The Bible clearly addresses the role Christians are to play in government. The Bible describes four types of government. They are self-government, family government, church government and civil government. Unfortunately, many church leaders are either biblically ignorant on this issue or too fearful to teach how the Bible addresses the cultural issues dealing with government. However, this knowledge is absolutely essential in maintaining our liberties and the freedom to worship God. Following are just a few references that address this issue. Books and references to this topic follow in the sub-sections located under government.
Christians and Civil Government
Civil government is just one of the means ordained by God for ruling and maintaining order in communities. The Bible describes self-government as the first form of government. It is one of a number of such governments including ministers in the church, parents in the home and civil magistrates. Each such means has its own sphere of authority under Christ, who now rules and sustains creation, and the limits of each sphere are set by reference to the others. In our fallen world these authorities are institutions of God's "common grace" (kindly providence), standing as a bulwark against anarchy and the dissolution of ordered society.
With reference to Romans 13: 1 - 7 and 1 Peter 2: 13 - 17, the Westminster Confession explains the sphere of government as follows:
God, the supreme Lord and King of all the world, hath ordained civil magistrates, to be, under Him, over the people, for his own glory, and the public good; to this end hath armed them with the power of the sword, for the defense of and encouragement of them that are good, and for the punishment of evil doers...Civil magistrates many not assume to themselves the administration of the Word and sacraments; or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven (23: 1, 3).
Because civil government exists for the welfare of the whole society, God gives it the "power of the sword" the lawful use of force to administer just laws (Romans 13: 4). Christians must acknowledge this as part of God's order (Romans 13: 1, 2). A government may collect taxes for the services it renders (Mathew 22: 15 - 21; Romans 13: 6, 7). But if it forbids what God requires or requires what God forbids, Christians cannot submit, and some form of civil disobedience becomes inescapable (Acts 4: 18 - 31; 5: 17 - 29).
The church's sphere of authority relates to the civil government at the level of morality. The church has the responsibility to comment on the morality of governments and their policies on the basis of God's word, but should not appropriate to itself the power to set such policies. Whereas these assessments may foster political action among Christians, they should act in their capacity as citizens rather than as representatives of the church. In this way the Gospel works through moral persuasion and the working of God's grace among citizens.
Christians should urge the governments to fulfill its proper role. They are to pray for, obey, and yet watch over civil governments ( 1 Timothy 2: 1 - 4; 1 Peter 2: 13 14), reminding the magistrates that God ordained them to rule justly, provide protection, and keep order.
1. New Geneva Study Bible, Editor R.C. Sproul, Thomas Nelson Publishers, April 1995, Nashville.
The key that makes American government work so well is the existence of separate jurisdictions of government. The Founders believed that by having numerous levels of civil government they political power could be dispersed. To keep the republic intact they needed to maintain the principle of limited civil government. They knew the natural inclination is for fallen human beings to seek a civil government that will take care of them and meet their needs by taxing (stealing from) their neighbors. In contrast to that idea the Founders wanted a government that was built with self-governing people. The more that people were self-governing, the less dependent the people would become on a big government. The ultimate objective was to maintain a form of limited representative government that would allow for individuals to flourish under a very limited and small civil government.
Summary of Principles
The limitations in jurisdiction and authority are placed upon government institutions by God’s Law, made necessary by the depravity of sinful human nature, are recognized in Biblically-grounded constitutional checks and balances listed as (1) separation of powers horizontally (2) separation of powers vertically and (3) checks and balances on civil power by way of the interposition of lower magistrates.
1. Legislative, Executive, Judicial - Isaiah 33: 22
2. Federal, State, Local - Exodus 18: 21-26, Duet. 1: 15
3. Joshua 2: 1-16, 2nd Sam. 24: 3, !st Kings 12: 16-24, 18: 3-4, 2nd Chron. 21: 10, 26: 20
The Limits of Government
A Praise and a Terror
by Eric Rauch
A recurring question in the history of the church is the proper relationship between church and state. This important question must be resolved if Christians in the 21st century desire to continue the legacy of the Reformation of which we are all benefactors. The men and women of the 16th century had determined a course of action, founded upon the Scriptures, that forever changed Europe and England and led to the exploration, colonization, and formation of the New World. Although we are grateful for that heritage, we should also be looking toward the future. The decisions that we make today will determine—100, 200, even 500 years from now—whether our own descendants will be grateful for or ashamed of the legacy that we leave behind.
