“Government is not reason; it is not eloquence; it is force! Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.” (George Washington)
Some say Religion and Politics are the two subjects one should not discuss in polite company, so I guess I’ll have some fun and dip my toes in both ponds at the same time. The Bible has a lot to say about government. That should not be too surprising, given that the central subject is the supreme Governor of the world. In the midst of a time when politics can be highly contentious, the Bible provides many important principles to guide our thinking. Here are a select few.
We should desire good rulers and we should pray for our rulers.
“I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.” (I Timothy 2:1-2)
This verse implicitly acknowledges the direct impact that those in authority have on the lives of the people they govern. For this reason, we ought to desire that those in authority govern with justice and wisdom. By going to God in prayer first we also recognize that, though politics is a tool, God alone is Savior. By praying for both rulers we like and rulers we dislike, we put our faith in God rather than man. Moreover, it is an opportunity to love our neighbor whether or not we get our way in any given political battle.
We should be subject to the higher powers.
“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.” (Romans 13:1)
Rightly followed, this principle can make Christians simultaneously the most loyal, law-abiding citizens and also those best positioned to advocate for righteous societal reform or stand against tyranny. On one hand, Christians should obey earthly authorities as though they are obeying God himself. In doing so, they will be a delight to their rulers and will provide stability to their society. On the other hand, this verse makes clear that all earthly authorities are derived authorities. No earthly authority is absolute, and so Christians will not offer blind allegiance to the evil dictates of corrupt rulers. They have a higher authority.
Perhaps it was on this basis that when Peter and the other apostles were commanded by the high priest not to preach Jesus, they replied: “We ought to obey God rather than men.”
Government is Force.
“For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” (Romans 13:4)
Government can do things nobody else has the right to do, and they can do so on threat of force. They bear the sword. They can confiscate your money; they can deprive criminals of their freedom; they can execute murderers.
We should govern ourselves.
“Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:10)
The Bible teaches us that if we live according to love, then we become a law unto ourselves. Much of Government’s role is to prevent us from doing ill to our neighbor. If I love my neighbor, then I will not contaminate his drinking water; I will not steal his chickens; I will not promise to build his barn, get paid, and then fail to do it.
Over the years I have heard a number of people quote Thomas Jefferson as saying, “That government is best which governs the least.” And, rightly so, Christians often tend to favor limited government. How wonderful would it be to live in a society where government has minimal interference in the lives of its people and serves only those purposes that only it can serve. However, there is an important caveat that is revealed by looking at the next part of Jefferson’s quote:
That government is best which governs the least, because its people discipline themselves.
Self-government. Personal responsibility. Morality. Discipline. These are principles without which a free society cannot exist. And when they are not present among a people, the door is open for tyranny.
We must not make an idol of government.
“Now make us a king to judge us like all the nations.” (I Samuel 8:5b)
We ought to earnestly desire a just and righteous government. However, we must also recognize that government is not our savior. Neither politics nor government can solve our deepest problems. Government cannot purify mens’ hearts, heal human divisions, or enrich the land.
When ancient Israel asked for its first earthly king, Samuel warned them of the mild tyranny that even a relatively decent king would bring about. God also characterized their desire for more powerful government as a Spiritual condition: they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them.
Government is accountable to God.
“And he hath on his vesture and on his thigh a name written, King Of Kings, And Lord Of Lords.” (Revelation 19:16)
Jesus is the King of Kings, and as such, all earthly powers and authorities are accountable to him. It is on this basis that Christians can speak truth to power, advocate for social reform, seek justice for the oppressed, and oppose tyranny. The most powerful kings have their own king, as one mighty ruler learned so long ago:
“The most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will, and setteth up over it the basest of men.” (Daniel 4:17b)