A Primer on a Christian Philosophy of Government
The following primer is not meant to be comprehensive, but meant to be a springboard for thinking about government from a biblical worldview. There are a host of resources available that dive much deeper and provide much more context than what is provided in the text below. Please feel free to reply to email@example.com. I would love to dialogue with you about any one of the points exposed in this primer.
The primary purpose of the institution of government is to serve and protect the basic needs of the individual. Our very own Declaration of Independence acknowledges these basic or “inalienable” God-given rights—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Therefore, the universal establishment of government presupposes that there has either, at some point in history, been a violation of one of these basic principles, or that there is the potential for these basic principles to be violated. Little investigation is needed to realize that these basic rights are violated regularly and universally.
According to the Scripture, this propensity to violate another person’s basic rights is an overflow of the sinfulness that exists in the heart of every human being (Jeremiah 17.9; Romans 3.23). This disease of sin is a direct inheritance from the first man—Adam (Romans 5.12) where, in a perfect environment, with only one law and regular daily communion with God (Genesis 3.8), he violated the one commandment (or law) God decreed (Genesis 2.15). Adam had no presuppositions - no prior history to influence any bad behavior. All Adam had was a choice, which he used to disobey God. Since that first sin (Genesis 3.15), everyone who is born of the seed of Adam inherits the sin nature of Adam. From this sinful nature springs sinful acts (Romans 6.23). While all humans possess this sinful nature (a very strong disposition to disobey the commands of God), they are still held accountable (Jeremiah 31.30) by the choices they make. The Scriptures also teach that as long as man does not regularly look to God and his codified law as the objective standard, then the natural standard becomes man himself (Exodus 20; Romans 1.18-32). Therefore, if man is the objective standard, then he is a law unto himself and determines what is right or wrong irrespective of what harm he may do to others. The existence of government acknowledges that man has a propensity to make himself the governing standard of his life and, without the existence of external or universal laws, must be restrained so that basic freedoms are protected for all. If man does not acknowledge the higher law of obedience to God, then he will surely acknowledge the lower or immediate law of a government institution. This is the very reason Paul calls the government the ministers of God, because they are his representatives in restraining the sinfulness of man, thus ensuring the protection of those basic rights we hold dear (Romans 13.4).
As Paul states in Romans 13, we are obligated to respect those in positions of authority as ministers of God. We ought to pray for them whether they acknowledge God or not (1 Timothy 2.2). The Bible tells us that the king's heart is in the hands of God (Proverbs 21.1). Governments that acknowledge the supreme laws of God, will be more benevolent in nature. Governments that do not acknowledge the laws of God will be more oppressive. No government is perfect because it is made up of sinful men (Romans 3.11), however, those who have received Christ are obligated to remain in good standing with their governing officials as long as those officials do not obligate anything that violates the supreme laws of God.
What can we conclude about Government? It was not a part of the original creation. As long as man remained in direct communion with God and obeyed his commands, there was no need for an agent or agency to act as a restraint against man’s disobedience. To state it another way, the enforcing of God’s law (by an external, earthly source) was not a necessary institution as long as God remained the center of Adam and Eve's world. However, after the fall a proverbial pandora's box of sin was opened and man has been in a perpetual state of degeneration. Therefore the Lord established government as a means of checking corruption at the door of society.
