In our postmodern age, most political philosophers would not look towards the Bible to discover the origins of government or its ideal system. Like some of the most influential thinkers of modern political philosophy—John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau—they ground the origin of government in a social contract designed to escape the state of nature and the ideal system of government in an order that exists to protect the security or natural rights of human beings. Even some Christians have come to accept these modern secular accounts on the origins and purpose of government. However, the Bible states in 2nd Timothy 3:16-17 that “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.” Working from the axiom that, as the Westminster Confession of Faith of 1646 states, “The Whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture…”, this article will explore the foundations and proper form of government from a biblical and Christian perspective. In this article, I will examine the Biblical basis for government
Why It Matters
In the early 1900s, the culture war over the presence of God in society took the form of battles surrounding the constitutionality of school prayer or whether the theory of evolution should be taught in public schools. Now, the dominant battles surround controversial public displays of the Ten Commandments or crosses on public property. Clearly, then, the conflict between the forces of religion and secularization in society has been occurring for quite some time and will continue to occur well into the foreseeable future. To see when this conflict began and what shape it first took, one need not to look any further than the early modern political philosophy of the Age of Enlightenment in the late 1600s and 1700s.
It was during this time that influential thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau revolutionized the realm of political philosophy by formulating the social contract theory. This radical idea taught that all governing authorities derived their powers from the consent of the masses rather than from the divine right of God. Furthermore, rather than its purpose being to promote virtue into the political community—as the classical philosophers and medieval scholastic theologians had taught—the purpose of government according to the early modern political philosophers was to guard individuals from the dangers of the state of nature and ensure the preservation of their natural rights by the means of representative governance. Living in the thoroughly-secularized society of contemporary United States, these teachings are taken as a given. However, to the European of the early modern period emerging from the late middle ages, these would have been strange and alien notions.
Once these secular theories of government replaced the religious ones, it was only a matter of time before other similar secular and natural explanations of phenomena spread to the rest of society, and thus, the modern world would be born. Even some Christian theologians and philosophers—with their political inclinations steeped in the American system founded by the philosophy of early modern thinkers such as John Locke—base their theories of government on secular and humanistic grounds rather than Scripture, claiming that the Bible has nothing substantive to say on the matter. However, the Bible itself claims otherwise.
In his second letter to Timothy, the Apostle Paul is unequivocal in his affirmation that the Scriptures sufficiently provide the Christian with all the teaching he needs to live a good life in this world:
All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.
2nd Timothy 3:16-17
This passage shows that before turning to secular thinkers and philosophical systems, Christians should first turn to the inspired word of God. Great theologians in past ages recognized this fact and the implications it had for all areas of life. In the Westminster Confession of Faith of 1646, the Assembly of Divines had this to say on the matter:
The Whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture…
Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter I, Section 6
For Christians who confess that the Bible is the inerrant inspired word of God and the sufficient and ultimate authority on all teachings concerning faith and life, it would be foolish not to establish (or at least attempt to establish) one’s political philosophy on Scripture. Having compounded upon the historical conflict between the forces of religion and secularization as beginning in early modern political philosophy and how Christians ought to form their own political philosophy on Scriptural rather than secular grounds, the remainder of this essay will briefly expound on Scripture’s view of the purpose and form of the governing authorities in their present form, otherwise known as the state.
The Biblical State Under the New Testament
Before discussing verses that might suggest the institution of a state, there must be a quick caveat on definitions. For the purposes of this essay, the definition of “state” must have a working definition and will be distinguished from the definition of “government.” The word “government” will follow one definition from the English Oxford Dictionary and be defined as “the action or manner of controlling or regulating a state, organization, or people” (Oxford Dictionary). The definition of state will also follow the English Oxford Dictionary and be defined as “a nation or territory considered as an organized political community under one government.” This may seem like a redundant definitional distinction, but the importance is in its aspect of political community.
The sort of government described early in human history according to the biblical book of Genesis controlled and regulated humans and their actions through God’s direct theocratic rule or the threat of retaliation from other men. There was not yet concentration of government in a centralized political power, and there is no direct record or particular narrative in the bible of a direct institution of such state power. Though many verses have been suggested, this essay will only focus on the important implications of the most popular of the state institution verses, Romans 13:1-7. It states:
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. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. 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. Wherefore ye must need be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.
The first significance of this passage is the explicit command for all to be under the authority of the state for the reason that God has providentially placed those authorities in power, making them a sort of minister of God’s justice. The exact nature of this divine grant of authority has been the subject of debate and competing interpretations amongst Christians since the earliest days of the church. The two main interpretations differ on the matter of whether this passage grants the present governing authorities—the state—a legitimate right to rule over the people or whether the powers are only ordained in the sense that God ordains all events to accomplish His particular plan in history. Regardless of which exact view is correct, what is important to note is that there is a positive command for Christians—whether the higher powers be legitimate or not—to submit themselves under their authority.
