What Does the Bible Say About the Purpose of Government?

by Joe Plemon on October 1, 2010

One purpose: to punish wrong doers

I recently made a somewhat facetious promise to Kevin (of Invest it Wisely fame) that I should write a post on what the bible says about the purpose of government. He responded by encouraging me to go for it. So (Kevin – I am blaming this on you) here we go.

First a little Biblical background

The purpose of the Bible is to tell us how God relates to his creation, not to tell us right and wrong models of government. Therefore, clear and direct teachings on purpose of government are rare in the bible. One must understand the context and derive conclusions accordingly.

The Old Testament gives many rules to the nation of Israel, rules which do not translate to most 21st century governments. Why? Because Israel was a religious state – the government was established not only to conduct civil but also religious practice. For Israel, they were one and the same.

The New Testament was written to and by people who were governed by Rome. Interestingly, Rome allowed nations to govern themselves, with certain stipulations. For example, Israel could punish their own citizens but not carry out a death penalty – which is why the Jewish priests and Pharisees needed the Roman governor’s (Pilate’s) approval before Jesus could be crucified. Rome, of course, collected taxes from all nations within its empire.

A disclaimer: I am neither a government expert or a biblical expert, so I am going to limit this post to only two observations.

1. Government is established by God to punish wrong doers.

When Paul wrote to the church in Rome, he was writing to a persecuted church at a time when the infamous Nero was Emperor. Those were dark days for Christians. Nero blamed them for a fire which destroyed half the city of Rome (and which he himself may have ordered). He caused some believers to be immersed in tar, then ignited as living torches to provide illumination for his orgies. Others were sewn up in animal skins, then thrown to ferocious dogs to be torn to pieces.

My hunch is that the believers would have pulled a coup if they thought success was even remotely plausible. However, Paul’s message is that even an evil government has a good purpose: “The authorities are God’s servants, sent for your good. But if you are doing wrong, of course you should be afraid, for they have the power to punish you. They are God’s servants, sent for the very purpose of punishing those who do what is wrong." Romans 13:4 and 5

Was this principle only valid for that time and those people? I think not. Because it was applicable for Nero in Rome, it isn’t much of a stretch to believe that all governments in all places, even those with evil dictators, should maintain civil order by punishing those who do wrong.

We can therefore conclude that God institutes government in order to allow people to live at peace and He holds those in power responsible for how well they execute justice.

2. Government is not supposed to care for the poor.

A persistent theme throughout the bible is God’s care and concern for the underprivileged. However, that care is supposed to come voluntarily, not from the government. The first order of help should be from family (I Timothy 5:1-14) while those with no family help are to be cared for by the church. (Acts 2:44-47 and Acts 6:1-6). Because this help is voluntary and from limited resources, those who are lazy – able to work and don’t – do not eat. (2 Thessalonians 3:10)

I believe the bible is teaching us that volunteerism trumps government programs for these reasons:

  • Volunteerism requires love and concern. Those who give do so from pure motives while those who receive know that the gift is given from a good heart. Government, on the other hand, receives money by taxing their citizens and spends money based on programs. Charity therefore becomes a non factor as the givers feel like they have been hi-jacked and the recipients feel entitled.
  • Volunteerism is flexible. If the recipient does not work today, he will not eat tonight. Government programs are rigid. Once someone is in the system, he will continue to be there for months or even years.
  • Volunteerism requires responsibility. There used to be a time in the United States when receiving “charity" was an embarrassment. People had pride and wanted to earn their own way. Why? Because the charity, as the word implies, was received from a charitable person who often gave sacrificially. Recipients knew that as soon as they were able to get back on their feet, the charity would (and should) end. Furthermore, they would be motivated to help others who might have experienced similar problems. Government programs, on the other hand, promote laziness instead of responsibility. Why should someone, even if he is able, want to go back to work when he knows he has another six months or twelve months or twenty four months of benefits coming his way?

Conclusion

As I said in my disclaimer, this post is not intended to fully cover the topic of what the bible has to say about the purpose of government. However, the two points I did cover (punishing wrong doers and NOT caring for the poor) are significant points, both in bible times and today.

As always, I covet your thoughts on this topic.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Tarter Time Photography

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Carol@inthetrenches October 1, 2010 at 1:30 pm

Excellent post topic Joe with lots of room for ongoing discussions that could go on for hours. As we study what the Bible says about government it can help us figure out what candidates to support and use our votes more wisely instead of always going down party lines.

