (e.g., produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people). For the utilitarian, the end justifies the means, and only results matter from a moral point of view—not character, freely chosen intentions, or the state of the heart in acting.

By contrast with the voluntary nature of compassion and genuine ethical action, the state is coercive and forces conformity to its dictates. The coercive approach works well when the state is protecting negative rights, but it raises an ethical problem if the state tries to provide positive rights. 

While the state can show mercy—it bears the sword and can refrain from using it—the state cannot show compassion. As an individual, a representative of the state can have compassion in his heart as he gives to the poor; but this compassion is exhibited by him as an individual and not as a representative of the state. The state’s care for the poor is coercive since it redistributes wealth by force. It takes from some and gives to others, all by the force of law. Such actions count for very little in God’s eyes because they do not reflect the features of Jesus’s ethic identified above. And because Jesus was not a utilitarian, even if such actions accomplish good ends, the end does not justify the means. In a biblical ethic, helping the poor by the coercive power of the state is of little ethical value. 

If I am right about this, then it follows that when the state steps outside its role of protecting the violation of negative rights, the state will be incompetent and less effective than private or charitable alternatives.

In my next article, we will discuss the minimalist view of the state and Natural Moral Law.

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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