The second significance of this passage is that the governing authorities are to be a terror to evil conduct and also a minister of God to praise good conduct. Moreover, the state even wields the power of the sword—capital punishment—to execute retaliatory and retributory punishment on those who commit evil. Now, what sorts of actions are meant by “good” and “evil” in this passage? Lying and adultery may be evil, but would this passage condone the use of the state to punish these sorts of actions? The original context and audience might give some indications of the sorts of actions Paul—the author of Romans—had in mind.
At the time this letter was written, the rulers and citizens of the Roman Empire were highly suspicious of the relatively new Christian religion that was opposed to the polytheistic worship and ritual sacrifice that was customary in the ancient world. Furthermore, when Christians proclaimed that Jesus Christ—not the Roman Emperor—was the true Son of God, it was seen not only as an affront to the established religion but also as a seditious threat to the public order. All this goes to show that in the times before Constantine’s conversion and the official toleration of Christianity, the world of the Roman Empire was very hostile to Christian doctrines and virtues. So, when Paul writes that the higher powers are a terror to good and not to evil, he could not have meant to imply that statement to be fully inclusive of all moral conduct. As a Christian, Paul would certainly have believed that the sporadic persecutions of the Roman authorities were a terror to the good of promoting the Christian Gospel and were praising pagan religion in being such a terror.
Rather, it would be more reasonable to infer that, when Paul in this passage writes of the authorities being a terror to evil and praising good, he has in mind the general keeping of the public order through punishing crimes against a person’s life and property, such as murder and theft. These governmental roles of protecting a person’s negative liberties against uninitiated aggression are fairly consistent across all states in history. This is of course not to say that they are never guilty of violating these roles, as is evident in the persecution of Christians in Paul’s time as well as in modern atrocities such as the Holocaust. However, in the context of Paul and the early Christians in the Roman Empire, the sort of good works that Christians could expect praise from the rulers from is the good of respecting an individual’s right to life, liberty, and property, and infractions against these rights would be the evil they could expect punishment for. Therefore, the historic context of the passage strongly suggests that Paul had a limited role of the state in mind in its primary function being to keep order by punishing crimes committed against a person and his property.
The final significance that this essay will note is the reason why taxes, fear, and respect are paid to the state. As an important side note, the final exhortation from Paul to pay all their dues again does not say anything about the moral legitimacy of state taxation. Nevertheless, whether the state’s use of coercion to collect its funds is condoned in this passage or not, the reason for a Christian to pay taxes is because of the state’s power of the sword from God and also for conscience. Whether this “conscience” is a moral intuition not to rebel against God’s legitimate minister of justice or a pragmatic reason to pay tribute (since going to jail for tax evasion is impractical) can be debated. Yet even if the legitimacy of taxation is not expressly set forth in the text of Romans 13, the fact remains that the passage exhorts Christians to pay all tribute, fear and honor to whom they are due.
So, based off of Romans 13, the biblical mode of a state, or at least the kind Paul seems to advocate in the New Testament, is a limited form of government. Its primary role as a minister of God is to administer justice so that those who do evil are fearful and those who do good are praised. Furthermore, the kind of justice that the state enforces is primarily—as the context of Romans 13 shows—the kind that both Christians and non-Christians in the Roman Empire could agree on: punishing crimes against persons and property like theft and murder. Finally, the reason why Christians are to submit to the state and pay taxes is out of recognition of its power and for the sake of conscience.
After outlining the historic background and conflict between the different methods of secular and religious political philosophy, this essay has explored the Bible’s perspective on government, particularly that of the state as outlined in Romans 13. First, it is noted that submission to the state is commanded in light of God’s providential use of those in power as ministers of justice. Second, it is also noted that the governing authorities are to inspire fear in those who are evil and also to respect those who are good, primarily through protecting a person’s rights to life and property. Finally, it should be duly noted that the reason why fearful respect and taxes are paid to the state is due to its coercive power as an instrument of God’s wrath as well as for conscientious reasons. So, based on conclusions, it would seem that the primary reason for the state’s existence according to Scripture is to punish crimes against the person and property, such as murder or theft, for the sake of preserving civil order. Hopefully, this essay will leave both Christians and aspiring students of political philosophy in general that Scripture does indeed have much to say on matters of government and the state, and consequently, on the modern culture war over the relationship between church and state.
Cayden is presently a senior at the University of Texas at Austin. He grew up in the West Texas town of Midland. Majoring in government and minoring in philosophy of law, his interests include learning about theology, philosophy, history, politics and how all these things play into one another. Moreover, he also enjoys watching classic films, visiting landmarks, and having deep discussions with friends. After graduating, Cayden plans to work in politics before eventually attending law school.