The Connections class I lead along with Gary Dirrim and Dan Becker is studying politics and government. Among other things, we’re seeking to identify principles Christians can use when thinking about how to relate to the civil government. Our goal is to arm Christians with biblical thinking in this area which will be useful to them as they navigate this election year and beyond.
This series of posts is designed with that same goal in mind – to supplement the teaching for those in the class and to introduce these concepts to those who are not. It’s not about telling fellow believers for whom they should vote but arming them with the decision-making apparatus they need to make that decision for themselves and to participate in the political process in ways that are God-honoring.
Prior to the Flood, the Bible describes the world like this:
The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.Genesis 6:5
Of course when Noah and his family left the Ark, the human heart had not changed. So, God established civil government to restrain evil. We aren’t told what form the government should take but we are told what it should do. Specifically, it should require the life of anyone who is a murderer:
And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being.
“Whoever sheds human blood,
by humans shall their blood be shed;
for in the image of God
has God made mankind.Genesis 9:5-6
So, the first responsibility of government is to value and protect human life.
Notice God “demands” this, it’s not a suggestion.
Fast forward to the New Testament and Romans 13, we get a similar view of God’s plan for government:
For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.Romans 13:4
This is a kind of mirror image of the passage in Genesis where the civil government is given the power of the sword to punish evil. (If you’d like a more thorough treatment of Christians and capital punishment, check out this post from a few years back.)
There’s one other thing God does soon after the Flood to restrain the spread of evil:
The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.Genesis 11:6-9
People had refused to follow God’s command to spread out and populate the earth. So, to make it more difficult for them to cooperate together in rebellion agains him, God separates them into people groups with their own languages. Individual nation-states with their own languages and cultures restrain the spread of evil. God does not intend government to be all-encompassing either in authority or geography. Only here in Genesis and later in Revelation do we see biblical references to a one-world government and in neither case is it portrayed as a positive good. This not only helps restrain evil but makes government more effective in carrying out its God-ordained role. The fewer people a ruler governs, the more accountable he or she is to them and the more effectively he or she is going to govern.
In Exodus 18 Moses is ruling the newly-freed nation of Israel all alone:
The next day Moses took his seat to serve as judge for the people, and they stood around him from morning till evening. When his father-in-law saw all that Moses was doing for the people, he said, “What is this you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit as judge, while all these people stand around you from morning till evening?”
Moses answered him, “Because the people come to me to seek God’s will. Whenever they have a dispute, it is brought to me, and I decide between the parties and inform them of God’s decrees and instructions.”Exodus 18:13-16
After observing this, Moses’ father-in-law Jethro tells him to concentrate on his role as the people’s representative before God and to leave other, lesser matters, to other capable men lest he wear himself out (Vv. 17-23) . As a result of Jethro’s advice, Moses instituted a system with leaders over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. Issues were handled at the lowest level possible with only the most difficult cases coming to Moses.
This is something the American Founders recognized when setting up our three branches of government, the balance of powers and the distinction between state governments and the federal government. Because we are fallen men and women, too much power concentrated with too few people is never a good thing. It allows evil to be compounded and unchecked and reduces the effectiveness of the rulers. This is called”subsidiarity.”
Subsidiarity is an organizing principle that says issues should be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. This means political decisions should be taken at a local level wherever possible, rather than by a central authority.
So, government is God’s idea and should be organized and run such that evil is restrained and, in particular, such that human life is valued and protected. Government is a common-grace institution tasked by God with providing temporal justice.
That’s what government is supposed to do. But how is it to be structured? While the Bible doesn’t answer that question directly, I believe we can make certain inferences based on what the Bible says it should do. That will be the topic of my next post.