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Religion & Liberty: Volume 7, Number 1

Biblical Foundations of Limited Government

    The proper role of government, the central concern of political theory, has long been a controversial issue within Christendom. Disputes continue today. From right to left, clerics claim that God stands on their side. There is, it seems, no simple Christian view of the state. And for good reason: Holy Scripture and church tradition give us guidelines and principles, but no detailed blueprint as to godly government. On most individual issues we are left with the apostle James’ injunction to ask for wisdom, which God “gives generously to all without finding fault” (James 1:5).

    What should people of faith expect their government to do? Christians should not treat the state as either redemptive or eternal. “No man can redeem the life of another,” wrote the Psalmist (Ps. 49:7). Rather, it is the Lord who “will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity” (Ps. 98:9).

    Beyond that, the Bible sets general boundaries for political debate. Scripture provides only limited guidance, however, because the dominant message of the Gospel, as well as the Hebrew writings, is man’s relationship to God and his neighbors. Although many of these principles have some application to political relationships, the Bible gives much more guidance on how we should treat people than when we should coerce them, which is the defining characteristic of government.

    The state’s most fundamental role is to protect citizens from the sinful conduct of their neighbors. The Bible indicates that government is to help preserve order–people’s ability to live “peaceful and quiet lives,” in Paul’s words–in a sinful world. The state is to be a godly agent that not only allows men to follow God but also contains the harm that would occur in the absence of any public constraints on evil behavior. “The one in authority,” wrote Paul, “is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:3, 4).

    A Neutral Arbiter and Protector

    One goal of the state is just retribution. Deterrence, encouraging even evil men to respect others’ rights, is another objective of government. Paul wrote that fear of punishment is one reason for compliance with the authorities (Rom. 3:5). This role for the civil authorities arises naturally from the fact that life is a gift of God that is to be protected. Physical assault is not the only threat to people enjoined to be creative and productive. So, too, is the deprivation through theft and fraud of the resources over which God has made people stewards. The public authorities are also to defend those within their jurisdiction from external or foreign threats.

    Another recurring theme is reflected in King David’s observation: “The Lord is righteous, he loves justice.” (Ps. 11:11) People are to exercise justice and righteousness as individuals. Civil rulers, too, are to be just and righteous. God ordered the royal house of Judah to “administer justice every morning; rescue from the hand of his oppressor the one who has been robbed” (Jer. 12:12). However, corporate duty differs from personal responsibility. Individuals must respond generously to the needs and rights of their neighbors; government must regulate, coercively yet fairly, relations between both righteous and unrighteous men. In short, the contrast is personal virtue versus public impartiality. An attempt by the state to practice the former rather than the latter is typified by this century’s great totalitarian levelers, the communist revolutionaries.

    Thus, government is to be a neutral arbiter and protector. Biblical justice protects all men in their enjoyment of God’s blessings. It certainly is not to become a tool to rob and oppress. To King Shallum declared God: “Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice, making his countrymen work for nothing, not paying them for their labor” (Jer. 22:13). Protection of the needy is of special concern to God: They are, after all, the least able to vindicate their own interests, especially in the face of a government that is easily subverted to favor the powerful. However, extra sensitivity to the abuse of the poor does not warrant prejudice in their favor. God commanded: “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly” (Lev. 19:15).

    In its focus on process, godly justice and righteousness are very different from the modern notion of “social justice,” which demands equality of economic and cultural outcomes. However appealing may be some proposals advanced under the rubric of “social justice,” they are not matters of biblical justice, which guarantees a fair civil government nestled within a larger culture in which the wealthy and powerful recognize their obligation–to God–to help those in need.

    Government-Enforced Religious Laws Inappropriate

    In the Old Testament, the government enforced many essentially “religious” laws, but this would not seem to be properly within the province of civil government today. Most obviously, these strictures were tied to the Israelites’ status as the chosen people. That is, God established the law to mold the nation of Israel as part of his overall plan of salvation.

    Perhaps for this reason, public enforcement of many Old Testament norms required the active intervention of God, something no state today is likely to rely upon. In fact, by the time Jesus began his ministry, the old Hebraic rules appear to have been largely abandoned, and the Jewish world at that time–under a secular Roman leadership–looked much more like today’s America than ancient Israel.

    Indeed, the move from a geographically bounded Jewish state to a Jewish community under the rule of pagan or secular civil authorities, of particular concern to Jews, and the shift from the Old to the New Covenant, of most interest to Christians, would appear to have changed the focus from national to individual responsibility and judgment.

    Another reason to doubt that today’s state is mandated to enforce moral/religious rules is that most ultimately deal with matters of the heart as much as conduct. Paul wrote: “A man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code” (Rom. 2:29). Meaningful enforcement of the moral law, then, requires God’s direct intervention. However good the civil authorities may be at detecting and punishing, for example, adultery, no official, without divine wisdom, can judge lustful looks, or anger at one’s brother, which Christ equated with murder.