Providentially, we are not left without guides to help us along this difficult path of the church’s response—and duty—to the society and the civil government surrounding it. We tend to think that our modern civilization has unique problems that cannot be informed by history, that we must find our own answers, and this is a primary factor as to why the modern church has been mostly ineffectual in its calling to be an agent of change. The settings and the technology may change, but the heart of man is still the same. Man is the same sinner today that he was 500—and 5000—years ago. Our modern problems do not require modern solutions, they require ancient ones—the ones taught in the Bible.
Originally published in 1853, James Willson’s The Establishment and Limits of Civil Government is a remarkably timely book. Writing in a day not dissimilar to our own—one where citizens were looking for answers to civil and societal problems—Willson’s clear and powerful exposition of Romans 13:1-7 is as relevant today as it was 150 years ago. Sounding somewhat prophetic, Willson writes this in the first chapter of his book:
The pulpit has been compelled to enter this field—long almost abandoned. An age of, at least, attempted social reformation, has driven every party in turn to seek the powerful aid of the Christian ministry, and while we cannot in many instances find much to commend in the manner in which the subject has been presented, it is still so far well, that portions of the word of God which exhibit the character, functions, and claims of civil power, are no longer regarded as forbidden ground. (p. 16)
Willson’s description of the 1850’s could well serve as a modern survey of the political landscape of 2010. It is true that the Bible is referred to rather often as a source of wisdom and authority, unfortunately it is being used to justify the welfare and social enslavement programs of the political left. Making appeals to Scripture to help the poor and the weak is certainly a right and noble thing, but using it as a means to weave the state even more in the fabric of society is certainly not. Willson rightly points out, by appealing to Romans 13 and other supporting passages from the Old and New Testaments, that government’s role is not one of provision, but of protection.
It is not affirmed that the execution of law consists entirely in acts of punitive character… Such a notion is most derogatory to the magistrate and the government. The civil ruler would then be no more than a policeman, and government a system of police. Government has higher functions. It is a “praise” to them that do well. And, hence, it takes an interest in all that promotes a quiet, industrious and moral behavior—it provides for the education of the people—it ought to interest itself in the maintenance of pure religious observations. (pp. 69-70)
Quite unlike modern conceptions of “law,” Willson further states: “By inflicting penalties, [the magistrate] exhibits the desert of transgression, and shows that law is, indeed, law—that it is no mere nerveless utterance of the supreme power, but a thing of life and of energy” (p. 71). In other words, law in society is not only punitive, but a positive force as well; it reinforces the good while at the same time condemning the evil. Or, as Paul puts it: “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: 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 13:3-4).
As the title of the book aptly demonstrates, God has created the civil government and given it certain authority. Likewise, God has given the church a role and authority to carry out its mission. Just as God created the sea and the land and gave them boundaries that they may not cross (Job 38:8-11), God has given jurisdictions to both church and state and a society will only operate properly when those limitations and boundaries are carefully observed. The question is not one of church OR state, but of church AND state. Both have been ordained by God.
Examples could be multiplied and this review could be as long, if not longer, than the book itself. Willson has done his task by correctly expositing the text of Romans 13:1-7, but he also did not try to write the definitive answer on the topic. His book is brief, but it effectively answers the most pressing questions and concerns about the Christian’s place in civil society. The final chapter of the book, which is its longest, anticipates and answers most of the objections that will be raised. Amazingly, the objections that Willson answers are the very same ones that modern Christians have been voicing in the church/state debate for the last 50 years; some things never change. Willson rightly diagnoses the issue as one of obedience and he cuts to the heart of matter with these remarks:
Romans 13:1-7] embrace the discharge of all civil duties, the whole subject of obedience to the law; and the motives by which these are enforced are, throughout, religious. That is not true religion whose practical influence extends no farther than acts of devotion, or to relations merely domestic and ecclesiastical… The sincere Christian will be a Christian in the mart of business, in the hall of legislation, in the seat of science, in the executive chair, and in the walks of social intercourse. (p. 88)
Due in no small part to the republication of this important and practical book, may God be pleased to raise up generations of obedient and sincere Christians. The church and the country are in desperate need of them.