I absolutely love this subject but will just make a couple of comments. 1) I agree with your comments regarding the poor but have to wonder if the government might have gotten into the business because the churches became more interested in building funds. The churches used to have a bigger hand in providing hospitals, schools, and even housing through the YMCA. 2) It is my understanding that the nation of Israel was set up with the laws and statutes of God that they were to use for governing the nation and covered all things such as crime and punishment, the gleaning laws for the poor, and how to deal with immigrants. It was through the practice of these precepts and laws that the nation would be a light and example to the rest of the world thus giving God glory. The Levitical law has passed since Christ came but the governing laws remain our model. They blew it as are we. 3) God often allows persecution (as in the New Testament) because it tests and tries our faith and as Christians flee they spread the Word wherever they go. A hard pill to swallow.

Reply

Khaleef @ KNS Financial October 1, 2010 at 6:47 pm

These are two good points! The bible always puts it on individuals to care for those in need and who have no other support. He even told the Israelites not to glean the entire field in order for the poor to sustain themselves!

Also, Paul was willing to be put to death if he violated Roman law (Acts 25:11)! Again showing that Christians are subject to the governmental authority as long as they don’t command us to violate God’s law!

@ Carol, you are right in that we should take many of the principles of the nation of Israel when looking for a sound government. However, since God ruled directly through the governmental leaders, all cannot apply.

Personally, I can’t wait until Christ comes back and sets up his government for 1,000 years!

Reply

Invest It Wisely October 2, 2010 at 11:45 pm

Regarding the first point, the problem of putting some men in power to “watch” over others and punish evildoers is that there is no guarantee that these men are less ignorant or less evil than the ones that they punish. When you have a structure that grants excessive power to some men over others, then the men that attain that power tend to be the type of men that love power for power’s sake, and enjoy using it.

The excessive reliance on human hierarchical power structures can lead to an attempt by the people to make “gods” out of men. The men become worshipped, and people develop a false belief that these men have the power to increase prosperity, end poverty, by using the might of that power. With a high concentration of force, these men do indeed have the ability to coerce a large amount of people to do as they say.

However, as point #2 shows, attempting to make things better by doing evil is not successful. You can give a person a job by giving him a shovel and forcing him to dig a hole, and you can feed a person by kicking some farmers off their land and taking their food, and you can give a person shelter by forcibly collecting money from others… but when someone benefits at another’s expense, then one feels entitled and the other hijacked, as you said. Practicing evil to create good has shortcomings.

Today, some of the entitled people are hijacked in other ways, and vice versa. In the USA today, responsible homeowners are hijacked by people receiving loan modifications, who are in turn hijacked by the taxes they pay by people who could work but prefer to collect 99 weeks of unemployment, who are in turn hijacked by restrictive union laws that prevent companies from hiring outside the union, and this union is in turn hijacked by an environment that encourages some companies to hire illegal immigrants…. it can go on forever, and all of this stems from using force, when force can never replace love and volunteerism.

You don’t get a beautiful garden by throwing the best tomatoes against the wall. You get a beautiful garden with nurture, love, and care. On a human level, you don’t raise a good kid by whipping him with a belt every time he says something that displeases you. You raise a good kid by giving your love, care, and leading by example.

Government is the ultimate source of man-made force in society, but the only legitimate use of force is in preventing others from using force. Force can only be used to stop evil, but it cannot be used to make people care for each other, love each other, or do good in this world.

Great post, Joe, and thanks for mentioning me.

P.S. — Can’t believe I almost missed this one. The downside of Reader is that with all of the blogs in there, I’m guilty of “Marking all as read” from time to time!

Reply

joeplemon October 3, 2010 at 5:05 pm

@Carol,
Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Allow me to comment back:
1) Yes, the government may have become more involved in benevolence because churches were not doing their jobs. Furthermore, the more government “helps”, the less churches are inclined to help. A wrong direction by all, in my opinion.
2) Yes, the precepts of law as originally given to Israel are still to be the light for us today. I did not mean to say that God’s original laws to his people are irrelevant today; just that they are difficult to translate into 21st century culture.
3) Persecution still abounds today and those persecuted believers are still bright lights. They certainly inspire me.

@Khaleef,
I hadn’t thought about Paul’s willingness to die for breaking Roman law, but the entire issue of submitting to authorities (even evil emperors) is a great discussion. I think you hit the nail on the head by saying, “that Christians are subject to the governmental authority as long as they don’t command us to violate God’s law!”

I too am looking forward to that 1000 year reign of Christ!

@Invest,
Kevin, everything you say about my point one is accurate. We live in a fallen and sinful world where man’s natural inclination is toward evil. However, in spite of this tendency to usurp and misuse power, I agree with the biblical teaching that order is better than anarchy. Yes, the order is without noble intents, but a society, in order to function, must have a means of punishing those who are dangerous to the populace as a whole.

