Editor’s Note: This is part of a series on a biblical view of limited government. These posts have been adapted from Dr. Lindsley’s white paper, Government: Small or Large? If you are interested in learning more about a biblical perspective on government, check out Dr. Lindsley’s white paper and IFWE’s recently published research on the Bible and limited government.
How can a biblical understanding of human nature influence how we think about the size and scope of government?
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”).
Government is good but 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 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 towards 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. We all know how imperfect this system is, but it does make it more difficult for any law—whether bad or good—to be passed. Of course, this system does not prevent the passage of bad laws. 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.
In my next post, I will explore some biblical warnings about government, bringing in examples of the human tendency for kings and governments to displease God by oppressing the people.
Is limited government the best system for addressing our fallen human nature?