A Deeper Look into the Word of God
Lex Rex: Obeying God’s Law in Man’s Kingdom
First Principles: As a part of our Core Values, we affirm that Scripture is our final rule in faith and practice. Therefore in the case of the Christian’s relationship to government, we must allow the testimony of Scripture to shape how we think:
It has been argued that when Jesus preached his sermon on the mount, the message was specifically crafted for his disciples and all those who would follow after them. Building upon this teaching, Augustine espoused the two-kingdom philosophy; that is, that the world of men is governed by a set of rules (the rule of law set forth by man) with the disciples of Christ being governed by the law of love (the law of God written on their hearts). Those who reside in the kingdom of man are subject to the laws of man and those who reside in the kingdom of God are subject to the laws of God. The implication here is that all believers reside in two kingdoms. This is clearly echoed in Paul’s statement in Corinthians that we are ambassadors of Christ (2 Cor. 5.20). We are subject to the rules of a foreign land as long as they do not violate the rules of our commissioning king. A good ambassador is well versed in the laws of his own kingdom, but also well versed in the laws of the kingdom to which they are commissioned. Peter articulates this continual tension between the two kingdoms when brought before the Sanhedrin:
“[The Sanhedrin] called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John replied, 'Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.' ” (4.18-20)
“The apostles were brought in and made to appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. 'We gave you strict orders not to teach in the name,' he said. 'Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.' Peter and the other apostles replied: 'We must obey God rather than human beings!' " (5.27-29)
In the world of Peter and the apostles, their allegiance lies with God not with men. But, as long as man’s decrees do not violate God’s, they are subject to them. We also see this same understanding in Paul. However, Paul uses the law of the land against his persecutors. Where his persecutors did not use the law effectively to convict Paul of any crime, we find that Paul uses the law as a protection against his own life (26.32) and as a means to prosecute those who violated his rights (16.37). Neither Peter nor Paul ignored the laws of the land, especially if they did not conflict with the law of God. In addition, they understood that if they violated the laws of man, they were subject to the consequences of violation. When they were arrested, they went willingly, not fighting, not calling down angels, not causing blindness to their persecutors, but willingly just as Christ did.
While on earth we are subject to the laws of man, but we are ultimately subject to the law of God. Through the Holy Spirit, the disciples were able to obey God's law in the face of persecution and, as a result, served as witnesses of God's promises which testify to His faithfulness.
Furthermore, especially in the case of Paul, it is important that the believer, in his communication of the Gospel, always remains above reproach in all situations. The only accusation that should be levied against the believer is that they preached Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world and the fulfillment of God’s promise to all mankind.
Below are supporting verses outlining how both the antagonistic Jews/Gentiles and the apostles and their advocates used the law to their advantage. These verses also outline how the apostle responded when faced with a choice of either obeying God or man’s law. In addition, they outline how the apostles always remained above reproach in the eyes of the law. Just as Jesus was not found guilty of any crime (13.28), the apostles' persecutors could find no legal grounds for a death sentence. Evaluate these verses for yourself. What do you think?
16.21 – Accusation: “…These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.”
16.37 – Rebuttal: “They beat us publicly without a trial, even though we are Roman citizens, and threw us into prison. And now do they want to get rid of us quietly? No! Let them come themselves and escort us out.”
17.7 – Accusation: “…They are all defying Caesar’s decree, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.”
18.13 – Accusation: “This man…is persuading the people to worship God in ways contrary to the law.”
18.14 – Rebuttal: “If you Jews were making a complaint about some misdemeanor or serious crime, it would be reasonable for me to listen to you…settle the matter yourselves. I will not be a judge of such things.”
19.37 – Rebuttal: “You have brought these men here, though they have neither robbed temples nor blasphemed our goddess…the courts are open and there are proconsuls…If there is anything further you want to bring up, it must be settled in a legal assembly.”
23.29 – Rebuttal: “I have found that the accusation had to do with questions about their law, but there was no charge against him that deserved death or imprisonment.”
25.18 – Rebuttal: “I told them that it is not the Roman custom to hand over anyone before they have faced their accusers and have had an opportunity to defend themselves against the charges…When his accusers got up to speak, they did not charge him with any of the crimes I had expected…I was at a loss how to investigate such matters…”
25.25 – Rebuttal: “I found he had done nothing deserving of death, but because he made his appeal to the Emperor I decided to send him to Rome…it is unreasonable to send a prisoner on to Rome without specifying the charges against him.”
26.30 – Rebuttal: “This man is not doing anything that deserves death or imprisonment…this man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.”
28.17 – Rebuttal: “My brothers, although I have done nothing against our people or against the customs of our ancestors, I was arrested in Jerusalem and handed over to the Romans. They examined me and wanted to release me, because I was not guilty of any crime deserving death…I was compelled to make an appeal to Caesar; I certainly did not intend to bring any charge against my own people.”
28.21 – Compare: “…we have not received any letters from Judea concerning you, and none of our people who have come from there has reported or said anything bad about you.”