Attaque: What’s in a Government?

You bring up some interesting questions concerning religion and politics. However, instead of addressing any of these head-on. I begin with a brief exploration of the purpose of government in general. This will provide the necessary framework for further discussion, and will hopefully serve to illuminate some of the more challenging specific issues. In this post I will present a theory for the purpose of government. If you find fault in this theory then we can discuss it further. If it seems satisfactory then feel free to move on to the (perhaps more interesting) particulars.

First I will examine the biblical perspective. The Bible stops well short of telling us what types of governments are best, or what political party we should vote for, however there are certainly some general principles that we can derive. The only specifically endorsed government type in the Bible is the theocracy of the early part of the Hebrew Scriptures. However, this form of government only applies to a very specific situation in which God has entered a covenant with his chosen people. There is no clear analogue in modern society. Perhaps this is the form of government that we could expect in heaven. One of the clearest passages on government is written by Paul in Romans 13:1-4.

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.

The thrust of this passage is an instruction to submit to authority. However, in explaining why we should submit, it reveals the purpose of government. The passage begins by telling us that government is established by God and then goes on to explain that God has created government for a twofold purpose: 1) to do us good, and 2) to punish those who do wrong. These purposes are intertwined, in that the punishment does good to both the punished and whomever might be harmed by the wrongful act.

While this is the beginnings of a biblical view of government, it seems unsatisfactorily vague. What does “do us good” mean? I believe that more can be derived from this passage if we put it within a broader framework. We should remember that: 1) mankind is made in the image of God, and 2) mankind is fallen. I believe that the image of God confers a will, with which we can do good or evil and for which we are morally responsible. God has given us this will so that we can exercise it (ideally so that we can exercise it to glorify him). Thus one of the key ways in which government does us good is in protecting our ability to act according to our will. Government keeps the weak from being dominated by the strong. Hence, it is fairly straightforward to argue within the biblical view that a government that affords the freedom of its people is preferable to a government of slavery. The problem with freedom is that it allows people to do evil. In fact, given mankind’s fallen nature, it assures that people will do evil. This leads to government’s second purpose – to punish the wrongdoer. The power of authority to punish provides both disincentive to commit wrongful acts as well as justice for wrongful acts already committed. Furthermore, the law acts as a signpost to the lost. While the law has no power for salvation, it can point the sinner in the direction of righteousness.

A statement often heard today is, “You shouldn’t legislate morality.” The person making this statement has either not thought very hard about the subject or is assuming some narrow definition for morality. What is law if not an expression of a moral code? What this person probably means to say is either: a) you shouldn’t criminalize something when it doesn’t harm anyone else, or b) you shouldn’t criminalize something when it isn’t generally agreed that it is wrong. Statement a) seems to match with the purpose of providing liberty stated above. Specifically, if government’s purpose is to protect the will of the individual then it should protect that will until it begins to impinge on another individual’s will – the old adage, “Your freedom to swing your arms about as you wish ends at the tip of my nose.” However, this is not the full story, for a further purpose of law is as a signpost toward the True Good. The purpose of providing moral direction also appears to oppose statement b), and in letter it does. By the biblical view, God is the basis for the moral code that government supports. However, while God is the basis, and therefore this basis is not contingent upon what is “generally agreed,” the specific manifestation of this moral code within the law is likely to be dependent on the culture that is being governed. I suggest the following principle: one should legislate morality to the extent that it protects others and to the extent that it successfully acts as a signpost toward salvation. Note that the qualification “successfully” may in some cases result in a conclusion similar to point b) above. For example, scripture is clear that extramarital sex is wrong. However, this is so ubiquitous within our society that criminalizing it would not successfully bring people toward God. On the contrary, it would most likely drive people away from righteousness by making them feel as if other people were forcing “their morals” onto them. Thus the law must keep an intricate balance between promoting personal freedom and providing moral direction, and the details of this balance will depend on culture. I am not claiming a moral relativity, but simply am stating that there must be some minimum level of receptivity within society in order for a law concerning personal morality to effect its purpose.

So far, I have examined a biblical view of government. I will close with a brief look at the preamble of our own constitution.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

One can immediately see some of the same elements in this “statement of purpose.” The government is to establish justice, promote the common good, and provide freedom for the citizen. Again, most of these purposes come back to individual liberty. The reason government wields the power to common defence is in order to keep the life and freedom of the individual from being taken away by other powers. The purpose of providing a moral direction is not explicitly mentioned here, though one could take that to be included within promoting the general welfare.

In summary, I view the purposes of government as:

  1. Provide for the common good
  2. Implement justice
  3. Protect the freedom of the individual
  4. Provide moral direction

In order to fulfill these purposes, government should have the power to adjudicate conflicts between its citizens, to protect itself from internal upheaval, and to protect its citizens’ lives and liberties from attack by foreign powers.

Finally, I would be remiss not to mention that this entry took significant inspiration from Kerby Anderson’s article “Christian View of Government.” While I don’t necessarily agree with everything Kerby says, as usual he has a lot of sensible things to say.

Matt, the elder brother

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5 Responses to Attaque: What’s in a Government?

  1. nopockets says:

    I really like your line-up of what a government should do from a Christian perspective. It helped me to see some of these things (which I have recently questioned based on the upcoming elections) more ‘nailed down’. This is something I really need to explore since it is something that I have become more confused about as I have grown older. One thing that has changed for me more recently is, like you mention, that sometimes laws the general public do not agree upon being based upon sound morality can in fact drive people away from Christianity rather than succeed as a means toward salvation. I am going to have to find Kerby Anderson’s article and see what I think about that. It seems that to me, politics (& its relation to religion) is something that I have found easy to put off for thinking about and dissecting another day and I never really have gotten around to putting some serious thought into the nitty gritty. Thanks, Matt!

  2. Carol says:

    I think the 1920s Prohibition laws would serve as good evidence for the downfalls of legislating morality. However, I do think that the government should act as a moral compass pointing people in the right direction. Just because a lot of people don’t find a particular sin wrong, doesn’t mean that the government should legalize or encourage that sin in any way.

  3. Matt says:

    Yes, I thought about prohibition. I agree that this is a good example of where one can go too far. Of course in this case, it would also be pretty difficult to argue for prohibition biblically. After all, Jesus’ first miracle was to make wine at a party. I chose not to use the example because of this additional complication. I would argue that prohibition was not only a case of trying to legislate too much of morality, but also a case of trying to legislate a misguided morality (this is another possible problem that one can run into).

  4. Matt says:

    Katie, I too have tended to shy away from this subject (I think the same can be said of James). I do think it’s important for us to think carefully about it though if we are to be effective Christian citizens. I assume you realize that there was a link in my post to Kerby’s article. In general Probe is a good place to look for thoughtful articles on Christianity, culture, and apologetics.

  5. Mr. H. says:

    Matt, everything you have thought through is very well done. As I’ve said before, because we are in a democracy, we have an obligation to “provide for the common good, implement justice, protect the freedom of the individual, and provide moral dirrection,” to quote your thesis. And, it makes it so easy, one doesn’t have to think very hard-just vote Republican! Remember, you’re not voting for the perfect individual-you’re just voting for someone who can be ‘an agent of wrath’ upon the wrongdoer. So. Matt, Carol and Katie (and whoever else), just vote Republican!

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