Public Square & Theology 101

Why Limited Government Is Integral to Biblical Flourishing

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Each one of us is passionate about an issue that is close to our hearts. Personally, I’m passionate about the idea of economic freedom because I see how intimately it impacts my ability as a Christian to be faithful to what God has called me to do. In recent posts, I’ve been working on explaining why Christians should care about economic freedom:

  1. We are called to work.
  2. We are called to serve the poor.
  3. We are called to flourish.
  4. Private property rights are biblical.

Today I will tackle another key point—that economic freedom requires limited government, and limited government is supported by a strong, biblical foundation.

Looking at Government Through a Biblical Lens

Every time the government enforces a new law, regulation, or “service,” it does so through coercion. A representative government is defined as an institution that possesses the use of force by the “consent” of the governed. It’s important to note, however, that many representative and constitutional governments, including the United States, act in ways that are not consented to and often violate their constitutional arrangements.

What does the Bible have to say about this use of force and when it may or may not be legitimate? Christian philosopher J.P. Moreland examines the two types of central texts on the issue of government to provide a framework for our understanding:

1. Old Testament prophets and the obligations of pagan rulers and nations:

  • The book of Amos (chapters 1 and 2) provides the best example of the prophets berating pagan rulers for not protecting persons and property from the force and fraud of others. For example, they were chastised for forced deportation of a population and for murder.

2. New Testament passages on the state in general:

  • Jesus teaches that the church and state are separate and operate in different realms of authority (Matt. 22:21).
  • Paul tells us to submit to the governing authorities but does not tell us to obey the government (Rom. 13:7). His use of “submit” implies that there are cases where one would be justified in disobeying the government. Paul clearly delineates the limits and scope of the state. The text also implies that the state should protect those negative rights when they are violated.
  • The function of the state is to provide a stable social order in which people can live peaceably. We are to pray for our leaders to be successful in fulfilling that specific function (1 Tim. 2:1-2)
  • Another view of limited government is presented in 1 Pet. 2:13-14 where government is described as a body that is to protect the negative rights of others and punish violators of others’ negative rights.

(Additional references on a biblical perspective of limited government are available here.)

The scriptures emphasize limited models of government in order to protect our natural, God-given rights. Limited government broadens the path to flourishing by liberating each person to use his resources to best serve himself and others. Governments that extend beyond the protection of person and property into the provision of positive rights, such as medical care, education, or a job, can only do so at the expense of another.

Moreover, governments do not create wealth; they are only capable of taking and transferring wealth. The more we require a government to provide positive rights, the more we limit the broader abilities of the population to help create opportunities for others. This is especially damaging to the poorest among us, for whom we are called to care.

As Christians, we should want everyone to have a job, shelter, food, and medical care. Yet a good understanding of economics, history, and human nature helps us better understand that the government is incapable of fulfilling many of our desires, no matter how much we might wish it could.

Economic freedom, even in partial doses, has lifted millions out of poverty. In China alone, limited amounts of market reforms since 1978 have lifted 600 million people out of abject poverty. If we fail to advocate for economic freedom, we will continue to lose it, slowing the triumph over poverty. The United States dropped from the second most economically free country in the world to the eighteenth in the past ten to twenty years. We are currently ranked sixth.

We cannot afford to further jeopardize our ability to flourish as a people, and Christians who embrace a biblical understanding of work and freedom can make a big difference.

It is by pursuing our gifts and doing what God has called us each to do that we become salt and light. In doing his job with excellence, the Christian promotes flourishing and gives others a glimpse of the coming of God’s kingdom and the restored earth.

To paraphrase Martin Luther, the most powerful way to love one’s neighbor consists of doing one’s job well. The assembly line worker who makes steering wheels for Hondas may not feel like he is promoting flourishing, but he is if he does it with excellence. He is part of a much bigger market economy that requires many different skills and talents to bring about greater prosperity for everyone, including the poorest of the poor. He is taking individual responsibility in embracing and promoting economic freedom by doing his job well and serving others.

A free market and a limited government that upholds the rule of law provides each individual with the liberty and stability to use his gifts to support himself, serve others, and promote a flourishing society.

Editor’s note: Read more from Anne Bradley about thinking economically about our call to stewardship in Be Fruitful and Multiply: How Economics Is Necessary for Making God-Pleasing Decisions

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  • Nice article! Oliver O’Donovan claims in his The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the roots of political theology that Paul limits the state in Romans 13 to just the punishment of evil doers.

    Also, I think we should give a great deal of importance to the government God gave Israel in the Torah. It was very limited, with no human exec or legislature or taxes, only judges to adjudicate his 613 laws. We shouldn’t woodenly copy it, but it should be important to us that God created only one government and never changed it or created another. It shows God’s attitude toward government in general. And when Israel decided to change it I Sam 8 tells us that God was very angry about it. Clearly, government is important to God and he has specific ideas about how it should be organized.

  • Luis Martinez

    Dr. Bradley, Thank you for this, just what I need to show my Liberal friends who now are advocating for “Socialism.” My entire extended family has escaped from Cuba, and many of my friends have escaped to the USA from Venezuela. But I now have lifelong friends who fervently believe that we are fools because we escaped from Socialism.
    I have posted your article in Facebook and Twitter.

  • Hugh Whelchel

    I agree with you, and while I agree with most of O’Donovan’s The Desire of the Nations, I believe he completely misunderstands what the founding fathers were doing in the First Amendment. A couple of books you may want to look at if you have not already that support your argument:

    Last Call for Liberty: How America’s Genius for Freedom Has Become Its Greatest Threat by Os Guinness

    The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought by Eric Nelson

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