And…wow. You really linked hijacking to more hijacking and so on. I love this sentence of yours: “Force can only be used to stop evil, but it cannot be used to make people care for each other, love each other, or do good in this world.” This really sums up much of what I was trying to say.

Thanks for all of the thought you put in your comment!

Reply

Roger, the Amateur Financier October 4, 2010 at 3:51 pm

Hum, interesting discussion. Being only a casual student of governmental theory, and at best a fairly lapsed Christian, I’m not really in a position to comment too much on the biblical implications expressed here. Still, I felt like tossing in my two cents:

Regarding the first point, that does seem to be a pretty universal duty of government; if wrong-doers aren’t punished by the government as justly as humanly possible, whom could we rely on to ensure that evil doesn’t run free? The primary disagreement in this realm seems to be issues of what are the appropriate punishments for wrong-doers, what actions should classify a person as a wrong-doer, and what actions (if any) should the government take to prevent wrong-doing before it happens, all of which are much harder questions to answer.

For the second point, while I don’t agree that the government should have no hand in providing charity, I can see where it causes problems. Although, to be fair, private and church charities can suffer from many of the same problems as governmental charities; regardless of the source of the largess, having assistance provided can distort one’s drive to provide for yourself. Private and church programs may even be worse in this area, as government programs usually have set limits on the amount of charity they provide, while church or private programs may continue to minister to those people indefinitely. But that’s not really a Biblically-based argument, I suppose.

Reply

joeplemon October 5, 2010 at 4:18 pm

Roger,
Your two cents are always welcome here! While the first point (punishing wrong doers) does lend itself to considerable variables, basic wrongs (theft, murder, etc) are universally agreed upon.

About point two. You said that government programs usually set limits on the amount of charity they provide while church and private programs may minister indefinitely. I see it exactly the opposite. Government programs are rigid while voluntary programs lend themselves to flexibility. Voluntary programs know they have limited resources so they MUST use great discretion. Government programs are run with the concept of unlimited resources and by elected politicians who might lose their jobs if they voted to stop giving benefits. At any rate (back to the post), the Bible leans toward voluntary help instead of government help.

Reply

Roger, the Amateur Financier October 6, 2010 at 12:56 pm

Joe,

Fair points; allow me a moment to clarify myself. The rigidity of government programs means that there are usually set limits to how much and how long you can stay on a government benefit program, whereas (to the best of my knowledge) no such limits exist with church provided charity. Provided the church is willing and able to continue providing for you (perhaps not a likely option, admittedly), there’s no law saying that after being unemployed for 99 weeks, they have to stop. As for unlimited resources, while it might be true at the national level, state and local governments face many of the same budget constraints as churches and other private groups.

Another issue I think I expressed less than articulately is that, anywhere that people are profiting from administering charitable giving, be in as the president of a non-profit group, a church leader, or a Social Security worker, they are going to have a vested interest in keeping the program going (much as you and I have an interest in keeping our jobs).

I call it the cancer cure dilemma: there are numerous groups out there that claim to want to see a cure for cancer, and collect money to make that a reality. But, if cancer was to be cured, they (and their board members) wouldn’t make any more money. Thus, they have a vested interest in keeping cancer around. I’d argue that the same holds true for any organization where part or all of the administrator’s profits are derived from similar donations; much as they rail against it, if it disappeared, they’d be making less money, and thus they (at least partly) want it to continue. (Admittedly, it’s more likely a problem in non-church charities; it’s unlikely that church donations will plummet if they manage to, say, get all the homeless people into houses.)

Anyway, as I noted earlier, I’m not a Biblical scholar, by any means, so this is not to say that the Bible doesn’t maintain that charity should be privately provided, but just a few of my thoughts on the subject of church and private vs. state giving.

Reply

Jeremy Pierce October 6, 2010 at 1:45 pm

It’s a bit more complex than just saying that the Bible doesn’t have government caring for the poor. The Mosaic law sets up plenty of societal structures specifically to care for the poor, as enforced by law. Some of it puts institutional practices into place that will oversee redistribution of resources (e.g. the use of the tithe), and some of it just plain requires people to give to the poor or to allow the poor to take their stuff (e.g. gleaning laws). There’s a mandatory forgiveness of debt and release of slaves. Much of ancient Israel’s social structure doesn’t map well onto ours, also, so we can’t just assume that because it’s not civil government overseeing it then it’s not something that in our society should fall outside civil government. The whole ritual sacrificial system was part of government for them, and it’s by definition not so for us, at least in large segments of the Western and Westernized world.

