Public Square

The Role of Government

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Editor’s Note: This is the second in 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.

On March 16, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a “War on Poverty,” in a special address to Congress in which he sought support for the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964.

Though he did not promise a quick solution to poverty, Johnson hoped that increased governmental involvement would “give the entire nation the opportunity for a concerted attack on poverty through the establishment.” The Act was bold and controversial, applauded by some as an appropriate intervention and lambasted by others who believed that it went beyond the proper role of government.

In my last post, I argued that government is an institution ordained by God. Today, we will explore what that institution should do, as set out by the Bible.

Punishing Evil, Promoting Good

According to Romans 13:4, government is supposed to punish the evildoer. It is a “minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.”

Romans 12:17-19 tells the believer to, “never…pay back evil for evil,” and “never take your own revenge.’” It’s not that God is telling us to forget or ignore injustice. God will exercise vengeance now or later, and the government is one of his tools for doing this.

To borrow a term from political theory, the government is filling a “negative” role when it punishes evil. The negative role involves protecting a citizen in his or her own pursuit of something legitimate. For example, by punishing evil, the government is protecting a citizen’s own pursuit of private property, health, and life. In contrast, government plays a “positive” role when it directly provides something to its citizens—like healthcare, food stamps, or low-interest student loans.

Romans 13:3 mentions the government’s positive role: “Do what is good and you will have praise from the same [authority].”

Note that this passage does not call the government to play a positive role by creating rights, goods, or services, but to give praise to those who actively do good. This praise could be giving special recognition to those who are serving in exemplary ways or just acknowledgment, official or otherwise, for being a good citizen. John Murray writes in The Epistle to the Romans that,

The praise could be expressed by saying that good behavior secures good standing in the state, a status to be cherished and cultivated.

This passage does not prohibit government from providing goods and services, but strongly puts the emphasis on upholding the rule of law and encouraging good behavior.

Similarly, 1 Peter 2:13-14 says,

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution; whether to a king or one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right.

Note again that this summary of government’s role gives primacy to the rule of law, or punishing evil. It is also to give praise to those who do right, rather than doing the good itself.

Giving to Caesar What is Caesar’s

Jesus rejected the political pathway to establish his coming kingdom, and so should we. He said his “kingdom is not of this world.” He also acknowledged Caesar’s place in this world, commanding his followers to “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” while still recognizing God as the ultimate authority of the universe. Tim Keller comments:

This was the very first theory of limited government in the history of the world…Give Caesar the money because it’s his money—he printed it—but don’t give him the allegiance…What Jesus Christ is saying is that you may give Caesar some of what he wants, which is his money, but you cannot give Caesar ultimately what he wants, which is to completely accept his system of coercion, his system of injustice, his system of exclusion…but we can’t give him that.

When standing before Pilate, Jesus acknowledged Pilate’s authority over Him, but said, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it has been given you from above.”

Another indicative passage is 1 Timothy 2:1-2:

I urge that prayers… be made… for kings and all who are in authority in order that they may live a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.

Note that the prayers are for the secular authorities to provide a rule of law so that there might be safety and security. In A Biblical Case for Limited Government, an IFWE research paper, scholar  J.P. Moreland says this passage calls for prayers to “sustain stable social order in which people can live peacefully and quietly without fear of harm.” The prayer does not include petitions that the king redistribute wealth to people.

While none of these New Testament passages support one form of government or another, they do imply that government’s primary role is negative and lies in punishing evil rather than actively promoting good. In my next post, I’ll discuss how government suits a fallen people when it fulfills its negative, protective role.

Should government’s role be strictly negative? Leave your comments here.

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