    The argument against civil enforcement of essentially religious strictures is even more powerful for Christians because the church has taken over the spiritual role once reserved for the geographic nation of Israel. While the objective of maintaining spiritual purity is the same, the institutions (country versus church) and the penalties (death versus excommunication) are different. For instance, in his first letter to the Corinthian church, Paul instructed believers to disassociate themselves from “anyone who calls himself a brother” but is immoral. He did not apply the same rule to nonbelievers in the world, he explained, since “God will judge those outside” (1 Cor. 5:9-13).

    Restriction of the “Idol State”

    Just as Scripture requires the state to act in some circumstances–to, for instance, punish the wrongdoer and promote justice–it also restricts government’s actions. The most important limitation flows from the first commandment given to Moses: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod. 20:3). Although the “other gods” were usually such supposed deities as Baal, some secular rulers, notably the later Roman emperors, also claimed to be divine. In fact, in at least two instances, Tyre’s head and Israel’s Herod, the Lord punished kings for making or tolerating such preposterous claims.

    Most secular rulers are more discreet in their formal pretensions, but many nevertheless act as quasi-gods. From the Pharaoh who held the Jews in captivity and ordered the murder of their newborn sons to the twentieth-century totalitarians with their personality cults, civil authorities have often usurped God’s role. Even the modern welfare state has increasingly turned into what author Herb Schlossberg calls “the idol state,” using “the language of compassion because its intention is a messianic one.”

    The Bible suggests that an expansive government is bad not only because it might demand to be treated like God, but also because it will reflect the sinfulness of its participants and mistreat its citizens. The inescapable problem is that man is a fallen creature, all too willing to do wrong. This sinful nature is exacerbated by the accumulation of power, which, warned Lord Acton, “tends to corrupt.” Why else would God have instructed the Israelites that their king was neither to acquire too many horses and wives, and too much gold and silver, nor to “consider himself to be better than his brothers” (Deut. 17:16-17, 20)? In fact, when the Israelites initially requested that God give them a king, He cautioned, through the prophet Samuel, that such a ruler would oppress them, and that they would receive no relief when they cried out. And history has certainly shown that “power was on the side of their oppressors–and they have no comforter” (Eccles. 4:1).

    While Scripture is ultimately more concerned about spiritual freedom–particularly liberation from sin–than political freedom, the latter remains an important theme for at least three reasons.

    First, the lives and dignity of human beings created in the image of God requires respect from other people, including governors. In the end, the least important person for whom Christ died is of greater value than the grandest empire.

    Second, people must be free to respond to God’s grace, worship him, and integrate obedience to Him into their daily lives. This concern obviously animated Peter and John when they rejected the demand of the Sanhedrin, an ecclesiastical body that exercised considerable civil power, that they cease teaching in Jesus’ name. Paul, too, never hesitated to disobey civil authorities that denied him permission to preach.

    Finally, Christ’s injunction that believers be salt and light requires them to have at least some autonomy from the state. In the Soviet Union, for instance, the government outlawed private charity, probably the most important practical outworking of a person’s Christian faith. The imperialistic tendencies of Western welfare states to take over communal life may ultimately have much the same effect as the Soviet Union’s formal ban.

    The Issues In-Between

    To know what government must and must not do is critical, but only a start, since most issues fall somewhere in between. Some broad biblical principles may help resolve them.

    Consider poverty. God’s concern for the poor, the vulnerable, and the weak is persistent, pervasive, and powerful. Little is clearer in Scripture, Old and New Testament alike, than the duty of believers to care for those in need, particularly widows and orphans. Notably, however, the Bible does not vest this responsibility in the state. Neither does Scripture proscribe a public role, but it implies that believers should fulfill their individual and corporate responsibilities before turning to government, and any state programs should not violate other biblical norms, such as family formation.

    About many other current public controversies, like comparable worth, insider trading, and the Export-Import Bank, the Bible offers little specific guidance.

    Rather, these are often more matters of prudence than principle and fall within the permissive area of government activity. That is, there is neither a mandate for nor a prohibition against the government, say, regulating who may trade which securities based on what knowledge. God has chosen to leave the issue up to us rather than to state His own preference.

    Freedom is not Enough

    What is the proper Christian role of the state? God provides us with principles to be applied with wisdom, rather than specific answers. Indeed, part of our Christian walk is working out our faith as we attempt to resolve problems in community with others.

    In general, government should provide the legal scaffolding that allows people to try to collectively but voluntarily solve their problems. Only in extraordinary circumstances, where there is no other choice, should the state supplant private decision-making. Ultimately, a political system based on liberty will enhance man’s ability to provide for his family and others in need in his community, exercise dominion in transforming God’s creation, and enjoy the many gifts of God.

    Of course, freedom is not enough. As Pope John Paul II explained, a market economy will work only “within a strong juridical framework which places [capitalism] at the service of human freedom in its totality and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious.” Government can provide the juridical framework, but the Church must provide the ethical and religious core. Without that core, a free society will still be better than an unfree society, but it will be neither good nor godly.

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    Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Beyond Good Intentions: A Biblical View of Politics.