Reply

Carol@inthetrenches October 6, 2010 at 2:23 pm

@Jeremy. Do you know much about the Mosaic law? I’ve always wondered, are tithes paid on an inheritance? Also, the third year widow orphan tithe. Do you know much about them?

Reply

joeplemon October 6, 2010 at 2:28 pm

@Roger,
Thanks for taking time to further clarify your thoughts. I admit that I hadn’t considered the “cancer cure dilemma”, but although the concept makes sense, I am not sure it is applicable to my post. When I was using the term “volunteerism”, I referred first to families and then to churches…neither of which is likely to be so successful at giving that their gifts are no longer needed. In my little church (about 200 members) we help church members who have specific financial needs, but that help is very limited, within constraints of our church budget, usually one time only and often includes financial counseling (budgeting, etc) to try to uncover the root of the problem. Those who administer these funds are volunteers, so they have zero vested interest in perpetuating the program.

@Jeremy,
You are right: this is complex, and I admittedly am guilty of trying to oversimplify the complexity. I am aware of the Mosaic law which established gleaning laws, debt forgiveness and release of slaves. But, as you said, the funding comes from the tithe, which in today’s USA, goes to the church instead of to the state (unless we want to count our taxes as tithes). So I therefore took a leap of logic in assuming that the church today (not the government) is responsible for doing the same types of ministries that Mosaic Law required of Israel. (note my background info and disclaimer). Like you said, ancient Israel’s social structure doesn’t map well onto ours.

Here is my question: because God established the Mosaic Law, should we today work to get the principles of that law incorporated into our civil government? Or should the church simply try to pick up where government falls short? Like you said, this is complex. If you have ever written anything on this topic, please give me a link. I would love to read it.

Reply

Rob @ dollars and doctrine October 7, 2010 at 7:50 pm

Nice post on a difficult topic. I liked the background context before diving in. Well put. I attempted a similar post on my blog

http://dollarsanddoctrine.com/2010/01/27/christianity-and-politics/

But I think you did a better job than I did! Just discovered your site and enjoying it very much.

Reply

Jeremy Pierce October 8, 2010 at 3:24 am

Joe, would you agree that a just government ought to be concerned about how its policies affect the poor? It’s hard to take the prophets seriously without something like that. It’s not as if the harshest words are directed at private individuals. They’re directed at religious leaders but also at political leaders, and social justice concerns are all tied up with that. The king is presented in Proverbs as someone would would dispense justice, and justice biblically is not merely retributive justice.

Carol, tithes were paid on the harvest, at least at the initial stages. Each new harvest would bring new food, the first 10% of which would go to the priests and Levites. When new animals were born, the firstborn of each mother would go to the Levites (and 10% would go to the priests for the sacrificial system, which they would eat when it wasn’t a burnt offering). When new children were born, the firstborn of each mother would be dedicated to God and then redeemed by a purchase price to avoid having to kill human children (which could also be done for animals). Eventually, when agriculture wasn’t the only means of earning a living, they develop alternative methods of applying the Torah principles. I don’t know if that included tithing on an inheritance, but I suspect not. The only time I’m aware of a double tithe is that the Levites would tithe of what they receive from the general populace to give to the priests.

There was a third-year tithe for the needy, discussed in Deuteronomy 14:28-29 and Deuteronomy 26:12-13. I don’t know much more about it than is there. The tithe that would go to the Levites in most years was divided more widely, and the Levites wouldn’t get the full 10% those years.

I haven’t addressed the issue of civil government and the Torah in a comprehensive way, but I’ve written several things over the years that might be relevant. Some are more about moral truths behind Torah and their applicability today, and some are more about Christians and civil government. Here are some links to some of the more substantial connections:

Christians and the Sabbath
More Sabbath Stuff
Tithing
Introduction: Christianity and Politics
Augustine and Civil Government: The Two Cities
Augustine and Civil Government: Two Further Preliminaries
Augustine and Civil Government: Authority
Augustine and Civil Government: The City of God and Compromise
Hate and Murder in Deuteronomy 19
The Ethics of Borrowing
Abominations

Reply

joeplemon October 8, 2010 at 8:49 am

Rob,
Thanks. Yes, it is a difficult topic, but one worth pursuing. I just discovered your blog as well (from Paul at Provident Planning). I appreciated the post link you shared…how true that our kingdom is not of this world! That is Good News!

Reply

Julie July 3, 2012 at 3:36 pm

Do you care if I share this on Facebook?

Reply

Joe Plemon July 5, 2012 at 10:39 am

Julie — Not at all.

Reply

Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post:

privacy policy