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?
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.