For nearly 2,000 years, Christian believers have differed concerning the proper role of earthly governments and what, if anything, Christians should seek to accomplish through them. For more than four centuries, they lived under the authority of imperial Rome, which sometimes looked like God’s agent (Rom. 13:1-7) and at other times like an enemy beast (Rev. 13). Jesus acknowledged Caesar’s limited realm (Luke 20:19-25) but reminded Pilate that all authority came from God (John 19:10-11). Some believers would use the state as an arm of the church. Within a century after Constantine legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire, Theodosius made it the Empire’s official religion. In the 16th century, Calvin put Geneva’s government under church leaders. Today the Christian Reconstructionists and other “theonomists” would like to pass earthly laws straight from the Bible.
Other believers have seen the folly in theocratic schemes. Augustine wrote The City of God to remind that the two were not the same. Luther saw church and state as separate but coordinate spheres. Anabaptists usually avoided worldly government altogether. U.S. leaders have long sensed a moral mission, though usually as individuals and not as state. John Winthrop urged his Massachusetts Bay Puritans in 1630 to become “a city upon a hill,” and 1991 saw President George H.W. Bush challenge Americans by their good works to be “the illumination of a thousand points of light.” More recently, several founders and leaders of the Moral Majority have publicly acknowledged that their efforts to achieve morality through legislation was misguided from the beginning.
Interestingly, both Old and New Testaments have a word about government’s proper purpose and moral goals. Psalm 72 describes the righteous king in terms of what we call civil law. According to this Psalm, the king that pleases God is one whose reign results in what is just and right (v. 1-3) — “justice” and “equity” in the parlance of Anglo-American jurisprudence. The righteous ruler is particularly sensitive to the plight of the poor and needy who, lacking the power (economic, political or otherwise) to protect themselves, often become helpless victims of the wicked who possess all forms of power (v. 4, 12-14). Old Testament prophets regularly denounce injustice against the poor and weak as a sin equally heinous to religious apostasy. The New Testament continues the theme as James warns the powerful unjust of their coming judgment (James 5:1-6). On the other hand, the hall of faithful people in Hebrews 11 includes ruling judges, kings and prophets “who through faith . . . enforced justice” (v. 33).
Earthly government is instituted by God for a particular purpose, says Paul in Romans 13, and rulers are accountable to God for how they fulfill that purpose, pictured here in terms of what we call criminal law (v. 1). Government is charged with approving citizens who do right and punishing those who do wrong (v. 3-4). This function is God-given, and its exercise deserves support through taxes paid by those for whom it is carried out (v. 6-7). Interestingly, neither Psalm 72, Romans 13 or any other passage of Scripture prescribes or even suggests how the goals they commend are to be implemented or accomplished. Rather than giving a road-map, the Bible offers a compass. In a democracy such as we enjoy in the USA (but which many gracEmail subscribers elsewhere do not), this leaves room for political parties, theories and programs, about which Christians are not required or expected always to agree — a point which we also do well to remember.