The Necessary Limits of Government
Jurisdictional separation deals with the legitimate and limited boundaries of authority. A person who owns a piece of property has jurisdiction over his own property, but he does not have jurisdiction over someone else’s property. A property owner can only “speak the law” (juris = law + diction = speak) within the confines of the boundaries of his own property. In this way, a property owner’s jurisdiction is limited. Property lines are legal entities that limit authority.
What’s true of property is also true of civil governments. State governments have limited jurisdictional authority. A state government and its courts can only “speak the law,” have jurisdiction over, those who reside within the boundaries of the state or those passing through. That’s why each state has its own constitution, courts, and elected officials. An elected official in one state has no jurisdictional authority in or over another state.
In the same way, the Federal government’s jurisdiction is designed to be limited by the Constitution, although such limitations are not often acknowledged by the courts, the President, or Congress. These delegated agencies are always attempting to test the limits of their specified boundary markers. Nevertheless, the Constitution is a jurisdictionally limited document in that its enumerated powers are the only ones it possesses. Powers not specified in the Constitution are retained by the individual states as set forth in their constitutions. These Federal jurisdictional limitations are set forth in the Ninth and Tenth Amendments to the Constitution:
Ninth: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”
Tenth: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
Jurisdictional limitation at all levels of civil government is one of the governmental principles that makes America a stable and free nation.
When the Constitution was signed on September 17, 1787, it did not contain a Bill of Rights. The constitution as originally drafted was sent to the states for ratification. The Federalists supported it while the Anti-Federalists opposed it. The Anti-Federalists wanted a Bill of Rights, a bill of further restrictions. The Federalists argued that a Bill of Rights was unnecessary since the Constitution created a national government of enumerated powers. With this form of government, unless a power was actually spelled out in the document, it did not exist. Since the Constitution did not give the national government legislative power over religion, Federalists considered a Bill of Rights unnecessary and even dangerous. To mention a subject was thought to give the Federal government control over it. John Jay stated it this way:
Silence and blank paper neither grant nor take away anything. Complaints are also made that the proposed Constitution is not accompanied by a bill of rights; and yet they who make the complaints know, and are content, that no bill of rights accompanied the constitution of this State [New York].
Jay failed to note George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776), the English Bill of Rights (1689), and earlier English political documents such as Magna Charta (1215). The specification of rights was part of English history that served as an example to those who had a public mistrust of government.
The Anti-Federalists disagreed with the claim that silence made rights undeniable. They had an innate and historical suspicion of centralized civil government. Without further restraints on basic individual rights, they feared that the Federal government could exercise powers not granted to it because they were not prohibited by the Constitution. They argued that a formal declaration of rights was essential to secure certain liberties. Virginia, New York, Rhode Island, and North Carolina requested amendments concerning freedom of religion, press, assembly, and speech. The Virginia Convention stated the following regarding religion in Article 16 of the Virginia Declaration of Rights:
That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore, all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other.
Borrowing language from the Declaration of Independence, the Federalists made it clear that this and other rights are not granted by civil governments but are “natural and unalienable.”
The Anti-Federalists won the argument. Their mistrust of government was broad enough that the states insisted on adding amendments over the objections of the Federalists. Twelve amendments were put forth by James Madison, but only ten were adopted and voted on.
Fear of jurisdictional usurpation was as real 220 years ago as it is today. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough people who see it as a problem. If we are ever to win back our nation, understanding jurisdictional limitations is a necessary first step.
Henry P. Johnston, ed., The Correspondence and Public Papers of John Jay: 1782–1793, 4 Vols. (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1891), 3:305–306. [↩]
Adopted unanimously June 12, 1776 by the Virginia Convention of Delegates. [↩]
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